Jack gives an analysis of the last General Election, with a look back through the Labour Party's recent history.
It would be too simplistic to only blame Corbyn’s weak leadership, or Labour’s Brexit position that looked flimsy and patronising to some leave voters. Both were key factors in causing Labour’s worst election defeat since 1935. What is striking is both Corbyn supporters and critics appear to believe that this defeat can be explained as a one-off horror that was thwarted by unique circumstances around it. True, the circumstances were unique by being offered to leave a trading bloc Britain has been in for over forty years with a more right-wing government, or a more left-wing government not seen for decades with renationalisation and higher taxes. However, for Labour, whilst there have been ideological shifts since losing their first of four elections in 2010, and its fourth in 2019, the same problem has remained. That they cannot convince voters it can empower people or society instead of the Conservatives, and just as importantly and seldom mentioned, the Scottish National Party (SNP).
This is not a new problem, but it is more difficult to solve than by merely saying voters must be listened to, as important as that is. Labour must figure how to forge back the buzzword that has rolled off their tongues post-December 12th, the heartlands. Firstly, it is worth asking what are the heartlands now? Not in the ironic sense of what is left of it, but who are Labour wanting to attract? Over the past decade we have seen different approaches. Miliband tried to salvage Labour’s credibility on the economy by broadly accepting austerity to chase Middle-England voters who may have previously liked New Labour. However, not only did he fail to swing those voters, he faced the wrath of previously traditional Scottish Labour voters, who felt neglected and taken for granted for, and overwhelmingly voted SNP in 2015. Since then, Labour have lacked a clear strategy to win a pro-EU Scotland again, returning one MP in 2019. When Brexit began dominating British politics, Labour stopped arguing for a progressive union by promising another independence referendum, effectively forfeiting 59 seats key to winning elections. Though polling shows Scots are divided on independence, the SNP represented something they long felt deprived of, empowerment. They wanted to be heard again, having felt long ignored by Westminster.
Empowerment also ties in with other parts of the so-called heartlands in Northern England and North Wales. Like many in Scotland, these regions have felt neglected by Labour and Westminster for a long period, having been harmed by austerity. However, unlike Scotland these regions are majority leave. Consequently, the parliamentary Labour Party were divided for three years between MPs in leave seats advocating Brexit and remain MPs who felt they were speaking for the majority of the membership. The Conservative’s campaign and slogan “Get Brexit Done” was effective, just was “Take Back Control” was, even if they are probably dishonest. It resonated with many voters to revive some empowerment that they believe they once had and longer do. Labour’s policies to properly fund the NHS and social services as well as rail renationalisation may have looked attractive, but its narrative was surprisingly weak and pessimistic.
Corbyn’s focus on attacking billionaires was too focused on bringing others down, rather than elevating people through fairer redistributive polices to benefit society as a whole. The populist us vs them siege mentality approach failed catastrophically. His rallies with chants of “not for sale” and claims there will be a Trump deal increasing privatisation and deregulation were bleak and barely left his echo chambers. He could have hammered home the Conservative’s poor record for nine years and building a bright future, instead of prophesying a dark one.
Labour also played into the Conservative’s hands by mistaking a desire for patriotism for jingoistic nationalism, thus not making a case for a patriotic Labour government. It is inadequate to call for a “progressive patriotism”. Right-wingers do not own patriotism, and Labour should have made a clear case for it in their vision. The problem though was persuading people that Corbyn even likes Britain let alone be a patriot. This was not about the national anthem, or his history with the IRA, but contemporary international security issues. He consistently failed tests of leadership when he sympathised with Russia’s narrative of the Skripul poisoning, and Iran’s bombing of the oil tankers in the Gulf. Corbyn’s positions, partly based on Britain’s most disastrous post-war foreign policy decision to invade Iraq, lacks nuance by comparing almost all foreign affair matters to one event. Consequently, it was not only Labour’s opaque Brexit position that Corbyn’s allies and Northern MPs claimed had alienated voters, but his weakness on defence, any government’s first responsibility, which both metropolitan Labour supporters, and hard leftists dismissed as jingoistic.
Labour’s eventual Brexit compromise looked chaotic heading into the election (at their consent) considering the Fixed-term Parliament Act. The policy was quite well balanced but had so little time to settle into the airwaves of discourse to be properly considered. It is not unfair to say that MPs who advocated for a second referendum alienated key leave voters without offering a clear Brexit option. Nevertheless, those now gunning for Starmer wilfully ignore that Labour MP leavers offered little tangible Brexit alternative for three years. Kinnock wanted to leave to respect the vote, but offered a fantastical Norway-option, which was never welcomed by Norway or the other European Free Trade Association members. Others like Lavery repeatedly made hollow platitudes about uniting the country but offering little substance. When both groups should have worked together they only bickered in contrast to the Conservatives getting behind Johnson’s woeful deal. Once Johnson got a deal, Labour were in trouble. What it points to is Corbyn’s poor leadership. If Starmer’s critics truly believed the election policy was as bad as they say, then they should have pushed Corbyn to show more decisiveness, and much earlier than September last year. This flaw of Corbyn, in addition to his perceived lack of patriotism, cost Labour dearly.
It will take great effort for Labour to persuade voters they will feel empowered and livelihoods can change for the better under them. Partly because it is fundamentally challenging to find the coalition to aim for, with Scotland, and Northern Wales and Northern England voting differently. That would probably start by Labour changing the conversation from what different factions believe is best for the party, to what is best for the country. This conversation should have happened ten years ago. In the past, particularly during Thatcherism, the Conservatives have won not by competent governance but by fragmented opposition. Labour must end this by showing that by fighting climate change, poverty and valuing the NHS, it empowers everyone. That is how to build on the successes of the past, and to create many more in the future.