Labour’s Defeat

James Butler

I think of the young canvassers – thousands of them – who were out on the doorsteps for the first time, in cold and miserable weather, lit up by a politics that spoke to them and for them as no political party had done before. They will be told they were wrong to believe in it. They were not.

I think of the woman, a carer for her disabled brother, who said that her life had got worse for years and years, and politicians always promised it would get better, and it didn’t, and how could she trust Labour? I think of the man who voted Labour in 2017, but wouldn’t now, because his Polish partner was scared of living here much longer. And the man who said you can’t change anything anyway, because ‘it’s all fucking rigged even when you win, look at Brexit.’

There wasn’t an obvious way for Labour to have won this election. The usual bromides will be offered up: it was Corbyn, no, it was Brexit, no, it was the manifesto, no, it was the press, no, it was credibility. All of them are in various ways true, but in all ways only partial: attitudes to Corbyn have hardened considerably since 2017; Brexit blew open a long persistent crack in Labour’s voter base; the press is execrable and even harder to deal with in the digital era. The manifesto was a bold attempt to grapple with the problems of the 21st century, and many of its policies are extraordinarily popular, but it was a document presented as if to allies, rather than to a sceptical electorate uneasy with its trust. There are other consolatory rationalisations, also insufficient: 2019 saw a return to the secular decline in Labour’s vote share, and 2017 looks like an outlier; the first-past-the-post electoral system, which had helped in the past to conceal disenchantment with the party, turned its brutal edge against it.

Anyone who claims that Labour’s leftward shift was the product of a cultish devotion to one man, and will disappear on his departure, doesn’t understand its origins or its implications. The party now has a campaigning left-wing membership that’s serious about climate change, public ownership and defending migration; no successor to Corbyn will be able to abstain on welfare bills, or promise to cut ‘harder and deeper than Thatcher’. Many who have always opposed such politics will declare it toxic, and inimical to victory ‘from the centre’. But the electoral wasteland confronting the avowed centrist parties in this election suggests that wasn’t where Labour’s lost vote went.

There are many lessons for the Labour left to learn from this election: five weeks’ enthusiasm cannot make up for decades of neglect; campaigning is about listening as much as listing policies; the conventional political virtues – presentation, messaging, and ruthless attacks on one’s opponents – can’t be circumvented by a surfeit of positivity. But without intransigent principle they are barren. All of these questions – how to blend movement and machine – will bear down on whoever is elected as Corbyn’s successor, but they are also questions the party must ask itself.

And it must find its answers quickly. Boris Johnson is in a position of strength, and desperately requires opposition, not only in parliament. His timetable on Brexit will falter in June, when he is confronted with the question of whether or not to extend the transition period. He will doubtless want a range of gaudily authoritarian social policies to distract from it. He is set, too, for confrontations over Scottish independence, especially when Brexit intensifies in the early part of next year. The defeat will have left Labour dizzy, grieving and distraught, in need of self-examination and honest dialogue. But it must prepare to get back up and fight.


  • 13 December 2019 at 4:06pm
    Marmaduke Jinks says:
    There is also demography to consider. England has always been a conservative country, often a Conservative one; yes, today’s young people may be left-leaning but they won’t always be young.
    Labour’s traditional heartlands - the great industrial urban areas - have been hollowed out by technology & globalism and the SNP has usurped Labour’s hegemony in Scotland.
    Add all this to the fact that, as Alan Johnson commented, the working class has always deeply disappointed cults like Momentum and this leaves Labour’s chances of a parliamentary majority slim at best.

  • 14 December 2019 at 9:37am
    Joe Morison says:
    The Tory party has been in power for nine difficult years and was seeking that rarest of beasts in British politics, a fourth consecutive election victory; it was being led by a documented liar, fraud, and cheat that the country clearly does not trust; it had veered so far from what it has so long stood for that many of its former leading lights and supporters, including a former Tory Prince Minister, had said they could no longer support it. If ever an election was an open goal for an Opposition, this was it. The idea that there “wasn’t an obvious way for Labour to have won this election” is nonsense, but instead Labour suffered its worst defeat since the 1930s.

    • 14 December 2019 at 3:03pm
      joel says: @ Joe Morison
      What position should Labour have taken on Brexit when 79% of the marginals it needed to win voted to Leave while its membership and the centrists and liberal media were all demanding it adopt a 2nd referendum?

