Jeremy Corbyn’s silence was revealing: he said nothing at all about Labour’s inquest into its disastrous defeat at last year’s general election. No statement or briefing was forthcoming on what lessons he draws from the inquiry headed by Dame Margaret Beckett, the former Foreign Secretary.
When pressed, the Corbynistas insist the findings will feed into their decision-making on strategy. But the Labour leader seems more intent on building a new party rather than checking its foundations and learning lessons from the past. He had been sitting on the Beckett report since last November and it was published this week only after a row about it being kept secret.
Dame Margaret, the ultimate party loyalist, has produced a report that tells some home truths but also pulls its punches. She is right to say that one lesson of Ed Miliband’s leadership is that the party must join up its policies into a "simple, seamless narrative." Blairites used to call it “hanging out the washing”—making sure the key policies hang together. Team Corbyn would be well advised to learn this lesson. It seems suspicious of modern communications because of New Labour’s addiction to “spin”. You can have a left-wing narrative, but you won’t succeed if it is not coherent and you don’t sell it properly.
The Beckett report noted that Mr Miliband was not judged as strong a leader as David Cameron-- something of an understatement. “There was a desire not to rub Ed’s nose in it,” one Labour official admitted. The Labour verdict omitted the findings of focus groups conducted for its inquiry, which I revealed last October: swing voters saw Mr Miliband as unfit to be prime minister, describing him as “weak and bumbling”, “a dork” and “having the appeal of a potato.”
True, the Beckett report does reflect the voters’ lack of trust in Labour on the economy, welfare and immigration and their fear that a minority Labour government would be propped up by the SNP. But it avoids the flawed assumptions on which Mr Miliband’s leadership was built –that the British public had moved to the left after the financial crisis, and that Labour could regain power by appealing to Liberal Democrat 2010 voters and its core vote. Perhaps that was judged too unpalatable for a Labour leader who has now shifted further to the left than Mr Miliband.
The Beckett review pointed to Mr Miliband’s refusal to tackle head on what she rightly called “the myth” that Labour caused the economic crisis, which many voters now believe. He left it too late to try to regain economic credibility. Another lesson for Mr Corbyn: the tramlines are laid early in each parliament and are hard to shift.
Labour's post-mortem should have looked at Mr Miliband's decision to abandon his 2012 “One Nation” campaign, which was replaced by populist attacks on energy companies and banks. It might have judged him an unlikely class warrior; ironically, his strategy of playing the anti-establishment card would be better suited for Mr Corbyn, an outsider rather than an insider like his predecessor.
The Beckett inquiry has some important messages for Mr Corbyn. It should be chilling reminder to all Labour folk of the daunting mountain they must climb in 2020: it needs 94 gains to win a majority of two, when only 24 Tory-held seats have a majority of less than 3,000. She also admitted: "We did fail to convert voters in demographic groups who are traditionally seen as in the centre." And she issued a coded warning to the Corbynistas not to merely preach to the converted by "confining ourselves to those whose experience or assumptions mirror our own." It is believed that Team Corbyn's reluctance to reach out to people who did not vote Labour last year was one reason why Neale Coleman quit as his director of policy and rebuttal this week. Although four out of five of the voters Labour needs to win over backed the Tories last year, one Corbynista admitted: “You are not going to see Jeremy making speeches about Middle England.”
One lesson missing from Labour's review is Mr Miliband’s failure to defend New Labour’s record in power. While he rejects the Blairites’ charge that he "trashed the record,” some Miliband aides now admit it was a mistake not to defend it, which helped the Tories turn their claim to be “clearing up Labour’s mess” into a historical fact.
However, Mr Miliband was not the first Labour leader to adopt a Gerald Ratner strategy – after the jeweller who described one of the chain’s products as "crap." Tony Blair rejected Old Labour and rarely missed a chance to rubbish it; Gordon Brown defined himself against Mr Blair and then Mr Miliband gave the impression that New Labour got it all wrong. “ ‘We’ve been shit, vote for us’ is not a great slogan,” one Labour MP said. “The worry now is that Corbyn will imply that everything we have done in the last 30 years is rubbish.”
Incoming Labour leaders would be well advised to argue that their predecessors got some things right. After all, the Tories don’t disown their former leaders. The Cameroons might say that Margaret Thatcher was wrong to suggest “there is no such thing as society” but they are not stupid enough to excoriate a leader who won three general elections. Labour’s attitude to Mr Blair could not be more different.
“We’re back in Year Zero,” Tom Baldwin, who was a senior strategist to Mr Miliband, told a Fabian Society conference last weekend as he surveyed Labour’s state under Mr Corbyn. “Not shouting from the rooftops but shouting at each other. Yes, successful oppositions learn the lessons of defeat. But [they] also need to remember the things we got right, and distinguish between baby and bathwater.” He is right, so I look forward to Mr Corbyn’s speech on New Labour’s successes.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies