It’s not always about you. The truism is especially worth remembering in the aftermath of elections, when all parties tend to look at the results wholly in terms of their own campaigns. We Conservatives lurched away from everything John Major had stood for after 1997, and then ludicrously over-compensated after 2001, convinced that William Hague’s emphasis on the asylum crisis had lost us the election. In truth, it’s hard to see any campaign having triumphed against Tony Blair at his height. It’s not always about us.
In much the same way, it would have taken a spectacularly poor campaign to lose to Ed Miliband. I don’t say this to slight our achievement. On the contrary, I thought we sang a fine song: economic recovery, falling crime, deficit reduction, free schools, welfare reform, jobs miracle, secure borders, tax cuts, an In/Out referendum. Still, as in 2010, Labour could have done better with a different leader and a different strategy.
The Left’s error was its usual one: to assume a moral superiority, to treat conservatism as a kind of mental disorder, to define the campaign as a test of voters’ “compassion”. As Ed Miliband kept putting it, “This election is about values”. Labour’s core vote lapped it up: plenty of Leftists define their ideology by whom they loathe. But others found it off-putting. In a column shortly before polling day, the actor Tom Conti explained why he had switched sides. “Labour, I realised, was built on hatred”.
Sure, Conti was exaggerating for effect. Labour is also built on many decent impulses: standing up for the underdog, dispersing power away from elites, raising the condition of the poorest. Still, the asymmetry of hatred was palpable. Again and again, Labour candidates and their media allies would rail against the heartless Tories who (in a trope popularised by George Monbiot and Robert Webb) were all emotionally damaged as a result of having been to boarding schools, and who were bent on killing poor and disabled people through benefits cuts. When Ed Miliband appeared alongside Russell Brand, he was deliberately associating himself with the most nihilistic strain of politics in Britain.
In England, Labour signalled its loathing for the government and waited for the votes to pile up. But in Scotland, where there was a competing party of the Left, it got into a calamitous slanging match about who was the more authentically anti-Tory. Instead of talking about the good they might do, Scottish Labour candidates fell back on the feeble argument that voting SNP would let Cameron in. I honestly can’t remember a more negative campaign:
“We hate they Tory basturts!”
“We hate ’em mair than youse!”
“Naw, ye’re jist Red Tories yersels!”
Etc, etc, etc.
As I’ve observed on this site before, negativity takes you only so far. Even when people individually agree with the points you’re making, they recoil from a hostile tone. Labour, as internal critics have been saying from the start, made the basic error of believing that all it had to do was stand to the Left of the wicked Tories and wait for voters to come to their senses.
The funny thing is that the tone of their campaign may well have skewed the polls, and so pushed Miliband into a false sense of confidence, making him even less accommodating . The election was defined, at least by broadcasters, as values versus policies, decency versus competence, kindness versus efficiency. In such a climate, people don’t much want to identity themselves in public with the party accused of lacking humanity. An opinion poll question about voting intentions comes across as, “So, do you care about the poor, or are you selfish?” There isn’t a box to tick for “I think Labour is bad for the poor: it keeps people on benefits where the Conservatives create jobs”. So people hang back from admitting to their sympathies.
But they don’t just feel intimidated; they feel insulted. When Leftists attack the Tories, they’re not just having a go at 300 MPs, or 100,000 party members: they’re scorning everyone who has contemplated supporting the party. Here, to pluck an example at random, is Charlie Brooker: “The Conservative Party is an eternally irritating force for wrong that appeals exclusively to bigots, toffs, money-minded machine men, faded entertainers and selfish, grasping simpletons born with some essential part of their soul missing”. Never mind the pleasing irony of “faded entertainers”: how do you think this sort of thing goes down, not only with anyone who has ever voted Conservative, but with moderate people who, though they haven’t voted Tory themselves, have friends and family who have?
When you adopt a bullying tone, you find that 1) voters don’t like it; 2) you solidify the other side’s core support; and 3) some people hide their voting intentions.
We can’t rely on Labour making the same mistake next time. Nor, indeed, should we want to. All countries need capable oppositions, and Labour is at its best when it is a strong voice for working as well as workless people. It’ll be back. We still have much to do to win over chunks of the electorate – most urgently, perhaps, ethnic minorities. We shouldn’t make the disastrous mistake of thinking that, because we could beat Brown and Miliband, the country has shifted decisively in a Conservative direction.
In the meantime, though, we should celebrate the sturdy good sense of our fellow countrymen. Britons understand, as some European electorates evidently don’t, that debts must be paid, that the private sector ultimately sustains the public, and that you don’t improve living standards for the rest of us by driving plutocrats into emigration or early retirement. They may not always want to articulate these truths for fear of being branded “Tory scum”; but they know them in their bones.
If you want an explanation of the 2015 election in a single sentence, it’s hard to improve on the words of that great Whig, and founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke:
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is How we invented Freedom and why it matters.