Pundits will spend many hours examining the results and asking why Labour did not do better.
Here in the South East, Labour picked up one new seat in Hove (with the impressive Peter Kyle- a new MP to watch), increased the Labour vote in Southampton Test for Alan Whitehead, and very impressively reached 50% of the vote in Oxford East with Andrew Smith MP, only narrowly missing that milestone in Slough with Fiona Mactaggart MP. The fact that Labour MPs can produce such strong results in the South East surely gives the lie to claims that there is some kind of in-built anti-Labour majority in our region.
Nonetheless, outside these strongholds, Labour did less well. Labour unfortunately lost the seat of Southampton Itchen, and failed to pick up any of our other target seats, despite some incredibly intense campaigning by a set of experienced and committed Labour candidates. Furthermore, despite some encouraging council results across the region, it was a real shame to see Labour lose control of Gravesham and Thanet councils.
Every Labour activist will have their own views about why Labour did not perform more strongly, and there is no doubt that the different candidates for the Labour leadership will be pushed on this issue again and again. As we move forward, there are two issues I really hope that Labour will try and find answers to.
The first is how we heal the divisions between Scotland and England that opened up during this election. I saw first-hand the impact that David Cameron’s letter to voters in marginal seats made, when it argued that the SNP would control Labour if the party reached power, to England’s detriment. No mainstream political party with ambitions to govern for Britain has ever pitted Scotland and England against each other in this way. This message was ‘misleading’ at best; Ed Miliband had repeatedly ruled out an agreement with the SNP, which appeared highly unlikely anyway, given all the bad blood that had passed between the SNP and Labour during the independence referendum. Unprincipled as it was, though, the message did chime with many people.
Now, Labour must work hard to find out why people found this message so potent, and changed their allegiance on the basis of it. I firmly believe that few English – or indeed, Welsh- people want the break-up of Britain; and despite the nationalists’ current claims, this was, ultimately, also rejected by Scottish voters. But current developments could lead almost by default to that outcome, without a strong political commitment to Britain as one nation. Only Labour is in a position to pull the Tories back from the brink when it comes to some of their most divisive proposals; we must take that responsibility seriously.
The second issue to consider is how Labour can reconnect with people who share the party’s aims, but who had clearly stopped listening to our message. Very few UKIP voters I met actually spoke about Europe as their number one issue, with a range of other factors turning them off from Labour this time. Labour candidates, organisers and volunteers, particularly in key seats and closely fought council areas, spent many hours, days, weeks and months talking to voters about why they were, or were not, supporting Labour. The explanation for why people left our party, and how Labour can attract their support once more, will not come from think tanks, columnists or Westminster-based pundits. Instead, the party must listen to those at the grassroots - Labour activists.