I joined the Labour Party on 13 December 2014.. In the five years since then, I’ve campaigned in three general elections, all three of which Labour has lost. I distinctly remember seeing “Conservatives Largest Party” flash up at 10pm on the 7th of May 2015 and thinking “oh god.” It was a feeling I knew I never wanted to feel again. But I did feel it again, on that Thursday evening when “Conservatives 368, Labour 191” flashed up from the depths of hell and onto BBC1. Unlike during the last two elections, I made sure I kept a record of this election: what I did and what I felt. Based on this, these are my thoughts on what has happened over the six weeks of the campaign.
Over that period I campaigned in fourteen different seats. Labour won thirteen of these in 2017, and needs to win all 14 in order to form a majority government in the future. After the election, exactly half ended up in Labour’s column – a loss of six seats. Where did the party go wrong, and why?
It’s naive to solely blame Brexit, or solely blame the leadership. The only way that Labour will move forward is to accept that it is not possible to separate one from the other. Those who do so are ignoring difficult questions in pursuit of factional aims.
I spent this election “running the board” – directing canvassers and recording their feedback, rather than knocking on doors myself. This meant that I had a good picture of how the campaign was going, since I saw all the feedback on each session. All too often, canvassers would return from the house of an erstwhile Labour voter only to announce that they were now a “Don’t Know”. About 60% of these people cited Corbyn as the reason for their uncertainty; the rest listed Brexit. For those who argue that we should adopted a firmly Leave stance, the issue is that both Corbyn and Brexit were being brought up both in seats like Stoke Central, which voted overwhelmingly to leave, and in seats like Manchester Withington, which voted overwhelmingly to remain. There are of course other factors as well. In Bury South, home to the largest Jewish population outside of London, Labour lost by 402 votes. It seems clear that Corbyn’s repeated failures on antisemitism contributed to this defeat.
Another issue of the campaign was targeting. One autumn weekend I went on a Momentum-organised trip to Bolton West, where over 100 people turned up to canvas. In 2017 the Tory majority was 936 – it is now 8,855. I wasn’t confident there because it was clear that too many people were switching away from Labour. As an outsider to the internal politics and decision making structures of Manchester Momentum it seemed that decisions on where to deploy resources were predicated on the assumption that the events of 2017 would simply repeat themselves. Too many believed that Labour’s polling would steadily rise, and that almost all the undecided voters would break for Labour, when it felt as if exactly the opposite happened.
Running an offence-focused campaign is something you can afford to do when you’re up in the polls, not ten points behind. This is not to say Manchester Momentum, North West Young Labour or their activists were not a force to be reckoned with – fielding hundreds of campaigners on a cold Saturday in November is impressive. However, too many activists were being sent to seats which Labour had very little chance of winning in this election, at the expense of more marginal seats where they could have done more good. The consistently dire feedback we were getting – from seats we were trying to take, seats we failed to defend and seats we held where the majority cratered – should have set alarm bells ringing.
Ultimately, none of the losses came as any particular surprise to me. Two weeks into the campaign, before any kind of MRP or constituency polling, I’d heard rumours that things looked bad in Leigh and other nearby seats. Looking at my diary, my predictions (narrow holds in Halifax and Weaver Vale, losses in Leigh, Heywood and Middleton and the Stoke seats) made weeks in advance of the election proved broadly accurate. Hindsight is 20:20, but if I had been running the campaign I would likely have pulled the plug on target seats like Altrincham and Sale West, Calder Valley, and Blackpool North a couple of weeks in. Instead, activists were sent there on polling day, wasting valuable efforts that could’ve been put into nearby Labour-held seats which ended up going Tory.
Perhaps the best way to gauge the success of a campaign is to look at which voters are being targeted and what script campaigners are using on the doorstep.. A friend who went to Bolsover told me in mid-November that the reception was extremely poor, and that the script they used on the doorstep relied on Dennis Skinner having a substantial personal vote. We continually found Labour support to be ebbing away across the region, with substantial numbers of voters switching to the Tories during the campaign.
Given the short timescale announced for the election to succeed Jeremy Corbyn, the most dangerous thing we could do is limit where we apportion our blame to one or two factors. There were many reasons why too many of my own family and friends didn’t vote Labour. . Above all, we must remember that Labour exists for the people of Bolsover and of Bristol West, of Clwyd South and of Canterbury, and of Penistone and Putney. This election leaves us at a crossroads. Losses in our erstwhile heartlands are traumatic, but to immediately conclude that the party must prioritise these areas over city seats risks writing off one half of our fragile electoral coalition in the foolish pursuit of diminishing returns in the other. Any way forward must begin with an admission that the reasons for our crushing defeat are multifaceted.
I don’t have the silver bullet that will magically transform the Labour Party into a lean, mean, election-winning machine again. We need to have honest conversations about why the voters rejected us so comprehensively We need the electorate to think we’re being honest with them, and we can only do that by being honest with each other. This defeat can’t just be put down to one thing depending on your factional preference. As Jonathan Reynolds put it, we must recognise both that anti-austerity policies resonated far more than bland Chris Leslie-style centrism, and that many people who agreed with those policies refused to vote Labour, often citing the leadership. A frank reconciliation is needed within the party before we can hope once more to earn the trust of the electorate.