A summary and analysis by Mike Phipps
Labour Together’s review of the 2019 general election has been published and it should be studied carefully, not least because the authors are not some cabal of anti-Corbyn bureaucrats, but include a number of figures on the left. Among these are TSSA General Secretary Manuel Cortes, journalist Ellie Mae O’Hagan, former John McDonnell adviser James Meadway and Corbyn-supporting Labour List editor Sienna Rodgers. The report was based on a comprehensive assembling of survey responses, in-depth interviews, submissions from different Party organisations and specially commissioned data analysis. Below firstly summarise, then analyse, the report.
- This was a terrible defeat for Labour. We lost votes everywhere, except in London.
- Age, education and geography are now more important than class in voting behaviour. Older, less educated, non-urban voters moved away from Labour.
- The better than expected result in 2017 masked the swing away from Labour in the heartlands that was already taking place.
- To win a majority next time, Labour would need a 10% swing. To win, Labour would need to increase their MPs by 60% – never before achieved.
- The issues:
(a)Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
(b) the EU. “The Tories won the 2019 election primarily by consolidating the Leave vote. In contrast, Labour lost support on all sides “.
(c) Non-voters. In 2019, the Tories overtook Labour among non-voters.
(d) Labour’s unrealistic manifesto, despite the popularity of individual policies.
(e) Meltdown in Scotland.
- The campaign
(a) There was no proper review of the 2017 result.
(b) Lack of accountability in decision-making. Unrealistic seat targets. Lack of preparation.
(c) Factional divisions in the Party undermined Labour’s effectiveness.
(d) the Tories overtook Labour in online campaigning. Ours was underfunded and not centrally integrated, with poor rebuttal and outreach.
(e) Ground campaign weaknesses included misdirection of resources into unwinnable seats , with too little defence of vulnerable heartlands; Labour locally often being the implementers of austerity; factionalism and bureaucracy.
- What Labour has to do:
– build a winning coalition at the next election. The groundwork for this will take years, not months.
– transformational economic change, with Labour leading the debate about what kind of post-COVID society is needed.
– a culture of inclusion and diversity
– reform of our party organisation and structures, revolutionising our digital tools
– building a genuine popular movement
(A) the demographics
The material about demographic in the report are worth exploring. Longer term factors indicate a steady growth of the Conservative vote in the regions and nations of the UK, a decline in Party loyalty to Labour, linked to falling trade union membership and deindustrialisation. This first expressed itself in high abstention rates under New Labour, for example turnout in 2001 was just 59%, and support for protest parties, for example UKIP’s 12.5% in 2015. Cultural divides have also accentuated the drift, especially among older and Leave voters. Voter volatility is also very high.
The demographic shifts evident in 2019 and before were explored in an earlier report, The Devastating Defeat: Why Labour lost and how it can win again, written by academics at Europe for the Many, which I discuss elsewhere. It makes a new division of the electorate into four main categories. First, multi-ethnic working class heartlands: seats Labour consistently holds, with high levels of inequality, deprivation and ethnic diversity. Second, young cosmopolitan centres of the new capitalism: seats Labour won for the first time in 2017, diverse, with large numbers of private renters and graduates and high house prices. Third, the Brexit-voting towns of left-behind Britain, which the Tories won for the first time – areas with low house prices, wages and ethnic diversity and high numbers of older people, with higher rates of home ownership and economic security. Lastly, the affluent Leave-voting Conservative shire seats, with low ethnic diversity and a large older population.
The research showed that Labour did not lose its working class base. Of the 20 constituencies with the highest level of child poverty in the UK, 19 are Labour. The challenge for Labour is winning back the Brexit-voting towns, which are not just Leave-voting, but socially conservative too.
(B) the issues
As regards the issues in the 2019 election, the important thing is to learn lessons for the future. Of course,we can argue about Jeremy Corbyn’s strengths and weaknesses. We on the left would want to emphasise the Tories’ underhand methods, the systematic bias in the media and many other crucial factors which shaped people’s perceptions of Corbyn, but the end result was that these perceptions undeniably played a significant role. Equally we can rehash the heated debates about the line on Brexit. Arguably, neither matter much, because Jeremy is no longer leader and Brexit is done.
