Thoughts on the defeat of Labour

It has now been over a week since the general election. There are lots of important things to think about in the light of what happened. Yesterday I started to think about what this means for the government. Today I want to reflect on why Labour lost and what this means for the Party going forwards.

A lot of the debate so far seems to have focused on identifying the main reasons for Labour’s loss and then arguing that only one of them is true and that people who believe in one of the other answers are traitors to the Labour cause. This doesn’t seem that helpful as an approach to me. As I see it, I think that the following are the main identified culprits.

  • Brexit. After more than three years British people are fed up with Brexit. The Conservative’s promise to Get Brexit Done, clearly resonated with leave voters and probably with at least some Brexit-neutral and Brexit-fatigued people. The Labour Party was trapped between leave and remain voters and was unable to come up with a policy that really resonated for either groups. This problem will probably go away after we exit the EU. At this point arguing about your Brexit positioning will become fairly irrelevant. Although there are likely to be sharp divisions on future trade agreements with Europe, it seems unlikely that these will have quite the cultural and political power of Brexit itself.
  • Corbyn. What ever you think about Jeremy Corbyn (and I have some sympathy for him), it is clear that he did not play well with the electorate this time. He clearly has some limitations as a politician, made some bad decisions and struggled to tackle the demonization and misrepresentation that was thrown at him. There isn’t much point in relitigating the anti-Corbyn case now as he will soon be gone. So this is another factor that will disappear before the next election. Of course this doesn’t necessarily mean that a future leader will be popular, but Labour at least have the chance to reset the clock on this one.
  • The party was too left wing. This is one of the more contentious arguments that is currently being made. The mainstream narrative would argue that when Labour pull too far to the left they move outside of the Overton window and get punished. The response would be that many of the left wing policies are popular and that more centrist (and I use that term with some discomfort) approaches e.g. Ed Milliband’s Labour in 2015 or the current Liberal Democrat Party, have not really enjoyed much more success. Nonetheless, the political positioning and policies that the future Labour Party will offer are malleable, and there is clearly space for rethinking and rearticulating what it stands for.
  • The party was too London/urban-metropolitan elite focused. Labour was strongest in the cities and weakest in towns and post-industrial areas. Some people have argued that the party was culturally tone deaf to people in these areas. There is clearly some truth in this, although whether Labour are a worse offender than the rest of the political and media class isn’t clear to me. This argument also often gets mixed up with race, gender, sexuality and so on and at its worst essentialises the category of ‘the working class’ as white, male and middle aged. Kimberley McIntosh discusses some of the tensions in this argument in a helpful way. Again this is an area that the Labour Party will have to work on and think about, but it is not necessarily something that it is impossible to overcome. Developing policies for post-industrial towns and rebalancing the leadership of the Party outside of London would clearly help.
  • The policy offer was poorly communicated. There was a lot to recommend the Labour manifesto, but it was difficult to pull out the key offers from amongst the detail. Personally, I quite like a detailed manifesto, but it probably needs more preparation. The Labour manifesto dropped a lot of unfamiliar stuff that the electorate clearly struggled to get their head around. More focus, clarity and a less is more approach may be what is called for in the future.
  • The media were unfair to Labour. Yes. This is clearly true. But, what do you do about it? It is likely to be just as true next time. It is possible that a better, more charismatic leader (or leadership team) would be more effective at cutting through. There is also a case for finding alternative ways to speak with the electorate. Social media is clearly part of the answer, but it also resulted in the development of self-congratulatory bubbles which ultimately proved to be a poor place to convince anyone new. Labour’s mass membership are another part of this, but whether they can take the message out between elections still needs to be seen.
  • The anti-Corbyn tendency in the party undermined the leadership. For all of his many faults, Corbyn was subjected to an amazing amount of friendly fire. There were clearly those on the Labour right who would have rather that a Corbyn version of the Labour Party lost the election. The Party needs to find a way to allow debate and pluralism in a positive and constructive way, whilst addressing those who are actively undermining the Party’s chances.

This is probably not a definitive list. I’d be interested in hearing more ideas from other people. But it leads me to a couple of thoughts.

  1. Labour’s electoral coalition, or potential electoral coalition, is complex. It include groups of people who don’t necessarily have a lot in common. It is probably going to be very difficult to appeal to all of these groups through a shopping list approach e.g. here’s something for ethnic minorities, here’s something for small towns and so on. If Labour are going to rebuild a viable coalition then the party needs to find things that can unite these different groups rather than address them as a series of fragments. To me that takes you back to old fashioned ideas like equality, fairness, justice and democracy. It requires the Party to make political demands that acknowledge people’s particular circumstances and help them to see how they are linked to the issues that other people are facing. In other words it has to be about building unity and mutual respect rather than about orientating towards one group and celebrating them over the others.
  2. Labour don’t have to change everything. The list of reasons why Labour lost is a long one. Some of them can be easily changed and should be done quickly. Others are very difficult to change. In the middle are important questions about what the Party stands for, how it operates and what it is trying to achieve. Simply doing the opposite to what you did in 2019 won’t necessarily end in a better result. This stuff is subtle and complex and will also need to be context sensitive. Anyone who tells you that Corbyn failed so anyone who does the exact opposite will succeed is spinning you a line. There is a need to think carefully and move on rather than turn back.
  3. Labour’s activist base is a huge advantage, but it is not clear what role it should play. Labour was uniquely successful in mobilising its activists in this election. Ultimately, this didn’t prove to be a decisive intervention. A key question is how the vast army of people who were motivated by the radicalism of Corbynism can be used by the Party to make the case for change between elections as well as at elections. Maintaining a mass membership and using it to reinvigorate politics and communities seems to be a key area that a future leader should focus on.

Hopefully some of these thoughts are useful. I’d be interested in hearing a lot more about what others think about this.

One comment

  1. Really nice analysis! I think that there is much for Labour to do in Northern towns (as there is for all the parties to be fair). Your point about Labour’s activist base is the most interesting to me, though – I saw (and accepting that social media is an echo chamber) a fair bit of activists saying things that amounted to ‘if you don’t agree with our current position you are evil, go and join another party’. The Labour activists and leadership really can’t, or shouldn’t, be surprised that people did at least vote for other parties if that is what they were told. So a little more tolerance of all viewpoints and willingness to work towards Government would be what I would like to see. (Of course Labour were not the only party doing this sort of thing -I’d like a more ‘grown-up’ politics from everyone!)

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