Janan Ganesh says that the Labour Party is overthinking its political predicament after the general election. He may be right, but his diagnosis seems overly simplistic:
If it had chosen [Ed Miliband’s] brother David in 2010, and not spent five years openly goading employers with price interventions and other intellectual remnants of the mid-20th century, it would now be in government or thereabouts. There is nothing structurally wrong with the left that leadership and moderation cannot fix.
It’s possible that Labour would have had a better election with a different leader, but it’s quite a stretch to assume that the only things that kept the party out of government “or thereabouts” were a bad leader and an excessively leftist agenda. Those things helped make the loss an extraordinarily bad one, but it doesn’t follow that they were the difference between victory and defeat. As James Forsyth observed recently, Labour’s problem is that it is failing in different parts of the U.K. for different reasons. It is losing ground to UKIP among many of its former supporters because it is too pro-immigration and pro-EU, and it fared badly in much of England because it was seen as too far to the left on economic policy and because voters feared it would be beholden to the SNP, but it is also getting crushed in Scotland both because it is a unionist party and because it is perceived to be insufficiently leftist. Forsyth writes:
Labour needs to win back three types of voters: aspirational ones who backed the Tories, left-behind working-class voters who went Ukip in England and SNP in Scotland, and nationalist-minded voters north of the border. How to appeal to all three groups simultaneously is, as one shadow cabinet member put it, ‘the exam question’ facing the Labour leadership candidates.
The remedy for any one of these problems will almost certainly make the other two worse or at least no better. “Leadership and moderation” might fix the party’s problem with the first group Forsyth identifies here, but it will mean nothing to the second and it will drive Scottish voters more deeply into the SNP’s embrace. That suggests that the party has serious weaknesses that a leader with the “right instincts” can’t begin to fix. To win back many of these disaffected voters, a leader would need to have multiple sets of instincts that contradict one another.
Losing parties are usually very slow to recognize the flaws that are killing them with voters. By all rights, it would have been bizarre for Labour to return to government just five years after being so thoroughly repudiated. It would have been as strange as a Romney election win in 2012. The only people that truly expected a Labour win this time around were party loyalists and the ideologues that assume that they were all but guaranteed a win, which just showed how out of touch with the rest of their country they were. A party that was resoundingly rejected just a few years earlier has to demonstrate that it understands why the voters don’t trust them, and until it can do that it will usually be rejected over and over again. When a party presides over multiple disasters, it ought to expect to be out of power for a long while. If it remains determined to learn nothing from its past failures, it should remain in the political wilderness even longer.