It was strategy not policy which lost Labour the election

Labour needs reform - but not a return to 'the centre'.

First thing’s first: a bit of perspective. This was no landslide.

The Conservative vote increase in this election was just 1.2%. Under a PR system, a rainbow coalition (of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Green) would have 326 seats next to 288 Conservative seats.

As for the idea that the Labour vote has collapsed, Corbyn’s share of the vote this time around was 32.2%. This is 1.8% higher than it was in the 2015 election when Ed Milliband was leader and 3.2% higher than the 2010 election when Gordon Brown was leader. Suggestions from political pundits that Corbyn and McDonnell came within an inch of destroying the Labour Party are majorly exaggerated.

Still. It’s little compensation to argue that Corbyn still outperformed his predecessors. Losing is losing, and the Labour Party clearly needs to change. But how?

Already there are voices arguing that Labour needs to shift to the centre ground. Alan Johnson has said he wants the Momentum ‘cult‘ out of his party. Jess Philips has claimed that the public has rejected Corbyn’s offer to the electorate.

But what would a shift to the centre mean for Labour? Let’s be clear. Labour were proposing that public spending be raised to 43.3% as a proportion of national income. In Germany it’s 45.2%, in Sweden 48.4%, in France 55.7%.

By international standards the proposed spending plan was simply bringing Labour in line with the average.

In terms of tax increases: the Labour manifesto proposed that the top rate of corporation tax be raised to 26%. Italy’s is 27%, Germany’s is 29%, France’s is 34%. Put in perspective, the suggestion from centrists that Labour has swung to the far left begins to seem a little over the top.

More importantly, the Tory manifesto in this election involved a pledge to reverse plans to lower corporation tax and to spend £100 billion on UK infrastructure. They have essentially caved in to international pressure (from the IMF, no less) to reverse austerity measures and increase public spending.

As Labour’s tax spend proposals were really not that radical, and as the Conservatives have shifted to the centre ground: the fact is, there really isn’t much manoeuvre room for Labour to shift to the centre.

The idea that centrism is the answer to solving the Labour Party’s problems is further discredited by the dismal performance of so-called centrists in the recent election.

The Liberal Democrats had an opportunity to sweep up in this election as the only party in England representing the views of remain voters. They gained one seat. All 18 defectors who left their parties to adopt a centrist position in this election – Anna Soubry and Chuka Ummuna among them – lost their seats.

To the rallying cry from centrists that Labour needs to shift to the centre the obvious reply is: where exactly is that centre ground? And where is the evidence that centrism works as an electoral strategy?

The way forward cannot be to backpedal to the pre-2017 era when two consecutive centre-left Labour campaigns resulted in even greater defeats.

Labour’s policies were not the problem: a YouGov Poll suggests that 64% of voters supported the Green New Deal and 61% supported a reversal on austerity measures. Instead of questioning the one thing we got right, we need to think about what we did wrong and how we could do things differently.

Below, then, are my three suggestions.

  1. This election was lost because of Labour’s unclear position on Brexit.

The first failure was the decision to deprioritise Brexit in the election campaign, when it was clearly people’s number one concern.

The second was to misjudge the mood of the nation by proposing a second referendum, when there was clearly collective fatigue on the issue.

The third was the decision that Corbyn should remain neutral in terms of which Brexit option he supported, as it meant he wasn’t able to defend the Labour Party’s proposed alternative to Johnson’s deal.

The sad fact is that Labour were in a strong position owing to the extreme stances that Johnson and Swinson chose to take.

If Labour had led with the promise of negotiating a soft Brexit as a compromise between the two extreme options of hard Brexit and revoking Article 50 they could have united remainers and leavers.

A 2019 YouGov poll found that soft Brexit was ‘the option palatable to the highest number of people’ – suggesting that adopting a clear position of appealing ‘to the median voter’ was the position most likely political to ‘unlock electoral success’. And yet a series of strategic errors meant that Labour failed to present themselves in this way.

What is the lesson to be learnt? Again, the policy wasn’t the problem. Labour’s manifesto clearly outlined how it would renegotiate a softer Brexit deal with a new customs union.

