Lessons from the 2019 General Election

Most of the analysis I’m reading about the election defeat is not analysis, but schadenfreude.  I sometimes write polemics, and sometimes calls to arms, but today, let’s start with some facts, shall we?

Here’s the last five elections.  Total votes cast for Labour, and the percentage of the electorate at the time that voted Labour.  Figures are often given as percentage of votes cast, but that’s less informative.  The challenge for Labour is threefold:

1. get your base to turn out,

2. win votes from other parties, and

3. persuade causal voters to vote. 

Expressing the data as the percentage of the total electorate captures all three. 

The electorate has increased by less than the population over this time. For example, EU citizens are not eligible to vote. I think if you pay tax here, you should be allowed to vote here.

Some will argue that it’s seats that matter.  That’s true, of course.  But to get seats you need votes.  If you get them and still lose seats, that’s down to the electoral system.  In 2019, in particular, the decision of Farage’s Brexit Party to split the vote by standing only in Labour seats was beyond the control of any Labour leader. 

A detail not shown in that table is that the SNP vote pretty much tripled from 2015 onwards, after the 2014 Indy Ref.  I’m not close enough to Scottish politics to offer a detailed opinion, but clearly Scottish Independence is compounding Labour’s problems in Scotland. 

All we can reasonably expect is that a good manifesto, good messaging, and a good leader will get us enough votes nationally, and local campaigns can maximise on that strategy. 

Some historical context.  in 2005, Tony Blair had just come out of the Iraq war.  Since that was a war of his choosing, he’s responsible for the electoral consequences. I’ll not go on a rant about him needing to face a war-crimes tribunal.  He faced the utterly hopeless Michael Howard, with something-of-the-night about him.    

In 2010, Gordon Brown had navigated the global financial crash.  Any fair minded person would concede that was an external event, giving him at least a hill to climb, if not a mountain.  He faced the slick, hug-a-hoody David Cameron and I-agree-with-Nick Clegg. 

Between 2010 and 2015, Ed Miliband had faced Cameron after the Con-Dem coalition.  The Lib Dem vote collapsed from 6.8 to 2.4 million, not least after their tuition fee betrayal.  But UKIP rose from 0.9 to 3.9 million votes, predominantly in Labour heartlands. 

In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn faced Theresa May in a post referendum landscape. Most of his Parliamentary Party had turned against him in 2016, but the party membership had nearly trebled. 

In 2019 Jeremy Corbyn faced Boris Johnson.  Brexit had become a national farce, dominating politics and the news for three years.  Disaffected Labour right wingers had consistently publicly attacked him for four years, and some defected, asking people to vote Tory. 

So they all had their challenges, but Blair’s were self-inflicted. 

What’s the relevance to the 2019 result? 

There are three narratives competing to become the accepted truth of 2019.

1) Labour lost because Jeremy Corbyn is personally unpopular. 

2) Labour lost because it was too left wing.

3) Labour lost because of its Brexit position.

Leaving Scotland aside, 1 (JC’s popularity) is partially true.  2 (too left wing) is false.  3 (Brexit) is evidentially true. 

What few have mentioned, though, is

4) Labour’s campaigning methods are inadequate to 2019.

Let’s take each in turn. 

1) Labour lost because Jeremy Corbyn is personally unpopular. 

The hard evidence from the votes cast shows that whatever people felt about JC, he did pull in more votes than recent leaders. That’s evidentially true, whether in absolute numbers, or as a proportion of the electorate. 

Maybe more electors voted Labour because of him, maybe despite him.  We’ll never know, because ballot papers don’t record this information.

Anecdotally, there’s strong evidence that Jeremy was personally unpopular. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that it’s subject to confirmation bias.  You notice what you expected to see, and tend to ignore what doesn’t fit your expectations. 

When knocking a Labour voters, the most frequent comment is a brief “Yep, I’m voting labour.” We tend not to mentally extrapolate this to, “And that implicitly means that I am happy with Jeremy Corbyn as leader and supportive of him being prime minister.” But that is what’s implied.

It’s certainly true that many people report voters saying they don’t like JC.  But that was exactly the same with Blair (liar, warmonger, control freak), Brown (dour, miserable), Miliband (Marxist, intellectual, couldn’t eat a bacon sandwich).  I knew a teacher who burned an effigy of Gordon Brown.  I never got to the bottom of that particular irrational hatred. 

