THE telling of this election tale, and trying to piece together what really happened and why, will take a few more days yet, perhaps longer. With Labour nursing deep wounds sustained beyond north London’s boundaries and a search for a new leader, and possibly a new direction, underway, Camden’s finance chief Theo Blackwell is one of the quickest on the draw to explain publicly why his party has been left hurting.
His post-mortem, a frank post on his blog, includes anger at how the mansion tax left candidates exposed, a frustration at what he calls a clique surrounding Ed Miliband that had become besotted with his intellectual insights, and an honest admission that Labour had simply not been trusted on the economy.
“For most people ‘economic competence’ isn’t just about your stance on capitalism, it’s a judgement on effectiveness, on how well you do stuff,” Theo writes. “Sure… voters might have liked someone to take action on energy companies, train franchises and banks, but they were also saying that they didn’t want Labour to do it, because we’d just mess it up. So every time we proposed something radical we undermined our own case even further by people not believing we’d be able to do what we said.”
To put Theo’s thoughts in context within the party, he is an experienced councillor who has buzzed around the top of Camden’s group for more than a decade. He is someone that was happy to wear the north London geek t-shirt when Ed Miliband was hell-yeahing Jeremy Paxman, and, despite the tone of his post-election posts, he did not spend the campaign sitting on his sofa with an upturned mouth and sulking about the tactics which he is now admitting he had reservations about. On polling day, he was part of the Labour team knocking up in Holborn and St Pancras, and then for his friend Polly Billington in Thurrock, where in the end it was actually the Tories who kept UKIP out.
But he is clear and consistent too on his view that the Tony Blair years are too readily trashed by left-wingers in the party, and that important achievements from that period are overlooked by those who championed Ed Miliband’s redrawn Labour Party. At one stage during the campaign, his Twitter profile picture was defiantly changed to a photo of Tony Blair rocking out on a guitar.
Some people will read his post and digest it as a call to switch the agenda within the party back to where it was, to a time when the party won more elections. His thoughts seem similar to the way that likely leadership candidate Chuka Umunna will outline in tomorrow’s Observer his view that the party must reach out beyond its ‘cobbled’ core support. Like Theo, Umunna tells of how he found Labour using an allergic language towards business, alienating potential supporters in the process.
“At times it seemed that Labour was on a personal intellectual odyssey rather than applying for a job to run the country,” Theo writes. “The campaign was too focused on Ed and his speeches, as if an essay on something by him would made people sit up and listen. There is a time and a place for that, but not in the months running up to an election and not – as it seemed – all the time and to the exclusion of the wider team. Ed’s inner circle was universally known as cliquey and never at the end of a phone. Simply put, the esteem they felt for his undoubted intellectual ability was not embraced by the world at large.”
And then there is Theo’s thoughts on the mansion tax, the policy which was endlessly name-checked as the self-inflicted spear which helped keep the Conservatives within striking distance in a constituency like Hampstead and Kilburn. It was clear, these last few months, that some local Labour politicians felt uncomfortable defending the levy on £2 million houses. To some extent this was because the detail of how much it would actually cost people, clarity on where it would be suspended for people for cash-poor pensioners, and why it would be introduced in the first place – i.e. not just for Jim Murphy’s kitty in Scotland – was so poorly communicated by the party. For others, there was an outright objection which they felt duty-bound, due to the election campaign, to keep private. Dissenters tried to shift the argument to council tax band reform, to avoid being trapped in a yes/no quiz on their support for the tax.
“It [the proposed mansion tax] clumsily invaded people’s lives with subjective political judgements about success,” Theo writes. “No thought was had about homes just below the threshold. Braver moves like reforming the outdated property tax system were dismissed. Obvious contradictions like how Labour was arguing for localism, but at the same time magically levying a tax on people it considered to be rich in one area of the country and redistributing the money elsewhere, were not thought through and left candidates exposed. The policy should now be consigned to the dustbin, with a lid on it, as should language about ‘bad’ businesses and ‘predators.’”