Why Labour Lost? - An expensive suicidal manifesto, Brexit, leadership & Political Change

This analysis of Labour's defeat is written by James Prentice, Currently a Sussex PhD student. (Published 10:30pm 12.12.2019).

Why did Labour lose the 2019 election. This blog post seeks to provide a brief overview to what the possible answers to this question could be.


Economics & Labour’s Manifesto: The most expensive suicide note in history? The Major problem Labour has, regardless of who is leader, is one of economic credibility in the eyes of the electorate. Yes, I hear Labour voters screaming it was a global recession, but Labour did make mistakes, such as keeping deregulation and low taxes whilst increasing spending. The fact remains Labour was in charge during the last recession and voters know this. Many voters still equate their experiences of losing incomes, jobs, savings and houses with Labour being in charge when this happened. As a result, some voters have not trusted Labour with handling day to day economic matters since the great recession, no matter how appealing their promises may be.

Note: The graph above shows us that Labour has not been trusted in running the UK economy more than the Conservatives have been since the great recession hit voter’s personal finances in 2008/09. The gap between how much the Conservatives have been assessed to manage the economy compared to Labour has grown since the 2015 General Election result. This position appears to have remained unchanged leading into and during the General Election of 2019.

This brings us to the Labour manifesto. The grassroots membership and the trade unions now had pretty much full control of the National Executive Committee (NEC), conference and other sections that shape Labour Party policy. Consequently, the party could put most things they wanted into the manifesto. This process of change within Labour Party politics has enabled the leadership to change a sensible and practical manifesto, the manifesto of the 2017 General Election, into one of the most radical socialist manifestoes seen since 1945. There is no coincidence about this change in direction as the party wanted it and the party got it.

The radical manifesto may have been the manifesto the party wanted, but perhaps it was not the manifesto the country wanted. The country now is probably fed up with austerity and would like sensible investment that will improve public services and deliver economic growth.


The electorate however have felt let down by politicians too many times and are sceptical towards big spending sprees and projects. The public really do resent how big projects go undelivered or run ridiculously over-budget. For example, I have lost count of how many times high speed rail has been pledged to Hastings and how many times nothing happens. Labour pledging ever greater levels of spending with almost each day the election campaign went on created a scenario where Labour changed a sensible manifesto that secured investment people could trust and vote for, as they did in 2017, into the most expensive suicide note in history. The problem is essentially this, if people do not trust you to deliver on big projects due to a lack of economic credibility pledging one of the most economically ambitious manifestoes of the post-war era is probably one of the worst of the things you can do as it just pushes sceptical Labour voters away. These voters have to go somewhere, and yes some may have gone to the Lib-Dems, but many might have broken tradition and voted Conservative this time around, like as with happened with Thatcher in the 1980s. Consequently, Labour’s manifesto might in part be to blame for the Conservatives ability to defend a very fragile lead and giving them a 80 seat majority. If 1983 was the longest suicide note in history, this manifesto was perhaps the most expensive.


Brexit? (More political deadlock?)


A bigger damage to Labour was their policy on a new important non-economic issue, that of Brexit. Labour created itself an almighty problem from the last manifesto, their position on Brexit was incredibly vague and promised different things to different people. This essentially led to a scenario where Labour could not keep its coalition it forged in 2017 together as they wanted, and expected, different things from Labour. This deliberate misleading of the public would come back to haunt Labour as it plagued their ability to make a popular policy on Brexit leading up to the 29th March 2019 Brexit deadline.

From this, the Labour party ducked the issue of Brexit constantly. Firstly, Labour refused to discuss the issue at conference in 2018, giving no meaningful policy options for the membership to vote on. This meant Labour’s policy could not be cleared up for another year due to the political structures of the party only allowing policy decisions to be taken sparingly by the membership. This resulted in Labour getting stuck in an awkward Brexit position whilst political events developed around them, meaning that come the 29th March Labour had no clear position on how to handle the Brexit crisis, the most pressing concern for many voters. From this, Labour’s only clear position was to force a general election, which made Labour come across as a party trying to extend a political crisis for electoral gain.


Moreover, Leave voters grew tired with Labour’s lack of clarity on how they intended to deliver Brexit, which is what they felt Labour’s last manifesto clearly pledged. Remain voters on the other hand grew tired of Labour’s lack of clarity on their position on a 2nd referendum and if they were going to stop Brexit. Consequently, both sides of Labour’s base became tired of the party and the EU election gave Labour a hefty defeat to the Greens, Lib-Dems and the Brexit Party. A neutral strategy on Brexit helped them in 2017, but this policy was now unpopular and would not help them in future elections. Labour had to talk about Brexit as the members demanded their final say, but conference again fudged the issue by not counting delegates votes, meaning that the neutrality position of Labour’s Brexit policy would continue into a likely snap election.


