Miles Pressland & Joe Davies consider the reasons why Labour saw such a landslide defeat – and the common denominator is Jeremy Corbyn.
A few years ago, I was discussing the unsteady political climate with a Conservative friend of mine. At a moment during which I thought the conversation couldn’t get any more ridiculous, he claimed that it was possible for a Conservative campaign to successfully win seats in the traditional Labour heartland of the North. To me, this seemed completely absurd – yet I was very much mistaken.
Alienation from the Labour Party has been occurring steadily but surely over the last few decades. As Labour have continuously failed to present a viable alternative to Conservative governance to the British public, the working classes have inevitably lost confidence in their usual party. Most voters are under no illusion as to the state of the country – in my experience, the majority will readily admit the poor state of the NHS, the worrying rise in homelessness and poverty, generally stagnant wages, and ever-increasing rent prices. Nonetheless, many continue to vote passionately for the Conservative party; including those who have traditionally suffered under Conservative governance, such as Blyth Valley in Northumberland. One might concede that Labour failed to convince the public of the economic viability of their spending plan – yet this doesn’t appear to have been the principal concern.
Labour’s policies in their 2019 manifesto feed into a truth all too readily acknowledged by these lost voters; that its central administration and leadership has now emigrated to London, thereby becoming wholly out of touch with the issues facing voters in the wider country. This perception was in turn exacerbated by Labour’s spending policy, seen by many as bourgeois socialism.
Of course, it may be surprising that I’ve gotten this far without even mentioning Brexit. Since the original referendum, Labour was dropped into a somewhat impossible dilemma, risking the alienation of a significant fraction of its voter base, irrespective of their decision. Nevertheless, the influence of Starmer and Thornberry has evidently harmed Labour – through backing a second referendum, and leaving it unclear as to whether Labour would even support its own reached deal with the European Union, it became impossible for the voter, concerned principally with the deliverance of Brexit, to tick the box for Labour. This did not necessarily lead to an increase in the Conservative vote; rather, the traditional Labour voters felt alienated, and were left an option in the form of the Brexit Party. Whilst this party did not win any seats, they were undoubtedly part of the puzzle in that they contributed to the loss of votes for Labour.
This visceral disdain for the Labour party is nothing new, and it has hardly increased since the referendum. The reality is that Johnson has successfully outmanoeuvred Corbyn on the matter not only of Brexit, but also of a wider-presented ‘image’, in which Corbyn came off as outdated, patronising, and secretly supportive of subverting the referendum result. None of this was conducive to a Labour victory, thereby allowing Johnson to sweep in and hoover up a vast swathe of disenfranchised voters.
This, unfortunately, is now the state we Labourites must address. We cannot hide from this painful truth with reference to media bias or the like; whilst I have little doubt that much of the media viscerally attacked Corbyn, we simply cannot pretend that voters did not have substantive concerns with Labour, based in passionately held convictions. If we fail to address this fact, we shall simply perpetuate our image as a party of the intelligentsia, separated from the subjective interests of the working and lower middle classes.
I worry as to the route Labour will now go down. We must not swallow a Blairite myth that we lost this election as a consequence of being too radical; the failure of the Liberal Democrats shows very clearly that the political aspirations of the likes of Chukka Umunna should not be entertained. We are, undeniably, living in a time of radicalism, in which people of all stripes demand real substantive changes. To go down a route of centrism would do little to aid us, and would mock those Labour has vowed to represent.
Yet, it would be foolish to sit back and hope Labour will do better next time. There must be dramatic change, in the form of both a new image and a new leader. Sadly, none of the prospective candidates really offer this; to choose the likes of Starmer or Thornberry as leader would, given their consistent support for a second referendum, do little to heal these persistent political wounds. The Labour party now must be extremely careful in considering its future in opposition – these Corbyn years have shown us that, despite popular policies, an unpopular leader can ring the bell for a party’s electoral chances. To choose a figure already within the shadow cabinet therefore would be a foolish move – we must not read this as a defeat only for Corbyn or the 2019 manifesto, but as a disastrous defeat for the entire current cabinet.
Returning to my thoughts during the conversation with my Conservative friend, it becomes clear that the Conservatives have to some degree overturned the political status quo, winning seats Johnson would have only dared to win in his wildest fantasies. Yet, we must still celebrate Jeremy Corbyn; under his leadership, we witnessed a party fundamentally critical of the many social vices maintained and exacerbated by the Conservatives.What Corbyn offered to the electorate was, unquestionably, a fundamentally radical vision for a better Britain. For my part, I am indebted to Corbyn for providing this true alternative. But we must look consciously and lucidly to our abject failures in relation to Brexit, the presentation of the fiscal responsibility of our spending plan, and of the specific individuals we asked the electorate to place into the cabinet office. If we don’t accept the new political status quo, and we are not careful to redress our problematic image, it may be a while before Labour can win another election.
