What I thought about the 2005 General Election result
Third time lucky
For any party to win three elections in a row is a historically significant event. Since universal suffrage was introduced it has only happened twice before: for the Tories in 1959 and in 1987. For Labour, which for the first hundred years of its existence struggled to win general elections at all, and only succeeded before 1997 in winning working majorities twice, it is a unique achievement and an amazing transformation.
For the Tories, a little hindsight will surely show that this was a disaster of equally historic proportions – after eight years in opposition, Britain’s once natural party of government can only muster fewer than 200 seats, a worse result than Labour got under Michael Foot in 1983. Once again the Tory campaign succeeded in mobilising their core vote but not reaching out beyond it.
Whilst Labour supporters should celebrate the result, there is however no cause for complacency. Our share of the vote slumped by 5.4%, largely due to gains by the Lib Dems. This is largely explained by the hopefully one-off circumstances of the Iraq War, which whilst it had lost most of its resonance outside of inner-city areas and university towns, caused defections by large numbers of students, Muslims and the “Guardian-reading” middle classes. Labour also now finds itself defending a larger number of ultra-marginal constituencies – 20 Labour seats were held by majorities of under 1,000.
There is a danger that the Party learns all the wrong lessons from the Lib Dem gains.
First, Labour activists have learnt from fighting the Lib Dems in local government that they are beatable, but the way to do this is match their campaigning and expose their more unpopular policies such as their soft line on anti-social behaviour, rather than aping their policies.
Second, the Lib Dem threat, whilst it saw some spectacular gains in individual seats, is actually rather narrowly focused. Most voters in most parts of the country aren’t much exercised by foreign policy or student finance, and cast their votes on the basis of bread-and-butter issues such as the economy, schools and hospitals. Despite the relatively large shift in votes only 12 seats actually changed from Labour to Lib Dem and the list of Labour marginals next time round includes only a handful of Lib Dem targets.
Thirdly, if the Party follows the path advocated by Compass and others on the soft left of focussing its political strategy on winning back the defectors to the Lib Dems by moving towards their policy positions on a range of issues, there is a danger that we will win back some of that 3.8% but alienate the far larger group of skilled working class and lower middle class voters who choose between us and the Tories. These voters are disproportionately numerous in the key marginal seats and whilst their economic interest lies in voting Labour they won’t stomach a Labour Party that abandons common sense positions on defence, law and order, and immigration.
These voters were the other front on which the Labour Party was fighting in the General Election. They generally gave us one more chance, but we are drinking in the last chance saloon as far as they are concerned if we aren’t seen to take seriously a range of issues, particularly immigration. That’s why our key pledge on ID Cards is a critical policy. One wonders whether the MPs who muttered about rebelling on ID Cards appreciate that this was a critical policy in stopping mass defections by working class voters to the Tories.
2005 will be remembered as an election where the concept of uniform national swing went out of the window. Individual seats with strong incumbent MPs and active CLPs pulled off defensive wins against the odds – one only has to think of Dorset South. There were huge sub-regional and county by county variations in the results. For instance, we held all except one seat in the former West Midlands county, seven of eight in Kent and even all five in Sussex of all places! In contrast, we lost eleven seats in London, five in Wales, three in Northamptonshire and five across the two counties of Essex and Hertfordshire. Detailed analysis of the demographic, political and organisational causes of these variations will be important in planning the next campaign.
Grassroots organisations like Labour First must inject a note of steadiness and commonsense in contrast to the knee-jerk calls for the party to change direction and veer off to the left that are already coming from the usual suspects. We need to be a voice for the vast silent majority of loyalist Labour activists, members and voters who were delighted that we won a third term and want that third term to be a success. We need to speak for the millions of Labour voters who read the Sun and the Mirror rather than the Guardian and the Independent and who want a government that pursues social justice and law and order, that fights to reduce poverty and against terrorism. The importance of constituency campaigning this time round also shows that we need to be a voice for the importance of building active, mass membership CLPs, and for respecting the vital contribution to our success made by councillors and trade unionists.
For the moment though, rather than beat ourselves up, Labour members should take a moment or two to celebrate the victory we all contributed to.