As Corbyn’s win is all over the news, it is difficult to think about other issues. So while watching the result I read ‘Can Labour Win?’ by Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice. It sifts through a lot of polling information and conversations with candidates, and comes up with a large number of recommendations. There is a lot of good and sensible stuff here, but I cannot help feel that it - and much similar comment since the election - misses the key point.
Perhaps part of the problem is that a great deal of this analysis comes from Labour party people who are, quite rightly, really interested in policy. So all the analysis is about which policies were wrong and which way policy should move as a result. We get into territory that these people are comfortable with: what policy should be.
The point all this misses is that the Conservatives won. It used to be said that governments, not oppositions, win or lose elections. Yet all of the comment is about Labour’s policies. A much better place to start is why voters voted for a Conservative government. That quickly leads you to the fact that voters saw the Conservatives as competent in economic terms. And that is where you should stop.
You should stop because, as I have argued many times, the raw data on the economy was terrible. If you had asked any pollster or political scientist whether a government could win on economic competence having presided over a huge fall in real wages they would have said no. True things began to look less gloomy as the election approached, but the position of the Conservatives in the polls well before that time was not nearly as bad as the economic position suggested it should be.
The Conservatives won because they reframed the economic debate. Competence became reducing the deficit, not increasing prosperity. Labour’s failure was a failure to challenge that reframing. Forget the details of Labour policy - it is of little importance compared to this crucial mistake. And that crucial mistake was a symptom of a more general problem.
There is one telling result from the Diamond and Radice study. To quote
“despite never using the language of ‘equality’, voters believe the Conservatives are just as likely to achieve equality as Labour in southern England”
This was despite Miliband putting the problem of inequality at the centre of his message. I heard it, but most voters did not. Labour just failed to get its message, any message, across. As I wrote just after the election, Labour's political spin appeared to be consistently amateur compared to their opponents.
Corbyn will have some advantages. He will not let Osborne’s deficit fetishism go unchallenged. But that challenge will only work if the alternative policy is solid and simple: I agree with the authors that this must involve balance on the current deficit (although within the context of a flexible rule). What he must not do is provide material for his opponents, which I’m afraid is exactly what Corbyn’s QE did. Focusing on the current balance will allow for a large increase in public investment, which again can be spun very simply: Labour, unlike the Conservatives, invests in our future. (It is not afraid to borrow to do so, just like every successful firm.) Corbyn, and the team he selects, may not want to call it spin, but if they do not match their opponent’s ability in this area they will lose.