Why Labour Lost

In a guest post, Jenny Muir looks at some of the reasons Labour lost on 12 December, and asks: what happens next?

What next?

We knew it was going to be bad, but not that bad. The stats are easy to remember: 365 Tory MPs, one for each day of the year; 80 majority, a not at all nice round number. Labour lost badly: to the Tories in England and Wales, and to the SNP in Scotland. Labour didn’t lose in Northern Ireland because they give zero fucks about the place: they don’t stand candidates and their manifesto content was anodyne.

After some reflection I think there are three reasons why Labour lost: the current state of the Labour Party; the Tories ran a well organised campaign; and some voters, particularly in England, were gullible (which is not the same as stupid).

The state of the Labour Party

It’s important to remember that the Labour Party is always in a state. It’s a mass party, a broad church, a party that aspires to real power in which people have jobs and political careers as well as giving up their time voluntarily. There are always ideological struggles going on, and many of them get into the media so those of us who are not involved can keep up.

The past week has involved a great deal of heart-searching amongst Labour members and supporters. For example:  the position on Brexit was wrong (I don’t believe the policy itself was unclear); Corbyn failed to gain the trust of the public; the Manifesto wasn’t credible; antisemitism continued to be an issue; there was media bias; and Labour candidates could have stood aside in some seats to support a Remain candidate from another party.

As yet, however, the conclusions from this outpouring remain polarised, more so than it seemed from the first couple of days after the election result. For every one on one side, there’s someone else with a different opinion. A week after the result I detect an inclination not to ditch the best of Corbyn’s policies under the new leader, for example this early contribution from Keir Starmer.

The Tory campaign

Not enough consideration has been given to the fact that the Tories ran a well organised campaign – which doesn’t mean it was a principled one. They knew just how much they could get away with. The Irish Times explored the mechanics: recruiting experts from Australia and New Zealand; a strategy meeting at 5.40am every day; the identification of 50 marginal seats to capture and 50 others to defend; and perhaps most crucially “intensive polling and focus groups in these seats”. The slogan “Get Brexit Done” came from focus groups. Although the Irish Times don’t mention this, I assume the campaign team knew Johnson’s absence from TV interviews and panels wouldn’t impact on votes.

Contrast this with the Labour campaign, as analysed in the Guardian: confused messaging, poor organisation and an unclear chain of command:

An exasperated party veteran said that while watching a Conservative press conference from Labour’s Southside HQ, a young press officer was heard to remark: “These Tories are so boring: they say the same thing over and over again.”  

And:

…. intense frustration, even among diehard Corbyn loyalists, about the lack of organisation that left them unable to answer the most straightforward questions about Labour’s plans for the days ahead, or what its key messages would be.

Gullible voters

The general public has got off very lightly in election analysis and I don’t really understand why. Yes, it’s not a good look for politicians to claim their electorate is stupid – in fact, nowadays it’s a matter for m’learned friends. Journalists may be wary of the charge in case it prejudices future interviews.

However it seems legitimate to me to question whether some voters, particularly in England, were gullible, which is not the same as stupid. We are gullible when we are tricked into taking action that is not in our interest; perhaps not questioning the premise sufficiently because  we want to believe in it. “Get Brexit Done” falls into this category. Brexit doesn’t as yet impact on everyday life for most people, unlike delayed trains, overcrowded schools, expensive utilities and long hospital waiting lists. It was easy to convince voters that all these could be tackled after 31 January 2020, which of course is nonsense because trade deals will take a long time to negotiate and the process will be complex and expensive. But I would have lost most of them about halfway through that sentence.

The reason the ability to be taken in was more prevalent in England and Wales was because other parties and agendas were not evident as they were in Scotland and Northern Ireland (Welsh nationalism has very little influence). In England it was all about Brexit:

[Guardian interview in Southampton] “I want Brexit. I want that done,” says a woman who goes on to talk at length about her problems accessing benefits and mental health services.

Jesus wept. Someone on benefits and dependent on mental health care is voting Tory. That can’t be allowed to pass without comment. (The series of Guardian reports Anywhere But Westminster includes more gobsmacking exchanges.)

What next?

What Labour does next matters to all of us, whether or not we voted for them and wherever we live in the UK. We need an effective opposition at Westminster as well as a political party that really does speak for the many and not for the profiteering few.

Whoever is in charge, the main challenge is going to be keeping the best of the Corbyn policy agenda rather than veering back towards being a cover for neoliberalism. Labour needs to get better at following the money. Who benefits from privatisation of public services, paid for by poverty wages and zero hours contracts? Who makes money from fossil fuels? Who doesn’t pay tax? Labour needs to make a solid case for a more equal and sustainable economic system including maintaining employment rights that stand to be eroded under Brexit. The party needs to stand up for a decent and dignified social security (not “welfare”) system and face off allegations about scroungers. Likewise with immigration and asylum, health services, housing and education.

But being an effective champion of a fairer economy requires a fundamental change in approach. Corbyn’s leadership has been based on vanguardism: a secretive small group with high turnover and a lack of involvement of others. This led to the chaos of the election campaign. It is an inappropriate way of running a mass party and it is certainly not the way to win public confidence. The Labour Left should ditch vanguardism in favour of working on what Gramsci calls the war of position: essentially, gaining popular support for a particular world view. This requires working more collaboratively within Labour and also with a broad civil society coalition of other parties and organisations who share these values, as Maurice has suggested. Many of us are up for that.

Jenny Muir

26 December 2019