NEC Meeting, 19 May 2015

Harriet Harman, as interim leader, reiterated her four priorities: effective opposition; unity and stability; analysis of the results; and electing a new leader and deputy leader. Looking ahead to the Queen’s speech, NEC members were particularly concerned about attacks on the human rights act and on trade union and employment rights, and welcomed her promise of robust defence.

The NEC agreed to establish a taskforce on learning the lessons from defeat through analysing the data and engaging with candidates, members, staff, affiliates and the public. It would consist of a Chair; general secretary Iain McNicol; Jim Kennedy as Chair of the NEC; two candidates from target seats; an MP; representatives from Scotland and Wales; and a black and minority ethnic member. Apart from Jim and Iain no individuals were named, nor was the Chair, and requests for explicit representation from constituencies, local government and unions were rejected. Terms of reference would be decided with the Chair, and the Chair would be endorsed by the NEC officers, who do not include any representatives from constituencies or local government either. The taskforce would report to the new leadership team, and hopefully to the NEC as well. It is unrelated to the review which Jon Cruddas has been talking about.

So I will concentrate on making sure that members’ voices are heard. I will forward – without identifying individuals – the hundreds of messages that I’ve received, and pass on the website address for online submissions when this is known. The main questions are likely to be:

1)         Why do you think Labour lost the election?

2)         What were the key issues being raised on the doorstep in your local area?

3)    What Labour campaign messages / themes and policies worked and did not work in your area?

4)    How well did Labour do at communicating its key campaign messages / themes and policies?

5)         How effective and active were your local opponents on the ground?

6)         How effective did you feel were the messages and themes of our main opponents?

7)    If you have been involved in a general election before, how do you feel this campaign compared in terms of

(a)        General organisation on the ground

(b)        Getting more people active in key seats

(c)        Having the best positive and attack messages in the campaign

8)    What do you think Labour needs to do better to be more successful at the next general election?

Answers are clearly urgent, as 2016 sees elections for the Welsh assembly, the Scottish parliament, and the London mayor and assembly.

Local council seats will also be up for election. This year Labour gained five councils and lost eight, and is again no longer the largest party in the local government association. In Manchester, which has been given devolved responsibility for health spending, the unions are involved in negotiations over pay differentials between the NHS and local government for staff such as care workers. Other northern cities may accept elected mayors as the price for similar powers.

The Numbers Game

Executive director Patrick Heneghan gave an initial breakdown of the results. Headline figures are in the public domain, and are not good: Labour gained 12 seats from the LibDems and 10 from the Tories, but lost eight to the Tories, so a net gain of only two. Under first-past-the-post, 50% of the Scottish vote gave the SNP 56 of the 59 seats, while UKIP with 3.8 million votes and the Greens with 1.8 million won one seat each. London, the north-west and Yorkshire did best, with Wales and the south-west relatively worse, and overall Labour gained more votes in its “safe” English and Welsh seats than in Tory / Labour marginals where they were needed most. Contrary to previous assurances to the NEC, UKIP took votes equally from Labour and the Tories, while LibDem switchers also split equally between the two main parties. To win an overall majority of two in 2020 Labour needed to gain 94 seats with a swing of 8.7%, even before any boundary changes. Only 24 Tory seats have majorities under 3,000, and only two Scottish seats under 5,000.

The figures tell us what, but not why, nor where next. On tactics, I would like to see a full analysis of the effectiveness of the resources – money, materials and organisers – poured into priority seats, as anecdotally it looks as if there was little difference between neighbouring seats where one was a target and the other was not. Candidates, activists and staff worked their socks off to get contact rates up, and then found that on election day not all the Labour promises were voting Labour. Some MPs may have done more than others, but what impact did that have, particularly in Scotland where all but one were swept away? Can the “ground war” still overcome well-funded individually-addressed direct mails, this time with SNP scare stories, dropping just before the poll?

The NEC recognised the enormous demands on candidates selected years before the election, and there would be no selections until constituency boundaries were clear. That would allow time to digest the Collins recommendations. Pete Willsman and others stressed the need for all-women shortlists to be assigned according to transparent criteria.

Digging Further

My correspondents overwhelmingly said that the seeds of defeat were sown in 2010 when we failed to rebut the Tory mantra that Labour caused the financial crisis. However there was no consensus on what changes of direction, if any, were necessary now. Some thought that Labour should have opposed all cuts and all austerity, some that we did not reach out sufficiently to the middle ground and had to rebuild a broader coalition, and some that the manifesto was in the right place but not well explained: policies on housing and student fees were aspirational. The dilemma could be summed up, simplistically, as too left-wing for England, too right-wing for Scotland. There were also comments on whether problems lay mainly with the message or the messenger. In Scotland the reasons dated back to 2007 or earlier, and probably any leader would have been doomed. Joining the Tories in the Better Together campaign had been disastrous, and I think this lesson has been learned for the Euro-referendum, to be discussed by the NEC in July.

Questions of Leadership

I’ve had a number of well-argued messages asking for the contest to be deferred, or for the threshold for nominations to be lowered. On balance I am not persuaded, though I may be wrong. First, candidates have been up and running since the day after the election. A twelve-month delay would simply extend the campaign from three months to more than a year. Second, all returning MPs have had the chance to impress through the last parliament, so no new stars are likely to emerge. The 2015 intake need some parliamentary experience before they could lead their fellow MPs and the party. And third, for those who would like to agree general principles before choosing a leader, there is no consensus, and a period of introspection would, I believe, widen divisions. Directions would be better determined through deciding between candidates with different visions. I’m aware that this depends on MPs, through their nominations, allowing sufficient diversity through to the members’ ballot, and I hope they will recognise that anyone elected from an artificially restricted field would not carry sufficient legitimacy or authority. The NEC cannot change the threshold in the middle of the process and, if we tried, it would be seen as fixing the selection for or against particular candidates.

Separately, the unions are still clarifying exactly how they can satisfy the Collins criteria for signing up affiliated supporters. This was all agreed by the implementation group for the London mayoral contest, and just needs rolling out to the rest of the country, particularly Scotland which will use the same system to elect their new leader. I’ve had some messages asking for pure one-member-one-vote, without including supporters. However constituencies and unions voted for the new rules at the special conference in March 2014, and they can only be changed by another conference decision.

Affiliated supporters – and we now have six in Oxford – must be invited to local meetings, and hopefully will revive links with the unions at branch and constituency level. Membership continues to soar, with more than 40,000 new or returning members, and the most immediate task for local parties is to welcome them, find out what attracts them to Labour, and involve them in campaigning and other activities. They are our best hope for the future.