The YouGov poll suggests that, in policy terms, this was the most popular option among voters. The failure was Labour’s inability to communicate this position clearly.

While I find it hard to see what exactly politicians like Philips and Johnson are proposing when they argue that Labour needs to shift to the centre – there is one definite sense in which the suggestion that we look back to the Blair years seems to make sense.

When Blair came into power in 1997 he set up a strategic communications unit and effectively created a press office run by Alistair Campbell.

The move is often seen as cynical – but the context needs remembering: eighteen years of Tory rule in which consecutive leaders (Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith) suffered in the polls as the media ganged up against them.

Seamus Milne, as Labour’s strategy director, effectively filled this role in the 2019 election: but under his guidance there has been a clear failure to provide simple easy-to-understand messaging; to respond to the mood of the nation; and to think about how to coordinate the party’s public image.

I am not suggesting a return to the Blair era in which an obsession with public image sometimes preceded policy making: but a more concentrated and pragmatic approach party messaging absolutely needs to be a priority in future.

2. This election was lost because of Labour’s failure to form a Progressive Alliance.

First, Labour needed a degree of realism in response to the polls instead of the blind hope that the 2017 pollster failure to anticipate Labour’s success might be repeated.

Second, Labour needed to respond to the polls by making greater efforts to cooperate with other parties. Swinson’s decision to run an aggressively anti-Corbyn campaign certainly made the possibility of a Progressive Alliance difficult – but the stakes were high enough here that Labour should have tried to force it through anyway.

Standing down Labour candidates in seats where Lib Dems had a clear chance of beating Tory candidates, such as Dominic Raab’s Esher and Walton, but also seats like Wimbledon and Winchester, would have cost the party nothing.

The gains for Labour if the Lib Dems had returned the favour could have been huge – Labour could have won seats in Blyth Valley, Bolton North East, Bury South, Gedling, Heywood & Middleton, High Peak, Kensington and Stoke-on-Trent Central, to name just a few.

The Tory majority in this election was massively helped by the Brexit Party standing down 317 candidates in Tory seats, whilst the Lib Dems stood candidates in key Labour marginals.

Forming an alliance to keep the Tories out does not have to equate to a commitment to coalition government or a sacrificing of principles. It is reckless of Labour not to pursue this objective seriously.

3. This election was lost because of public distrust of Jeremy Corbyn.

Campaigning for the party, I can attest that this was the most frequently raised concern on people’s doorsteps.

I have written elsewhere about how unwarranted most of the accusations were. Yet even if the accusations were to have had merit – we can all accept that the smearing of Corbyn’s character was disproportionate compared to the smearing of Johnson’s, and that Johnson’s failings are greater.

This suggests the need to accept that the primary issue here was the nature of the media bias and the spread of disinformation.

To suggest that this is just an excuse for Labour’s failings (as Andrew Marr does in this interview with John McDonnell) is to overlook the magnitude of the media bias and disinformation problem highlighted in a number of independently conducted surveys by reputable research bodies.

On the subject of media bias: a Loughborough University survey has assessed news stories on television and in print media during the election campaign.

Each story with positive implications for a leading party came with a +1 score for that party; each story with a negative implication came with a -1 score for that party.

When weighted by circulation the survey results found consistently that in the first three weeks Labour scored negatively between 60 and 80 million, whilst the Conservatives scored positively between 15 and 30 million. That is a colossal media bias favouring the Conservatives in television and print media coverage.

On the subject of disinformation, there are three issues here: first disinformation in print and television media.

An LSE survey found that 74% of newspaper articles ‘offered either no or a highly distorted account of Corbyn’s views and ideas’ and that only 9% were ‘positive’ in tone.

Second, the disproportionate amount of disinformation circulated by the right online and through social media. A Loughborough University survey revealed that those who identify as being on the right are three times more likely to admit to having ‘engaged in intentional disinformation when sharing news’ than those on the left.

Third, disproportionate willingness of the Conservative Party to spread disinformation in its campaign. First Draft – a non-profit data analysing organisation – analysed every ad promoted by the UK’s three main political parties on Facebook in the first four days of December, and found that 88% of Conservative targeted adverts contained misleading information, whilst this was true of 0% of Labour’s campaign adverts.

