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.
- 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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