If Labour is ever going to win again, its warring factions need to get out of their trenches and venture into No Man’s Land

No Man's LandAfter the dam breaks, a flood of analysis and recrimination. More than ten days on from Labour’s catastrophic defeat in the general election, the pain is still raw, and many in the party don’t seem to have realised the enormity of what has happened.

Most comment on Labour’s defeat has been of two varieties. First, there are the Corbynites who blame Brexit, and in particular the conference resolution last year which prompted the party to explicitly back a second Brexit referendum, in the teeth of Corbyn’s opposition. This alone, they argue, cost Labour so many of its leave-voting seats in the Midlands, the north of England and North Wales. Second are the ‘centrists’ who say that Labour’s support for a second referendum wasn’t the culprit at all. Instead, they argue, the defeat was down to Corbyn’s weak leadership, a far-fetched and incoherent manifesto, and an over-ambitious electoral strategy which saw resources diverted to unwinnable targets, away from seats Labour that Labour had to defend.

Let’s start with the first group. Many pathetic excuses have been given for Labour’s dire performance. Laura Pidcock, defeated in North West Durham, argues that “Blair’s legacy still hangs around this party like a millstone, especially in the North East. I heard it time & time again”, suggesting that a Labour leader who won three elections before retiring 12 years ago is somehow to blame for Labour’s current disaster.

An almost Maoist message appears on Twitter from Jeremy Corbyn’s three sons, claiming that their father had produced the “most wonderful manifesto this country has ever seen”. Corbyn, they added, is “honest, humble and good-natured”, and only lost because “he took on an entire establishment… We’ve never known a politician to be smeared and vilified so much.” Even making allowances for filial loyalty, this is nonsense: Jeremy Corbyn had willingly entered a contest to be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, not a good neighbour competition. Media scrutiny, and media criticism, come with the job. In the Guardian – vilified by many Corbyn supporters, for no good reason – Corbyn himself is given free rein to assert that Labour had “won the argument”, as if that compensated for losing a general election.

For Corbynites Brexit certainly was the biggest factor in this election, but not the only one. Many have also blamed the media for Labour’s defeat. My heart sank when I heard Andy McDonald on the Today programme last week accuse the BBC – the same BBC that the Tories are themselves accusing of bias – of “playing a part” in Labour’s downfall. With some of Boris Johnson’s outriders intent on decriminalising license fee evasion, Labour should be standing up for the corporation, not attacking it.

The argument that Labour was defeated because of its treatment in the media is fanciful. Yes, Labour did get a hammering in right-wing newspapers, as it always does. But their power is waning now that younger people increasingly get their news online. In cyberspace, Labour did well, and fake news stories peddled by the Tories were quickly rebutted. The story about a four-year-old boy forced to lie on a hospital floor in Leeds was given legs by Labour, and gained extra traction on social media, which seized upon Johnson’s apparent indifference to his plight. Yes, the story of the boy was shocking and Johnson’s reaction was hardly impressive. But those on the left who seized on it as the “moment Boris Johnson lost the election” were really clutching at straws.

So were those who constantly harped on about the NHS being sold off to American insurance companies: an idea that few Tory MPs would entertain. Boris Johnson is many things – dishonest, cunning and opportunistic for starters – but efforts to portray him as a British Donald Trump convinced few voters. The problem was not that Labour was poorly treated by the media, but simply that the message it was trying to put across was confused and unconvincing.

Many Corbynistas have pointed out, accurately, that Labour’s vote share at this election – 32.2% – was higher than in 1983, 1987, 2010 or 2015, but few add that Labour’s number of seats – 203 – is now the lowest since 1935. The 2017 election was a fantastic result for Labour and a vindication of Corbyn’s leadership of it, many Corbynistas argue. If only the centrists in the party had not undermined Jeremy and forced a second referendum onto his manifesto, he would have made more gains in 2019 and could now be in Number Ten.

This argument is based on a false narrative that the 2017 general election put Labour on the brink of victory. Although Labour’s vote share in 2019 – 40% – was far higher than anyone had predicted, it was poorly distributed: far too many of Labour’s extra voters were in urban seats Labour already held, and far too few of them were in Tory marginals. Far from being too disloyal and troublesome after the 2017 election, Corbyn’s critics in the Labour Party were if anything too polite. At times it feels as if everyone has forgotten that Labour actually lost the 2017 election badly, winning only 262 seats (nine fewer than Kinnock did in 1992, and only three more than Gordon Brown in 2010). Given that both 1992 and 2010 are remembered as catastrophic defeats for Labour, it’s difficult to see the 2017 result as a triumphant success.