The simple fact is: Britain’s media is owned by a handful of billionaires with vested interests in discrediting a political party pushing for progressive fiscal policies.

Those who think the problem will disappear once Corbyn is gone are deluding themselves about how the media landscape has evolved over the past few years.

It is quite plain that a better strategy is needed for dealing with an emboldened media, the Conservative Party’s adoption of Trump-inspired disinformation tactics, and the increasing use of social media platforms to spread of such disinformation.

Ultimately, I think the solution to these problems has to be legislative: the monopolisation of media by billionaires needs to be regulated; the spread of misinformation online needs to be monitored; and stricter rules for spreading disinformation in election campaigns need to be implemented. But while these avenues remain closed to us we need to be pragmatic.

Labour need to improve their online game. Between 28th October and 11th December the Conservatives election ad strategy involved running over 9,000 adverts with small spends targeted at specific areas, next to Labour’s 1,000.

The Conservative’s ad campaign targeted Labour marginals while Labour spent more heavily on individual adverts targeted at existing supporters. The Labour campaign in effect failed to utilise the option of sophisticated targeted election ads on social media platforms.

Labour also needs to utilise its support base more effectively. It has the biggest membership of any political party in Europe. That membership is currently being utilised in a way that does not reflect changes in how election campaigns are being fought and won by the right.

I was one of the many canvassers mobilised by Momentum, sent knocking on doors in constituencies with Tory incumbents like Chingford, Uxbridge and Harrow East. Clearly the strategy of trying to win Conservative seats rather than acknowledging the need for a defensive strategy focussing on Labour’s red wall was misguided.

But what was also misguided was the lack of imagination in thinking about how to make best use of this army of volunteers. The Leave campaign funded by Aaron Banks was fought and won online: they funded newsites like Breitbart UK, they ran targeted Facebook ads, they generated a formidable online presence.

It might be cynical, but there’s no reason why the left couldn’t deploy similar tactics while maintaining integrity and a commitment to telling the truth. We are in the midst of an information war: we have the advantage of being on the right side and having the largest numbers. We need to make better use of these advantages.

In short: to argue that Labour should return to the centre is to rehash old objections to Labour’s realignment that are no longer relevant. Corbyn was right in his article in the Guardian following his defeat when he said ‘on austerity, on corporate power, on inequality and on the climate emergency we have won the arguments and rewritten the terms of political debate’.

What he meant was that the Tories have conceded ground. The Labour Party cannot shift to the centre without muddying the clear blue water between us and the Tories. Instead we need to think strategically about how we can win future elections.

Labour needs a transformation in its approach to communication and strategy; it needs to seriously contemplate forming Progressive Alliances for future elections; it needs to develop policy proposals for combatting media bias and the spread of disinformation; it needs up its online game to target the seats in which it is most vulnerable; and it needs to think hard about how to better utilise its massive membership in fighting elections.

We need to admit that the forecast for Johnson is positive: we are entering a period of economic recovery, low interest rates mean government borrowing is easier, and in the short-term, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has the potential to stabilise markets after years of uncertainty.

DUP losses and SNP gains might indicate that his deal runs the risk of splitting the Union – but, first: he might yet manage to marginalise ERG members within his party and push though a softer Brexit; and second, if not – the threat to the Union isn’t likely to materialise until a later date.

In short, we cannot be complacent. We need to change – but we cannot have more years of infighting. We need to be united and we need to think tactically – maintaining the values that have been re-established within the party, but transforming Labour into a vote winning machine.

Luke Davies is an academic researcher at UCL and a freelance journalist

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17 Responses to “It was strategy not policy which lost Labour the election”

  1. Cole

    You’re being too kind to Corbyn. The media has always been foul to Labour (remember the Zinoviev letter?) Corbyn’s problem is that his background and behaviour made it easy to target and vilify him.

    Some of us warned about his vulnerabilities in 2015 and 2016, but were denounced as Red Tories etc. We were right.

  2. nhsgp

    What was labour’s policy on the EU? Er – don’t know. That was a failure of policy

    Failure to form a progressive alliance? Er? The Lib Dems were effectively wipe out. Labour was trashed in Scotland by the SNP..

