New Year’s Long Read: Trust, Loaned Votes and Post Mortems: A Two-Part Review of the 2019 UK General Election

Part II : Labour Retrospective – How to Lose an Election[1]

From a short-term perspective, Labour’s key problems since the 2016 Referendum have been its leadership, and its approach to Brexit; its general election campaign added another one: an indefensibly over-blown election manifesto. By the time polling day rolled around, Corbyn had left his potential base disenchanted at best and furious at worst. Other Labour grandees fared no better, confusing long-standing and potential Labour voters with a succession of left-right, pro-anti Brexit stances, from Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott to Keir Starmer, from the now-departed Tom Watson, Angela Rayner to Rebecca Long-Bailey. No single combination produced a workable, memorable ‘Labour Brexit’. Instead, a tortuous attempt to be both strategic in policy terms (e.g. renegotiate terms with the EU) and democratic (put the subsequent deal back to the people but campaign neutrally) backfired spectacularly. Proving again that politics – as with marketing, and indeed most things – operate best on the basis of ‘kis’: keep it simple.

With adept campaigning, either or both of these issues ought to have been managed at the national level. But Labour’s manifesto contents undermined all attempts at messaging, or perhaps ‘massaging’ both leadership and Brexit strategies. Labour seems to have forgotten the lessons of 2017, when it again promised sweeping renationalisation of public transport, British Telecoms, the abolition of private schools’ charitable status, and free bus travel for under 25s. Repackaging these against eye-watering sums of borrowing (roughly £89 billion) turned Labour’s socialist Christmas wish list into a Christmas cracker joke. Avowals of ‘fully costed’ projects lacked particularly credibility against the Conservatives’ surprisingly sparse pledges, a strategy that struck home ironically because it pared down everything to ‘get Brexit done’ in policy terms, and ‘trust us’ in Parliamentary terms.

The Labour post-mortem will unearth the same issues with both Brexit and budgetary messaging: boil it down to a few simple talking points that are substantively credible, fiscally doable, and socially legitimate. And – as in foreign policy – rank your preferences. The Tories stuck dogmatically to Brexit, playing NHS, education and security defensively – i.e. only when asked. Labour raised issues that arguably resonated with voters on their own merits – particularly the NHS, post-austerity recovery and public services – but jammed in so many amidst the additional Brexit message that its cross-base appeal was lost at a stroke. 

It may be cold comfort to Labour that it has at last firmly moved Britain’s economic argument away from austerity. It’s hard to believe that just four and a half years ago, Cameron won a majority for continued fiscal restraint. The Conservative’s 2019 manifesto included pledges to restore, if not increase, public services that they themselves cut during and after the coalition years. To keep the pressure on the government, Labour needs a new and appealing core message that can appeal to voters who remained Labour, and – crucially – the legions who voted Conservative.

How to Rebuild a Party

The Labour Party has now lost four General Elections in a row. This equals the consecutive defeats overseen by Callaghan, Foot and Kinnock during the 1980-1990s of Margaret Thatcher and John Major. For some observers, the 2019 defeat is the worst of then four: having moved the likelihood of victory at the next election even further away, given the enormous seat swings that would be required in the majority of seats both north and south. This in itself is remarkable given that the Conservatives have been in power for nearly a decade. During this last decade, the three ‘pillars’ of the Labour party have all held the leadership at times (hard left, soft left and New Labour) and has suffered defeat. To that are added the muddy waters of the party’s Brexit strategy, the perception of inhouse factionalism, and the sense of disconnect and tardiness in responding to accusations of anti-Semitism.  

Taken together, the party is currently absent a clear internal identity, definable Labour policies, an identifiable voter base, and a national strategy for climbing back to power. Its forthcoming post-mortem and leadership race are key to regrouping, but there are risks as well as opportunities. The division between its three camps currently appears to be growing, with Corbyn supporters keen to continue their control on both party apparatus and policy content, while the ‘old’ New Labour/centrist camp are adamant in their intention to return the party to its former settings. Subsequent internal rifts will not only hinder Labour’s attempts to regroup over the next five years into an electable Labour Party but aid the Conservative government by presenting little by way of structured opposition on key issues, beginning with the management of Brexit.  The stakes are high. Another Parliamentary session dominated by infighting over Brexit – on either side of the Commons – will do untold damage to the credibility of the Parliament as a whole as well as increase the chances for mismanaging the substantial challenges posed by implementing Brexit.

MPs such as Lisa Nandy have been quick to insist that the Labour party must go back to basics, namely re-establish its core base in those former northern towns, in order to secure a future electoral victory. Given the peculiarities of Brexit, and the allegiances that it has thrown up, regaining lost northern seats may not provide a path to a majority government, but rather revert to a hung parliament.

