Lessons for Labour: how to learn from a beating at the polls

The results of exit polls projected on to the side of the BBC's Broadcasting House.Reuters

Well, I'll be honest: it wasn't a great night for me. Labour voters in Cheltenham (I know, it even sounds like an oxymoron) aren't quite as rare as hens' teeth – there were 3,902 of us – but it was a Conservative-Lib Dem fight which the Tories won.

The picture nationally is confused. Labour dominates in Wales and the North of England, the even-further-left SNP in Scotland. UKIP got lots of votes but only one seat. But it was Cameron's night, and he is understandably enjoying a triumph which few if any predicted: Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have resigned, Ed Balls and Vince Cable have both lost their seats.

There's nothing good here for the Left, and social media is full of miserable lefties at the moment. In my news feed are laments such as "We need a united left with a charismatic leader. Look Ed is sweet but we all knew he was never going to fly", an ironic "Congratulations, Britain. You've kept Katie Hopkins here" (the columnist famously threatened to leave if Labour won), and "Depressing."

Singer Charlotte Church tweeted her disappointment.

So when I spoke to Andy Flannagan, director of Christians on the Left, I was expecting him to be a bit subdued. Actually, he wasn't. Yes, he told me, it was a disappointing result, and there were worrying signs that what he called the "air war" – a blizzard of hostile media coverage – had had more impact than the thousands of phone calls and doorstep conversations made by Labour campaigners. But was he downhearted? No.

What encouraged him was the fact that Christians on the Left had experienced a surge in membership during the last few months, that an unprecendented number of members were MPs (35) or had stood for election (24 for the first time). "We're at our best when we're at our broadest, and it's been wonderful to see younger people get involved," he said. So yes, the result was bad: but the long-term signs were far more hopeful.

I can buy that, and I applaud his resilience. But that doesn't really help as Labour party activists are wondering what to do next. Ed Miliband's resignation speech offered no guidance: "One more heave" was about the size of it. But it might take more than that.

Unquestionably, the main problem for Labour has been the perception – in the face of the evidence – that it was responsible for the financial crisis that ushered out its last government. Once lost, as an earlier generation of Tories found, a reputation for financial competence is desperately hard to get back.

In fact it's a classic 'post hoc, ergo propter hoc' situation: if the Tories had been in power in 2008, the situation would have been pretty much the same. In hindsight, it's possible to concede that Gordon Brown's government should not have been running a deficit when the crisis struck, but as former Bank of England governor Mervyn King has pointed out, there was a collective lack of vision in the whole political class. Like many other supporters, I've been baffled by the party's failure to come out swinging on this and give Gordon Brown his due for the courageous actions he took to make sure the crisis didn't become a catastrophe.

Well: time will tell whether Osborne's austerity plus programme works, for a given value of 'work' – it's self-evident that the deficit needs to come down, but hardly that it needs to come down so fast and potentially at such a cost. The proposed drastic cuts to the welfare budget ought to worry anyone seriously concerned about the poor and vulnerable, but let's hope and pray that the impact won't be as great as we fear.

The economy aside, what drove support for the Conservatives? Fears of an SNP-Labour coalition, certainly, expertly stoked by the Tory media operation; the personal awkwardness and unpopularity of Ed Miliband. Both of those.

However, I wonder too whether there isn't something more troubling at issue, which would bother me, as a Christian, whether I were a voter on the Right or on the Left. I wonder whether there has been a hardening of attitudes generally, a decrease in sympathy for the underdog. There's a negative rhetoric around immigration, welfare, overseas aid and healthcare which is, rightly or wrongly – and it sometimes is wrongly – more associated with the parties of the Right than of the Left. It's also the Right that is wobbly on Europe, has competitive rather than collaborative instincts, and is generally perceived as more likely to favour the stick over the carrot.

It will take Labour – and the Liberal Democrats, instinctively a centre-left party – a long time to get over this. But in the internal conversations they have, I hope that they focus not on how they can follow the public mood, but on how they can change it. The next five years will be a battle not just for prosperity, but for what is the right way to use our prosperity if we get it: a battle for the hearts and minds of the nation. We will, as a nation, be cooking up a rich political stew, with all sorts of ingredients. The Church can provide the seasoning that brings out the best of its flavours.

Follow @RevMarkWoods on Twitter.