Here’s what I think: Why Labour lost the election

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Here's what I think: Why Labour lost the election 1

So sure was I that Labour were going to lose Thursday’s election that I began to write my first draft of this article a couple of weeks ago. However, such was the depth of this defeat, the winning margin for the Tories, and the massive swings away from Labour in its traditional heartlands, that I had to rip it all up and start again.

Here's what I think: Why Labour lost the election 2
Tom Cleaver

You see, Labour were always going to lose this election, if we are being honest. The polls were never close, and rarely showed any signs of a real surge in numbers. There were no inspiring moments during the campaign to enthuse activists or persuade potential voters, and that feeling of optimism and energy that you need in any campaign simply was not there. I allowed myself a small amount of baseless optimism over the last few weeks, that maybe there was something I’d missed, or that maybe somehow we could pull something out of the bag. However, at 10PM on Thursday that was washed away quite quickly.

This election was Labour’s worst since 1935, eighty four years ago. Sure, every election is a unique set of circumstances but we have reached unprecedented lows. The inquest is of course underway, Jeremy Corbyn called for “a time of reflection”, and for me it didn’t take long. Nor do I think we should be spending too much time “reflecting” when the world keeps turning and we have injustices to fight. But, alas, here we are: these are the reasons Labour lost the election, and the reasons we lost it so badly.

 

Complacency

For me, complacency tops the list. I’m sure the reasons will probably overlap, but this is the one I noticed and was angered by earliest. Labour’s complacency about this election began to set in not long after the last one. The surge in support towards us during the campaign in 2017 was amazing, and felt great to be a part of. It felt like we were gaining with every poll, and I am convinced that had that campaign gone on for two or three more days, we would have had a Labour Prime Minister. However, it didn’t, and we didn’t. We lost the election in 2017, but far too many people were treating it like a victory, and taking it for granted.

With Labour trailing by some way in all of the polls all summer and after, I was understandably concerned, but for some reason a lot of others were not. “Look what happened in 2017” was the cry, even though there was no evidence that anything similar was about to happen. Too many people within Labour were complacent that sooner or later that surge would come, and everyone would vote Labour.

People who suggested that a change of tack was needed were dismissed out of hand, named as centrists and Tories who just didn’t understand it. I, and many people like me, wanted a Labour government as the outcome of this election, but I can read a poll, hear what ordinary members of the public are saying, and determine a trend. Too many people in the Labour Party at this election either could not or chose to not do those three things.

 

We promised too much

I know the manifesto was fully costed, and I know that those policies would have improved people’s lives. However, churning out big policy after big policy after big policy sounded to the average voter like a long wish list of freebies. You could tell them until blue in the face that the manifesto was costed and that we had plans to actually pay for all of it, but to put it simply, just because something is true, that doesn’t make it believable.

While they may have been good policies, altogether they were not good politics. A sharp change in the levels of public spending played right into the Tories’ hands politically, allowing them to bring out the old soldier of how Labour were going to overspend and bankrupt the country. Going back to the aforementioned complacency, it’s like we didn’t stop to think how our policies would sound to the average voter. I understand that in the grand scheme of Europe the plans were not grand at all, but in the UK the Overton window is in a different place. We ran straight into the wall.

 

We abandoned our roots

In the Labour Party in recent years, a lot has been made of the “base”. The large number of members who subscribe to Momentum‘s ideology and methods, and have held Corbyn in his job as leader against the will of the Parliamentary Labour Party. However, in overplaying to that base, we abandoned the values of the roots of the Labour Party: the working class.

Now, the working class is far from a monolith, but there are certain opinions and values which are commonly held throughout the working class. The working class are by and large incredibly patriotic, and in large part aspirational. They want a leader who will stand up for them and the country, and allow them to get in life and progress. For far too many working class people, it felt like this Labour campaign was patronising them, was unpatriotic, and didn’t represent them. I’ll get onto the patronising and the unpatriotic-ness in a bit, but the fact that this Labour leadership has managed to create a version of the Labour Party that makes the working class feel unrepresented is detestable.

The working class Tory voters in the north that I listened to were not enthusiastic about voting Tory. In fact, many of them were nearly in tears when explaining their actions, but they simply could not stomach this Labour leadership, which to them was even more unpalatable than the Tories. That is a huge failure on the Labour Party’s part, and something we will have to rectify if we ever want to be in government again.

 

We didn’t explain our positions

As I’ve already alluded to, there were some good policies in our manifesto. Too many big changes, sure, but there were good, progressive policies there. A problem was, however, that we did not explain them well enough. Nationalisation is a key example of this. I explained in this column last week that when we sold off our public services, they were bought by other countries’ governments who underfund them and overcharge us for using them in order to make a healthy profit and subsidise their own countries.

The Labour Party, however, didn’t think to explain this to the voters, and just left nationalisation in the manifesto like a form of ideological stubbornness. It isn’t just that, though. What the hell is a “green industrial revolution”? What would it do, what are its policies, and how would it change and improve the lives of people in places like Sedgefield, Blyth, Grimsby, and Blackpool? Did no one in the leadership of the Labour Party think to explain this?

 

Jeremy Corbyn

It’s impossible for anything to go this badly wrong without the leader being responsible. All of the criticisms I have of Labour’s handling of the election ultimately apply to Corbyn and his leadership. He was complacent, he promised too much, he offered nothing to working class people up and down the country, he didn’t explain his positions, and he was the architect of the Labour Party’s worst result since the Second World War.

Sure, the media was against him, but his inability to cope with adversity, his inability to punch through, was bordering on criminal. Aside from a brief period in 2017, there were no moments around which supporters could rally, no zingers in the Commons, no great speeches, and very little enthusiasm. It felt to me like a large part of the job of being leader of the Labour Party felt like a chore to Corbyn.

I was pleasantly surprised by 2017 and will always advocate and campaign for a Labour government, but aside from a few weeks did anyone really believe it was going to happen? His placidity and hippyish willingness to get into bed with fringe activist groups may have won him goodwill in Islington, but buttered absolutely no parsnips outside of the M25. The people hated him, hated his connections with those fringe groups, and he never once spoke up to get them to change their minds.

 

It is obvious to almost everyone that Labour needs a different style of leadership to the one we have had since 2015. It is almost as obvious to anyone brave enough to say it the type of leader we need. By the time the polling stations open for the next General Election on 2nd May 2024, it will have been half a century since any Labour leader who’s name is not Tony Blair won one. While Blair may now be unpopular with the base, his pragmatism was what won the only three elections Labour have won in most of our lifetimes.

We need a leader who can convey to the working class and middle class of the country that they are putting the country first, a leader who speaks to them and makes them feel represented. We need to put our country above our party, and find ways to regain the trust of the electorate just as Tony Blair did back in the 1990s.

The leader of the Labour Party should in almost all cases be the Labour MP who people who voted for other parties could most imagine voting for. That would be a decent starting point. Policy proposals should be less radical and more appealing to the general public. They should also be well thought out and well explained. If the media is not onside we should face that head-on, and be on every television and radio show in the country presenting our case.

After a defeat as heavy as the one we suffered on Thursday, there is no guarantee that the Labour Party will ever be in government again. However, if we can rid ourselves of the problems I have identified, and learn lessons from both the defeat we have suffered, and the victories that some in the party would rather ignore, we can begin making steps back towards being a party of government.

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