One of the first challenges for Labour’s new leader will be to identify why the party lost and what they need to do to make themselves electable once more. This is not necessarily an easy task (it took the Conservative party a decade!), they must convince their own party members of any changes and during long years of governing there is a risk of a disconnect building up between the way parties see themselves, and the way the public see them.
As part of our polling on the Labour leadership last week we also asked Labour party members which criticisms of the Labour government they themselves agreed with, and which they thought were the main reasons the Labour party had lost.
A majority of Labour party members agreed with three criticisms of the party – the large majority (71%) thought Labour had been too subservient to the USA over Iraq and Afghanistan, 64% that it became out of touch with ordinary voters and 62% of party members think that Labour did not do enough for working-class supporters. On other criticisms 47% think that Labour didn’t pay enough attention to the trade unions, 41% thought the recession had destroyed Labour’s economic reputation and 33% thought Labour had not been tough enough on immigration. Few (28%) Labour members thought that Gordon Brown had been a poor Prime Minister, and hardly any agreed that Labour had taxed too much (9%) or wasted too much of the money spent on public services (12%).
Asked which three of four of the reasons contributed most to Labour’s defeat, the answers were slightly different. While 71% had thought Labour was too subservient to the USA, only 43% thought it was a major cause of the defeat, rather the economy was seen as a main cause (47%), along with Labour becoming out of touch with ordinary voters (47%) or doing enough for natural working class supporters (44%). Gordon Brown’s own performance was seen as a major factor by only 33% of Labour members, with only 25% thinking that immigration was part of the problem. Hardly any party members (5%) thought money spent on public services being wasted was a factor.
Compare this with the opinions of the general public. There immigration (52%), the recession (43%) and Gordon Brown (43%) are seen as the main reasons Labour lost the general election. Being out of touch (39%) and failing to help working class supporters (29%) were seen as less important factors. Wasteful public spending was only seen as an important factor by a minority (29%) but nevertheless, this was far more important than Labour members perceived it.
With Labour electing a new leader, the amount that Gordon Brown contributed to Labour’s defeat is now largely academic. On the other two main reasons cited by the public, while most Labour members have not themselves lost confidence in the party over the economy, they do recognise that it was a problem with the wider public. In contrast, immigration was seen as a major factor in Labour’s defeat by 52% of the public, but only 25% of Labour members, a major disconnect.
However, we shouldn’t go away from this polling thinking that it says a harsher immigration policy is the necessarily the answer. Firstly, people are not always good judges of what drives public opinion or sometimes even their own decisions, so just because immigration was seen as a main driver of Labour’s defeat, it doesn’t mean it necessarily was. Secondly, it may not make good strategic sense for Labour to change their stance on immigration anyway – while it could please their traditional working class supporters, the Labour party is a broad church and also contains middle-class intelligentsia who would be repelled by an anti-immigration policy.
Finally, it is worth remembering that the next election could be almost five years away. If the current government runs its course, it will have changed the political landscape that the next election is fought upon. Part of the battle ahead for the Labour party be over how the public remembers the Labour government just gone. In the same way that Labour in 1997 managed to embed the Major government in the public mind as one of “boom and bust” that starved public services of investment, the Conservatives will be eager to paint the former Labour government as profligate spenders who wasted money and drove the country into unmanageable debt. While neither Labour members nor the general public saw spending as a major cause of Labour’s defeat, the disconnect between the general public, 59% of whom think most of the extra money Labour spent on services was wasted, and Labour members, only 12% of whom agree, may yet be the most important as Labour try to adapt to the new political landscape.