I will never forget the moment the exit poll came in on Thursday night. For many of us, especially those of us who spent hours, days, or even weeks out in the rain and cold campaigning, the heartbreak is tangible. Yet, we do not have time to wallow in self-pity. Our party must rebuild, and fast, because this country simply cannot afford for us to lose to the Conservatives. We need to diagnose exactly what went wrong, and ensure that such a catastrophic defeat never occurs again.
I spent the five days between the end of Michaelmas and polling day in Southampton Itchen, a Tory-held marginal with a majority of just 31 in 2017. For Labour, there was no path to victory that did not lead through this constituency. We were very confident that we could win it – but we didn’t. Instead, there was a 5% swing away from Labour, and the Tories now hold a 4,498-vote majority.
My campaigning in Itchen – speaking to hundreds of voters across the seat – taught me one thing: this was not the Brexit election. It was the Corbyn election.
I assumed on my first day campaigning that the most common issue brought up on the doorstep would be Brexit. To be sure, this issue arose frequently. I’d say that about 1 in every 3 or 4 voters brought up Brexit unprompted. Yet, this was far from the biggest issue at hand. More than 2 in every 3 voters – perhaps as many as 3 in every 4 – brought up their dislike of Corbyn as the reason for them not voting Labour. This was entirely unprompted. Shockingly, only three voters, out of the hundreds I spoke to, discussed Corbyn in a positive light.
It seems that this isn’t merely my own subjective experience. Today’s Delta Poll asked those who deserted Labour at this election why they did so; nineteen-percent said Brexit, whilst forty-six-percent said Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn was, undoubtedly, the reason Labour didn’t win Southampton Itchen. On polling day, we desperately grasped lists of voters we believed were committed to voting Labour. My job was to knock on their doors to make sure they had visited the polling station. By lunchtime, it became clear we were in troubled waters: as many as half of the Labour voters I was speaking to told me they weren’t even going to bother voting that day. Even when I attempted to persuade them to vote, explaining that we had a majority of just 31 votes to overturn, I was rejected. Most wouldn’t give me a reason, and those who would were emphatic: they wouldn’t want Corbyn at 10 Downing Street.
What we must learn from this defeat is simple: we can never afford to ignore the electorate again. It doesn’t matter how much we like Jeremy Corbyn, or how inspired he makes the student demographic feel. If, after 4 years, our leader still has a net approval rating of -30%, we are simply not going to win an election. Politics isn’t about feeling positive or rebelliously radical; it’s about changing people’s lives. We are the Labour Party, and the most vulnerable people in the country depend on us to win. We, as a party, will always have a duty to keep the Tories out of government and to create a fairer Britain. We cannot shirk this responsibility.
I will never leave this party – I am Labour to the core. Yet, we all need Labour to stop being a party of protest and become the party of government once again. I am not suggesting for a moment that we abandon all of our polices from the Corbyn era. We will continue to fight for a radical vision of a fairer Britain – but we will not return to New Labour. Similarly, we will not lose our radical agenda – we simply need to ensure that it is both credible and viable.
Moreover, what is also clear is that the scourge of anti-Semitism within our party needs to be actively dealt with. Nothing in this election broke my heart more than hearing progressive, socialist Jewish individuals telling me that they could not vote Labour in this election because of anti-Semitism within the party. Solidarity means nothing if it is not solidarity for all. We must urgently rebuild trust with the Jewish community, and this has to be our top priority moving forward.
Politics isn’t a game, and you don’t get a silver medal for coming second. Millions of people up and down this country need a Labour government; our basic services, such as our hospitals and schools, cannot continue seeing Tory cuts. Tonight, thousands of people will go to sleep on the freezing streets of the 7th richest country on earth. It was our duty to give these people a home, to give the 4 million children living in poverty in this country hope for the future, and to protect our NHS from Donald Trump and his cronies. We failed in this duty, and this will always remain heart-breaking to admit.
We are not mere rebels. The Labour Party isn’t about sitting around in church halls and celebrating our socialism. Singing the Red Flag and calling each other “comrade” is fine – knock yourself out, I’m not trying to stop you – but that can’t be all we are about. We must form a government at the next election. If we do not, this country will never recover.
Please, when you come to vote in the upcoming leadership election, think of the electorate at large. Ask yourself which of the candidates has the best chance of uniting this country and winning back Scotland, the “Red Wall”, Wales and Southampton Itchen. Think about their principles, yes, but also ask yourself how likely it is that they will be able to win the power to act upon them. Our country needs a credible Labour Party; it is our duty to deliver it.