The issue is more than merely seats. It is the party identity and corps of policies that will redefine itself and in doing so reattune old Labour constituencies and possibly define new ones. A comprehensive Labour MOT is therefore job one. Job two is working this against the backdrop of ongoing Brexit challenges, and a 5-year plan to reassert national credibility in time for the next general election. In the meantime, Scotland and Northern Ireland present significant challenges to Britain and Labour’s ability to rebuild. Labour is all but lost in Scotland, with only one MP for the second time in three general elections (despite his healthy majority of 11,095, Ian Murray is certainly on the endangered list). Indeed, Labour is in a far weaker position in 2020 when compared to 1983, when it took three elections and 14 years to return to power.

Trading off north vs. southern seats, and rural vs. urban ones is an equally dicey move. As Lewis Goodall notes, Labour knows that current and even additional northern seats remain in danger from future Tory incursion, including seats such as Labour Chair Ian Lavery’s Wansbeck. Courting those voters risks losing its stronghold on urban seats, particularly if the party is unsure of its emerging identity, whether it be a ‘green or new progressive force’.[2] Labour’s great challenge therefore is to find a message that appeals both to its traditional base and urban core. A message that breaks barriers of faith, ethnicity, class and culture; something made that much harder by the creation of social media bubbles that restrict the impact outside messengers can make.

How to Regroup in Opposition

Labour has little time to regroup, as Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will present the party with its first challenge. Surviving MPs in Leave seats will be keen to vote for the deal, to demonstrate that they have heard the concerns of their constituents. Yet, urban MPs, and perhaps those with leadership ambitions, will also be keen to demonstrate their desire to fight the Conservative government at every opportunity. Efforts to look carefully at what went wrong, and to choose a new labour need to operate in parallel, the one informing the other. Failing to face up to previous mistakes, with disingenuous assurances by the next leader simply ‘to address’ them simply will not work, and further electoral punishment awaits. Doing so means identifying a way to support the country’s needs as it transitions through the various phases of Brexit whilst holding the government to account on the rationale behind current plans and ongoing negotiations. Pushing hard at pressing domestic issues is a clear must. The NHS remains in dire straits as revealed in the aftermath of the election result,[3] while public services and local councils remain cash-strapped, and poverty levels increasing.

The picture will look very different in 2024. Does Labour simply rely on declining Tory popularity based on Brexit fracas and national turmoil? Is Brexit an electoral blip, or an epochal realignment of politics and society, a moment where class issues ceded ground permanently to political expediency based on the national interest? A delicate balancing act of local needs and national strategy is required. Rosie Duffield’s ability to retain Canterbury as the only Labour MP amidst swathes of Conservative Kent represented one of Labour’s few success stories, demonstrating where changes are emerging in former bulwarks, perhaps accelerated by the lack of credibility of the Liberal Democrats in similar locales. Marginal seats as ever remain key. Affluent Guildford or determined Esher and Walton may remove their new and old Conservative MPs respectively borne out of a combination of party disaffection, local disenchantment, or national embitterment. From Bolsover to Blyth Valley, if 2019 has taught us anything, it is that nothing is beyond the bounds of possibility.

Much of Labour’s activity in the coming months and years will be shaped by the Conservatives’ record in Government. Having moved from coalition to majority to minority, the Conservative Party’s mammoth majority leaves them with no excuse, either as a party or in Parliament. They own the destination of Brexit and the condition of Britain in obtaining that destination. They also own the mounting in-tray with issues starved of attention since the 2016 Referendum.

Uneasy Lies the Head

Equally, much relies upon the choice of new Labour leader. At this point, the runners and riders will simply increase until the deadline. Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long Bailey has staked her claim by painting a dark picture of Labour’s current troubles, but argued that she is the leader most trusted both with Labour’s socialist agenda, and the ‘Green New Deal’ proposals. Meanwhile, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry, Shadow Treasury Minister Clive Lewis, Shadow Energy Secretary Lisa Nandy, and Jess Phillips have also formally entered the Labour leadership race. Arguing that Labour lost because of its “Brexit position, infighting, a collapse of industry in our communities and a lack of trust in our ability to deliver”, Ian Lavery has decided to back Long Bailey. Each issue represents a significant ‘component of the upcoming post mortem. Meanwhile, the frontrunner, Shadow Brexit Secretary and former director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer, likely has most control both over Labour’s ability to regenerate viably, and the Conservative wishes in implementing Brexit. Labour needs to adopt a little (more) Latin in terms of its post mortem: it needs to be speedy – celer – but as a timely exercise, it is long-overdue – maturrimus.

[1] I wish to warmly thank Mr Christian Turner for his research, insights and focus in helping me to put this blog together; the blog formatting should more properly allow me to cite him as full co-author.