I took a short break after the election, so I managed to avoid most of the immediate post-election analysis. But I could not avoid seeing some Labour people complaining about how Labour’s defeat was because they vacated the centre ground and went for a core vote strategy. This seems very odd. In terms of ‘vacating the centre ground’, I thought it was pretty obvious that occupying it was the main Liberal Democrat strategy, and that didn’t go too well. In terms of a core vote strategy, it seems to me this applied at least as much to the Conservative campaign.
Rather than Labour and Liberal Democrat people asking what they did wrong, they should ask what the Conservatives did right. What they did right had very little to do with actual Conservative policies, beyond fiscal sweeteners mainly directed to their core voters. Instead it was about attacking their opponents in areas where - for whatever reason - their opponents failed to fight back.
In terms of Labour, the Conservative campaign mainly focused on three themes: how inadequate Ed Miliband would be as Prime Minister, how bad Labour’s macroeconomic policies had been when they were last in government, and how Labour would be ‘held to ransom’ by the SNP. With all three of these, the arguments were not based on clear objective facts, but on political spin.
As Peter Oborne has observed, Miliband’s performance as Labour leader had indicated a number of positive qualities which suggest he could also have been a good Prime Minister. However he is no Cameron or Blair, and the Conservative machine managed to spin this unfamiliarity as a weakness. A minority Labour government backed by the SNP would have been unusual, but would it really have been so much more unstable as this government will be given how split it is on the EU? This question was never asked in the popular debate, which instead managed to galvanise English nationalism against an imagined threat from north of the border. The Labour line that there would be no deals was inherently defensive, as well as being unconvincing.
The distortion on economic policy was perhaps the greatest of the three pieces of spin. In a post written before the election entitled ‘UK election: it was mediamacro wot won it’ I ended with the following line: “if the coalition government remains in power after this election (or if the Conservatives win outright), then the title of this post will have rather more justification than the Sun’s original headline.” Harvard historians writing macroeconomic nonsense in Financial Times op-eds after the election shows that the mediamacro problem is not about to disappear.
What the Conservatives achieved was to turn at best half-truths into apparent facts, which then became the talking points of the media’s coverage of the campaign. The Conservatives won because their spin was so much better than their opponents. That is the lesson of the 2015 election, and not anything to do with actual policies.
To many Labour or Liberal Democrats supporters, this argument will be very unpalatable. They hate the idea of political spin, and all it represents. I have a lot of sympathy with that view, but I suspect it may help lose elections. In fact, it is probably much more important for the centre and left to think a great deal about political spin, because they have to overcome the spin machine that is much of the UK press, as well as the specific problems associated with mediamacro. Left leaning think tanks prefer to focus on policies rather than propaganda, a characteristic less evident in their right leaning counterparts, but in terms of winning an election that is a weakness.
A few of the post-mortems on Labour’s defeat that I have read suggested they should have tried to counter the myth of Labour profligacy much earlier than 2015. Having written for some time about this myth, I could hardly disagree. I suspect within the Labour hierarchy the view was to look forward rather than go over the past, but you cannot abandon the writing of history to your opponents. However that was not just one mistake among many successes: instead Labour's political spin appeared to be consistently amateur compared to their opponents. While over the next few months the debate will be about selecting a new leader who can recapture some of the Blair magic, the truth may be that the more important task is to employ a lot more people like Alastair Campbell.