The Ed Miliband experiment has definitively failed. The 35% strategy was a wash out; the idea that the country had moved leftwards in big enough numbers to secure a parliamentary majority under the current voting system, proven wrong. The more I think about Thursday’s result, the more it brings into view what the country actually wants.
Large portions of English voters do not like the Tories but vote for them if they feel scared of a Labour government. How Labour won in 1997 was to dispel that fear. So England got to vote for Labour, which in their heart of hearts they like doing, because in Blair they felt safe enough to do so. Their taxes wouldn’t go up, the economy would grow. This won Labour three elections in a row.
But then came the economic crash of 2008 and fear of Labour returned massively. This is why Ed Miliband refusing to admit that Labour had misspent on Question Time was so damaging; whatever the truth of the situation, a lot of voters felt that Labour was a safe pair of hands for a about a decade before the economy collapsed. They might possibly be willing to listen to Labour again on the economy – but the party has to come up with some sort of narrative beyond “it was all the bankers fault, nothing to do with us”. People aren’t buying it, and Thursday showed us that definitiely.
And I want to be clear here: what people seem to want is a right of centre Labour Party – the Lib Dems tried to offer essentially the same thing as I’m describing, but since the party couldn’t win a majority, no one listened. It isn’t difficult to figure out psychologically, really: people want a party leading the country to be both economically sound and have their hearts in the right place. That they’ll vote for that in huge numbers, as Blair’s monumental majorities attest to. But if they can’t have both, they’ll settle for the economic competence bit. They’ll vote Tory.
Having said all of that, it is hard to imagine Labour moving in any sort of centrist direction under new leadership even though the misconception that Labour can win under an avowedly left wing candidate has been proven wrong again and again and again. Clement Atlee is probably the only positive example, and that was right after the most traumatic episode of the 20th century had just ended and Labour were the only party offering a health service. Every time Labour have ever won since ’45, it’s been with a centrist leader. But it’s the spirit of ’45 the Labour members always evoke, what they aspire to be again. Which is why they’ll probably go for someone like Andy Burnham – and lose the next election just as badly as they lost 2015.
It may take what it took in 1994 for Labour to elect another centrist capable of winning a general election: decades of Tory rule before capitulation to reality. Let’s hope they come to their senses sooner, or some sort of rearrangement of the left becomes possible.