When we look back at the election results, one of the dominant questions has been Why did Labour’s share of the vote actually decrease in many areas of England? Although the Conservative majority was largely won by the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats in the West Country, the Conservatives took many Labour marginals, such as Southampton Itchen, and Labour failed to take key Conservative marginals such as North Warwickshire and Broxtowe. Why did the opposition party take such a route in an election after a long period of economic problems? Why did Labour lose the momentum so catastrophically during the campaign?
The answer for many, of course, is that the British electorate is inherently selfish and ignorant. Cameron had not been formally reappointed Prime Minister before Lord Kinnock and other Labour grandees were on TV bemoaning the electorate for not understanding Labour and for putting self-interest first. The following day, the Comment is Free section of the Guardian website was running articles with such titles as ‘A nightmarish result – but a politics of hope could rise from these ashes’ and ‘Democracy is a religion that has failed the poor’. The internet becomes filled with articles about how anyone who voted Conservative or UKIP is not quite a full member of the human race and demanding that they should all arrange a meeting with the 5 year olds they presumably want to send down coal mines in order to instill a more correct way of thinking. Talking about the election in hyperbolic terms, as if Colonel Gaddafi’s reanimated corpse had taken power, becomes a way to assert one’s Correctness.
Perhaps the best way to explain Labour’s defeat is through the response made by many to it. Those of us who hail from the Labour heartlands, the great cities of the Midlands and the North, the central belt of Scotland or the Welsh valleys, will be quite well acquainted already. The assumption of support from these regions has eventually resulted in a certain degree of contempt for the voters there. I think back to my own hometown in Nottinghamshire, where the area voted Labour every election without fail but nothing changed. There was no attempt to improve the region, even with Labour governments. Miliband’s campaign was largely built on the infamous ‘35% strategy’, that Labour could edge into office through tribal voting in the heartlands. No attempt to connect to the centre ground of the electorate, the Labour campaign portrayed a Britain of extremes. Britain was inhabited by The Bosses who flew around in private jets and the rest of us, who lived in a neo-Dickensian nightmare of food banks and zero hour contracts. Although social inequality is a growing problem that the author is concerned about, this way of thinking completely ignores the fact that for the vast majority of people, neither extreme reflects their lives.
Labour has lost its traditional vote and increasing becomes a party even more London-centric than the Tories, even less able to understand the ‘core voters’ than the Tories understand the needs of those in the rural South. And so why is it a surprise that they lost so badly? The over-reliance on polls showed us one thing, the Shy Tory Factor is alive and well. Frankly, given the responses, particularly on social media, to anyone who outs themselves as a Conservative voter, it’s not hard to see why. UKIP are now second in many safe Labour seats, most dramatically in the Heywood and Middleton by-election last year. Rather than assuming that the electorate is now made up of tracksuited lager drinkers or whatever, we have to point to discontent with Labour but lack of a better alternative in regions where the Conservatives still have an image problem.
People point to the electoral system, which does obviously need reform. However, they forget that even under PR, the dominant force would be a Tory/UKIP coalition. Clearly the system is not what keeps Labour out. People point to the fact that the Tories got less than an absolute majority of votes making them not the ‘legitimate’ party, although the last time any party did this was in 1931. Even in the great landslides of 1945, 1959, 1983 and 1997, no party achieved this feat.
The other issue is how the ‘Murdoch Press’ decided the election. The implication, of course, is that Sun readers lack the critical faculties to decide who to vote for. Nobody has complained about the way in which the Mirror and the Guardian set an agenda just as strongly as the Sun and the Times do. Newspapers write to their audience far more than they try and make them think in a particular way. More or less every national daily has a particular demographic they write for. We can all imagine a stereotypical Sun, Guardian or Telegraph reader, and it seems strange to blame the right-leaning press for writing towards a right-leaning audience. Maybe the ‘fear-mongering’ over immigration and the prospect of a Labour-SNP coalition reflected the concerns of many over the scale of mass immigration or that the government may be controlled by a party which does not want to be in our country in the first place?
To sum up, the hysteria that has surrounded the election results amongst many on the Left largely betrays why Labour lost. It shows a Labour campaign that focused on a comparatively small section of the electorate, rather than the middle ground that normally decides elections, a party that has lost touch with traditional supporters and a constant assumption of moral superiority, and by extension moral inferiority of the Tories. The image painted of the next 5 years is that of a Charles Dickens novel in the 21st century, because that is how the country was shown to be in the election campaign. It is not the fault of Labour, so it seems, for running a flawed campaign full of woeful misjudgments, but of the electorate for being heartless and not understanding the message.