I don’t write much about politics on here, but wanted to get down some of my thoughts on the general election, and the reasons for Labour’s defeat in particular. This is mainly to order my own thoughts on the subject. I don’t expect anyone else to read this let alone agree with it. I know no more about politics than anyone else, and a lot less than some.
I have found particularly dispiriting the way Labour supporters (and MPs and officials) have started to tear each other apart over the reasons for the defeat. Anyone claiming a single reason for the result is likely over simplifying, so I thought I’d look at some of the many reasons that have been given.
The theory of the party leadership is that, given the mixture of leavers and remainers in the party’s support, they were in an almost impossible situation, guaranteed to lose supporters on one side or the other, whichever Brexit policy they chose. An alternative theory is that going down the second referendum route was a mistake, given that the majority of the marginal seats the party was defending were Brexit supporting.
I have some sympathy for both points of view. Labour certainly were in a more difficult than other parties who were either remain or leave dominated. I also think they may have lost fewer seats if they had stuck to the soft Brexit approach they had taken in 2017, even if it was not my personal preference. However, given that Labour lost votes in both Leave and Remain areas (with a small number of notable exceptions), I think it is pretty clear that Brexit is not the only reason for Labour’s defeat.
It may have helped if their position had been clear and consistent since the result. I don’t think that the policy they ultimately agreed on, to negotiate a new deal then put it to a referendum, was as confusing as some people claimed, but the fact it took Labour so long to arrive at that position made it less convincing.
A lot of MPS and canvassers have said that Corbyn was the main reason given on the doorsteps for not voting Labour. Some of his supporters have claimed Corbyn can’t be a major reason for the defeat as Labour performed well in 2017 when he was also leader. People do seem to forget that leaders can become more or less popular, and the evidence suggests that Corbyn is less popular in 2019 than he was in 2017, and less popular than any other opposition leader in history. Leaders with approval ratings less than 30% just don’t win general elections
What’s more interesting to me is why Corbyn became less popular between 2017 and 2019. When you see interviews with people who dislike Corbyn, their stated reasons often relate to things that happened before 2017. If someone thinks Corbyn is an unpatriotic, terrorist supporter now, I’m not clear why they wouldn’t have though the same two years ago.
I would really love to hear more from the people who voted Labour in 2017 and Conservative in 2019, and find out what they think changed over those two years. Is it simply two more years of relentless media criticism eventually hit home? Or are there things that have genuinely different between then and now.
The media of course is an issue, whether or not you think it is a reason for Labour’s defeat, but I don’t think it will be changing any time soon. The next Labour leader will have to somehow find a way to be popular, or at least less unpopular, with virtually no media support.
Some people have argued that Labour have become too left wing, and need to pivot to the centre. I don’t subscribe to this theory, and think there is little evidence that centrism is what many voters in 2019 are looking for. It may have worked in 1997, but a lot has changed since then.
Nor do I agree with the theory that there can’t have been a problem with the 2019 manifesto because the 2017 manifesto was popular. The two manifestos are more different than has been claimed, similar in tone and content in many ways, but very different in scale. There was a greater number of specific policies in the 2019 manifesto, and the amount of additional spending was almost twice as large as in 2017 manifesto (£82bn vs £48bn). This, along with the unfortunate tendency to announce additional policies that weren’t in the manifesto (WASPI compensation, 1/3 reduction in rail fares), led to the perception that they were promising more than they could deliver.
Policies were individually popular, but that in itself is fairly meaningless. Voters also have to believe that you will try to deliver those policies, that you will be able to do so, and that you will be able to fund them. Free Broadband, for example, is popular in a vacuum, but a lot of voters doubted it could be delivered, and also didn’t see it as a priority.
Personally I agreed with the vast majority of the contents of the manifesto, but didn’t think it was all achievable within 5 years. By wider European standards it was not an especially radical manifesto, but by the standards of the UK over the last 40 years, it was. I agree with the destination, but think it will take time to get the UK there. (I also have a lot of sympathy for the opposing view, that boldness is necessary given the state of the country. I worry that boldness is both necessary and unachievable).
The Conservatives hardly ran a spectacular campaign, nor do people particularly like their leader (he had a negative approval rating in almost every poll). They did manage to limit mistakes and had a deliberately bland manifesto (no dementia tax fiascos this time round) They knew which messages were effective for them in the seats they needed to win and hammered them home relentlessly.
Perhaps more importantly, they have abandoned the message of austerity (although not austerity itself of course). In 2017 there was a very clear contrast between the Conservative message that further austerity was required, and the Labour message that austerity had not only gone too far but had never been required in the first place. By 2017 many voters had come round to this point of view. In 2019 the battle between the Conservative proposals for a little bit more public spending versus the Labour proposals for a lot more public spending was not so clear or compelling.
Corbyn may never be Prime Minister, but he was at least successful in changing the political conversation. All the major parties are now talking about investment rather than cuts, and without Corbyn I don’t think that would have happened
So what to do next? I have to believe that it is possible for a similar policy platform to succeed in the UK. It almost did, in 2017, and I genuinely believe that if the 2017 election had taken place a couple of weeks later he would be Prime Minister now. I don’t think Corbyn’s approval ratings were ever likely to recover sufficiently, and I think it is right that he will step down.
I hope the next Labour leader will not shy away from the transformational policies that the country needs, but will be better at selling them than Corbyn was. An unenviable task, given the relentless barrage of media criticism that will undoubtedly follow for any leader who pursues similar policies. In any case, the Labour membership as currently constructed will not elect a centrist leader, nor should they in my opinion. I have to believe that genuine change is possible, and the thought that best we can hope for is not to change things for the better but merely to stop thing getting worse is too depressing for words.
I genuinely believe Labour can still win the next election, with a policy platform I believe in. I only hope that after 5 years of Brexit, poverty, and constant attacks on the values and institutions of this country that are worth protecting, that there is something left to salvage.