Following their third consecutive electoral drubbing in 2005, Lord (Michael) Ashcroft set out to offer the Conservative party some frank advice.
His book, Smell the Coffee, was a forensic account of where the party was going wrong and why they were unpopular.
It played a big part in David Cameron’s subsequent modernisation project.
Today, Lord Ashcroft publishes a piece of work designed to do for Labour what he did for the Tories 15 years ago.
Extensive polling of Labour members, former Labour voters and the wider public informs his Diagnosis of Defeat. It is, he says, Labour’s turn to smell the coffee.
He concedes “no doubt some will be suspicious of my motives — I’m a Tory after all,” but insists that “at its best the Labour party has been a great force for decency, speaking up for people throughout the country.”
So, how far from its best has the Labour party fallen? Well, if one assumes its best days were when it found itself in government, the answer is: a very long way indeed.
Last year the party suffered its worst defeat since the 1930s. Lord Ashcroft conducted focus groups with former Labour voters who abandoned the party in 2019’s election.
Time and again, Jeremy Corbyn was presented as the reason why they broke with tradition and, in many cases, voted for Boris Johnson.
Lord Ashcroft said the Labour leader was criticised for what many saw as “his weakness, indecision, lack of patriotism, apparent terrorist sympathies, failure to deal with antisemitism… and obvious unsuitability to lead the country.”
Brexit was a major issue, of course, but Lord Ashcroft’s research showed that Labour defectors were most likely to say they switched because they did not want Corbyn to be Prime Minister.
That is contrary to Labour’s official post-mortem but, come April, the party will have a new leader. What lessons should the current contenders take from Lord Ashcroft’s findings? The most obvious is: don’t be like Corbyn.
Beyond that, it comes down to policy. Here’s a selection of some of the comments that emerged from former Labour voters in Lord Ashcroft’s focus groups: “We don’t need free wifi, for heaven’s sake… The manifesto was like a fairy-tale… It was pie in the sky… It was undoable and the cost was astronomical… They were trying to buy everybody… They were going to tax everything.” And so it goes on.
The full report will be extremely uncomfortable for many in the Labour party, but if they want to begin on the long path back to credibility and electability, they must digest it.
Main image: Getty