Over the next six months (and sadly, possibly longer) a lot of people are going to write a lot of ‘takes’ on why Labour lost this election. Judging by the stack that have already been written less than a week after the election, these takes will mostly be single-minded, arguing that one particular factor was the sole reason behind the Labour Party’s loss. And, more often than not, the reason given in any one article will be something the author warned against some time ago. We’re going to have to read a lot of articles with a simple but strong subtext: I hate to say it, but I told you so.
The final commonality between these articles will be that each faction will blame whichever other faction they hate the most, irrespective of sober analysis. The right will blame Corbyn, especially those who advocated most strongly for a second referendum (despite Labour’s collapse being predominantly in leave voting areas), and the left will blame the most strident second referendumers (despite our haemorrhaging votes to the Lib Dems before we switched policy), Tom Watson, and the press, while resolutely refusing to believe that Corbyn was an issue at all. The soft left will probably try to be sober and reasonable about it all but will end up just not getting heard over the clamour of everyone else.
This is not what the party needs. We need to accept that there was a range of factors behind the loss, some of which were probably out of our control, and some of which were firmly within our control. The leadership made errors, and the ‘moderate’ anti-Corbyn part of the party did as well. To put it bluntly, in the face of huge demographic and political challenges, we all fucked up. In a brief effort to try and illustrate that, here are the reasons I think we got hammered.
Things we couldn’t have done that much about
In the end, we were probably always going to get screwed over by Brexit
The simple fact is that Labour’s electoral coalition was more susceptible to the effects of the referendum result in 2016 than the Conservatives’. There was no policy choice Labour could have made that would have avoided losing a substantial section of our vote. If we had never pivoted to a second referendum, we would have lost a substantial part of our city-based electorate (2/3 of our voters did vote to remain, after all) but, by pivoting to that position we lost some of our traditional voters, many of whom voted to leave the EU. From a political point of view, the best thing for Labour would have been for Theresa May to have passed her deal before March 2019 with a united Tory parliamentary party, putting the issue of whether we would be leaving to bed and moving the conversation onto the more comfortable territory of the future relationship with Europe. But that didn’t happen.
Getting Brexit done
People had gotten bored of Brexit, and, even though we all know that getting Brexit done was not really on the table, leaving the European Union – and therefore ending the debate about whether we were going to have a second referendum or not – was, and people probably quite liked the sound of that. In 2017, we were only a year after the referendum and still likely two years away from leaving. Brexit fatigue had not yet set in in the same way.
The media, and Conservative lies
It is very difficult to deny that the behaviour of large parts of the media undermined Labour’s ability to communicate its policies effectively. 88% of the claims advertised by the Conservatives during the election were found to be in part or completely false, and they were not sufficiently held to account by the media for that. Equally, places like Sky News dubbing the election the ‘Brexit Election’ from the word go meant Labour’s attempts to shift the core topics of the election were hamstrung in a way they weren’t in 2017, and in most of the TV debates Brexit was the main issue with the NHS second, and the climate – the subject of the first chapter of Labour’s manifesto – often not mentioned at all.
No one owes the Labour Party their vote, but anti-Tories do owe it to everyone not to be stupid. And, sadly, that happened a lot with tactical voting recommendations, with electorates in what were in the end clear Labour-favourite target seats misled by tactical voting recommendations, with the Observer’s guide the most egregious example. The lesson for the future for progressives is to only make tactical voting recommendations when the data is absolutely crystal clear. Otherwise people get confused, and you get results like the ones we saw in Kensington, Wimbledon and the Two Cities.
The decline of the Red Wall
This probably really belongs in the ‘things we might have been able to do something about twenty years ago’ pot. The Labour Party’s strength in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ had historically been based on the presence of organised working-class communities in unionised professions like mining. In the 1970s, 80s and 90s, this situation changed with mines and factories closing, and the Labour Party did not make enough of an effort during that period – and since – to reaffirm its electoral coalition there in the post-industrial world, instead pretending that the economy that was working for London and the southeast would eventually come north and work there as well. There are things Labour could have done at this election to appeal more to that part of the country, but this fall has been coming for a long time.
