James Anderson offers a considered, controversial, in-depth analysis of Labour’s general election defeat.
4 March 2020.
[This is a two-part, long-read discussion piece.]
There is a lot more to politics than elections, and the main reason for Labour’s disaster – being hopelessly divided by Brexit – is unlikely to be repeated in future general elections.
Now its Leavers and Remainers both say that whole-hearted support for their side would have won the Election, but both are almost certainly wrong. It was a uniquely ‘lose, lose’ situation, in the making for over four decades.
The rot started with the Common Market debates of the 1970s and ineffective Labour opposition in the 1980s to Margaret Thatcher under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock. It was accelerated under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown from 1997 to 2010, focus-grouping and triangulating their way to ‘Tory lite’ policies. There were a few good policies, but rather than confront the underlying neoliberalism, they cemented Thatcher’s legacy. The centre-ground of British politics had been shifted decisively to the right and stayed there.
But in the 2017 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn did surprisingly well. Railway re-nationalisation and other radical policies were popular, and he shifted the political centre-ground back towards the left – arguably his greatest achievement. For 2019, he augmented his radical agenda.
However, it was effectively marginalised by a most unusual single-issue General Election (the first in over a century), fought almost entirely on the unusual ‘one-off’ issue of Brexit, where most people had long ago made up their minds.
Going wholeheartedly for Remain would have lost Labour its Leave voters even sooner; wholeheartedly for Leave and the Remain voters lost would have been even more numerous.
No doubt Labour under Corbyn should have done many things better or sooner. Why, for example, did it agree to a pre-Christmas election? Johnson wanting it seemed sufficient reason to block it; more importantly, Labour needed as much time as possible to publicise and explain its rather rushed Manifesto, using its army of Momentum volunteers to get across the gist of it on the doorstep.
However, considering the already-established brute facts of Labour’s dilemma, it is doubtful if the overall result would have been much different. In terms of its MPs, members, and voters, the Labour Party was disastrously split – roughly 2 to 1 in terms of its 2017 voters supporting Remain against Leave, but also by about 2 to 1 in terms of the seats it held being in predominantly Leave communities.
Corbyn quite sensibly tried to retain the support of both – to have done otherwise would have been to throw in the towel. But ‘sitting on the fence’ was always going to be uncomfortable, and the impossibility of trying to ‘ride two horses going in different directions’ was only underlined by declaring neutrality in never deciding between them.
David Cameron, and Harold Wilson before him, had escaped censure for taking a solitary ‘above it all’ neutral stance on referendums – after all, they are supposed to be about letting ‘the people’ decide, not telling them the answer.
But for many it was the last straw when Corbyn extended his personal neutrality to the ‘softer’ Brexit deal he promised to negotiate with Brussels. What, neutral on his own better deal? And in a referendum where Remain would be the other choice?
By 2019 his strategy seemed designed to lose support from both Remainers and Leavers, which it duly did. Maybe it would have worked if tried a year or two earlier; and it almost certainly could have delivered a long-term trade deal with the EU much sooner than the ‘harder’, more damaging, acrimonious, and in practice more long-drawn-out Brexit deal likely from Johnson.
Astonishingly, this argument was never properly made by Labour. But Johnson’s single central election slogan of ‘Get Brexit Done’ and its phoney promise of early delivery absolutely had to be demolished if Labour’s attempt to shift the conversation on to its Manifesto policies was to have had any chance of success.
In any case, by then it was probably too late. Lots of Remainers as well as Leavers were already fed up after several years of indecision by a hung parliament in which Labour was now thoroughly implicated. They saw voting Tory as the quickest way to get it all over and done with.
Meanwhile, and not surprisingly, Corbyn, the solitary neutral, had seriously damaged his own personal reputation for forthright integrity. Instead, many now saw his leadership as weak and indecisive – even compared to a flip-flopping Johnson blatantly breaking ‘promises’ at the drop of a hat.
With the Tory Government on an 80-seat majority, it is nearly if not entirely impossible (even, or perhaps especially, with hindsight) to see how Labour could have won enough seats to create another hung parliament, never mind winning the Election outright.
More good news
But there are additional arguments about the 2019 election being a single-issue ‘one-off’ – other reasons for Labour’s defeat that are unlikely to be repeated. Parts of Labour’s multi-issue Manifesto contained ill-prepared promises, but the fact that it really did not get a look-in means that while it was not enthusiastically accepted, it was not rejected either (as the right now try to argue). The enthusiastic precedents from 2017 strongly suggest that it – or rather, a strengthened and properly explained version – would be popular next time: a key consideration in the leadership election.