    • 14 December 2019 at 4:27pm
      Joe Morison says: @ joel
      Tory remainers stuck with the Tory party whereas Labour leavers defected to the Tories. As around 63% of 2017 Labour supporters voted remain, I don’t see that being a leave party would have worked; further, Labour leavers who had already fallen for Faragist lies about Brexit were always likely to fall for the further lie that the only real Brexit is a no-deal exit, something Labour could never have supported, which means it was always going to be almost impossible for Labour to hang onto a significant proportion of its leavers.

      The way Labour could have won is by having been unashamedly remain, and to have done so under a leadership and program that would not have scared off Tory remainers. I say this not because that’s my ideal sort of government but because politics is the art of the possible, and there is absolutely no point in having a wonderful set of policies if one is never going to have the power to enact them.

    • 14 December 2019 at 4:37pm
      joel says: @ Joe Morison
      Did you register the number of seats won by the Lib Dems?

    • 15 December 2019 at 5:05am
      FoolCount says: @ Joe Morison
      Of course, being a leave party would have worked. But not in this Brexit-driven election, obviously. The way it would have worked is by letting the May government have their Brexit deal approved, getting Brexit done and over with and fighting the next elections on real issues. Instead of gifting Boris Johnson this huge majority purely by the ridiculous and ultimately fruitless Brexit obstructionism.

    • 15 December 2019 at 8:13am
      Joe Morison says: @ joel
      For that, I blame our first past the post electoral system and the refusal of pro-referendum parties to unite and fight. There has been a realignment on the right of our politics with the Tories hoovering up a lot of former Labour voters which Johnson is clearly determined to hold onto (see his trip up to Sedgefield on Friday), there needs to be one on the left. Without either PR or some inspiring leader who can unite the anti-Tory forces, I can’t see this happening. It’s a grotesque and bitterly unfair tragedy, because (and this is worth repeating again and again) the country does not want Brexit: 52.3% of us voted for parties offering, at the least, another referendum; only 46.5% for those that want to leave - that 5.8% difference for remain is 50% larger than leave’s majority in the referendum.

      (There’s a very good article on this by Jess Phillips in the Guardian today. She’s my choice as the next leader because I like her personality and I think she’s got the best chance of beating Johnson - the thought of ten more years of the blond beast is too much.)

    • 15 December 2019 at 10:11am
      joel says: @ FoolCount
      She is certainly the media's pick, so clearly considered no threat to the established order. How big an advantage that proves to be in the leadership election we shall see.

    • 15 December 2019 at 11:13am
      Joe Morison says: @ joel
      I don’t think, now that the power elite has gone global, that there’s any hope of threatening the established order by voting in a national election. Fifty years ago, a government had ultimate control over what happened in its country; today, if a truly radical government was elected, the elite’s money would be gone before the new PM had been to see the Queen. If we want to enact real change, it has to be done globally; until then the best we can hope is to be led by someone like Phillips who will struggle to make things a bit better.

  • 14 December 2019 at 11:31am
    FoolCount says:
    There was an obvious way for Labour to win the election. They should have voted with the Tories for May's Brexit deal, gotten the Brexit done and over with, and then they could fight (and win) the next election on the issues. The Labour should have been the Brexit party to begin with instead of betraying their voters like this for absolutely zero benefit. It was obvious that the second Brexit referendum was never going to happen. It was also obvious that with the British election system and Brexit being the only issue the only party supporting Brexit was going to get a large majority Because 40% is enough to get a majority government in UK and 40% of pro-Brexit voters were never going to support an anti-Brexit party. Everyone new that Except for the Labour leadership that is. So predictable, yet unavoidable on account of ideological stupidity and stubborbness. This one is on you, Remain Zealots.

    • 14 December 2019 at 1:45pm
      Joe Morison says: @ FoolCount
      I’m not sure how your analysis explains the fact that only 46.5% of votes cast were for parties that wanted unambiguously to Leave; whereas 52.3% voted for parties that were offering, at the least, a second referendum.

    • 14 December 2019 at 3:19pm
      steve kay says: @ FoolCount
      Dear moderators

      Hope you are having a lovely pre-Xmas lunch. When you come back, perhaps you might like to do something about "@foolcount" like send him/her/it back to the Spectator, or on the evidence of grammar and spelling, to Trollgrad. It's a bit chilly here in South Wales for us LRBists to stand outside in a line and chant "I am RemainZealot!"

    • 15 December 2019 at 5:09am
      FoolCount says: @ Joe Morison
      Very simply really, and quite obviously to anyone familiar with UK election system: because there was in effect only one leave party (which got all leave votes and left) and a whole bunch of remain parties (which split the remain vote and lost). Someone must have forgotten that parliamentary elections are not a referendum and could be won with 40% (or in principle even less) of the vote.