Why is it that Labour leaders are unpopular?  Both Jeremy Corbyn and Ed Miliband are warm, authentic personal communicators.  But only 0.01% of the electorate will ever meet them.  With 80% of the press owned by far-right tax exile billionaires, and Britain’s ineffective press regulation, there’s so much mud, a lot of it sticks. 

In JC’s case, the unprofessional and undisciplined behaviour of large parts of the Parliamentary Labour Party created a long running press saga.  There were front bench resignations and people refusing to serve in the shadow cabinet from day one.  Jess Phillips threatening to knife him in the front. The bungled coup attempt of July 2016. There was outright sabotage for four years, with MPs elected on Labour tickets who would rather see a Tory victory than a socialist win power.

What effect does this have on the electorate?  Voters expect opposing parties to throw mud.  But when they see your own side bad mouthing the leader, it sticks.  So those Labour MPs who could not accept the democratic result of the leadership elections must take a slice of the blame.  It is unreasonable to say “people don’t like Jeremy” if you’ve been piling in for the past four years. 

Classy.

This is not a new phenomenon.  The same occurred against Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband, but nothing like to the same extent.  We should have our policy debates at conference, and then MPs should support the party they stood for. 

There’s also an element of exaggeration of the voters on the doorstep.  On polling day someone said to me, “I’ve been a lifelong Labour voter, but not with that leader.”  I checked the marked register, which showed that he had not voted at all in the last 8 elections.  Some voters do lie to us. 

Related to a leader’s popularity, is their performance in debates.  There is never any hard evidence, it’s largely a judgement call.  But it’s fair to say that in debates with Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn made some very solid points, and also missed some opportunities.

My feeling is that Jeremy was broadly on a par with Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband for ability.  I can’t recall a Tony Blair debate.  But it’s fair to say that Blair was one of the better political performers of recent decades. A large part of his early popularity was his ability, rather than his politics. This would explain why his popularity waned so quickly after he was elected.

And there’s no correlation between a politician’s politics and their debating skills. John McDonnell would have ripped Sajid Javid to bits.

I know a lot of people at home think politicians should have said X or challenged Y, but don’t knock it till you’ve tried it.  It’s not easy performing under that much pressure.   

2) Labour lost because it was too left wing.

There is not even any anecdotal evidence for this.  People support the policies.  Everyone I speak to says voters were won over by polices, some said they didn’t like the leader, but liked the manifesto.   And above all, the Tories have aped our approach and now pretend to be anti-austerity. 

This is a classic case of “They’ll stop chasing you when you stop running.”

In summer 2015, wave after wave of commentator, Labour grandee and Guardian columnist claimed that an anti-austerity, pro-public investment manifesto would be disaster.  They.  Were.  Wrong. 

You have to wonder, if Ed had stuck to his guns and we’d gone with a stronger manifesto in 2015, would we have won?   We’ll never know for sure. 

Some claim the 1997 victory was the result of a shift to the right. It wasn’t. In September 1992, Sterling crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism on Black Wednesday. Labour took a 20 point poll lead. John Smith was on track for a 1997 landslide before his tragic death. Tony Blair took over and won with a 12.5% margin. New Labour lost votes ever after.

The 1997 Blair government implemented possibly the best Labour policy in my lifetime: the National Minimum Wage. At the time, it was genuinely radical. We got pilloried in the press: it would cause unemployment, businesses would collapse, inflation would rocket. But it was popular. People like radical policies, as long as they’re clear.

One lesson we can learn, is whoever replaces Jeremy, we must not revert to triangulation.  Even now, our attacks on the Tories are blunted by them saying, “Labour did loads of PFI” or “Labour introduced tuition fees”. 

3) Labour lost because of its Brexit position.

Labour found itself between a rock and a hard place.  With around 90% of the membership being pro-European, backing Brexit was always going to be require us to campaign for something we thought was a bad policy.  Many people in Leave areas warned that we would lose votes if we were pro-second referendum.  That is undeniably true.  You’ve only to look at the North East results and see the Labour votes shift to the Brexit Party in as close a correlation as you ever get in politics. 

The counter argument is that if we had voted for Theresa May’s deal, we would have lost Remain voters.  We can never know for sure, but it certainly sounds plausible. 

I doubt there exists a Brexit position that would have been electorally favourable.  However, there could have been a Brexit approach that would have been more favourable.  The party leadership adopted a don’t-interrupt-your-enemy-when-he’s-making-a-mistake approach while Theresa May was politically dying. 

