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Labour’s GE2019 post mortem

December 19th, 2019

Proverbial wisdom tells us that success has many fathers, while failure is an orphan. It’s a saying that appears to have by-passed the Labour party at least, since their general response to the election has been to hurl fistfuls of paternity tests at each other in a way that would send Jeremy Kyle off for a cold shower and a lie down.

It’s been an analytically productive grand bun fight at least. While the pollsters are still nursing their hangovers, tidying away champagne corks, and finishing off their victory lap of single-finger salutes to anyone who doubted them, various factions of the Labour party have already answered all the major questions about the election.

We now know that this election was a testament to Corbyn’s unpopularity, extreme policies, and his refusal to get the EU stars tattooed across his knuckles. Supporting Brexit would have but resulted in a Lib Dem resurgence and mass losses in more remain-heavy seats.  We’ve also learned that Jeremy Corbyn was an amazing leader with popular policies (they won the argument!) backed up by an incredible party organization spearheaded by Momentum. Which makes you wonder what they think would’ve happened if Labour hadn’t been quite so brilliant. This was the Brexit election so you can’t blame the Labour party’s policies for failure, but the low Lib Dem result proves centrism is failed.

No doubt the researchers over at the British Election Study will feel a bit embarrassed that it was all solved within 48 hours and be hunting for something to do to pass the time. Since all the serious analysis has been done, I will wade in with some purely number-less opinions. But just before I do so I would like to drop in one bit of analysis from an expert number cruncher. Working class support of Labour has been sliding for decades.

If Labour are relying on winning through reviving class-based voting, then they are going to have to reverse many years of change.

Now on to some wild, baseless speculation and a little theorizing. 

Labour need to find their joy and their discipline again.

The Conservative party that nailed itself to one clear Brexit message and repeated it to absurdity, then kept going beyond parody. In the face of this the Labour party presented prevarication, and division over Brexit.

It took a couple of Corbyn’s great strengths, his aura sincerity and principle, and minimised them. After moving from backing a ‘Labour Brexit’ to a second referendum, and then a month or so out from the election declared that on the crucial issue of the election he would remain neutral. It took his campaigning weaknesses, a tendency to respond to short challenging questions with long irritated answers, and highlighted it.

The left of the Labour party has made much of Corbyn’s policies polling well, and policies form the foundation and backbone of a campaign. But few people find inspiration in a concrete footing or attraction in a picture of a spine. They need to be used to tell a story.

The policy of free broadband could have been used to tell a story of social justice and regional empowerment. Taking super-fast broadband to the shires as a way of connecting the country, a new nationalized network that could bring opportunities for employment or entrepreneurship to deprived areas. To stop a brain-drain to London and reduce emissions through telecommuting. But released as it was in the run-up to the election it became one more election freebie thrown at increasingly cynical voters. It was a slogan instead of a story.

Before it had time to breathe there were more promises coming along as both sides piled them high and fast beyond public belief. Two fantasy bidders at a monopoly auction meant it all felt a little too easy to be real. It meant they both felt very similar.

John McDonnell made much of his grey book outlining the fiscal rectitude of a Labour manifesto that was fully costed down to the last penny, then promptly threw out an extra 58 billion for the WASPI campaign group.

Labour clearly knew what they didn’t want to talk about (Brexit), but seemed to have very little idea what it did want to talk about. It was the NHS, and the police, and the Green New Deal, and a dozen other things until it began to feel like lucky dip socialism. If everything is important then nothing is.

Mid-campaign the Labour party leaked to the press that it was going to change campaign strategy de-emphasise the leading Remain figures and push Leave figures like Ian Lavery to the forefront. It took party disunity and for some bizarre reason, publicised it.

No UK Prime Minister has ever lost their seat at an election, they’re usually in safe seats and benefit from the recognition, and prestige that comes with the job. That the Labour party went through this election talking up the chance of taking Johnson’s seat and left it with its lowest number of seats since 1935. speaks to either a complete ignorance of the facts on the ground, or a complete refusal to accept them. It seems impossible that the Labour high command didn’t have plenty of data from public and internal sources. It seems impossible they wouldn’t understand the data.

It suggests a problem which is not unknown in politics, the mixing of ideology and strategy. If you believe in the ideology strongly enough you believe in its ability to succeed. The only way to prove the project can succeed is for it to succeed. So, to prove you believe in the project you must believe that the project not just can succeed but is succeeding.

It is impossible to separate Corbyn’s leadership from the issue of Brexit, because his tenure was defined by it. Few politicians get the luxury of picking their battlegrounds, Brexit finished off David Cameron, crushed Theresa May, and ultimately Corbyn could not escape it. He faced a mostly hostile media, but so have other Labour leaders and his ratings were worse than any of them in the last forty years.

He lacked nimbleness to defend against attacks on him, from Salisbury to Tunis. He lacked the ruthlessness to take the fight to Boris Johnson. He couldn’t provide the kind of leadership his party needed. He was set an incredibly difficult test and maybe one he was uniquely unsuited to face, but ultimately, he failed it.

Corbyn’s failure was symptomatic of deeper problems within the Labour party. Whomever the next leader is, they are likely to face similar challenges. A party that’s not just divided but openly so. A generally hostile media. An EHRC report that will bring anti-semitism back around on the agenda. A need to establish a new Brexit position. A crucial need to re-connect with a single, coherent, story of Labour that stretches out across the country and connects Stroud to Sedgefield and Kirkcaldy to Kensington. But most of all a need to tell that story in a way that inspires joy and hope.

The next leader of the Labour party is likely to have a blanker slate and much less baggage than Corbyn. They’re likely to have an easier set of circumstances but also some nettles that need to be grasped (an uncomfortable conversation on immigration is looming). Great crops grow from fertile ground and destruction breeds creation. There is great opportunity there, if someone is able to take it.

Tomas Forsey

Tomas Forsey is a longstanding PBer who posts on PB as Corporeal and tweets as PBcorporeal