    • 15 December 2019 at 5:39am
      FoolCount says: @ steve kay
      That is exactly the same stupidity that got you this huge Tory majority and if anything will doom Labour it will be the refusal to learn from this mistake. UK is out of the EU and it will be a while before it joins back. Get over it and learn to live with it. Otherwise it will be a very sad the rest of your life indeed.

    • 15 December 2019 at 8:20am
      Joe Morison says: @ FoolCount
      You are arguing as if Brexit is not an impending calamity, above all for the former Labour voters Johnson conned into voting for him, and that the fight against it was futile. You assert, with no evidence, that a second referendum ‘was never going to happen’; I disagree, there was every chance it could have as the clear majority in favour in this this election shows.

    • 15 December 2019 at 8:36am
      FoolCount says: @ Joe Morison
      Brexit is not a calamity at all. Nothing in comparison with another Tory term. That is why it was stupid to gift Boris Johnson this victory on a (very) off chance of another referendum. Just vote for May's Brexit deal (don't even support it as a party, just let enough pro-Brexit Labour MPs vote for it to get it passed) and then win the next election on how terrible the Tory government was for the people. Easy-peasy. UK out of the EU is a bonus.

  • 14 December 2019 at 3:26pm
    Graucho says:
    Life isn't fair as we all know. What better illustration than the way Brexit led to this conservative victory. Consider the genesis. Mr. Cameron called the referendum with no plan B if he lost it apart from running away. Ms. May triggered article 50 with no contingency planning for a no deal if she couldn't get a deal passed in parliament. She then compounds this by accepting the EU's "Give us the money first and we'll discuss trade later" negotiating tactic. The party then proceeds to tear itself apart in an unseemly public spectacle. The upshot of this trail of utter incompetence and cock up ? A huge election victory for the perpetrators. Labour did have a way. Propose to tear up the withdrawal agreement and apply to join the free trade area instead. Not just play up the positive side of immigration but commit to mitigate the downside effects by building the houses, training the mecial staff, providing the foreign language teachers and raising the minumum wage as the inlux required in the first place and use the conservatives failure to provide as a stick to beat them with. Instead we get the promise of another referendum with remain on the ballot. Not just toxic for labour leavers, but worse still Corbin was clearly bullied into it by remainers on the front bench making him appear weak and indecisive, which one fears may actually be true.
    Well if ifs and ands were pots and pans. Another chapter in the decline and fall of the British Empire has been written. A new one is commencing.

    • 16 December 2019 at 6:17pm
      Scampo says: @ Graucho
      Thank you.

  • 14 December 2019 at 5:39pm
    picklewick says:
    Labour may have a new left wing membership, but its the kind of people who used to belong to the party, and voted for it, that it needs to recover.
    It has to realise that a political party's primary function is to be a vehicle for achieving power, not a gigantic seminar for the converted. The Tories have a small and diminishing membership but it doesn't prevent them winning elections after being in power or nearly ten years. Labour needs to be led from the centre-left, forging new alliance between all anti-Tory forces, and become once again a broad progressive coalition which doesn't mean ditching all of the Corbyn agenda.

  • 14 December 2019 at 6:18pm
    Quebec Scot says:
    I have a question, not rhetorical: - given the surgical-strike ability developed by the Cummings' Tories and the complicity of the media in whatever they work up (thinking of the Handcock/Momentum/BBC thing at a moment when Momentum was having traction) is the new politics one where anyone who steps up effectively in the next four years (to point out the mendacity of the 40 hospitals pledge for example) ends up eviscerated in the pages of the Sun/Mail/Express/social media (remember the judges) and hounded to silence? The destruction of labour leaders (bar Blair who made his pact with Murdoch) is going to continue, but will anyone who puts their head above the parapet - down to the 'young canvassers' - be in the firing line? Rayner, I think, has significant potential as a Labour leader, but the assault on her would be horrific (The Sun lied about people urinating on corpses remember). Boris is on a leash that Trump's would-be handlers could only dream of ('hide him in the fridge') he's not to be debated or argued with, he'll have his script. To put it bluntly - what are any opposition's chances against this Deathstar? Where do you even start? (Naïve and pessimistic I know, but...)

