On the morning after the UK 2019 election there were plenty of voices in the Labour Party that were clear about why we lost: “It was Corbyn’s fault” or “It was Corbyn’s fault” or “it was Corbyn plus Momentum”. Jeremy Corbyn had called for a period of reflection after the result, but Andrew Adonis reckoned that period of reflection should last about ten minutes. Maybe it’s worth a bit more.
It does seem necessary to state the obvious: that this was The Brexit Election.
Of the 54 seats that the Conservatives gained from Labour, 52 of them were in areas that voted leave in 2016; the Tories only gained two seats that voted remain from Labour, both by small margins, and in both of those seats the Green party vote was larger than the Conservative majority. According to Professor John Curtice (on the More Or Less podcast, at 0:14:50 onwards), about one in ten Labour voters switched to the Conservatives, mainly in Leave-voting seats in the North and Midlands, and this was the deciding factor. We will have to wait until the British Election Study for more in-depth data as to what voters were thinking when they cast their vote, but we do have Lord Ashcroft’s polling data from election day itself. His polling shows that the number one issue for Conservative voters was Brexit, number two was the economy and the choice of prime minister was only number three.
Given the importance of Brexit to the voters, there was no way that Labour was going to be able to somehow pull the election away from Brexit onto territory that it felt more comfortable with. The party’s divisions on Brexit were plain for all to see, and the attempt to face both ways on the issue failed. From the data so far, it seems clear that we were perceived as a Remain party. The “Labour Brexit deal” never seemed a credible option: who was going to actually negotiate such a deal was never clear, and Corbyn himself was intending to take a neutral position during the subsequent second referendum campaign. We actually saw off the threat from the Lib Dems, and they never realised the breakthrough that the European elections had promised in May (my hunch is that it was our support for a second referendum that pushed Jo Swinson into calling for outright revocation of Article 50, as a way of distinguishing the Lib Dems from Labour). Of course, this perception cost us dear in the Leave-voting seats.
Let’s think about the hypotheticals. What if we had committed clearly to fighting for Remain? Well, it’s possible that with a much less radical leader and a much less radical manifesto we might have picked up some Remain-voting Conservative seats, but nothing like enough to make up for the rout in the North and Midlands. And we would have burned our bridges with those Leave voters.
What if we had stuck with the policy of respecting the result of the referendum? It would have opened up more space for the Lib Dems in Remain seats, but would have neutralised the Brexit issue in the Leave seats, as it did in 2017, and allowed us to focus the campaign on anti-austerity. However, to really deny the right-wing populists their “People versus Parliament” election, we would have to have avoided the repeated delays to Brexit. Exploiting the constitutionally dodgy Fixed-term Parliaments Act
may have entertained people like us but to others it showed a political class disconnected from the concerns of the voters. If the Labour leadership had helped to push through Theresa May’s deal then that would have been the least bad outcome: a second referendum was never likely to happen, either before the election or after. With May’s deal the UK would have been committed as a whole to the Level Playing-Field, with its protection of employment rights and the environment, until or unless a trade deal was signed at some point in the future. As it stands Johnson is now free to make whatever deal he wants or to leave with no deal in December.
It’s certainly the case that Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity played a rôle in the defeat, but for all the baggage he was carrying from his past, or the antisemitism issue, or his response to the Salisbury attack, the biggest single cause of Corbyn’s unpopularity was his perceived weakness on Brexit. He had previously seen the strategy of respecting the result of the referendum as crucial, crucial enough to sack Owen Smith when Smith called for a second referendum, so I think he should have resigned when he lost the argument over the issue. By hanging on he produced a terrible outcome for the future of the party, especially for the Campaign Group/Momentum left, which now has the albatross of a defeat round its neck caused by a policy that wasn’t even its own.
In this post I’ve concentrated on the short-term, tactical issues. To be fair there are some deeper dilemmas at play here that actually made the decisions very hard, and I’ll look at these longer-term issues in another post.