The first anniversary of Labour’s 2019 defeat sparked sharp comment from Labour politicians in northern England. The thrust of the argument was that without a targeted effort on ‘traditional’ northern voters, Labour cannot become a winning general election force. Alas, the comments underestimated the challenge for several reasons. The two most obvious ones are that if all the ‘Red Wall’ seats are regained – totalling around 60, though there is no definitive list – Labour still loses a general election. Secondly, the party loses more support by so doing, as younger and more progressive voters would move to other parties – as has happened in Scotland.
A longer-perspective look at election data shows that the problems facing Labour are not simply down to the 2019 election, Jeremy Corbyn, antisemitism or Brexit. Certainly, Brexit and the leader’s reputation and political stance caused serious problems a year ago. But Labour was in trouble even before Corbyn became leader. Indeed, Keir Starmer has pointed out that the previous three elections were also lost, and these were when Labour had the support of ‘Red Wall’ voters. An approach that argues Labour should focus primarily on the Red Wall seats has lost the plot.
It is equally true that the seductive approach of reviving a New Labour strategy has factional support. This is the more immediate danger. Jeremy Gilbert has argued: “Whether or not there is any chance of Labour winning the next election, the same people will be running the party as were running it between 1985 and 2015.” Not the same personnel exactly – Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and John Prescott will not be on our TV screens. But Gilbert has a point, and the New Labour brigade have spent the last five years waiting for the wheel of fortune to turn in their direction.
The data does not support their belief that they have a magic formula, and those Blairites who blame Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband for losing the magic formula are out of step with reality. Losing support started under Blair, not Brown. Blairites are right to say Blair won three elections with parliamentary majorities. But the stats show that he was losing support rapidly after the peak of 1997 – and he was building on a declining Labour base to begin with. Blair faced the same problem as Corbyn after 2017; Blair’s achievement was short-term. A rapid burst of support in 1997 and 2017 immediately started to erode for both leaders.
There are two ways to assess electoral performance: vote share and seats won. Seats won are the headline facts, showing who can form a government, while vote share is of greater importance in the long term. When the four elections before the 1997 landslide are put into the equation, Labour’s performance shows that even with the Red Wall seats, which were held throughout the period after Margaret Thatcher won in 1979, Labour struggled to win general elections. The Blair project was an attempt to reverse this pattern.
This is clear from the performance in returning MPs after the 1974 October election, which is the last time Harold Wilson won a majority of seats – 319 of 635, a majority of just two, but still a majority. Labour then lost in 1979 (269 of 635), 1983 (209 of 650), 1987 (229 of 650) and 1992 (271 of 651). In 1992, Labour got 34.4% and well short of a majority of MPs. The problem Blair faced when taking over in 1994 was that relying on traditional supporters left Labour short at general elections.
Blair’s team, including Brown, Mandelson and others, devised the New Labour project to win fresh support. It seemed a staggering success. In 1997, Labour gained 418 MPs – the all-time record. But psephologists pointed out this was with a less than impressive 43.2% of the vote. A historical comparison shows that in 1959 Labour had gained slightly more, 43.9%, but returned only 258 MPs. The long-term trend developing in 1997 was Labour’s shifting support into big cities.
This was not noticed in the euphoria of reversing four election defeats, and as Blairites repeatedly point out their leader went on to gain two more parliamentary majorities. But what they do not explain is why the vote share and number of MPs were in decline, and why the peak vote in 1997 was short-lived. Starmer would be exceptionally unwise to listen to New Labour’s advocates, for there was short-term gain and long-term pain.
In 2001, Labour returned 412 MPs with a 40.7% vote share. In 2005, Labour returned an apparently healthy 355 MPs – but with only 35.2% of the vote. The slide in vote share was not widely noticed, even though it continued. Brown lost in 2010 with a mere 258 MPs and a catastrophic 29% of the vote. Miliband five years later in 2015 gained only a measly 30.5% vote share and even fewer MPs – 232. He had lost Scotland.
As the New Labour project had clearly failed, the membership swung left. Corbyn had his chance and the dead cat bounce of 2017 happened with an impressive upswing – a 40% vote share resulting in 262 MPs. While this was short-lived, it is only fair – even for a non-Corbynite like myself – to point out that he was more successful than Brown or Miliband in both vote share and the number of MPs in 2017, and more successful in vote share than either in 2019.
However, the loss of MPs in 2019 was disastrous. With Red Wall seats turning to the Tories, it is foolish not to admit that Corbyn’s politics were out of touch and out of date. But it also should be accepted that New Labour politics, with or without a Blair tincture, are equally bankrupt.
Labour must look at the decline of its fortunes over decades. The failure of New Labour and the failure of Corbynism are two sides of the same coin. Labour has been outfought by a Tory Party that at each election since 2001 has increased its popular vote. As both the right and left wings of the party have had their chance to address the problems, it is now time to look at long-term trends. Above all, avoid giving all attention to the Red Wall seats. The problems of the Labour Party run across the whole of the UK. A big-picture, historical analysis is essential.