People express surprise at traditional Labour supporters voting Conservative, but for the roughly one-third who were already confirmed Leavers, it was the surest way of getting Brexit delivered. For them, the Labour Conference showed that a majority of Labour members were enthusiastic Remainers who wanted a second referendum, as did the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, with the pseudo-macho Jo Swinson and her ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ showing outright contempt for their democratic decision in the 2016 Referendum (loosely echoing the contempt in Hillary Clinton’s counter-productive term ‘deplorables’ for Trump supporters).
And now Labour was formally offering another referendum with the choice between Remain and a not-properly-explained ‘soft Brexit’ deal yet to be negotiated! So, encouraged by Johnson’s single, simple slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, many treated the General Election as if it were a referendum and voted Conservative/Leave. Most feared that in an actual Remain versus Leave referendum, Remain would win – all the opinion polls predicted it.
Moreover, Brexit is just the sort of unusual – actually geopolitical or nationalist – issue which notoriously divides social classes and political parties of both left and right, in the process producing strange bedfellows. The referendum on a regional assembly for North-East England and issues such as Catalan or Scottish independence have produced similar effects – as Labour should have known from losing Scotland to the Nationalists.
And so it proved with Brexit, where age group and 3rd level education, rather than class, were the strong predictors of how people voted. Nostalgia for the independence of empire was widely said to have been a factor for the elderly – and that probably applies to Brexit’s core vote of elderly Tories. But there may also have been more immediate nostalgia for the ‘never had it so good’ years of the post-war boom – its ending in the early 1970s just happened to coincide with the UK joining the Common Market.
This may have been a factor in the declining or de-industrialised ‘left-behind’ areas of Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’, where the more elderly Leave voters with less formal education are credited with losing Labour the election (though many had stopped voting altogether years earlier).
However, the one-off characteristics of this ‘left-behind’ Leave vote again suggest it will not necessarily be repeated. We should not assume Labour has permanently lost these areas, but nor should we over-concentrate on them. It obscures the greater losses of Remainers to the Lib Dems and Greens in Labour’s city heartlands, and it would be a strategic mistake to make re-gaining the ‘left-behinds’ the priority which Lisa Nandy advocates.
Leadership? What leadership?
In electoral terms, 2019 was certainly a very bad result, but ‘the worst since 1935’? For a while Guardian reporters seemed under a three-line whip to repeat that phrase at every opportunity, blaming it all on Corbyn’s ‘lack of leadership’. But this was very misleading.
Measured in total number of seats, the accusation reflected the 50 or so constituencies lost in Scotland to the SNP, but they had already been lost by the Blairites/Brownites before Corbyn was elected leader and had nothing to do with him.
Saying this was just the latest round of the often spurious attacks on the Corbyn project by the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party and their media friends – affronted, uncomprehending, and sometimes stupidly apoplectic that a life-long oppositional upstart like Corbyn could be leader of ‘their’ party.
Blairite ex-minister Alan Johnson springs to mind, self-exploding on election night TV: ‘I want Momentum gone’, a ‘little cult’ with ‘student politics’, he announced – oblivious to the fact that it has around 40,000 hard-working members, some verging on ancient, who had saved Labour from an even worse defeat.
The bile was to be expected from overtly Tory media like Murdoch’s or the Express and Mail, but it also came from leading contributors on the Guardian, Observer, a seriously unbalanced BBC, and similar so-called ‘left-liberal’ outlets – with friends like these who needs enemies?
So, for instance, we got Jason Cowley, the New Statesman editor, ‘explaining’ in Murdoch’s Sunday Times why he had refused to endorse Corbyn in the election (despite presumably being aware that meant opening the door for Johnson as PM). For a while, the BBC’s idea of ‘balance’ when discussing (targeting?) Corbyn seemed to be a panel of three, one working for the New Stateman and the other two for Murdoch.
Election as leader in 2015 had been a ‘surprising accident’ – probably not least for Corbyn himself. He had only squeezed onto the ballot because a few Labour MPs wanted a lively leadership debate, never expecting and certainly not wanting him to win.
Even more surprising was the huge surge in party membership, more than doubling, and mostly attracted by his leadership bid (when many other centre-left social democratic parties – like the SPD in Germany and PASOK in Greece – were withering).
Surprise continued with the scale of his victory, winning outright in the first round with a stunning 59.5% of the vote against three Blairite/Brownite MPs; and again with 61.8% when a second leadership election was forced on him in 2016.
Yet the attacks continued, relentless and unprecedented.
Anti-semitism and racism
In 2017, however, Corbyn’s supposedly ‘unelectable’ policies had proved popular, and Corbyn proved an effective election campaigner. So his attackers changed tack.