Labour had been demanding an election for so long they fell right into Boris’ and Cummings’ trap and ended up fighting an election about Brexit where Labour had no clear Brexit policy to defend. This allowed the Conservatives to target Labour’s Leave supporters who felt Labour had abandoned them, whilst Labour was also struggling to own the Remain base who grew tired of Labour’s lack of action on the issue. This led to an election scenario where Labour was always going to struggle to get enough votes to stop the Tories claiming their overall majority. Therefore, Labour’s inability to deal with Brexit is partly responsible for their election defeat.


Leadership and party politics. Let’s start with the obvious, Corbyn’s Leadership ratings:

Going into the campaign we can see that Corbyn’s leadership ratings were somewhat worse than PM Johnson's. Since the Conservatives changed leader in the Summer of 2019, after their awful EU election result, the party’s assessments began to improve. Meanwhile, Labour’s neutral Brexit stance, along with a tough time in the EU elections, did not help improve Corbyn’s low ratings. This means that going into the campaign Labour’s leadership rating was worse than the Conservative Party’s.

Above we can clearly see that during the campaign voters thought Johnson performed better and would make a better PM. This was just a snapshot of one poll but I do not recall seeing any other poll that showed Corbyn having a leadership rating better than Johnson's. This is incredibly important as how voters perceive leaders can affect how they vote (Clarke 2009). Going through past academic literature there is wealth of evidence than in UK elections parties that have been assessed to have the best leaders typically have won the election (Clarke, Goodwin and Whiteley 2017; Clarke 2004).

Why were his ratings be so low?

It is important to put aside personal feelings of Corbyn’s, and his teams’, leadership and note there have been some failings. Perhaps the most obvious failing is that of tackling the problem of Anti-Semitism. Firstly, the problem was denied to exist. This was a big mistake as it allowed the problem to grow and became harder to stop. Secondly, there was a slow reaction against investigating cases, which subsequently caused the amount of complaints to become far too much for the organisation to handle. As a result, there must have been some Anti-Semites that have slipped under the radar and continue to cause problems for the party, further damaging Labour’s reputation (especially amongst the Jewish community). Finally, the issue has to be said to have been incompetently handled, especially in the investigation processes that should have ratified the problem. The BBC documentary showed that in some cases staff members had felt pressured not to carry out suspensions and that there might have been constant interference in these investigation (Panorama 2019). As the leadership is responsible for hiring the staff who made the process of handling these investigations harder, the leadership must accept some of the blame for this.


Some people will blame Corbyn for Labour’s defeat, but perhaps this is overly harsh on one person. Perhaps Corbyn is not entirely to blame as when he stood in the leadership election he probably never expected to win, therefore perhaps the party itself is just as much to blame.

Firstly, the remnants of New Labour must shoulder some of the blame as they changed the electoral rules that made it easier for Corbyn to get in. On top of this, some of these MPs who supported changes in the rules also gave Corbyn enough nominations at the last minute to stand as Leader in the first place, a decision I am sure some now deeply regret.


Secondly, the majority of the membership who elected Corbyn are partly behind the reason Labour lost the election. Labour’s membership is way out of kilter with the public’s average position on many issues. This becomes a particular problem as Labour’s membership has considerably more power than the Conservative’s membership. This means that membership's views has the potential to shape who becomes leader, and subsequently what direction the party goes in towards the next election, much more than compared ot the Conservative Party. It is important to remember that the majority of members supported Corbyn’s leadership and the manifesto. Therefore, the majority of the party supported two fundamental aspects which lost Labour this election, meaning the majority of the party may need to re-think what direction Labour goes in if Labour is to get back into government. Yes, the membership is vital for the effective ground campaign Labour has, but does this outweigh the problems their voting history in internal Labour elections has created?


Finally, before we all blame the individual of Corbyn it is important to remember the Labour leadership is not just one individual, it is in fact a whole team of MPs. It has to be stated that too many on the front bench have not resigned their positions when it has been clear that they cannot support certain policy positions, especially on Brexit. No doubt some leaders within Labour's parliamentary Party will arise like a phoenix out of the ashes to declare they never supported elements of the previous leadership’s manifesto, as they did with Ed Miliband, but hindsight is not the type of leadership Labour needs. It is easy to show Leadership in hindsight, but more difficult to do this consistently in the present. If they really believed the policy was this wrong they should have stepped down and tried to force a change of the party’s direction from this.


