A devastatingly frank attack on “Labour’s narrow, predictable and out of touch” 2015 election campaign is to be launched on Tuesday by seven of the party’s candidates who failed to win critical swing seats in England in May.
In a joint open letter to the party, they say: “From thousands of doorstep conversations we all heard repeatedly our former leadership was not taken seriously while our purpose and policies failed to resonate with voters.”
The campaign, the authors claim, addressed only “the needy and greedy”, leaving the rest ignored. The party had nothing to say on welfare, business creation or immigration, “sounding as if it was on the side of those that don’t work”.
Labour, they say, was “frightened to enter the difficult conversations on immigration, leaving those discussions to go on without the Labour party”.
The seven also suggest Labour needs not just to regain economic credibility but to rethink its approach to immigration, advocating a shift from free to fair movement of labour within the EU.
They write: “We need to answer concerns about immigration and identity, especially for people attracted by Ukip’s resistance to change. We need to show how we improve the welfare system. We cannot simply defend a status quo that many people think is unfair. We won’t win over hard-working people if we demonise the private sector in which so many people work. We need the humility to listen to the people of the country, as well as our party, to talk about contribution and responsibility as well as equality and fairness.”
The stark account of their doorstep conversations may shock a leadership election campaign accused of feeding party prejudices rather than reflecting on how the electorate thinks.
Summing up the report – Never Again, prepared for the Fabian Society – Lord Adonis, the former cabinet minister, says the candidates “tell a fairly similar story of an energetic ground campaign but an inadequate national campaign. The verdicts are of a defeat in the broad realm of ideas and positioning, not individual policies”.
The seven are not from one wing of the party, but include some of the most highly regarded Labour candidates in target seats that Labour has to win to form a government. They are Polly Billington (candidate for Thurrock), Will Straw (Rossendale and Darwen), Sally Keeble (Northampton North), Rowenna Davis (Southampton Itchen), Luke Pollard (Plymouth Sutton and Devonport), James Frith (Bury North) and Jessica Asato (Norwich North).
In her chapter, Davis warns that “the party has gone off track and lost touch with the country”.
She writes: “No matter what the polls said, you could smell it. You could feel it at that door on election day, you felt it when you dismissed a Ukip voter’s concerns about levels of European immigration with promises to hire more border guards, or when you tried to deny someone’s concerns about our economic record. The leadership seemed to assume that people were either needy, greedy or irrelevant. Citizens needed to be looked after, disciplined or ignored. Above all, they were not to be trusted. There was no space for community, contribution or country.
“We mimicked the worst parts of capitalism by reducing citizens to consumers who were assumed to vote on individual calculations about profit maximisation such as cuts to energy bills. But we also pursued the worst of the top-down, highly centralised state.
“We were left with a cold, utilitarian narrative that was ultimately based on adversity between the classes and a distrust of the English people. We had been told by senior figures in the party that Ukip was a boon to Labour, splitting the right of the country, but not for marginal seats like ours. In these white working class communities, particularly on the coast, Ukip tore our vote apart.
“This loss of the white working class vote is a crisis for our party, not just because we lost, but because it raises an existential question about who we represent.”
Straw asserts welfare should have been at the centre of the party’s campaign, including the system’s failings. “Wherever I turned there was a palpable sense that the welfare system was devoid of any sense of contribution,” he writes.
“Despite Labour’s vocal campaigning, people rarely wanted to talk about the bedroom tax unless they were directly affected. Instead, they wanted to know what Labour would do about the family down the street on benefits who’d ‘never done an honest day’s work in their life’ or why some families jumped up the housing ladder. It might make us feel uncomfortable and it might be unfair, but the public thought that we were on the side of people who don’t work.”
He adds: “Ed Miliband famously forgot to mention the deficit in his 2014 conference speech. He didn’t even plan to talk about the welfare system. He said should have been saying “Labour – the party of work – the clue is in the name ... I want to teach my kids that it is wrong to be idle on benefits, when you can work.”
Keeble says: “Along with a credible leader we need a big picture that will appeal beyond our core vote. With the collapse of the Lib Dems, the voters we need to reach are now embedded in the Tory and Ukip ranks. We lost the argument over linking the contribution people make to society and what they take out in cash or kind. Tory attacks, however unfounded, on our record of welfare spending were corrosive.”
Asato says: “Labour is neither trusted to run services efficiently or to reform them effectively where needed. Arguments for increased funding, now desperately needed, fall on deaf ears because we ‘wasted’ taxpayers’ money last time.”
She reveals voters greeted some its campaign pledges with incredulity: “‘You can’t guarantee I will get to see my GP in 48 hours!’ or ‘20,000 nurses – you’ll only get that many if they’re all immigrants. My daughter won’t get a look in.’”
She says: “If the government shuts a service or sells it off, we need to be clear with people about whether we will reinstate it, or let it go. People understand that you cannot get everything back once it has gone, but they hate prevarication.”
Billington, who lost in a three way fight with Ukip and the Tories, says: “We need to push further out of our comfort zone and talk about the cultural impact of immigration and the way some communities have changed rapidly over the past few decades.”
She adds: “The fact is we have been frightened to have the conversations, so the conversations have gone on without us. If we re-enter those conversations without opening them up, we will end up sounding like we are defending the status quo.
“And the status quo is leaving far too many working people behind for us to think it is our preferred option. But the reality is whatever we said did not pass the smell test of leadership, competence or sincerity based on people’s experience of those in power.”
Frith, who lost Bury North by the narrowest of margins, says: “Despite all this public engagement, we were always up against an assumption that Labour was anti-business. This read across to many as also being anti-private sector worker and too pro-welfare. At this election, our proposition was all opposition. We spoke of all we’d stop and little of what we’d start. Our offer was a complaint. A no deal.
“We rightly spoke of zero hours and wrongly said nothing to those working long hours. So as we jostle and jockey for a way ahead let’s make sure, well before next time, that we show we have the interests not just of those in need of a payday but those responsible for making payroll.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010