He had a long-established reputation as a resolute anti-racist, an opponent of anti-semitism, and one of the strongest high-profile supporters of the beleaguered Palestinians in their struggles with the Israeli state. Now, for Labour’s ‘Friends of Israel’, and for Zionists inside and outside the party, his relative electoral success opened up the un-nerving prospect, or spectre, of the first Western leader who would openly side with the Palestinians.
The issues, accusations, and counter-accusations were tortuously complicated but – suffice to say here – opposition to Israeli policies or anti-Zionism was conflated with or mis-represented as anti-semitism or an attack on Jewish people as such.
Corbyn and the vast majority of Labour members (including, of course, many Jewish socialists) who opposed Israeli policies – and who were, of course, equally opposed to anti-semitism – were simply branded ‘anti-semites’.
There were indeed some real anti-semites in the Labour Party, and the main accusations against Corbyn were that he did not take rooting them out seriously enough, then did not act quickly enough, or was not decisive enough.
There may have been some truth in this, though in the nature of such internal investigations, the appropriate speed of action, and in particular what Corbyn should have done differently considering he was not personally responsible for judging the individual cases, is difficult to say. Besides, some of the anti-semitic abuse suffered by Jewish Labour MPs, allegedly from Labour members, came from social-media sources which are wide-open to abuse by dirty tricksters.
The bigger truth is that there was no comparable questioning of the other parties, and no comparable focus on the much more prevalent Islamophobia (not least in the Tory Party, whose leader, of course, has a well-known record of racist comments). The allegations against Labour were exaggerated as a convenient ‘stick’ with which to ‘beat’ Corbyn – and now, in the leadership contest, it is being wielded against Rebecca Long-Bailey, with Nandy in the vanguard and Starmer joining in.
What Corbyn did was never going to be ‘enough’ for his right-wing Labour opponents and/or defenders of Israel. And so we got right-wing Labour MP Margaret Hodge screaming at him in 2018, in front of a TV camera in the House of Commons, that he was ‘a fucking anti-semite and racist’.
She seemed quite irrational. But you have to wonder, is there some secret playbook of right-wing dirty tricks which advised attacking people not at their weakest point but at their strongest – anti-racism in Corbyn’s case – in order to maximise the damage if some of the mud sticks.
The wider narrative that Corbyn had alienated Britain’s Jews from their natural home in the Labour Party was equally misleading. Again, the reality is that Labour had lost most of their support long before Corbyn became leader. By the 2015 General Election, over two-thirds of British Jews were already Tory voters, and a large proportion preferred Cameron to Miliband – who happens to be Jewish – because of their respective positions on the touchstone issue of Israel-Palestine.
It is a well-established truism that divided parties don’t win elections, and the Labour right let it be known loud and clear that the party was already seriously divided – irrespective of Brexit, and in fact well before it became Labour’s central issue from mid-2016 onwards.
Then the ‘anti-semitism’ allegations helped keep the story of division alive, with some Labour MPs and Zionists continuing to stoke it right up to the 2019 election. To the extent their behaviour was rational, or not simply ‘cutting off their nose to spite their face’, the Labour right (including a majority of Labour MPs) gave every impression of wanting Labour to lose the election in 2017; and some did so again in 2019.
This despite, in the latter case, handing victory to the lazy, incompetent Johnson, the well-known serial liar, groper of young women in his employment, and – in sharp contrast to Corbyn – an MP prone to racist language (a ‘nasty piece of work’, as Eddie Mair called him to his face on TV). The large share of the blame for these election defeats which is due to right-wing Labour MPs should not be forgotten by party members.
Circumstances or personality?
The Labour leadership election: an ideas and charisma free zone?
Actually, in the very unfavourable circumstances of being the ‘accidental’ leader of a doubly-divided party – left/right, Remain/Leave – Corbyn did very well. Contrast Tony Blair, who had a spectacular election victory in 1997 – the biggest majority of any party since 1931, and the most seats, 419, of any UK party ever – and who, not surprisingly, was hailed as a great leader.
And he still is, at least by sycophantic supporters, including present leading members of the Labour right, who conveniently forget the debacle of his Iraq War (which most of them supported).
Also widely forgotten is that Blair enjoyed exceptionally favourable circumstances, including being faced by a clapped-out Tory Party and such fearsome short-term giants of Tory leadership as William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, and Michael Howard. But he stupidly, shamefully, squandered the opportunities.
For example, he (purposely?) botched an attempt to democratise the first-past-the-post voting system. Instead, the ‘Tory lite’ policies of Blair and Brown proceeded to lose Labour millions of votes over the next three General Elections (2001, 2005, and 2010), many in ‘left-behind’ areas no longer bothering to vote.
