What lessons can Labour learn from the 2015 election?

No one expected the Tories to win the 2015 general election outright, not even the Conservative Party itself. It took the nation by surprise. A year on, a clearer picture of what happened is starting to emerge. The pre-election polls show that the Tories were perceived as better on the economy and leadership, and no party has ever won an election after being behind on these two metrics. However, the problems with the Ed Miliband era go beyond his leadership and his policies - although these were part of the problem. The left is out of power across Europe and the right is maneuvering on the centre ground. The left needs do some serious thinking about how it has found itself in such an unpopular position. What have we learned with the perspective that time brings?

Not everything about the 2015 election results was a disaster for Labour. The party did expand its vote in many seats. However, it piled up extra votes in areas where Labour already had strong support - mainly middle class, metropolitan areas - so it did not translate into more seats. The same result can be seen in the local council election results under Jeremy Corbyn's leadership. Support for Labour is increasing, but not in a way that makes it likely that they will win the 2020 election.

The oblivious conclusion to draw from this is that Labour need to change its tactics and expand its electoral support in areas that are not metropolitan, liberal and middle class. Labour used to dominate working-class votes in the former industrial heartlands of Britain. Now the SNP and UKIP are eating away at that support. If UKIP makes gains in the former indisputable north similar to those which the SNP did in Scotland, then the Labour Party could be all but wiped out at the next general election. So, how does Labour expand its support?

Enter Tristram Hunt, who has edited a book entitled Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism, which looks in detail about why Labour lost the 2015 election. It details the experiences of 10 Labour candidates across the country and the complex changes in British politics that are working against the Labour Party. One such candidate is Suzy Stride, the unsuccessful Labour candidate for Harlow in Essex, who describes a disconnect between middle-class Labour activists and working-class potential Labour voters. This is unsurprising as Labour has become a party of the metropolitan, liberal, middle class. Labour’s entire make up as a party needs to change to tackle this disconnect.

Stride goes on to describe Labour activists as “like middle-class Ryanair passengers” when speaking to working-class voters. It appeared to her that talking to working-class people was something that a middle class Labour activist had to endure, so that they could get back to the real work of running the country. The “metropolitan squeamishness” of Labour needs to end if Labour is to expand its electoral support.

Hunt's other argument set out in his book is that Labour is insufficiently patriotic. He relates this specifically to English patriotism, claiming "Labour fails to embrace Englishness". Hunt makes a good point that patriotism has to come from the heart, if it is to be believed from a politician. I cannot imagine anything worse than half-hearted, fake patronising patriotism from a middle class Labour leader who thinks this is a pill he has to swallow to become Prime Minister. That would make Miliband eating a bacon sandwich look like a moment of grace and dignity.

Hunt makes a strong case for the fact that voters felt that “Labour did not really believe in England or the English”, and he goes onto say: “In short, we were seen as insufficiently patriotic”. This problem of Labour being unable to express English patriotism is bound up in the fact that Labour has become a middle class, liberal, metropolitan party. Many middle class, metropolitan, liberals are uncomfortable with the idea of patriotism. They associate it with UKIP and pubs with St George's flags in the windows that they avoid going into. If Hunt wants Labour to become a more patriotic English party, then it will need to address the problem of it being dominated by middle class, metropolitan, liberals.

Patriotism does not have to have to be expressed in a xenophobic UKIP way. It does not have to be the celebration of Kings and Queens, Empire, conquest and the suppression of the weak. It can be found in the writing of George Orwell, the music of Billy Bragg or the poetry of William Blake. It can be found in the shared British culture of everyone who lives in this country, that is strengthened by diversity and immigration. It can be found in the Tate Britain or the England football squad. I know this is a very middle class vision of patriotism and it is not what everyone wants or what will lead Labour back to power, but there is a way to find a relatable patriotic politics that is not alienating to either middle-class or working-class people.

Hunt's book makes a good case for how Labour should adapt to win in 2020, but is it the right approach? For one thing Labour cannot afford to alienate the middle class, metropolitan, liberals – they are the only demographic that still supports them. Embracing English patriotism will not help Labour retake Scotland. Then again, Labour's woes in Scotland are so deep that perhaps everything north of Hadrian's Wall should be written off. That means Labour needs to win big in England and Wales - about as big as Tony Blair did in 1997. English patriotism alone is not enough to deliver that kind of victory. I do not see any prominent Labour politician that can deliver that kind of victory in England.

Politics has changed, the centre is not holding and things are falling apart. There is no single strategy that Labour can use to appeal to the whole country. A strategy designed to appeal to swing voters in the former industrial north may alienate swing voters in the prosperous areas of the midlands and south. Appeals to the asset-rich southerners or English patriotism is likely to drive metropolitan liberals to the Greens. There are no clear answers for Labour, not like there used to be.

The trajectory Corbyn is taking Labour on is likely to increase Labour's support amongst middle class, metropolitan, liberals and thus repeat the pattern of Miliband increasing Labour support in areas where Labour is already popular.

Hunt's book is a good start to the conversation about Labour's future and how to expand support for Labour, but more is needed to turn Labour into a government in waiting. There are no easy wins or quick fixes to Labour’s problems. One strategy will not return Labour to government. Stephen Bush has even gone so far as to say that it is impossible to unite the different social groups Labour needs to win the 2020 election.

If Labour wants to win in 2020, they will need a strategy that is regional, speaks in different ways to different people without being contradictory, is precisely targeted and different to anything that has come before. It’s that simple.