The Labour Party last night passed from disbelief to dismay. “I’ve been involved in a lot of elections and, I have to say, I am sceptical of this BBC exit poll,” Spencer Livermore, Labour’s General Election Campaign Director, wrote at the time. “It looks wrong. Exit polls have been very wrong in the past.”
But, unlike in 1992, it wasn’t wrong. It was all too right. Given that the exit poll was out of kilter with much earlier polling, Labour found this hard to compute. It was not, though, inconsistent with all previous polling—for example, ICM’s telephone polling. As this ICM polling was a rarity in accurately showing where we were headed, there are now methodological questions for the polling industry.
Labour also, I suspect, found events difficult to comprehend because many in the party conflated their view of David Cameron and his government with the view held by the public. Much of the party membership sees Cameron as venal and presumes that the public do too. In fact, Cameron has been consistently far ahead of Ed Miliband as the public’s preferred prime minister.
Throughout the lifetime of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat government, YouGov repeatedly asked people whether they thought that government was managing the economy well. In the week of the election, for the first time since this tracker began, over half of them indicated that they thought that government was doing so. Yet Labour’s rhetoric implied inevitable economic ruin. It, therefore, jarred with the reality that a decisive number of voters ever more saw around them.
In spite of George Osborne’s failure to close the fiscal deficit, raise productivity and eliminate the balance of trade deficit, he consistently polled as a better economic manager than Ed Balls. This Labour shortfall on economic management, as well as preferred prime minister, now seem fundamental weaknesses that Labour could not overcome.
Miliband was well received during the campaign and Labour activists fought energetic local battles. These efforts had some rewards. For example, Neil Coyle winning Bermondsey and Old Southwark and Wes Streeting Ilford North. It did not work in other cases, however. Lucy Rigby and Lee Sherriff in Lincoln and Carlisle, to pick just two examples among many, revitalised these local Labour parties and ran enthusiastic campaigns, which concluded in unexpected defeats.
Given the limitations of Labour’s national campaign, there is only so much that local campaigns could achieve. In spite of having strong moments during the campaign, Miliband failed to turn around polling on preferred prime minister and economic management. No party has ever formed a government behind on both these indicators. And Labour was far behind. In this context, that the grim reality foretold by the BBC exit poll came to pass is hardly surprising.
We might now wonder what will become of the #EdStone. It was said to detail Labour’s promises to the public. But they were more ill-defined aspirations than robust promises. Much less prescriptive than, say, the commitments made on Labour’s 1997 pledge card. The vagueness of #EdStone’s commitments spoke of Labour’s lack of a tight retail offer, while the mirth that greeted its unveiling compounded the trust problems that it was intended to address.
#EdStone was a symptom, not a cause, of Labour’s problems. The party lacks definition and public trust. Changing these realities must be part of recovering Labour leadership on preferred prime minister and economic management. It is hard to imagine Labour government returning while the party remains behind on both these indicators.
No amount of #EdStone or #LabourDoorstep or other gimmicks and local grunt work will achieve this. The lions of the #LabourDoorstep have been led by the donkeys that gave us the nadir of #EdStone. It will require better leadership than the donkeys have provided to improve Labour’s performance on the key indicators of preferred prime minister and economic management.
At Labour conference in 2013, the Labour Uncut website, which I am deputy editor of, published a manifesto for winning in 2015. It probably went unread and certainly was not acted upon by the donkeys. Not all of the answers that we offered in 2013 are right for the challenges of 2015. But Labour urgently needs to honestly and fully engage with the challenges that the Uncut manifesto attempted to grapple with and which for too long the party has preferred to not confront directly.