December’s General Election was the final climax of three political years where everything and nothing seemed to change on a daily basis. The Conservatives’ now massive majority means the days of impending government collapse and defeats in the Commons appear over for now. They won that majority by fighting an effective, if deliberately polarising, campaign which above anything else cut through to voters. Their soundbite of choice, Get Brexit Done, was deliberately simplistic and capitalised on the hysteresis effects of a frustrated electorate. What does it mean? Who knows, but the disjointed, over-reaching message of the opposition was a spider’s web of promises many didn’t believe, plus it was coupled with a drastically unpopular leadership.
Since the 2016 Brexit vote, the Labour Party has faced continual internal battles over it’s position on the matter. Labour members overwhelmingly supported a second referendum with the option to remain, but that faced push back and scepticism from the Leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has long been suspected of supporting Brexit at heart, though publicly he has never committed to such a position. The beginning of Boris Johnson’s premiership, however, seemed to destroy any hopes of a ‘jobs first Brexit’ which the Labour party could support, and the party belatedly got behind a second referendum.
That the party spent three years shifting their stance on Brexit appears to be a major cause of their electoral defeat. Seeking to find a compromise between the Conservatives’ and Liberal Democrats’ respective absolute views on the matter led to constant confusion. Labour struggled to cut through to voters on Brexit and seemed to alienate both leavers and remainers. Datapraxis analysis found nearly half of Labour losses could be attributed to losing remainers to other parties in leave-voting areas. Equally, there are those who suggest the move towards a second referendum was the key cause of electoral defeat, arguing working class voters could no longer vote for Labour as they were ignoring their wishes.
A key criticism of the Corbyn project was the inability to convince voters that their programme for government was possible. Voters felt the Labour manifesto was overcrowded with too many promises, and subsequently appeared unbelievable to a public who have spent ten years being told by the government that public sector cuts are unavoidable. Labour loyalists push back against this argument, saying that the policies in the manifesto polled strongly with the wider public.
What does appear pertinent is the comparison between the Tory and Labour manifestos. Both promised large increases in public spending and both received criticism over where the money would come from. But the Tory manifesto was deliberately made up of conventional fiscal expansion: not many dislike the idea of more nurses, police officers and hospitals, even if those promises could be seen as misleading. Most successful campaigns focus on fewer policies so that they can achieve greater cut through. This also helps campaigners stay on message and the party’s argument stay coherent. Overcrowded manifestos with numerous radical promises appear to be proposals for opposition rather than a programme of legislature for a government in waiting.
The most striking shift in the electoral map came in the long fabled ‘Red Wall.’ These are typically Northern seats in ex-mining towns which consistently return Labour MPs. This election saw many fall, including Tony Blair’s old constituency of Sedgefield, Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover stronghold, where he had sat since 1970, and Burnley, who hadn’t gone Tory in over a century. The reasons for this appear clear: they all voted leave in 2016, and voters were swung by Johnson’s pledge to Get Brexit Done as well as the pledge of new regional investment. The Johnson team pinpointed these seats as the key to securing a majority, saying from the start of their campaign they were looking to appeal to ‘The Workington Man’, and it worked – Workington went blue.
It would seem easy to see Labour’s failures in these areas as solely down to their Brexit position, and to argue that if they hadn’t backed a second referendum, the result would have been different. But the Labour party should not ignore underlying demographic and social changes in these areas which led to them voting for Brexit originally. Once these seats were dominated by manufacturing and mining industries; they no longer are. This affects the Labour vote, as unionisation has fallen and natural Labour voters are more sparse. Where Labour previously needed to do little persuade these seats to vote for them, they may no longer be the default party. This reflects the broad motivations for the Brexit vote. People left behind by the forces of globalisation, who felt ignored by ‘metropolitan elites’, do not see their immediate economic prospects improving. Demographically, these areas do not align with the more metropolitan left on many social issues such as immigration, which further decreases any tendency for them to vote Labour.
Boris Johnson’s Get Brexit Done message was particularly effective here. He told voters directly that he heard their concerns and wanted to move on from the Brexit debate in order to address them. It is a recurring trend in Western politics that voters who feel left behind will turn to candidates who appeal to their fears directly and, critically, say they are on the same side. Labour is traditionally an internationalist party, so going forward, they need more effective ways of dealing with these fears other than focusing on class inequalities.
Allegations of anti-Semitism have surrounded Labour under Jeremy Corbyn for years. The problems are seen by some to have arisen from the influx of more extreme left voices into the party from the election of Corbyn. These people felt emboldened by the leadership and see anti-Semitism as a factional issue. This led to the party failing to adopt internationally recognised definitions of anti-Semitism, and many Jewish party members and officials feared for the future and their safety in the movement. In the eyes of many, the party consistently failed to root out the problem as they chose not to suspend many of the alleged perpetrators. Jewish people did not believe the issue was dealt with effectively, and at best see it as a failure of leadership on behalf of Jeremy Corbyn in allowing the problem to persist. Strong Corbyn supporters repeatedly dismissed the allegations as smears against the leadership, which only acted to confirm amongst critics that the Labour top offices were increasingly exhibiting cult behaviour, and that they could not be trusted in government. The Jewish Labour movement even chose not to endorse the party at the election.
Suspicions over the actions of the top offices extended further. Allegations of bullying surrounding Karie Murphy, a close Corbyn aide, and also Seumas Milne, who was long seen as the main obstacle preventing Labour supporting a second referendum and remain. It was believed these individuals had become too powerful in the movement and abandoned the hope of the ‘kinder, gentler politics’ that the Corbyn Project promised from the beginning.
The debate now switches to what next for the party, starting with the coming leadership elections. The frontrunner is Leeds alumnus Keir Starmer, who was previously the Shadow Brexit Secretary and has so far ran a campaign looking to unite different factions in the Labour movement around a more open politics, perhaps with a shift back towards the centre ground. Rebecca Long-Bailey is running as the ‘continuity Corbyn’ candidate, and has been endorsed by the incumbent leadership, seeking to keep to the socialist ideals set out in recent years. The Wigan MP Lisa Nandy is at present an outsider for the role, although so far she has made a clear and direct attempt to address the failings of previous Labour leadership and listen more closely to swing voters that the party has lost.
Image: Sean Smith/The Guardian