On Wednesday 13th May, PS21 hosted a panel discussion in the aftermath of the UK General Election looking at the lessons learned, and what to expect for the next five years.
Chair: Peter Apps Executive Director, PS21
Frank Spring: US political strategist, independent consultant for innovation, politics and security issues and PS21 Global Fellow
Michael Peacock: Europe Middle East and Africa Politics and Economics Editor, Thomson Reuters
Georgina Stubbs: Journalist, The Sun
Robert Colville: News director, Buzzfeed UK
First up was Frank Spring, newly returned from an unsuccessful campaign for Labour in Southampton. The message from the doorsteps, eh felt, was that while people generally liked Labour’s policies, leader Ed Miliband was not seen as having what it took. On polling day, several thousand previously undetected Tory voters turned out and that was enough to win them the seat.
Reuters’ Mike Peacock – shortly joining the Bank of England as Head of Media – pointed out that for all the talk of a Tory “landslide”, their winning margin was very slim. David Cameron has a substantially smaller majority than John Major between 1993-1997, a government famously weak and subject to divisions on Europe in particular. “…we can run through the history of John Major’s primeministership but there are clear possible parallels there to watch for”, he said.
Georgina Stubbs from the Sun Nation said Labour appeared to have been pushed back to its historic heartlands around coalfields. But there too, it neglected voters they assumed were secure and in some cases were tempted to UKIP.
Rob Colvile, News Director at Buzzfeed, said the electoral map had been significantly redrawn. The victory of the SNP in Scotland made a future Labour majority unlikely. If constitutional reform produced “English votes for English laws” it would be hard for anyone but the Conservatives to win in England.
The giveaway detail in the polling data, Mike Peacock said, was that throughout the campaign the Tories invariably lead when it came to the economy. Similarly, in the Scottish referendum last year, even as the vote narrowed, most Scots continued to say they felt they would be better off in the union.
The lesson, he said, was to “look at the detail of the polls rather than the headlines” –although as with most others, it was only a conclusion he reached after the fact.
With the campaign so focused on personalities and domestic issues, it almost completely ignored foreign policy and Britain’s place in the world. Frank Spring said the UK lacked a national narrative for foreign policy – and no one seemed to see a particular demand for one. Even attempts to inject defence spending/Trident into the election debate went largely unheard.
Nor, Colvile said, was there any discussion of energy, despite some very drastic looming questions.
The Liberal Democrats, most agreed, would seriously struggle to recover in the short or medium term. Their compromise on tuition fees demonstrated beyond doubt the cost of abandoning a key electoral pledge. Their years of fighting almost entirely different battles against Labour and the Tories in different parts of the country would be difficult to resume effectively, even if an unpopular Tory government did rekindle some affection for the old Lib-Con coalition. “What narrative could they possibly spin that would bring them back in the next 10 years?” Spring asked.
In many ways, the 2015 election overturned many of the supposed conclusions from 2010. In 2010, local issues and candidates were seen key in many races, this year it all seemed about the broader national narrative.
PS21 global fellow Tim Hardy said it was relatively stark, the polling data suggested Labour policies, but not Ed Miliband. “66% (of Labour voters) believed in what was being offered… but they didn’t believe in Ed”.
On defending the NHS, Spring and Stubbs said Labour was effective but it wasn’t an important enough against the issue of the economy.
Whether the Tories would retain their perceived lead on the economy was another matter. Their current plans for dramatic cuts, then resurgent spending towards the end of the parliament were not necessarily achievable, Mike Peacock said. If they were perceived to cut too hard and for purely ideological reasons, that could hurt them.
An imminent Labour recovery for 2020, however, as seen unlikely, regardless of who might win the leadership. Different contenders were seen with different strengths. Chuka Umunna was a divisive figure, but with an element of “rock star” quality. Yvette Cooper would be Labour’s first female leader, and that could bring advantages.
Favourite Andy Burnham, meanwhile, is seen much more in the Miliband political insider mould.
Whether the SNP would hold Scotland in the long term remained unclear. The party, Colvile said, tended to do best when it had someone to blame and the referendum campaign had playing into their hands by forcing the London based parties together. A truly separate, more Scottish voice for Scottish labour may be a prerequisite for its recovery.
More than any other party, the SNP was seen as having fought a particularly successful social media campaign, especially when it came to getting their key younger voters out on polling day. This showed the importance of social media to the election outcome, “that is where people are having their conversations” Colvile noted, and many of these conversations are occurring out of the view of traditional media.
The other big question mark was over the future of UKIP. Had they reached a high water mark or was there still further to go? The EU referendum would clearly be key.
Peacock said Cameron seemed unlikely to win significant concession from Brussels on repatriation of power. Whether the Conservative party could hold together if its leadership was campaigning to remain in the EU was far from clear.
Both UKIP and the SNP were seen riding a popular wave of discontentment with metropolitan and political elites in general and London in particular.
For the Democrats preparing for the 2016 US presidential election, Spring said there were some interesting lessons. The Democrat economic platform was extremely similar to that fought on by Labour. Also, they might want to avoid putting their election pledges on a large stone tablet.
A full transcript of the discussion is available here