It may be that this was a good election to lose for Labour (which, I suspect, is some of what lay behind that old fashioned politics Janet was lauding the other day), though it may not feel like that for many of their voters/supporters at the moment. (BTW, the Telegraph were still live blogging up to last night)
Why? Because the challenges being faced by the Tories and Lib Dem coalition are huge, particularly on the international front (it’s no coincidence Cameron paid tribute to Labour’s work on that front since with the Lib Dem’s help against his own backwoodsmen, he intends no revolution in that quarter).
But more positively from a Labour point of view, it is clear that the UK public was nowhere near as tired and dissatisfied with Labour as many Tory bloggers and activists (in the official commentariat) would have us believe. The nearest thing to a Portillo moment came in East Belfast, with the loss of Peter Robinson, and even the reaction to that consisted of more surprise than genuine Schadenfreude…
The only high level casualty was the one we expected, the former Home Secretary Jacqui Smyth, who was bested by a Conservative candidate on her third contest of the same seat and with a composite swing of 13.4 with 5% going to the Tories, 3.2% to the Lib Dems and 3.4% to the BNP.
Now look at Jack Straw’s constituency of Blackburn (which has only returned two MPs since it was created in 1955), and you see a swing to Labour of 5.7% and slight drop in the BNP vote of 0.7%. It may well have been Nick Clegg’s candour over their proposed amnesty for illegal immigrants in the 3rd TV debate that stopped many defecting to the Lib Dems.
In fact Straw held his seat with some comfort. He did what many others did and went back to their constituencies months before the final phase of the official campaign. As a result, even though they are now in Opposition they have managed to preserve a great deal more of their assets than many pundits predicted for them.
Even the much talked up ‘killing fields’ of the south east of England failed to emerge.
In short, Labour has preserved incumbency in seats over a much wider stretch of the country than expected. This could be an important governing factor of how the next general election plays out. But the party has lost ground in two important areas (and the same ones David William Donald Cameron has been assiduously targetting since he became party leader in 2006): the metropolitan commentariat and the C1s and C2s, the lower middle and upper working classes where British elections are won and lost.
Did Mrs Duffy bring it back for Labour?
One of the least considered moments of the campaign, but one which may explain the Lib Dems poor showing compared to the way the polls went was in the third debate when he was ‘outed’ on his party’s plan for an amnesty for illegal immigrants after ten years in the country. At the same time, he managed to ‘out’ the fact that the Conservatives anti immigration policy could not touch the influx of eastern Europeans.
But the Gillian Duffy incident also revealed that a lot of working class discontent about immigration has little to do with racism or even xenophobia, but a very human and intelligent concern for the perceived monopolisation of scarce public resources (not least amongst them, education and access to university) as the UK enters a prolonged period of economic contraction.
There are some in Labour who suggest that a quiet period of contemplation (and a returning to sources) would serve its longer term interests better than a rush to ballot to replace Gordon Brown (whose proposed timetable for departure from the leadership takes us up to the party conference in September). A counsel not currently being heard by some of the Oxford PPE graduates currently at the centre of speculation on who will run and who won’t.
The next election will likely be played on the ground of this Government’s choosing, not Labour’s. But it will only have itself to blame if in the meantime it fails to do the required work. It must continue to talk not just with the chattering classes of the Westminster commentariat whose collective mind has wandered elsewhere – it was one of Cameron’s biggest achievements regarding the media that he managed to force the Guardian to back his new liberal darlings in the Lib Dems rather than Labour) – but with the folk who gave them the longest run in government since the party first began over 100 years ago.
And along with that, they need to move away from doling out seats to central aparatchiks and make sure their MPs can perform more of that that which Burke burdened them, ie to discharge their “unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living.”
After the control freakery of the Blair/Brown age and the increasingly rootless and deracinated nature of what passes for political journalism in the UK, that’s a tall order and one whose importance (and value of which) is not likely to be widely understood. But if the party wants to make proper use of the assets it has retained apres le deluge, carrying on in the same old way is not an option.
If you are in town, I will speaking on the outcome of the Westminster from the platform of the PDF Action Replay event at the RSA in London tonight. It starts at six. Notes on Lib Dems and Conservatives to follow.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty