Labour should give up trying to persuade the public that it is wrong about the party spending too much before the crash and just “move on”, a left-leaning thinktank said on Thursday.
In a report on why Labour lost the election and what it needs to do next, the Smith Institute said that the party needed to instead develop a different narrative about spending, one that would probably involve “reimagining the state”.
The study highlights the enormous scale of the problem facing the party, saying that with boundary changes it will need to gain more than 100 seats across the country to get a majority in 2020.
And it warns that developing “retail policy offers” that simply appeal to particular voters in particular seats will not be enough.
Ed Miliband’s refusal to admit that Labour spent too much before the crash in his Question Time performance during the election is now seen as a key moment in the campaign, and since then the party’s leadership candidates have all been seeking to craft a more plausible answer on that issue.
While they all accept that overspending did not cause the crash, the question of whether or not the party should apologise for running a budget deficit when the economy was growing has become a divisive issue, with Yvette Cooper criticising Andy Burnham for the fact that he apologised on behalf of the party.
In the report, Red Alert: Why Labour Lost and What Needs to Change?, Paul Hunter, the institute’s head of research, said this argument was a fruitless one.
“It is in many respects a fool’s errand to attempt to persuade the public that they are wrong about whether Labour spent too much (on the wrong people and wrong things) or even that this is what caused the financial crash,” the report said.
“Labour has to move on from that debate. It has instead to carve out an alternative agenda, new popular policies and ultimately a compelling narrative that Labour is competent and can be trusted. This will probably demand reimagining the state. It will mean placing a much stronger emphasis on what government can do to help and support social justice – ‘a hand up, not a hand out’.”
The report said that Labour’s share of the vote has been in decline since 1997 and that, while its vote share increased slightly in 2015, the extra votes were concentrated in Labour seats, while there was a swing to the Conservatives in Tory-held marginals.
It said that while Labour’s middle-class support held up, the party did badly amongst blue collar voters, many of whom went to the Tories or Ukip.
Labour also did poorly among homeowners, secured only 28% of white votes (although two-thirds of non-white votes), and, among older voters, it was well behind. The Tories got twice as many votes as Labour amongst the over-55s, who form 40% of the electorate.
Paul Hackett, the institute’s director, said the research also showed that Labour has “some worrying blind spots in its political geography”. The party failed “in struggling seaside towns, in suburbia, in new towns, in rural areas and in general in ‘small town Britain’”.
The report said it was a mistake to think that Labour just needed to learn how to win in the south of England. It said Labour had never performed well in the south-east and south-west, and that the 100 seats where it needed to win were all over the country.
Many of those target seats were suburban, it said. “They might feel neglected by the emphasis on big cities (even suburbs in London often feel inner London receives all the attention and money is not for them).”
Hackett added: “We would agree wholeheartedly that Labour should avoid adopting a list of retail policies tailor-made for marginal seats. What we are saying is that Labour needs to rethink how it can best develop a winning strategy based on the values it believes in, but fully aware of its recent electoral weaknesses.”
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