  • 15 December 2019 at 5:23am
    FoolCount says:
    In terms of handwringing and soul-searching and new leadership, Labour has to understand that this was a complete one-off decided entirely on a single issue. Sure they messed up and lost this time, but there is no reason to wreck the party over it. I don't see why should Corbyn be resigning at all. He did not cause that but was rather forced into this impossible position by the Remain Zealots in the party, who cared nothing about the Labour ideals and principles, but only about their precious European Union. Now that all that is done and dusted and British people got their Brexit, all the traditional Labour voters will go back to the party in the next, non-Brexit, election and with an ambitious populist-socialist program Labour will win it without a doubt. Unless that program promises to join the EU again, of course.

    • 15 December 2019 at 10:24am
      semitone says: @ FoolCount
      You don't think Corbyn should resign? After losing two elections in less than 30 months, this last one by enough to make 2024 a huge challenge for his successor?

      Perhaps you weren't thinking very clearly at 5.23 this morning. Or perhaps it was just after Sunday breakfast time in Moscow.

  • 15 December 2019 at 10:30am
    semitone says:
    Corbyn was toxic to a majority of voters (even to those who, like me, held their collective noses and voted tactically for Labour). I can't see a scenario where he and his control-freak colleagues could have won an election with their radical manifesto. Too many Britons are patriotic and cautious to vote for a radical who won't sing the national anthem but spends time with or lays wreaths for terrorists.

    If the 2016 referendum had been won by Remain, or if May's deal had passed and we had left the EU, or in any other counterfactual you can describe, the Corbynist combination was always going to be a loser.

    • 15 December 2019 at 3:01pm
      joel says: @ semitone
      Johnson is so patriotic he turned up drunk on Remembrance Day and laid his wreath upside down. Fortunately the Beeb went full Stalinist and showed a clip from the 2016 ceremony instead.

  • 16 December 2019 at 3:04pm
    M Smith says:
    Having a leader other than Jeremy Corbyn might have helped....

  • 16 December 2019 at 3:13pm
    XopherO says:
    Goodness,so much disagreement, so much anger! What has not been mentioned is that the Blairites were determined to cause Corbyn to fail, Labour to lose, so they can try to regain control. Hodge was/is disgraceful. Blair said he wanted a hung parliament, well that was the only possible positive result since the SNP swiped Labour's seats in Scotland. What of course he really meant was he wanted Corbyn (and the Party) to lose. I agree with some of what FoolCount has argued. My cousin is a Party member and way back I told her the best bet was to back the May deal. A second referendum would have been even more poisonous and toxic than the first with no prospect of a truly definitive Remain. The May deal was better for both parts of Ireland, and for protecting workers rights than the Johnson deal, which itself was proposed by the EU to May as an alternative to the temporary backstop, and rejected outright, particularly by the DUP. - a permanent border down the Irish Sea, never! Ho Ho.The next election would have been 2022 with time for Labour to truly exploit the resulting Tory car crash. As it is, it is the worst of everything for everyone in the UK except of course the rich and greedy, and the USA. Trump wants to replace the current UK trade surplus with a USA trade surplus. Whatever the ins and outs of the detail, that simply can never be good for UK employment, the NHS, food and agriculture. But it will happen.

  • 16 December 2019 at 6:04pm
    Jack Watkins says:
    I can't believe these people are still talking. A little humility, please.

  • 16 December 2019 at 6:07pm
    Molloy says:
    For me, it is puzzling that Labour (the institution) is somehow gagged and coerced into not discussing action to be taken for blatant, plain as the nose on yer face, electoral fraud.
    Almost wondering if these were the unknown attendees at Ghislaine’s “parties”.

  • 16 December 2019 at 6:10pm
    Michael Collins says:
    We don’t hear much about the regional breakdown of the result in this lament for ‘realpolitick perdu’. Looks to my wizened eyes that once-solid Labour constituencies voted Tory, leaving Labour to vacuum up the wounded heart liberal enclaves in, famously and probably fatuously, north London, for example. Quite aside from Brexit we now need to factor in the Greta Tendency, important in the Vast Scheme of Things but probably not playing so vividly with those who have to use food banks in Hartlepool to sustain families, or full-time carers who haven’t left Rotherham for a decade or so.
    Please: no disingenuous blubbing from Muswell Hill about the “unfairness” of it all. See your Australian-born Labour MP if symptoms persist.

  • 16 December 2019 at 9:55pm says:
    Parliamentary democracy is the form Capital uses to maintain its power. The election is a charade. The Labour Party is dead. Momentum should leave and organise outside of the party system. Did anyone really believe that if Labour fluked an election win, power would just let it turn manifesto into action? Nobody should waste any more time or energy on parties, canvassing etc etc. Instead perhaps just follow the advice of Calvino. Find those not of the inferno and give them space and time.

