Why did Labour lose so heavily in the UK? Partly it was ‘Brexit’, partly Corbyn.
The UK general election was an unmitigated disaster for Labour, which managed to win the smallest share of seats at Westminster since the 1930s. The Conservative landslide means the party leader, Boris Johnson, has a very solid electoral mandate to ‘get Brexit done’.
The succeeding hunt for the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has started: domestically and internationally, centrists accuse the radical left of being unelectable and even ‘the best ally of the populist right’. This seems, however, to rest more on ideological predisposition than the numbers.
Labour’s defeat had more to do with its Brexit position than its programme. While the party leaked votes in all directions, most seats were lost in the post-industrial, Leave-leaning northern regions. Indeed, in most cases, electoral choices mirrored very closely the Brexit split, thus transforming the 2019 election into a kind of second referendum—confirmed by the fact that Labour managed to win the otherwise unwinnable but Remain-majority seat of Putney in London.
Cobyn’s biggest mistake was his electoral strategy: trying to keep together Leavers and Remainers, Labour managed to dissatisfy electors on both sides. It was, to a large extent, an impossible dilemma anyway: Labour, having the most heterogeneous electorate among the three main parties, would have lost votes whatever choice it had made. And the attempt to refocus the electoral campaign on the party platform, rather than Brexit, was a dramatic failure.
The statistics do not however support the claim that the radical platform alienated voters: surveys suggest the opposite. The median elector did not move away from Labour, scared by its programme; the major losses came rather in traditional, heavily working-class, socially-conservative constituencies. These had not been particularly attracted by ‘New’ Labour-style politics either. Indeed, since 2005 Labour losses to the Conservatives have been concentrated in poorer, now majority-Leave areas.
Nor does the relatively weak performance by the Liberal Democrats indicate a huge appetite for a centrist option. Only two years ago, moreover, on a similar (if shorter) manifesto, Labour managed to win 40 per cent of the votes. Indeed, on a headcount, Corbyn won more votes than the more liberal Gordon Brown (2010) and Ed Milliband (2015), and roughly the same as when Blair last led the party to the polls in 2005.
It was the distribution of votes which determined the magnitude of the defeat—Labour had a relatively strong showing in the big cities. And this is something to take into consideration moving forward: a ‘liberal’ approach might take votes away from the Liberal Democrats but it risks confining Labour to areas where it already sweeps most of the seats.
Finally, differences in the electoral system notwithstanding, Labour is still, by far, the largest centre-left party in Europe—almost twice as big as the German SPD and the Italian Democratic Party and 50 per cent larger than the Spanish PSOE. And even Emmanuel Macron, having shifted from the left to the centre, secured many fewer votes in the first round of the French presidential election in 2017 than Labour this time.
What is, however, undeniable is that Corbyn’s leadership was detrimental to the party. His approval rating is one of the lowest in UK polling history and Labour’s internal assessment and stories from activists tell us how deeply unpopular he was. Yes, there was particularly biased media coverage and an unprecedented smear campaign against him—but that’s not the whole story.
Corbyn galvanised his support like no other recent British political leader, yet he was quite unable to attract voters outside it. In an era of highly personalised politics, that was bound to be a problem. His republicanism and prior support for the Irish Republican Army, among other things, were perceived as anti-British. It is no surprise that the older, more traditional segment of the electorate punished him.
Secondly, while criticism of the party manifesto appears exaggerated, a radical appeal to the ‘losers of globalisation’ is nowhere near enough to win elections. It is bitterly ironic that in a time characterised by the (electoral) centrality of the working class it should be the right which prevails. Political analysis has to come to terms with a new social reality.
On the one hand, it is absurd to think that we could go back to New Labour. Its electoral success, in a period of economic expansion mostly led by unsustainable financial leveraging, was based on winning the middle class while taking for granted working-class votes—because, as Peter Mandelson said, they had ‘nowhere else to go’. This is not quite the case any more.
On the other hand, this election showed there is no automatic relationship between a radical agenda and progressive voting among the poor. The working class of the past does not exist any more: a social fabric crumbling after decades of neoliberalism, the deinstitutionalisation of the political process, transforming parties into electoral committees, and deindustrialisation and low union density all mean class consciousness is fading, Class politics by itself is not enough.
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Finally, the heterogeneity of the progressive front and possible alliances are a complicated matter. As highlighted by Matthew Goodwin, Labour is now composed of three different groups: liberal-leaning voters in the cities, socially-conservative workers in the north, and the young and immigrants. If the goal is to recapture the lost votes, it is unclear how a new leadership breaking away from Corbynism and moving towards the centre would be able to do that. Regardless, finding a synthesis among all three groups may prove difficult.
As far as alliances go, there is a very similar problem. Centrist opposition to a left alternative is crystal-clear: the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson (who lost her own seat), famously rejected even the idea of a caretaker government, as an alternative to the then minority Johnson administration, if led by Corbyn. ‘Blairites’ never really accepted Corbyn’s victory and tried to sabotage his leadership at every turn—including Blair himself attacking Labour during the campaign. The continual assaults on Corbyn and his US counterpart, Bernie Sanders, from liberal-progressive media leave little doubt that the centre could ever really support a radical candidate against the right—while it expects the left to support a centrist alternative ‘in defence of democracy’.
It is only by addressing these problems, and by taking into consideration past and present mistakes, that the left can hope to justify its existence.