A new investigation into Labour’s general election defeat fails to pinpoint the key factor, writes Alex Snowdon
In one of Agatha Christie’s most famous mysteries, there is a shocking denouement when Hercule Poirot reveals that all twelve of the suspects had a hand (quite literally) in the murder he is investigating. There was no single culprit, as we would conventionally expect, but instead a conspiracy involving a dozen people, acting as a surrogate jury to inflict their own version of justice.
The new report by Labour Together is an investigation of electoral suicide rather than murder. It examines why Labour, having achieved 40% of the vote share in 2017, sank to 32% (and lost a raft of seats) in December 2019. It, like the Poirot novel, distributes blame widely, rather than pinpointing a single cause.
It was a bit of this, a bit of that, and a bit of the other. There are clues, it seems, pointing in many different directions.
There is just one problem. Labour’s failure last December really was a result of one dominant factor. It killed its electoral chances by capitulating over Brexit. It did terrible damage by supporting a second referendum and disregarding the result of the 2016 referendum which, however narrowly, clearly provided a mandate for leaving the European Union.
A fatal shift
The Tories won the election by championing a single, coherent message: Get Brexit Done. That rallied support from former Leave voters, including some who hadn’t voted at all in the 2017 election.
Labour lost the election by dropping its sensible position of 2017 - to respect the referendum result and outline a version of Brexit relatively favourable to working class people - in favour of an incoherent fudge that satisfied nobody and looked weak.
Everything else is froth. All the other explanations pointed to in the report are of secondary importance. They contain partial truths, but make little sense without an overarching framework that grasps the primacy of the shift in Brexit policy.
It is true that Jeremy Corbyn was not popular in the run up to December’s election. But why was he less popular than in 2017? Precisely because he was viewed as having abandoned a position of respecting the referendum result.
It looked like betrayal to those who had voted Leave. It ripped into Corbyn’s (well-deserved) reputation for integrity more generally. It made him look weak and indecisive.
It is true that many voters didn’t have faith in Labour to deliver on its promises. That is hardly surprising when we recall the disappointments associated with Labour in government between 1997 and 2010, or the dismal record of many Labour councils.
But why was such trust in Labour eroded in comparison with the previous general election? It is because the party had broken its commitment to respect the referendum result, making it appear shifty and untrustworthy to many voters. This was compounded by Corbyn appearing weak due to having failed to stand his ground on Brexit policy, instead having a disastrous policy imposed on him by his internal political opponents.
It is true that Labour’s policies, though in themselves often popular, struggled to cut through with the electorate. Why was that? A big reason is that some voters simply weren’t willing to listen as long as Labour pledged to hold a new referendum on Brexit. It was a barrier to getting an audience.
There was also a sense of unreality about many of the policies. If Labour couldn’t even deliver Brexit, how could it plausibly deliver the more radical policies in its manifesto?
Whatever alternative explanations are offered, we keep coming back to the core problem: Labour, and Corbyn in particular, made things much, much harder by adopting a position on Brexit that alienated many erstwhile and would-be Labour voters. This is a message that Labour canvassers were given loud and clear on the doorstep, especially in those Labour seats that were sadly - and unnecessarily - lost to the Tories in December. Leave voters were disproportionately concentrated in exactly those areas and the Brexit issue was decisive in many of them.
There were warnings aplenty. Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett warned their shadow cabinet colleagues that Labour would lose ‘Red Wall’ seats if it appeared to be disregarding the democratic will. There were many voices on the left, including contributors to this website, who argued that it was potentially disastrous to change the party’s stance.
It should also have been obvious that the Tories were, following the election of Boris Johnson (and his appointment of Dominic Cummings), driving through a relentless narrative of ‘the people versus parliament’, with the new prime minister as people’s tribune against an obstructive Remainer Parliament.
The report was compiled by a panel of 15 Labour figures. Led by Ed Miliband, they certainly have extensive experience of losing elections. They have some valid insights into weaknesses, in particular those of a long-term nature, but without a clear grasp of the decisive role that capitulating over Brexit had in Labour’s defeat.
It is absolutely correct, as the new report suggests, that Labour has problems going a long way back. There had been a long decline between 1997 and 2015.
But this was turned around by the 2015-17 period with Corbyn as leader, especially the inspiring general election campaign which propelled Labour to well over 12 million votes. The earlier decline was primarily driven by political failures, not demographic changes, and the Corbyn-led turnaround happened because of a popular change in political direction.
That progress was subsequently reversed due to a major political error on Brexit. As the new leader, Keir Starmer, was in the vanguard of those demanding support for a second referendum, it seems unlikely that Labour will now learn the correct lessons. Steering left would be Labour’s best chance of recapturing 2017 levels of popular support.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.
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