Blaming the voters is not an option. Labour has to change, write two party activists.
Despite a monumental effort from Labour members, candidates and activists, the election result is disastrous.
In Labour Party’s worst general election result at the polls since 1935, votes have been haemorrhaged in constituencies across the country. Former mining areas, such as Tony Blair’s old seat of Sedgefield, have turned Tory.
What makes it harder to take is that this result comes after nine years of being in opposition. Nine years of austerity and cuts to vital public services. In the past hundred years, no opposition party has lost seats nine years into opposition – until this campaign – Labour lost 59 in a single night.
Why? According to recent polling conducted by Opinium, three core issues stood out in the campaign to voters; Jeremy Corbyn and his leadership, Labour’s Brexit policy – which left many would be Labour voters with more questions than answers – and finally the cost and credibility of the manifesto. This polling backs up much of what activists will have heard on the doorstep this winter.
Firstly, no opposition Party has ever won an election while campaigning with a leader that has had such negative personal opinion ratings amongst the public. We are often too introspective in the Labour bubble – while Corbyn was voted in unanimously twice by members, his support was never replicated in the wider country.
Earlier this year, polling marked Corbyn’s personal approval ratings at -60, a sign that a narrative had been set early on with voters that Corbyn, and subsequently Labour, were simply not ready for power.
The party’s complete failure to recognise and address the issue of antisemitism and improve relations with the Jewish community only solidified this opinion further. Labour will always struggle to campaign effectively if it can’t deliver full-throated attacks on Boris Johnson’s racist, homophobic and crude past comments, if our own record isn’t up to scratch either. Going into an election without this issue rectified, was morally negligent and electoral suicide. Rectifying the party’s slow response on antisemitism and winning back the trust of the Jewish community has to be one of the priorities on Day 1 for the next party leader.
It is also imperative that the party’s next leader is someone who can appeal across a broad coalition of voters. It’s one thing to have the support of Putney, Islington and public figures like Stormzy, but to win and govern again, we will need all of the former, as well as voters in places like Sedgefield, Stoke and Stockton – a leader who can appeal to the whole country, and not just our own membership base.
While a new leader will offer the party the opportunity to refresh, the other issues that contributed to this result will have to be addressed too. Lessons will have to be learnt about the decision to campaign on a Brexit policy that couldn’t be summed up on the doorstep in three sentences, when our opponents could sum it up in three words.
The immediate direction of Brexit is now very much out of the party’s control, but a new, clear and authentic message will have to be developed to counter the Tory vision for Brexit, and to satisfy voters across the North and South, cities and towns alike.
And ultimately, a policy that protects jobs in core industries like manufacturing will have to be developed in order to avoid further economic downturn in areas that have already been chronically underfunded by governments since Britain’s peak deindustrialisation in the 70s.
What was the message?
As many people around the Leader’s Office have repeated in the past few days – many of the policies were popular – but when presented all in one go, with a manifesto that read more like an endless advent calendar – voters found it hard to envision how a party so fraught with infighting and already lacking in credibility amongst the public, could produce them all.
Moreover, Labour did little to reassure everyday voters how they would actually put these policies into practice, and instead went on to announce more policies – sometimes daily – before they had actually persuaded the public that they were the right people to bring them into realisation.
With no coherent strategy to press home consistently over the six week campaign, it was far too easy for the Tories to paint the manifesto as “too expensive” and to highlight specific policies that were unpopular in their target seats, such as the party’s policy on immigration.
Following the result some Labour supporters reacted with disbelief and vitriol towards those who have apparently ‘betrayed’ the party at the ballot box, blaming the supposed ‘ignorance of voters’ in the U.K. This will not do our movement any good. Attacking the people whose votes you need to gain for the chance to govern again won’t make them suddenly change their minds.
Meanwhile, the party leadership and its allies have sought to blame a supposedly unavoidable Brexit backlash as the reason for the result, and focused their efforts on promoting the “arguments” that have been won during their tenure.
Sadly for them, and the many people who desperately needed a Labour government, winning arguments isn’t the same as winning elections.
Instead of making excuses, it’s now time for Labour to genuinely reflect on the country’s decision. Reflect on why people who have previously supported the Labour Party in its opposition of Thatcher’s Tory Party in the 70s and 80s, who have celebrated our successes under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in the 90s and 00s, and who have now lived through almost a decade of austerity, didn’t trust us with the power to reverse those cuts and invest in the country’s future.
If we want the chance to govern the U.K. again in the next decade we need to listen, learn and change – right now.
Peter Turay and Alannah Travers are both Labour Party activists.
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