Never Again: Lessons from Labour’s key seats

Andrew Adonis

The polls were the source of false hope. Not just national polls but constituency polls, which appeared to give a more fine-grained and accurate picture of what was happening on the ground.

In fact, what the national polls showed in England was practically a dead heat on voting intentions, but with a signif­icant deficit for Labour on both leadership and economic trust. So the lesson for next time is not to take false hope from the polls unless – as in the Blair years – they show a decisive lead on all three measures: voting intentions, leadership and economic trust. And constituency polls are too volatile to mean much.

The good news is in London. A combination of demogra­phy, strong campaigning, a positive pan-London and pro-growth programme for the capital, and an excellent record in London borough and city-wide government over the past 15 years, has given Labour a power base which yielded net gains in 2015 and a springboard for next May’s mayoral election.

The bad news is practically everywhere else.

The essays in this collection by defeated candidates tell a fairly similar story of an energetic ground campaign but an inadequate national campaign. The verdicts are of a defeat in the broad realm of ideas and positioning, not individual policies or leadership and campaign failures.

“We lost the argument over linking the contribution people make to society and what they take out in cash or kind,” says Sally Keeble. One of the effects of this was to enable UKIP to take root in Labour areas because of (in Luke Pollard’s words) “a disconnection with communities, distrust in politi­cians and a debate that was leaving people behind.”

Will Straw highlights welfare as a key issue. “Wherever I turned there was a palpable sense that the system was devoid of any sense of contribution” and Labour “was seen by too many people as the defender of the status quo.” Jessica Asato highlights waste in partially reformed public services as a key theme, and Polly Billington stresses the importance of public services that are responsive to local needs in areas as basic as cleaning the streets properly and cleaning up after dogs.

So what’s to be done? New leadership gives new opportunities. Will Straw suggests three principles of reform: devolution, “encouraging a climate of contribution and reciprocity” and “moving scarce taxpayer resources from income support to shared institutions,” such as new homes instead of housing benefit and better paid jobs instead of jobseeker’s allowance.

This means accepting some of the lines of George Osborne’s summer budget and promoting an agenda of productiv­ity, devolution and stronger families and communities. For example, Labour should be championing the new levy for apprenticeships and campaigning to promote and extend the opportunities they provide for young people. We should be supporting city regional mayors and devolved institutions, and seeking to make a success of them, as with the GLA in London under Ken Livingstone. We should, as James Frith argues, put a pro-growth and pro-business approach at the heart of our politics, and not, in Rowenna Davis’s graphic phrase, assume that people are simply “needy, greedy or irrelevant.” On the contrary, everyone has a positive contri­bution to make, and we should be championing it.

Moreover, as Sally and Will argue in their conclusion, the next election will be won or lost in England. There are too few marginal seats in Scotland to make the difference even if we regain the initiative north of the border.

We must be leading the campaign to protect our jobs, industries and future in the forthcoming EU referendum. Polly Billington argues that we need to champion “fair movement” rather than “free movement” of citizens within the EU. Defining what is meant by “fair movement” is a key issue and needs to be resolved over the next year. David Cameron will define it in terms of migrants’ benefits; if we are seeking a broader definition, it is as yet unclear what this would amount to in practice.

As these essays show, Labour did not have a problem with the quality of its candidates in key seats in 2015. Nor with the commitment and pragmatism of our members at large. Our challenge is to secure strong and effective leadership, positioning and policy.

This piece is the introduction to the Fabian pamphlet Never Again: Lessons from Labour’s key seats – read the full report here


  1. Mary Steele

    When did Labour lose sight of the people who trusted them sufficiently to believe they would be secure in their hands? Well, here in Sheffield our Labour Councillors appeared to have no qualms about demolishing hundreds of perfectly sound council homes, some with new windows and recently replaced wall ties, in order to appease developers who had selected the sites on which they wanted to build homes for sale, on the grounds that they h ad wonderful views or were on the edge of parks. People were distraught, not only at the loss of long-standing homes but at betrayal by a Labour council they had voted into power. Who can we trust if not the Party established on the principle of fighting for working people? Many now are so disillusioned they don’t even bother to vote.

    Our Labour Councillors obviously thought the areas were too good for those having worked most of their lives to help build the economy of both city and country but their ‘I’m alright Jack’ attitude may very well prove their undoing!

  2. M I Taylor

    The Labour Party needs a renaissance of ‘leadership’ (and ‘policies’) a great deal less than it needs a renaissance of ‘principle’ (and ‘spirit’). For generations Scots, working class Scots, voted Labour for its principles more than its policies and for those more than for leaders. For the last couple of generations they have, until very recently, been joined by the middle classes, who also voted Labour very much on principle. The left is much disparaged these days, but leftism, not just socialism, has its roots in the principles, and spirited rallying cries, of ‘liberty’, ‘equality’ and ‘fraternity’ and their corollary ‘justice’. Labour of the present has no readily identifiable principles, and very little discernible spirit, ignoring them in favour of that typically, and sole, Tory principle of getting elected to form a government.

  3. Rafal Zak

    “Never Again” is inspirational and significant publication. I hope this book can help Labour Party to experience Renaissance of Leadership very soon.

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