That is when most of the damage was done, not under Ed Miliband, and certainly not under Jeremy Corbyn. It set the scene for decisively losing Scotland in 2015 following a short-sighted referendum campaign where Blairite-Brownite Labour had opposed Scottish independence alongside, and looking like a conjoined twin of, Scotland’s most unpopular party – the Tories.
The Leninist approach to nationalism is still the best: see the difference between imperialist and anti-imperialist nationalisms, do not paint the latter red, but recognise the right of nations to self-determination.
Corbyn was leader in much less favourable circumstances than Blair. But in 2017 – to the great surprise of his Labour enemies, who had hoped he would fall flat on his face – he substantially increased Labour’s share of seats and reversed the downward trend of vote-share over the previous two decades (already slightly increased by Miliband in 2015).
Even with the bad 2019 result, Corbyn still shows a net gain on 2015, and his performances were distinctly better than Labour in 2010, in 1987 and 1992 (under Neil Kinnock), and in 1983 (under Michael Foot). The Guardian – which declares that ‘comment is free … but facts are sacred’ – should check them before rushing to comment about 1935.
Of course, Corbyn’s relative success does not justify the 10 out of 10 for ‘leadership’ awarded by Long-Bailey, but considering what he was up against you can see that her exaggeration has a point – and Emily Thornberry awarding him 0 out of 10 no point at all.
A rather meaningless exercise, and Corbyn, like most leaders, comes somewhere in between – though in retrospect he does look ‘the real deal’ compared to some of the leadership candidates and other ‘colleagues’ who have criticised him – the Blairish Jess Phillips, for example, who suggested applying for EU membership before we had left and sounding like Labour’s answer to Jo Swinson; and Thornberry, who is indeed a better public speaker than the jabbering Johnson (or Corbyn), but is gravely mistaken if she thinks that things will be decided by performances at Prime Minister’s Question Time (for which, half the time, Johnson might not bother turning up).
Yet it is clear that Corbyn was very far from a great leader. Many of his own supporters would have preferred if his loyal but sharper colleague, John McDonnell, had ended up in the lead role. But it is also to Corbyn’s credit, and part of his legacy, that some of what were perceived as leadership or personality flaws – a fetish of the shallower commentators of the BBC – were in fact expressions of his particular strengths as a decent, honest, and principled human being, something very rare in mainstream politics.
When first elected he said he wanted kinder politics. This was arguably a mistake considering the dirty politics he was up against and the vicious personal attacks he was about to receive from the Tories and the Labour right (perhaps a bit like Gorbachev pushing the reforms of glasnost or ‘openness’ before he had achieved the structural economic reforms of perestroika, a mistake not repeated by the still-in-control Chinese Communists).
But Corbyn stuck to his principles, refusing to get down in the gutter with his nastier opponents, and passing up numerous opportunities for personal attacks on Johnson – though fair game in his case as a ‘Churchillian’ poseur repeating history as farce.
Instead, and often to the frustration of his supporters, Corbyn went for the moral high-ground rather than the jugular. He rightly expressed outrage at the appalling conditions for many in the UK, the homeless or those in work who have to rely on food-banks, yet he somehow failed to pin the blame on nine years of Tory mis-rule, or the years of Tory-lite New Labour before that.
His was a moral crusade which did not really confront politically. And it was mainly about his Labour Party doing things forpeople – suffering people – as distinct from enabling people more generally to do it for themselves (which is what the phoney Leave slogan ‘Take Back Control’ managed to imply).
Corbyn’s was not a style calculated to impress working-class voters; in fact, it was not calculated at all, and that perhaps was the problem. It seemed he just said it as he saw it, and if he got better advice he did not take it.
A Scottish friend expressed the exasperation: what Corbyn needs, she said, was ‘a good shaking’; and you can imagine people in ‘left-behind’ areas were less polite.
When attacked by Hodge, his response was symptomatic. Most people might at least have managed something like ‘Oh, come on Margaret, don’t be ridiculous’, but he managed to say… absolutely nothing. Did not engage, did not confront. But the ‘anti-semitism’ and other slurs had to be confronted – hoping they would ‘go away’ was never going to work.
This is now mostly beside the point – a matter of personal shortcomings which hopefully will not be replicated by the next leader. However, it has the positive message that the turnaround in Labour’s fortunes in 2017 was due to the popularity of its policies for fixing Britain, not to the charisma of the leader.
And just as well, for none of the candidates to replace him could remotely be described as ‘charismatic’. There is no Tony Benn available, no Labour equivalent of Lula da Silva, not even a Nigel Farage!
Policies not personality are the priority in choosing the next leader.
James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography, Queen’s University Belfast.
[The second part of this article, ‘Labour Lost, And … Part 2: The Bad News’, will be posted shortly on this site.]