What next for Labour?

A dire night leaves Britain's main opposition party reeling

They say the darkest hour is right before the dawn. But for many Labour members, the results of the election offer precious little in the way of comfort. Annihilation at the hands of the SNP in Scotland; a failure to move the needle against the Tories in Southern and Eastern England; and the advance of UKIP in some of its Northern heartlands. Taken together, these developments amount to an almighty headache for whoever succeeds Ed Miliband in the coming months.

The Labour Leader announced his immediate departure this lunchtime after a devastating night which saw some of his best lieutenants lost in combat. As was anticipated, General Election Co-ordinator Douglas Alexander and Scottish Leader Jim Murphy went down on astonishing swings to the SNP. But in a result almost no-one saw coming, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls – the dominant figure in Labour’s economic policymaking for twenty years – lost his Morley and Outwood seat to the Conservatives. At a stroke, almost all the remaining heavyweights from the Blair-Brown years are gone.

The exit of Miliband and these other big names from the last Labour government presents the party with a difficult dilemma. Labour urgently needs to fill big gaps in its intellectual arsenal, yet cannot ignore such a dramatic repudiation of its last administration. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham were among Labour’s most effective performers in the last Parliament and are being tipped as potential leaders.  But both were ministers in Gordon Brown’s last cabinet. How would voters respond to another set of faces from that era?

Unfortunately for Labour, its difficulties are not limited to personnel. Many of those who rallied to Miliband’s cause in 2010 (this author included) became convinced his leadership had made a clear break with the mistakes of the Blair-Brown era. But high-profile mea cuplas on issues like Iraq and banking regulation and a distinctive new policy platform did nothing whatsoever to improve Labour’s standing with the public. Ideologically, where on earth does it go next?      

And beyond that, how does Labour – for so long Britain’s only true One Nation party – put itself in a position to win again across Britain? The loss of Scotland is in itself a hammer blow, but the rise of UKIP in some Northern bastions will send a shiver down the spines of Labour operatives. Like some of its counterparts on the European centre-left, is the party now doomed to a long, agonising process of decline? Those of us who gave our heart and soul for Labour in this most disappointing of elections may yet have several more dark nights ahead. 

Photograph: Ed Miliband

Julian

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search