And amidst Labour’s 30 gains in 2017, there were worrying signs of slippage in Labour support in the Midlands (where Labour made a net gain of zero seats) and the north, where Labour held many of its supposedly ‘safe’ seats with thin majorities which were all too easily eroded in 2019. Labour’s leadership was far too complacent about its 2017 results, assuming that any further loss of support in the Midlands and the north in 2019 would be offset by gains in the south, or in Scotland. Instead of a proper inquest into Labour’s defeat in 2017, the party embarked on an extended victory celebration. Simply blaming Brexit for Labour’s defeat in 2019 overlooks Labour’s long-term decline in many of its traditional heartlands, which began long before Brexit reared its head.

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What of the second group: those who now claim the defeat was all down to Jeremy Corbyn, and had nothing to do with Labour’s pledge to hold a second referendum on Brexit? Many of these commentators either ignore the fact that Labour’s worst results were all in seats that voted Leave in 2016, or argue that in these seats it was really aversion to Corbyn, not aversion to a second Brexit referendum, that doomed Labour.

It’s certainly true that Brexit was not the only reason why Labour support collapsed in the north and Midlands: perceptions of Corbyn being a remote Londoner lacking in patriotism, Labour’s flat-footed response to complaints of anti-semitism, and anxiety about the affordability of Labour’s manifesto were probably all important factors. It is certainly true that in most – if not all – Labour-held Leave seats, the majority of Labour voters voted Remain in 2016 (opinion polling shows that in most places the majority of Leave voters were people who never vote Labour, or who never vote at all).

However, it does not follow that all Labour voters who voted remain in 2016 still oppose Brexit now, and it certainly does not follow that they all support a second referendum. “Get Brexit Done” was not just a dog whistle to Leavers. To many Remain voters it was also an enticing message: we lost the argument in 2016, and after three and a half years of argy-bargy in parliament it’s time to exit the EU with a deal, even an imperfect one negotiated by Boris Johnson. Labour had pledged in its 2017 manifesto to respect the result of the 2016 referendum, and it is difficult to argue with those who asked why the party was insistent on the need for a second divisive referendum in its 2019 one.

I’ve argued before that if Labour had supported Theresa May’s deal earlier this year, it could have stopped this election from being a Brexit one, and potentially split the Tory party asunder. Back in October I argued that “Labour’s support is plummeting not despite its shift towards Remain, but precisely because of it”, and I take no pleasure now in saying I told you so. Labour – though not Corbyn himself – were too easily swayed by big People’s Vote marches in London and other cities, and were too dismissive of those outside the Metropolitan bubble who increasingly feel that it’s time to put Brexit behind us.

It isn’t just ‘centrists’ who argue – wrongly – that the problem wasn’t that Labour was too pro-Remain. Paul Mason – an unusual Corbynite who has long supported a second referendum – has put forward a convoluted analysis claiming that Labour started losing support as soon as it started ‘dragging its feet’ on a second referendum, and that a more explicitly Remain position could have delivered victory, or at least minimised the scale of defeat: in short, Labour’s problem was not that it was too pro-Remain, but that it wasn’t pro-Remain enough. It is true that Labour lost more votes to pro-Remain parties than to the Tories. But if there was such a strong appetite for a second referendum, it is a mystery why the Lib Dems polled so poorly. And as Mason’s own analysis acknowledges, an estimated 300,000 or more ‘Labour remain’ voters plumped for the Tories on polling day, many of them in the northern and Midland marginals that mattered most.

***

The political map of the United Kingdom has now changed utterly. Labour’s collapse was very uneven. While Labour was reduced to a single seat in Scotland and lost many English seats that were previously considered safe, Labour held on comfortably in Exeter, Canterbury, all four seats in the Wirral, and even in Anthony Eden’s old seat, Warwick and Leamington: many of them constituencies that were at, or even beyond, the high water mark of Blair’s victory in 1997.

In Wales, Labour lost all but one of its seats in the north, but held on to all but one of its seats in the south. In London it held all its marginal seats apart from Kensington, whose loss was offset by the acquisition of Putney. Labour did much better in southern England than it did in the 1983 disaster, holding its seats on the south coast (in Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Hove and Brighton), hanging on to Reading East and even Bedford (by 150 votes), and to its two Luton seats more comfortably. Incumbency seems to have helped shore up Labour’s vote here. But these outlying results also suggest that this was indeed a Brexit election: most of these seats voted Remain.

Labour tightened its grip on all the big cities but, as Lisa Nandy has rightly pointed out, it did very poorly in the small and medium-sized towns in the Midlands and the north where general elections are normally won and lost. Across leave-voting England, from County Durham and Cumbria in the north to Ipswich and Stroud in the south, Labour lost seats hand over fist. I live in Northamptonshire, whose Tory-run county council spectacularly went bust last year. But even here, at the ground zero of austerity, seven out of seven of the county’s MPs are still Tories, and all but two of them now have five-figure majorities (in 1997, all but one of the county’s MPs were Labour). My constituency of Corby and East Northamptonshire had hitherto always been a bellwether marginal, but now it’s a safe Tory seat whose MP has increased his majority from 3,000 to 10,000.