Except that Brexit was just the latest rallying point for ethno-cultural nationalism, weaponised by the Tories during many elections down the years. As Adam Ramsay noted: “When my friends on the left of the Labour Party argue today that they would have won if it wasn’t for Brexit, they imply that Brexit is a one-off event, a unique set of circumstances that can be set aside and discounted for the future. That’s a bit like the comforting notions that Labour would have won in 1983 if it wasn’t for the Falklands war, or in 2015 if Cameron hadn’t whipped up fear of the Scottish National Party. These arguments may even be true, but what they amount to is ‘Labour would have won if it wasn’t for Anglo-British nationalism.’ Which is essentially saying: ‘Labour would have won if it wasn’t for the main reason the Tories normally win.’”
This Tory nationalism was closely linked to the media’s querying of Jeremy Corbyn’s patriotism, whether based on his call for a proper enquiry into the Salisbury poisoning or his long-standing backing for a united Ireland. These challenged were specific to Corbyn but media smears about Labour leaders’ patriotism – whether Foot, Kinnock or Miliband – are nothing new and need to be prepared for. How does Labour counter the barrage of hostile media coverage? How can it overcome the internal divisions, which cost us dear in the 2017 general elections as the leaked report from the Compliance Unit underlines? Leaving aside the objective problems Labour face, how do we improve our own campaigning?
Phil Burton-Cartledge’s blog points to a couple of these issues, which are underplayed in this report. Firstly, the decline of Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity can be linked to the fact that “he was systematically screwed by the press and the broadcast media… repeated content analyses proves it.”
His second point focuses on what the report calls “factionalism”, a term often used to attack behaviour on the left. “What factionalism never refers to how the right behaved, from its apparatchiks to Labour MPs who, from day one, did everything in their power to destroy Corbyn’s leadership. They said it was a going to be a disaster, and worked tirelessly to make it one… The media was stacked against Corbyn’s leadership, but it was Labour MPs from the Deputy Leader down who gave them the attack lines, leaked the documents and highlighted the weaknesses: they enabled the onslaught, and were the ones cheering when Labour seats fell.”
Optimists might hope that this kind of behaviour is now in the past, with the election of a new “post-factional” leader, who plans to unite the Party. But these problems were not unique to the Corbyn era and were visible even in the Blair-Brown period. Even now, there are those around the leadership who want to move further and faster to the right and they will push hard to get their way. So “factionalism” is very much still with us. As Phil says, “if your analysis misses the one thing that ate away at Labour for over four years, destroying its coherence and its electoral chances, then you’re not preparing the party adequately for when it comes back. Because it will.” All recent leaders have faced a degree of destabilisation from the Party’s right wing: are we going to be better prepared to tackle it, when it’s Keir Starmer’s turn?
(C) the campaign
The campaign itself holds important lessons. The absence of a full review of the 2017 result and the “difficult context” of 2019 meant “Labour went into the 2019 election without a clear strategy of which voters we needed to persuade or how.”
This is important. The strong showing in 2017 allowed many in Labour to believe that ‘one more heave’ would be enough to win. This was naïve. Andrew FIsher, Corbyn’s Executive Director of Policy, is quoted in the report: “I think that probably when most of the mistakes were made, looking back, is actually in the aftermath of 2017. Because actually at that point we probably should have sat down very soberly and gone ‘okay, how do we now win, because we’ve done the easy stuff, we’ve won the low hanging fruit’. That was probably the point where we really failed, collectively… 2017 conference… was like a rally … very hubristic … somebody should have just gone ‘woah, we haven’t actually won anything yet’… looking back we should have been a lot more strategic after 2017 than we were.”
A full review of 2017 would also have uncovered some of the factional mismanagement of that campaign, evidenced in the leaked Compliance Unit report. But poor leadership and blurred lines of accountability have often dogged Labour’s election campaigns, and even with less disloyalty within the Party apparatus in 2019, these problems were still in evidence. Labour was not election-ready and its over-arching narrative was poor, despite the popularity of many individual policies. Its messaging was confused, or not adequately adapted to the realities of devolution, for example in relation to the NHS, a key policy area for Labour. The media strategy of announcing new policies on a frequent basis without adequate groundwork defied credibility and created an appearance of desperation.
The online campaign was particularly weak. “By the time the election campaign began,” says the report, ”the Conservatives were…’laser-guided’ – using neon graphics and up-tempo music to push a “Get Brexit Done” message to 300,000 men under 34; classical music, softer colours and additional pledges on the NHS and crime for 350,000 women over 55. Towards the end of the campaign, the Conservatives ramped up its Facebook advertising, with 7,000 ads in early December – 90 per cent of which contained misleading claims, according to analysis by First Draft.”
