Following Labour’s landslide defeat at the 2019 general election, it seems that the party is unable or unwilling to accept the real reason why they were so heavily beaten across the country, including in areas that used to be their traditional heartlands. Whilst it is true that Labour’s perceived ambiguity over Brexit cost them votes in Leave-voting areas, they also lost a near equal amount of Remain voters. This indicates that there were other factors in play that caused Labour to lose so many seats, namely the overwhelmingly negative perception the public had of Jeremy Corbyn, in some cases justified and others not, the poor presentation of Labour’s policies in the campaign, and basic errors regarding electoral strategy. However, to accept these criticisms would mean Corbyn and his inner circle admitting that they wasted the last five years in Opposition and were fundamentally wrong about what they thought would appeal to voters, something which they will never do.

The main reason why Labour did so poorly in the election is due to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst the majority of newspapers did take a negative view of him from the outset, which was evident in their coverage, voters aren’t stupid and are able to make up their own minds about a politician’s competence and likability without help from the media. Over the past five years there have been an endless number of reasons why the public would be turned away from Corbyn, whether that be his incredibly poor handling of Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis, his association with extremist groups that have promoted violence against civilians, or his occasional willingness to take the side of dictatorships. In the 2017 election these factors did not matter as much as Corbyn was up against Theresa May, a political leader with the charisma and interpersonal skills of cement, and therefore by comparison he looked like a breath of fresh air for British politics. However, in 2019 he was unable to pull off this trick a second time, and with nothing else to fall back on the voters turned against him.

Labour’s presentation of its policies was also another area in which it failed miserably compared to its performance in 2017. In the 2017 election, Labour’s manifesto came across as both radical and credible, increased spending on health and education paid for by increased taxes on the rich will always go down well, but the additional policies of nationalisation of rail, water and energy added a level of intrigue that the Conservatives could not match. In 2019, the manifesto borrowed lots from the 2017 document and added some extra measures such as the nationalisation of broadband, this made Labour’s election offering seem both stale and also unrealistic. While the party’s new radical policies may have polled well amongst the public on an individual basis, this means nothing if the voters do not believe you have the economic credibility to implement your programme. There is also the fact that this time Labour was not running against a Conservative manifesto whose main offering was a dementia tax and the return of grammar schools and fox hunting. The 2019 Tory manifesto offered little beyond delivering Brexit and this strategy struck a chord with the public and also allowed them to evade scrutiny of their plans by the media. Labour on the other hand were keen to talk about any policy area other than Brexit, which opened them up to criticism of every aspect of their plans as well as them still coming under attack for their vague and ever-shifting Brexit plans.

Basic incompetence and overconfidence also contributed towards Labour losing seats that they had held for decades previously. The surprise 2017 election result had given Labour’s election coordinators ambitions that they could take swathes of Tory seats and redraw the electoral map of Britain, blind to the fact that they made gains in 2017 only due to Tory weaknesses and not Labour’s strengths meant that they succeeded in redrawing the electoral map of Britain, just in a way that wasn’t in their favour. The list of target seats for Labour in the 2019 election was far larger than the list of seats that Labour felt they needed to defend, in the end only one target seat was gained whilst the majority of the seats they focussed on defending were lost, as well as scores of others that they did not think they had a possibility of losing. Local activists who reported that the seats they were campaigning in were seeing Labour voters desert the party en masse were ignored and instead sent to seats that the Tories had no chance of losing. An example of this can be seen where activists from Bury North were ordered to campaign in Altrincham and Sale West, a seat that had been held by the Conservatives for decades. Labour ended up losing Bury North by 105 votes whereas the Tories saw their majority in Altrincham and Sale West decrease by 287 votes. It wasn’t just party activists that were ignored, polling and focus groups conducted by Labour indicated that they were going to lose by a landslide, but this information was ignored by Corbyn and his inner circle who believed that the data had to be wrong and refused to change course in any way whatsoever. If this lack of willingness to engage with reality had not been present, then Labour could have avoided such a catastrophic defeat.

Evidence that Labour has not accepted the true reasons why they lost the election can be seen in the state of the current leadership and deputy leadership contests, with candidates in both insisting that Brexit and the media were the causes of their failure, not Corbyn or their election strategy. Even the more moderate entrants feel the need to pander to the narrative that the Corbynite section of the Labour membership have convinced themselves of. If the current attitude that the party holds towards their 2019 defeat is continued by whoever becomes the next Labour leader, then the party will move no closer to power and may even lose further seats at the next election. Most seats that Labour holds that are not within cities or south Wales are now marginal seats, some of them only being held by less than a thousand votes. Labour’s priority must be to retain these constituencies with safer majorities as well as begin to win back their former heartlands, if this cannot be achieved then Labour has no chance of forming even a minority government, let alone one with a majority. While it is almost guaranteed that Labour will not win the next general election, it is entirely possible that they may win the one after that, but this can only occur if the party accepts the reality of why they lost the 2019 election. If they fail to do this then they are condemning themselves to permanent Opposition and letting down the people in this country who so desperately need a Labour government.

Cameron Forbes

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