Realignment (Political Change).


Perhaps the most significant political development which hurt Labour’s chances of being able to win an election is the possibility of a UK realignment occurring. A realignment is an academic term which describes a series of social and political developments within the electorate that alters how parties compete for voters. In other words it completely turns the political system on its head and changes the rules of the game. One theory is that UK politics has gone through a realignment where old Labour and Conservative Party loyalties no longer remain.


This is partly due to Brexit, and the factors that caused Brexit. Labour Leavers want a more communitarian outlook for the country where boarders are stronger, immigration and social change is lower and more decisions can occur at the national and local level. Meanwhile, Labour’s approach is more international, meaning it is less concerned around stronger boarders, migration controls, social change and decisions being made at the international level, such as the EU.


The Conservative Party has been quick to realise this discontent and has targeted Labour Leave voters well enough to win constituencies they never dreamt of winning over a decade ago. Meanwhile, Conservative Remain voters may have been repulsed by Labour’s leadership and spending plans, meaning not enough jumped to their new natural home of Labour to plug the gap Labour now has. As a result, it would appear that Labour’s wall of constituencies stretching from the Midlands to the North of England now has many holes in it, weakening its base, from this reducing Labour’s capacity to form governments. Moreover, Scotland has drifted away from Labour support for three elections now, further weakening Labour’s capacity to govern alone, consequently becoming more reliant on the SNP to form governments, something many England and pro UK unionist voters dislike. Labour has also found it hard to keep their Remain vote onside in some key seats, resulting in fewer possible gains this election. Labour is therefore being squeezed from all sides because of this large scale change within the electorate and has no clear strategy on how to adapt to this new electorate, helping to explain this electoral defeat and Labour’s problems going forward.


Conclusion:


The Labour Party lost this election as it has some deep rooted problems. Firstly, Labour lost on several fundamental aspects that have historically been large factors in deciding UK election outcomes. Labour was perceived as not being able to handle the UK’s most important issue of the day, nor the management of its economy and public expenses. Labour was also behind on perceived leadership competence and produced a manifesto that reinforced the severe doubts parts of the electorate had on giving Labour power.


However, Labour’s problems might run deeper than this. There are problems within the party that have to be sorted out before progress can be made on being in a position to win an election. One such development would be a process where a greater diversity of voices can be heard within the party. At the moment the party comes across as an echo chamber which limits the amount of voices that gets heard. Consequently, the party listens to its base far too much and finds it hard to produce policies that appeals to a greater section of the country, which will continue to result in unpopular manifestoes with the very voters they need to win over. Furthermore, Labour needs to deal with the problems with Anti-Semitism within the party, and it can do this by effectively dealing with the backlog of complaints. The party can’t expect voters to see them as a party that can effectively manage the toughest issues of the day if they can’t manage the affairs within their own party.


Finally, Labour needs to understand its biggest challenge where it has to adapt to a UK political system that appears to have realigned in a way that hurts Labour’s usual pathways to government. As a result, the Labour Party does not have an obvious set of constituencies it can target to get back into government. This makes creating a successful electoral strategy and narrative very hard to construct. This is because Labour will have to construct a new narrative around trying to appeal to communitarian minded people, Labour Leaver’s, in the Midlands and North, whilst also trying to appeal to liberal metropolitan Remainers, quite often located in the South. There is no immediate and obvious straightforward message to unite such a divided peoples, and as a result, Labour will have to search hard to adapt its message in the next election, whenever it may be. Centre Left and socialist parties across Europe have struggled to overcome these modern shifts in the electorate, notably in Germany, but Labour will have to do this if it is to win again. The trick will come with who Labour elects as the next leader. The membership might just have to change their leader preferences and elect someone different next time who can understand the voters they lost or they could lose another General Election.


Exit Poll – Suggested results – The Worst Post-War Result for Labour?


References:

Clarke, H.D. ed. (2009). Performance Politics and the British Voter. Cambridge, UK ; New York: Cambridge University Press.


Clarke, H.D. ed. (2004). Political Choice in Britain. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press.


Clarke, H.D., Goodwin, M.J. and Whiteley, P. (2017). Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union. Cambridge, United Kingdom ; New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.


Panorama, B. (2019). A guide to Labour anti-Semitism claims. BBC News [Online]. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-45030552 [Accessed: 12 December 2019].

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