    Labour failed on policy

    Corbyn, the messenger. He choose the policies that were rejected.

  3. Arthur

    Labour needs to start listening. You have one MP in Scotland: do you hear that? Do you understand why that is? The union is not under threat, the union is already over. You speak about Scotland as if it’s a problem that can be put in a wee box until later, when you’re ready to deal with it. We are real people up here, who have opinions and desires that need to be sorted now. You don’t listen. That’s why you lost.

  4. DiggerUK

    We lost this 2nd Referendum because we did not come out clearly and support the 2016 result.
    We did not follow on from the Parliamentary Labour Party support for Article 50, and we did not maintain the position in our 2017 manifesto to honour the 2016 result.

    Any supporters of Remain must not be allowed to succeed in the leadership elections. They must be voted down…_

  5. Tom Sacold

    By not supporting Brexit, we lost the support of our traditional working-class supporters.

  6. Blissex

    «But what would a shift to the centre mean for Labour? Let’s be clear.»

    It is indeed clear: “stealing” from the LibDems and ChangeUK their landslide, as those parties benefited from having a perfect “centrist” and “Remain” message, and “talented” and “popular” “leaders” like Jo Swinson, Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie. 🙂

    The Mandelsonian Tendency entrysts should really explain why Labour should become a clone of the LibDems and Change UK as it was in the New Labour era, given that the LibDems got less than half the votes of Labour, and ChangeUk a negligible amount, despite both parties policies being praised to heaven by the yellow press (the FT, the Guardian), and their leaders not being described as monsters by the blue/turquoise press.

  7. Blissex

    «Corbyn, the messenger. He choose the policies that were rejected.»

    Actually critically in some cases not: as he has always been a “grass roots” politician, one that thinks that Labour is not a marketing organization, but a movement of members and voters, he has loyally followed the policies decided not by him but by the NEC and members. And from his personal positioning he clearly though some were unwise, in particular the 2nd referendum policy.

    The 2nd referendum policy and elections-before-2nd-referendum were clearly pushed not by Corbyn, but by the Mandelsonian Tendency entrysts, and by the large majority of urban cosmopolitan members and Momentum leaders.

    J McDonnell blamed himself for pushing those policies, and he is right, but J Lansman was equally behind them.

    J Corbyn is guilty of *accepting* them and becoming their messenger, and I guess he did that because he thought that they were inopportune but tolerable and resigning would damage Labour more than going along with them, and anyhow is number one priority has been keeping Labour together, a priority for which he has suffered much.

  8. Ray

    The main thing was supporting Palestine. That was unforgivable in today’s climate and led to the crescendo of abuse.

  9. Alan Bond

    Let’s face it, the reason that the ordinary people of this country have lost is because we have an electoral system that is NOT fit for purpose. The tories are in power in 43.6% of the vote while the progressive parties polled 56.4% between them. If we had had PR the tories would have been out on their ear and a damn good thing too. As it is now, we face a dangerously flawed PM with no principles who will stop at nothing to gerrymander his way into permanent power. This is chillingly similar to the position in Germany in 1936 and we all know where that led us ! The fact that more people than the tory vote didn’t bother to get off their backsides and vote is also chillingly similar. We are headed for a repressive regime such as this country hasn’t seen since the middle ages and it is the fault of the tory media with their lies and a flawed voting system which should have been dumped years ago. It is a falure of DEMOCRACY and not Jeremy Corbyn’s responsibility

  10. The_Magnet

    No sensible person believed that the government could provide free broadband. I remember the 70’s and early 80’s when you had to wait months to get a phone line installed – a government monopoly does not encourage innovation, why take the blame when it does not work – imagine a broadband failure a few weeks before an election and the press blaming unionised workers for not fixing it because of a wild cat strike over a demarcation dispute between a Unite and GMB union rep
    The idea was made up by some pubeless fanboi
    I believed in free stuff until I worked out Father Christmas did not exist

  11. ExLabour

    Luke Davis is clearly deluding himself and trying to encourage others to join his delusion. I could go through his ramblings point by point, but I won’t. Suffice to say that if there are people in the Labour Party who still think like this then it’s over for you I’m afraid. I have relatives in their eighties who have voted Labour all their lives, but the mere thought of Corbyn and his far left policies made them change this time around. Some continuity Corbynista candidate will not work either. Once again Labour wil be treating their traditional base as ‘stupid’.

