Labour Must Listen First and Decide Second if it Wants to Win Next Time
The party badly needs a period of reflection to learn the lessons, not just of this week, but of the decade, if it is to have a hope of winning the next general election.
The last decade has been brutal for socialist and progressive causes, values and outcomes in the UK. Since 2010, the Labour Party has lost four general elections, the referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system and the EU Referendum. More importantly, it has lost the argument.
The party lost the argument over the 2008 financial crash when it let the Conservatives make it received wisdom that Labour had caused it when, in reality, it was global crisis which started in the US subprime mortgage market and Gordon Brown saved the day.
Labour lost the argument over austerity, which was an economically illiterate response to the financial crash and led to more than a decade of lost growth. Countless lives have been harmed by cuts to social security, public services, to the NHS and legal aid, but by offering ‘austerity lite’ in 2015, Ed Miliband accepted its premise, destroying his ability to properly challenge it.
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The party lost the argument over Europe. There is nothing good about Brexit, no one’s lives will be improved by it. We will all end up poorer in finance, rights and opportunity. Yet, we will leave the EU because Remainers did not win the argument – to stay in or more recently for the democratic necessity of a second referendum.
Labour has never stopped to work out why it is losing. In 2010, 2015 and 2017, it never had a proper period of introspection to work out why support was being lost in places it taken for granted since the Second World War. The most obvious example is Scotland, where Labour MPs are again all but extinct. In 2017, Mansfield was added to the list, but no learning was done to find out why it was lost on the same night that Canterbury and Kensington were won. Two years on, the Mansfield canary in the coalmine has become a barrage of seats in the north east, north west and the Midlands.
The Red Wall has fallen, and fallen hard. It will only be rebuilt if the hard work of finding out why is done. The same is true of Scotland.
To Leave or Remain?
At times like this, there is always a pressure to come up with an immediate and singular explanation.
The two currently fighting for attention are Labour’s support for a second Brexit referendum (“we were too Remain”) and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (“we were too left-wing”, “Corbyn was unelectable” and “we were too metropolitan”). It suits the purposes of some in the party to point to a simplistic, and hence easily rectifiable, cause. If backing a second referendum is the problem, Labour can become a Leave party. If Corbyn is the problem, he can be replaced by a younger version, a moderate or someone from the north of England.
But, none of these on their own are enough to explain such a defeat. Labour has been losing support in traditional working-class areas for at least 15 years and picking up support in cities and metropolitan areas. Brexit may have exacerbated this shift, but it is not the only dynamic in play.
Labour must take the time to listen. That has to be the priority – above finding the next great leader, above deciding to keep its policy programme or deciding to ditch it. It must work out why voters abandoned it and what voters are looking for now.
I spoke to lots of people during this General Election campaign who had once voted Labour, but did not want to this time. Their reasons ranged from the leadership of the party to Brexit, the cost of its policy programme and a general sense that it had gone off track.
One thing that is clear from available evidence is that becoming a Leave party would not have saved Labour. It lost four votes to Remain parties (the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP) for every one lost to Brexit parties (the Conservatives and the Brexit Party). While Remainers deserted Labour for a stronger Remain policy, Labour Leavers deserted it primarily because they had concerns about a Corbyn Government.
The tragedy is that polls had shown for a long time that Labour would do best if it backed Remain. An ICM poll conducted for RepresentUS in late 2018 looked at Labour’s then 41 most marginally-held seats. It showed that, if Labour backed Remain, it would keep all 41, but if it backed Leave – even in its most benign form – it would lose 40 of the 41. Many of these are the very seats now lost in the north east, Midlands and north west.
The fact of Labour’s late conversion to a second referendum, combined with its attempt to face both ways by – at times – talking up the likelihood of leaving on a Labour deal, was not enough to keep all the Remain votes that it won in 2017. The Liberal Democrat vote share was almost double what it had been in 2017, bringing Labour’s vote share down in crucial marginals.
Strong Opposition Needed
Labour needs to understand why Leave voters decided to vote Conservative or for the Brexit Party – particularly since evidence shows that, for Labour Leavers, the NHS, jobs and wages rank above Brexit in their list of priorities. But it would be foolish to go after the minority of Leave votes lost at the expense of the majority of votes lost to Remain parties.
This lesson is crucial, but the wider point remains. Labour badly needs a period of reflection to learn the lessons, not just of this week, but of the decade. Brexit and Corbyn do not explain the losses of 2010 and 2015, or the loss of Scotland, even if they were part of the picture this time.
If the party rushes headlong into another leadership election – whether it results in Corbynism without Corbyn or New Labour 2.0 – it will have missed the opportunity to reflect, to learn and to recover.
This need must be balanced with the duty to provide strong opposition to what will almost certainly be the most right-wing, hardline Conservative Government that this country has ever seen. But, in the midst of opposing, it must recognise that this defeat is, as well as being a terrible blow to the party and a tragedy for the millions who need a Labour government, an opportunity to find out how it can win next time.
Mike Buckley is the director of Labour for a Public Vote. He tweets at @mdbuckley