There is hope to be found in the reasons for Labour’s 2019 defeat

It is far too early to say what politics will look like after the huge changes we are living through as a result of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. A new politics will emerge – and when it does, Labour needs to understand its past to be able to choose its future. Under Keir Starmer, the party has a new lease of life. But to have a hope of winning the next election, it needs to have an accurate understanding of why it lost the last four.

Labour for a European Future’s report on the 2019 general election identifies four main reasons why Labour lost, and lost so badly. The party leadership, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, were significant factors in Labour’s defeat. Corbyn was the most unpopular leader of a major party heading into an election since this data was first recorded. The leadership was the number one reason given for not voting Labour by all voters who voted for another party, including former Labour voters who defected, regardless of who they defected to.

The problem was broader than Corbyn as an individual. The party leadership made a number of unforced errors between 2017 and 2019 – including failure to act over antisemitism, prevaricating over Brexit and failing to prioritise national security after the Skripal poisonings – that collectively undermined public support. We should acknowledge, too, that Labour has fielded unpopular leaders in four successive elections – and has lost all four. If Labour wants to win next time, it needs to ensure that its leaders are popular. Policy alone will not get the party over the line.

Second, Brexit. Some argue that Brexit put Labour in an impossible situation but this is far from the truth. Based on polling Labour had the opportunity in late 2018 to support a second referendum and pick up a swathe of votes, shoring up marginal seats and putting themselves in contention to win an election. Instead months of internal wrangling over the party’s Brexit position culminated in a decision to support a second referendum but without backing Remain. This alienated Remain supporters without giving the space to make a serious pitch to Leavers. The result was that the anti-Brexit vote splintered, which was catastrophic for Labour.

We should remember that the Conservatives had the same problem as Labour. Their vote was also split between Leave and Remain but they responded more effectively, and more ruthlessly, to the changed electoral landscape in order to win. They chose to fully support the majority of their voters, who were Leavers. They successfully consolidated the Leave vote and held onto most of their Remain voters despite advocating a very hard Brexit policy. Conservative Remainers were in the end more afraid of a Corbyn government than they were a hard Brexit. 

For Labour, Brexit is a missed opportunity – a Conservative government prioritising ideology and a policy that will inflict huge damage to our economy could have been used to Labour’s advantage if opposed robustly. Labour has paid the electoral price. The country will pay the economic and social cost.

But to win next time, Labour must look beyond the unique reasons for its 2019 failure. Its electoral problems predate both Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the Brexit referendum. Long-term demographic and political changes have played a significant role. 

In the 1970s and 1980s, class was a significant determinant of party vote, but from the 1990s onwards it has become progressively less important. Labour is no longer simply the party of the working class, indeed since as far back as 2001 more Labour voters have come from ABC1 than C2DE social classes. 

In contrast, the influence of age, education and housing tenure has grown dramatically. Labour voters are now likely to be young, educated and living in rented or social accommodation. One consequence is that Labour voters are now concentrated in cities, meaning that Labour has a tendency to pile up large numbers of votes in safe seats in cities but find it harder to win votes in towns, which are generally more marginal. The electoral map of 2024 will bear little resemblance to the map of 2005 when Labour last won. 

Finally, people’s voting behaviour has become far more influenced by their views on social issues such as immigration and minority rights. The Brexit referendum exacerbated divides between social liberals, who tended to vote Remain, and social conservatives, who tended to vote Leave. In 2019, as many as 90% of the population had a settled view on Brexit. For many, it was the primary determinant of their vote, above economic policies or party loyalty. 

This values divide predates Brexit. Labour’s poor showing in the 2015 general election was in part down to social conservatives moving away from the party. Both the 2017 and 2019 elections saw Labour become even more dependent on the votes of social liberals.

Labour must not make the mistake of thinking that because Brexit is in progress this divide will disappear. People change their values slowly over time. It is in the Conservatives’ interest to stoke the culture war to consolidate socially conservative votes. They will look for ways to do that even without Brexit on the front pages.

Regardless, the majority of Labour’s vote is socially liberal. Labour cannot win without these voters, nor can it win with their votes alone. To gain a majority, Labour needs a broad coalition of values-based voters and others who are motivated by the economy or public services.

One factor that can help Labour is the stark difference between Leave voters who traditionally voted Labour and those who traditionally voted Conservative. In 2019, many of these people voted Conservative but they are not the same. Traditional Conservative Leavers were primarily motivated by Brexit, but traditional Labour Leavers were primarily motivated by 50,000 nurses and 40 hospitals. With more compelling leadership and a stronger campaign Labour can win these former supporters back.

This means that Labour must stay true to its values while offering specific and credible policies to attract wider support. The Conservatives have promised greater state intervention (and have been forced into it by the coronavirus crisis) but this is an uncomfortable, divisive and ultimately implausible position given their basic commitment to laissez-faire economics and a pared back state. Labour needs to exploit these contradictions.

There were other factors involved in Labour’s defeat. The manifesto was confused and poorly communicated, especially in comparison with the Conservatives’ focused campaign which spoke directly to voters’ priorities – Brexit, the NHS and police. Labour’s ground campaign was mismanaged, meaning that resources were misdirected and marginals needlessly lost. Labour’s long-term failure to respond to its collapse in Scotland again robbed it of seats that must be won to form a majority. Clarity on Scottish independence and investment in a true recovery north of the border must be a priority for the new leadership team. 

There is hope to be found in the reasons for Labour’s defeat. Brexit and immigration are fading as headline issues, allowing more space for a debate on economics and the role of the state where Labour is much stronger. The leadership candidate who consistently polled best with the general public is the party’s new leader, and is doing incredibly well. Other factors, like the changing determinants of voting behaviour, are long-term changes that should have been acknowledged and responded to years ago but still can be. Now is the time to engage with these issues and learn the lessons. Four years will pass soon enough.

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