In contrast, Labour’s campaign “lacked an imaginative strategy” and “was siloed off from broader strategy and communications”. The Party also lacked sufficient in-house expertise, whereas the Tories handed their campaign to a private consultancy. There was an over-emphasis on Twitter, despite the greater importance of other platforms. One telling example, which will resonate with anyone who campaigned as I did in an area with a strong Hindu presence, was how a large amount of pro-Modi, anti-Labour propaganda had been disseminated using Whatsapp, which Labour was slow to spot and respond to. Overall, Labour spent too much time talking to existing supporters, rather than reaching swing voters.
A lack of creative freedom and cumbersome sign-off procedures were also concerns- and ones that can be applied to the broader campaign as a whole. Resources were often poorly deployed and many digital tools were unusable. Many canvassers poured into high-profile seats which Labour had little chance of realistically winning.
Worse, some of the supposed safe seats in 2019 were anything but, yet calls for help often fell on deaf ears because the uncomfortable truth of declining support in the heartlands did not fit the official narrative. This was despite the fact that the Party had been alerted to this very danger months in advance by the publication of a detailed analysis of the growing fragility of the Labour vote in northern seats, as Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery recently pointed out.
Labour’s local government base was “not always effectively linked in,” says the report. Here again, the report pulls its punches, noting that Labour is seen as the “establishment” Party in many areas. But it’s a lot worse than that. Where Labour councils have been little more than the transmitters of Tory austerity for the last decade, the Party is seen as the enforcer of evictions, benefit cuts and the decimation of services. And yet local government has been one of the areas most resistant to internal Party reform and will probably continue to be. Meanwhile, there is considerable anecdotal evidence that where Labour in local government tried something more radical, for example in Preston, its parliamentary candidates did significantly better.
- What next?
To win the next election by the barest majority, Labour needs a 10% swing, something akin to the scale of victory achieved by New Labour in 1997. This is not impossible in these volatile times, but clearly the Party needs to have some idea where those votes are likely to come from, especially as the trends that saw Conservative inroads into some of Labour’s traditional heartlands may not yet be fully played out. The good news is that the key demographics that Labour currently draws support from and needs to win over share considerable common ground on economic issues.
Transformational economic change must therefore be at the heart of Labour’s strategy. Any retreat from this into the austerity lite of the pre-Corbyn years or triangulating around Tory policy would not just be a disaster in terms of what is objectively needed to rebuild in the aftermath of COVID-19 – it would be electorally toxic. This is a central takeaway from this report, that will not please some in the parliamentary party, who want to see Labour’s economic radicalism expunged totally.
To its great credit, the report also rejects the dead end of ‘Blue Labour’, which seeks to combine economic radicalism with a socially conservative agenda on immigration, human rights and foreign policy. The danger with this line, the report rightly argues, is that a key layer of existing younger, more liberal Labour voters could be repelled. This is why strategies that counterpose older and younger or urban and non-urban voters needs to be resisted. For Labour to win, it needs the support of a broad coalition of demographics.
The challenge is for Labour to make its ideas meaningful to the people it seeks to represent. Gone are the days of relying on trade union structures to do the job in areas where the bedrock industries and the unions that organised in them have long disappeared. This is even more pressing in Scotland where Labour’s economic policies are just as relevant, but are rarely heard over the dominant narrative of nationalism and constitutional change.
Underpinning this, the Party needs to change, with an overhaul of staffing practices and its complaints procedure, implementing a race audit at all levels, and fundamentally changing its culture, becoming more integrated into its communities and facing outwards, using seat-twinning and other initiatives. As Christine Berry said immediately after the election: “Start with rebuilding the Labour Party as a party that is present on the ground in deprived communities, offering practical solidarity and real solutions, and combining this with political education that encourages people to see their individual problems as part of bigger systemic forces that we can tackle together.”
Down in the mix is the proposal to reform the policy-making process. It’s vague, but is likely be seized on by those around the leadership that want to see a decisive end to the limited democracy that opened up in the Corbyn era. Don’t be surprised if attempts to restrict the policy-making role of Party Conference became the rallying cry of the right and a media-choreographed test of Keir Starmer’s supposed toughness.
Yet, overall, this is a good report, comprehensive in its reach and bold in its conclusions. In particular, its rejection of a more socially conservative orientation to win back lost support in the regions and among older voters, in favour of building on the existing coalition of Labour voters is radical and wise. The fact that Labour has more support from young people, urbanites and the lower middle class is to be welcomed rather than disdained. But it needs to win back the lost areas too – and break into new ones. If Labour is to win next time, it needs all the help it can get.