Thinking Again on Why We Lost

Even as the Labour leadership contest gets going, we still need to reflect on the lessons from the 2019 election. Too many commentators have lazily taken the election outcome as evidence which confirms their pre-existing conclusions. I am more convinced by analysis that leads to a change of mind. Can you genuinely be said to have learned from new facts if your opinions are unaffected?

The reasons for Labour's poor showing in the election are multiple. The campaign was poor with inconsistencies undermining credibility. Mr Corbyn's opponents had finally found his weak spot, which is not so much that he is "too left wing" whatever that means, but his outlook on international affairs does not easily fit with voters preferences.

I want to focus on just a few of the key factors; mainly the strategy and Europe.

The main dynamic in the election was a contest to define the agenda. For the conservatives there was one issue Brexit and so long as voters believed that this was the Brexit election then the Tories had the advantage. Labour needed a strategy to turn the election away from Europe to offer an alternative focus.

In 2017 we successfully neutralised the European issue and brought attention on austerity. There was a clear narrative of change from the policies of the past seven years which had clearly failed. 2019 lacked a narrative. The conservatives had blunted austerity as a dividing issue with promises of new money for public services.

The poor campaign fed into this problem. Policies pulled out of a hat like free broadband and money for WASPI claims only served to muddy the message. The late focus on the NHS was a sign of desperation. "Labour backs the NHS" is not a message which will engage anyone's attention.

The failure to move the election on from Brexit is only one way in which Europe undermined the campaign. The offer of a second referendum was popular with Labour members and active supporters and we mistakenly believed that it would be popular with voters.

We were wrong. The polarisation which developed after the referendum left most Labour activists in a bubble listening only to remain voices and choosing to believe evidence (however shakey) which confirmed the rightness of their choice.

We should have been listening to leavers to understand what they wanted and why they had voted as they did. In my view, it was not just about being "left behind" economically but much more about being denied political space to address the issues which affected their lives.

When Tony Blair told us that "globalisation" was as inevitable as the turn of the seasons, he was defining the costs of economic change as outside the scope of political action. I see the desire to take back control as a plea for a polity that was capable of dealing with the problems that affect people's lives.

In the 2017 manifesto we declared that Labour accepted the result of the referendum. This was a clear principled position. I remember Emily Thornberry saying that as democratic socialists we had to implement the democratic choice of the electorate. I remember Keir Starmer arguing that Labour's mission should be to bring people together because we had voters on both sides of the divide.

In retrospect, we must acknowledge that we should have held to the principled policy. We lost support when we were seen to be pushing a second referendum purely to reverse the outcome of the first. The spectacle of  MPs rewriting the rule of parliament to frustrate the government may have entertained people like us but to others it showed a political class disconnected from the concerns of the voters.

I haven't yet addressed how Labour's policy-making machinery contributed to our defeat. That is an argument for another time.

1 comment:

  1. Another strong post Jos. Boris Johnson has stolen some of Labour's clothes in terms of spending on public services and state aid to troubled industries, and it will be interesting to see if the Tories can hold onto their new voters. I agree that Labour never succeeded in moving the debate away from Brexit, and that the call for a second referendum was the main reason for our devastating loses in Leave seats. The vote to leave was in part a protest vote, and Labour was seen to be ignoring that protest and continuing as if it had never happened.