This may have worked, but for the fact that too many MPs showed no discipline whatsoever.  It’s one thing to break a whip on a matter of political principle; I have no problem with principled politicians – I am one.  But to run to the press every five minutes and have a go at your own Party is self-destructive.  Chuka Umunna exemplifies this. In his brief 2015 leadership bid he called for immigration controls and respecting the anti-European feeling of voters. Then he did a Boris and decided his career would be better served by flipping his European position, and had already done the damage long before he left to found the Tiggers, and lost as a Lib Dem. 

An alternative might have been to propose a clear deal of our own, rather than just a set of principles.  We could have then engaged on the arguments for single market membership, or Norway+, or whatever. We’d have looked decisive.  But Remainers would still have seen us as Leavers, and die-in-a-ditch Brexiters would have cried Brexit-in-name-only.  And the chances of the PLP holding that line were zero. 

After 2015, Liz Kendall and Chuka Umunna both suggested we swing in a soft anti-immigration direction. This would be a mistake now. Most of last week’s Labour voters were pro-Remain, and are overwhelmingly progressive. We must not abandon BAME communities, in the hope of placating Europhobes.

The Brexit conclusion?  This was always difficult.  We have to take this one on the chin, and move on. 

4) Labour’s campaigning methods are inadequate to 2019.

This, more than anything else, is what needs addressing. 

We failed to get the cut-through we needed. I suspect this is a universal opinion. We had some very strong policies that were very popular. But the manifesto, at 115 pages long, was not able to compete with “Get Brexit Done”. Our messaging was better in 2017, with simpler policies. Let’s forget

Let’s not be carried away by strap-lines, either. They matter less than being able to simply explain your policies.

Thatcher had “The Challenge of Our Times” in 1983 and “The Next Moves Forward” in 1987. How crap are they? Vote for strong, fair, equal, change, together forward, Britain, stable change, future. All rubbish. Say what you’re going to do, then say it again.

80% of the press is owned by far-right tax exile billionaires, and the broadcast media allow them to set the agenda.  The Guardian was consistently undermining Corbyn, and pro-Lib Dem recently.   Even the Mirror weighed in against JC in the leadership elections. 

Door knocking can be effective, but it is a time consuming, skilled task.  A personal conversation with an enthused activist is the second most effective way to win someone’s vote.  (The first is talking personally to the candidate). 

Much of our campaigning focuses on getting out the vote.  But we need to persuade people to vote for us in the first place.  If we want to talk to 52,000 electors in a constituency, just once per Parliament, that’s 200 conversations a week, every week, for five years.  Not doors knocked, not voter ID, but authentic, two-way conversations.  That requires finding people in, who are willing to talk. 

So let’s do door knocking, but recognise it as primarily a GOTV activity, not a hearts-and-minds tool. 

We need a heart-and-minds approach about values and principles between elections, and not just a transactional this-is-what-we’ll-do-for-you blitz at election time.  We should see this in the same way that an artist builds up a following.  Comedian, musician, writer – they all create an ongoing dialogue with their audiences, who get to know them.  Select candidates early, and support them with tools and training.  It would be money well spent. 

This dovetails with community organising and building a presence on social media, including blogs and videos for each constituency. 

We need to find a way for the majority of our half-a-million members to contribute easily.  We need software that is easy for beginners to use, that allows production of personal, almost blog style leaflets introducing candidates.  Too often our leaflets try too hard – a few bullet points that come across a bit too sales like. 

Between elections, let local parties fund and get out simple but authentic leaflets to every home.  This needs simpler ways to track what’s been put out, and where.  Many of our current tools have a steep learning curve that cuts out most members.  We’ve started to make strides on this as a party, but we have a way to go. 

Running like a red thread though all of this has to be genuine dialogue.  Not “you should vote for us because…” but “what sort of world would you like to live in?”  and “what can we do here?”  Definitely not a continuous pop at the Tories or Lib Dems on the local council, but something that appeals to the positive parts of the imagination.

Yes, we will replace Jeremy with a new leader, that’s going to happen.  But like Ed Miliband before him, and Gordon Brown before him, she will be vilified by the press using any hook they can.  

Every Labour leader will be vilified if they act against the interests of billionaires.

What we must retain is the mass membership, increasingly diverse campaigning methods, and the baby steps we’ve taken towards democratising the party. 

Boris Johnson and the Tories are unable to deliver the land of Brexit milk and honey.  His honeymoon will be short.  We must keep our strong polices on climate change, which will grow as an issue over the next five years.

We need to be on the ground, to stop far right populism growing.  The opportunity for a socialist government is still there.  The evidence shows it. To win, we must learn from what’s happened and build, rather than a knee-jerk reversion to centralised centrism.