  • 17 December 2019 at 3:36pm
    semitone says:
    Australia and the UK are not so different, electorally, despite the very different systems (Australian compulsory and preferential voting and its elected upper house). The strategies for winning elections are similar, though (Tony Abbott, Scott Morrison, and Cameron, May and now Johnson) - identify the necessary believable lie and repeat it with intensity, consistency and discipline. Ideally have a leader for whom the usual rules do not apply, and build a presidential, small-target campaign around them. Give very little airtime to anyone else from the front-bench; whatever you do, don't run as a team and don't run with a big-ideas project.

    Cameron and May didn't follow all those rules and nearly failed as a result. Abbott, Morrison and Johnson are the exemplars here while Corbyn and Shorten - both less popular than their parties, both bearing dozens of transformative policies - show just how not to do it.

    We may not know for a few years yet who Labour's best leader will be or what targeted three-word slogan is its best route to Government; though it's a shrewd guess that Becky Long-Bailey is a terrible choice. For this reason I hope the party elects an interim leader now to pursue the listening exercise and other chastening activities required of an opposition with less than a third of the chamber's seats, who will then step aside for the challenger six or eight months out from the 2024 election.

    • 17 December 2019 at 4:03pm
      XopherO says: @ semitone
      I hope whoever is chosen did not vote for the invasion of Iraq in 2002, even after Robin Cook gave one of the most brilliant resignation speeches against the war. This still resonates with some voters, including me. Corbyn was 'clean', at least. Yes there are many folk in the UK who are poor and suffering from years of neglect and insults, but the illegal invasion cost hundreds of thousands of innocent lives, and also a significant number of British servicemen who left behind loved ones. And it goes on. Even when Blair and the rest are in their graves, it will always be a stain on Labour.

    • 18 December 2019 at 8:45am
      XopherO says: @ XopherO
      That eliminates Yvette Cooper, and she did not come out of the expenses scandal very well. It would be interesting to know what Keir Starmer, lawyer, thought at the time.

    • 19 December 2019 at 12:41am
      Graucho says: @ XopherO
      Keir Starmer wrote a Guardian piece to the effect that the advice given to Blair that the war was legal was decidedly dodgy.

  • 18 December 2019 at 9:14am
    Gary McMahon says:
    I have noticed that everyone talking about Brexit whether For or Against always knows exactly what they are talking about.

  • 18 December 2019 at 2:48pm
    Charbb says:
    It's no good singing about the big membership. these are hundreds of thousands of zealous far left and far right (admirers of Putin) characters a million miles removed from the outlook of ordinary British people. They make Labour lose elections, not win them. They are a blight and a curse. Unless their death grip on the Labour Party is broken, Labour is doomed to wither away. Yvette Cooper or Hilary Benn could have crushed Johnson had they been leading the party.

  • 18 December 2019 at 2:52pm
    Charbb says:
    Well, with your approach justice won't be done and the heavens just fell. It's no good boasting about the big membership. These are hundreds of thousands of zealous far left and far right (admirers of Putin) characters a million miles removed from the outlook of ordinary British people. They make Labour lose elections, not win them. They are a blight and a curse. Unless their death grip on the Labour Party is broken, Labour is doomed to wither away. Yvette Cooper or Hilary Benn could have crushed Johnson had they been leading the party.

    • 18 December 2019 at 10:29pm
      JWA says: @ Charbb
      Oh yes, please do tell that to the children born with birth defects in Falluja, do it tell it to the teenagers with missing limbs and shrapnel scars in Iraq and Syria and Yemen and Libya, say it into their bullet holes, tell them that on Thursday the heavens fell in Britain.

      You may vote for warmongers. I would prefer not to.

    • 19 December 2019 at 10:54am
      XopherO says: @ Charbb
      I remember when the far left was indeed far left. I don't see that today - nothing that would have caused Attlee or even Wilson to blanch, and both won several elections, Wilson more than Blair. I think Mitterand once observed: Socialism is not left of centre, it is the centre, we are the centre, everything else is to the right. Blair is no socialist, or even a mild social democrat, as his cabalistic approach revealed, a kind of plutocrat. His comments yesterday show he has learned nothing about how he is really the architect of the state of Labour today. Cooper and Benn? - cloud cuckoo land. I agree with WJA. The warmongers have to be purged.

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