Quite understandably, most political commentary on the general election has focused on the extraordinary aftermath – Gordon Brown’s decision to stay in Number 10 Downing Street, David Cameron negotiating terms for coalition with Nick Clegg, Brown’s resignation – but I’m not going to deal with any of that here. I'm filing before it has all been sorted out.
Instead, I want to concentrate on the results and what they mean for Labour. Like every other Labour supporter, I went into election night in a nervous mood. Labour’s election campaign had been very variable in quality and energy. Brown ended on a high, but before that plumbed the depths of campaigning incompetence, and anecdotal evidence suggested that Labour’s local efforts were far from uniformly vigorous even in marginal seats.
The polls forecast a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party, but the figures were so tight that anything seemed possible from a safe Tory majority to Labour emerging as largest party despite coming third in share of the vote – and who could tell whether the polls were right?
As became clear in the course of the night, all the polls apart from the exit poll had got it significantly wrong, underestimating Labour’s share of the vote and overestimating the Liberal Democrats’. And although the exit poll got overall national shares of the vote right and forecast the seats each party would win astonishingly accurately on the assumption of uniform national swing, there were actually wild variations in swing among different regions and among constituencies in the same region.
There are nevertheless some general conclusions that can be drawn. First, Labour did a lot better overall than pessimists had feared, performing very well in Scotland and London and to a lesser extent in Wales and its northern English heartlands. Second, however, it did very badly (with notable exceptions) in East Anglia and southern England, and almost as badly (outside the major conurbations) in the Midlands.
Labour now holds only two seats in the East Anglia region – Luton North and Luton South. It lost 11 out of 13 seats won in 2005, including all of them in Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk.
In the south-east region, the party lost 13 of its 17 seats: its representation is reduced to Oxford East, Slough and two seats in Southampton. There are no Labour MPs any more in Kent or Sussex. In the south-west, Labour lost eight out of 12 seats it held, in the East Midlands 12 out of 26 (but with one gain), in the West Midlands 14 out of 38.
Of course, history never quite repeats itself – but I have a horrible sense of déjà vu. For Labour, it’s 1987 all over again, with the major difference that the Lib Dems did a lot better this year than the Liberal-SDP Alliance in 1987 and the Tories under Cameron did a lot worse than under Margaret Thatcher. Labour is back to where it was not just before New Labour, but before Neil Kinnock’s policy review.
The first analyses of voting by class appear to show that Labour’s 2010 problem is much the same as its 1987 problem. Relatively affluent lower-middle-class and skilled working-class voters in the south, the east and the midlands, the C1s and C2s who voted in their droves for Labour in 1997 and mostly stayed on board in 2001 and 2005, feel that the party has nothing to offer them.
So what to do? The extraordinary circumstances of the moment mean that very few Labour minds are focused on what the party needs to do to revive its electoral fortunes in the medium term. But under any possible scenario – including the very unlikely one of the next general election taking place under proportional representation – the thinking is going to have to start soon. Whatever happens, Labour is going to have to work out how to change to attract the C1 and C2 voters it has lost, in terms both of programme and of personnel.
It will not be easy. Recycling the old New Labour riffs about being tough on crime and immigration – which were at the core of the party’s message during this campaign – cannot cut the mustard. Nor can the Blairite mantra of public service reform. “Economic competence” is a busted flush, and there are few votes in constitutional reform or environmentalism. The obvious left alternative, a return to an early-1980s “fight the cuts” agenda, is a recipe for disaster.
Brown is going, but to be replaced by whom? It has to be someone fresh yet credible both with the party and with the voters. I’d go for David Miliband myself – but will the party as a whole?
This looks like being a tough time for Labour. At least, however, there is no sign of a hard-left revolt against the party establishment as happened 30 years ago. We might be all at sea, but no one yet is insisting that we steer bravely for the rocks.
- Written before David Cameron and Nick Clegg signed up for coalition