I know Liberal Democrats here who refused to vote tactically for the excellent Labour candidate in Corby and East Northants, Beth Miller, simply because they can’t abide Corbyn. Equally I have met traditional Tory voters, who voted remain in 2016 and can’t abide Johnson, who either abstained or voted Lib Dem, even though they knew that the only way of getting the second referendum they crave was to vote Labour in Corby. I have met lifelong Labour voters who backed the Tories for the first time ever, citing both distrust of Corbyn and an eagerness to “get Brexit done”. All these conversations suggest that Labour’s defeat was not just down to what voters thought of Jeremy Corbyn, or what they thought about Brexit – instead it was a bit of both, and a lot else besides.

Little is being said about factors unrelated to Brexit, or to Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. An emotive story about a threadbare NHS might galvanise Labour’s core supporters, but was unlikely to really make an impact on swing voters. Let this be the last election in which “24 hours to save the NHS” is a Labour battlecry – important though the NHS is, scare stories about it being sold off to Donald Trump always rang hollow. To have really turned the election Labour needed to take on the Tories on their territory – defence, security and the economy – but it allowed itself to be forced on the defensive after another terrorist attack on London Bridge, and should have been much more insistent that the terrorist had not been freed because of Labour sentencing reforms, as the Tories alleged.

As for economic credibility, the increased appetite for public spending was sated many times over by John McDonnell’s endless spending pledges. It would have been far better to have stuck to three or four clear policy pledges – rail nationalisation, abolition of tuition fees, more NHS spending, more affordable housing – rather than adding in fripperies such as free broadband, and constantly talking of abstractions like “anti-austerity” and “social transformation fund”.

Thankfully there are some sane voices out there, who realise that Labour has to do more than just move on from Brexit, or move on from Corbyn, to have any chance of winning again. As the Fabian Society’s shrewd post-election analysis argues, “There are no alternatives to rebuilding Labour’s strength in traditional ex-industrial ‘heartland’ seats” – and this rebuilding requires not just a new leader but also a new narrative. “There is no electoral future in Labour fighting a rear-guard action on Brexit,” says its author, Fabian general secretary Andrew Harrop. “The new leadership will need to show that it fully accepts the Brexit result and recognises that the question of EU membership is settled for a generation. Merely stating this publicly will not be enough. Senior Labour politicians need to emotionally and psychologically accept the reality of Brexit”.

The British Labour party has no right to stay as Britain’s second party for ever. A former adviser to John McDonnell, James Meadway, has written a clear-headed piece for Novara Media – normally a cheerleader for Corbynism – warning that if Labour does not get its act together, it could easily perform even worse at the next election, and enter the same kind of death-spiral that the French Socialist Party has.

But for now, too many other commentators glibly assume that Labour’s failure was all down to Brexit, or all down to Corbyn. Both these entrenched groups are right. But both are also wrong. There is no single reason why Labour lost. Brexit and Corbyn’s leadership are two of the biggest ones, but there are many others. Labour’s keyboard warriors need to call a Christmas ceasefire, step out of their trenches, and start talking to voters in No Man’s Land.

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4 Responses to If Labour is ever going to win again, its warring factions need to get out of their trenches and venture into No Man’s Land

  1. Dr B says:

    I enjoyed your article but am surprised that I couldn’t find the word “Marxist” anywhere. The Labour Party is inherently Marxist, one has only to listen to McDonell’s views on running an economy to understand this. In fact the British left have steadily infiltrated our education system and large chunks of the media, as well as causing mayhem and discontent via parliament. The people could see through this, although it’s still scary that so many still vote for such a party whose model state is Venezuela! If any of the current leadership hopefuls take Corbyns place they will be extinct as a party within a decade.

    • Alex Grant says:

      Thanks for your comment. I don’t agree that the party is inherently Marxist, despite its lurch to the left in recent years, or that this was the main reason it was rejected at the polls. In fact, the momentum (small m) that the Soft Left/centrist leadership candidates (Lisa Nandy and Keir Starmer) now have shows that even the party membership, which is still dominated by those who joined or rejoined about Corbyn, are becoming more realist about how to win back power. Corbyn only became leader in 2015 because of the poorness of the other candidates, not his own brilliance.

  2. Yet another erudite piece of analysis, deserving much wider circulation. Members of the party need to spend much less time in trying to win arguments – and vilifying those who don’t agree with them – and more about what it will take, must take, to win an election.

  3. An excellent analysis as ever, but I want to take issue with your comment about the BBC. Certainly it needs defending but decriminalising non payment of the licence fee should be a Labour policy. It’s mostly very poor women who have found themselves in court over this – mostly single parents in awful circumstances whose only source of entertainment is the television. It’s quite wrong that this alone, of many possible debts, is the one which will bring these women to court. I speak as a now retired JP for 30 years. There’s a big debate to be had about the BBC and its funding but once again, Labour doesn’t have a vision for the future where media is changing so very rapidly.

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