Things we definitely could have done something about
The campaign itself
Although the different circumstances surrounding the 2017 and 2019 election were likely a major factor in the different results for Labour, the campaign itself also played a role. Even though we didn’t win two years ago, there was a consensus that we won the campaign. We had a set of key messages and policies around tuition fees, the NHS, free school meals and the renationalisation of the railways tied. There was other stuff there as well, but we had a few things that we kept talking about tied together with a coherent narrative. This year was quite different. The manifesto had great policies, but they were communicated in a scattergun way without message discipline. This made us look increasingly desperate and our projects unbelievable.
Crucially, there were more policies in the manifesto this time that really needed explaining, like, for example, free broadband, which sounds great to policy wonks, but is actually complex and was not something people were exactly crying out for. One of the best things Labour did in 2017 was announcing a number of good policies before the election was called in April 2017, which got the public ready for a radical offer. We didn’t do any of that this time, and we also didn’t have a coherent narrative. Given that we were supposedly on a ‘general election footing’, that was unforgivable. We also undermined our Grey Book of costings with the WASPI women pledge. This didn’t in the end give us any particular electoral boost, whereas in 2017 the costed Labour Manifesto was a real boon in conversation with worried, fiscally conservative Labour voters.
The approach to the media
Although as previously mentioned, Labour always gets a hard time from the media there were issues with our media approach. After 2017, during which Corbyn performed relatively well in the media, the party seemed to decide that it was time to stop engaging with a hostile media. This is like a sailor complaining about the sea. There have been fewer interviews with Corbyn and the party has released less and less policy. The logic behind this is apparently that it’s worth waiting for the election because that’s when broadcasters have to give the party equally weight in terms of time. But it seems a fundamentally stupid strategy to compound that by simply choosing not to engage with the media at all. If we all believed that Corbyn got better personal ratings when people saw more of him, why didn’t we expose him to the public more, rather than hiding him away? A side effect might have been that he would have got better – and less defensive – in even hostile interviews.
The Labour Party has a problem with antisemitism, and we dealt with it in almost the worst way possible. Yes, there were people who cynically used the issue for their political gains, but we mishandled it massively, failing to show contrition, failing to act fast enough, and in the election campaign, failing to simply say sorry when asked. It is a reasonable criticism of the Conservatives that they are as a party more institutionally racist and more bigoted than the Labour Party, but we are not trying to win a race to the bottom. Everybody that has ever been canvassing for Labour knows that we get held (rightly) to a higher standard, and that we have to do everything we possibly can to avoid giving people reasons not to vote for us. By failing to deal with antisemitism, and then failing to apologise for it repeatedly (and by that I mean we should have said sorry more than once), we gave millions of people a legitimate moral reason not to vote Labour and not to engage with the party.
I voted for Corbyn in two leadership elections and defended him throughout his time as leader. But, now that he is stepping down, it’s time to be honest about his flaws. He was not, in the end, the right person to take us through after 2017, which should have been a moment for cementing the gains we had made and electing someone more suitable from the left of the party as leader. He was not a great communicator, nor was he agile in his policymaking or politics, nor, unlike John McDonnell, was he willing to be pragmatic and swallow his pride when it was necessary. He also simply had too much baggage in his past that, again, gave people an excuse not to vote Labour.
It is of course true that every Labour leader gets hammered by the press, but that’s yet more of a reason to try to elect someone with minimal baggage, or, if they do have baggage, someone who might be willing to accept they made mistakes and apologise for then. Corbyn did neither, again in contrast to John McDonnell, who repeatedly apologised for the hurt caused by any number of his actions in the past. During the 2017 election Corbyn’s popularity ratings increased substantially – the same did not happen in 2019. This should not be surprising because in 2017 he was still something of an unknown quantity, and the many accusations leveled at him at that time either weren’t true or simply did not cut through with Labour’s core vote – like the idea that he supported the IRA, about which the young on the whole did not care. In 2019, he was a known quantity, one whose good performances were no longer a pleasant surprise. He was faced with genuine concerns about his character that had arisen during his time as leader, including those around antisemitism, his inability to be honest about Brexit and his reaction to national security issues like the Skripal affair. His brand was simply too damaged – and ideas about it too entrenched – by the time we got to 2019 for it to recover during an election campaign.