  12. SF

    “2. This election was lost because of Labour’s failure to form a Progressive Alliance.”

    True, but not word about the crying need for Labour to dump its shameful support for FPTP & embrace PR.

  13. Neil Thompson

    If we had PR the Brexit Party would have stood in every constituency and there may well have been a coalition of them with the Tories so the argument about PR is undermined. Also voting patterns would be different if every voted counted as tactical voting would effectively cease meaning The Green Party would take votes off Labour/Lib-Dems and Tories.

  14. Alice Aforethought

    “Under a PR system, a rainbow coalition (of Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Green) would have 326 seats next to 288 Conservative seats.”

    Ah, only the second sentence and already a comforting myth. Under a PR system, people would of course vote differently. Last week, people voted to keep Corbyn out of government. Under FPTP, that meant vote for whichever non-Labour candidate will achieve this. Under PR it means vote for the only right of centre party – so Boris would have probably got 53% of the vote rather than 43.

    “Corbyn’s share of the vote this time around was 32.2%. This is 1.8% higher than it was in the 2015 election…the pre-2017 era when two consecutive centre-left Labour campaigns resulted in even greater defeats.”

    You see, how elections work is that the scores are compared in each seat. In 2015 Labour overall got 30.4% but Cameron got 37%, so he won with a small majority. This time Labour got 32.2% but Boris got 11% more, so he won with a huge majority. That is not progress. Really it’s not.

    “as the Conservatives have shifted to the centre ground: the fact is, there really isn’t much manoeuvre room for Labour to shift to the centre.”

    That’s right – Labour has been forced onto the left, where nobody will vote for it. That is not a coincidence.

    “Labour’s failure to form a Progressive Alliance.”

    Can you see the problem there? If it’s all about Labour it’s not an alliance, is it? Anyway, the average left activist hates the rest of the left more than s/he hates the right. You might just as well expect ferrets to form an alliance to get out of the sack.

    “we can all accept that the smearing of Corbyn’s character was disproportionate compared to the smearing of Johnson’s, and that Johnson’s failings are greater.”

    The voters thought otherwise.

    “Corbyn was right in his article in the Guardian following his defeat when he said ‘on austerity, on corporate power, on inequality and on the climate emergency we have won the arguments”

    Just not the elections. When you saw the Conservatives’ reaction to the exit poll you could see how downcast they were at having lost the arguments.

  15. Alice Aforethought

    @ Alan

    “The tories are in power in 43.6% of the vote while the progressive parties polled 56.4% between them.”

    It’s called a plurality Alan. The anti-Labour parties polled 68% between them. That’s why Labour aren’t in power today.

  16. Gary

    Yes, I agree..kinda. Double crossing the electorate on Brexit DID lose votes for Labour, it WAS an election pledge to respect the vote but so many in the PLP fought for adoption of this policy despite that.

    Those same people were the ones trying to oust Corbyn and smearing him and briefing against him for the past FOUR YEARS. The smears in the press were coming from LABOUR more than the right. Kier Starmer’s barely contained glee when interviewed on Corbyn’s departure were sickening. He and others like Jess Phillips, Ruth Smeath and Wes Street among many others in the PLP have spent years conniving to bring down their own leader and work against the Labour Party. Now, having done that successfully they want to blame Corbyn himself for what THEY have done to him.

    The voters just won’t trust Labour again after that. Look at Scotland. In consecutive GEs Labour has gone from ‘weighing the vote’ to holding a SINGLE SEAT out of 59! Unless someone LIKE Corbyn takes over and the right wing decides to leave then Labour is finished permanently. This all SHOULD have been settled in the ’80s when the right wing went off to form the SDP. But when that experiment failed they decided to ‘retake’ Labour. These people don’t believe in actual Labour principles, all they seek is power. Instead of making the argument for progressive socialist policies they will ‘focus group’ whatever gets an extra vote.

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