I’ve taken a few days to think about why Labour lost last week. I’ve taken as dispassionate a view as is possible when you’ve put years of your life into something and it hasn’t come off, but I think a real hard honest view is vital if we want to recover.
This account of what happened on the doorsteps in South Swindon will resonate, I am sure, elsewhere but it is a local viewpoint and borne of personal experience rather than to bolster anyone else’s agenda. We spoke to over 9000 voters in the last month of the campaign so this account reflects those conversations.
So, the campaign began in October with voters being very fed up with MPs, political parties and having to go to the polls again. Brexit fatigue was a big thing and even former remain voters were telling us just to make it stop. This should not be, and wasn’t, confused with ‘get it done’, but for 50% of voters here, actually it did mean that. Did our Brexit stance lose us this election? It was one of several huge issues for us but, let’s be honest, is there any way we could have ‘won’ Brexit?
We have voters, supporters and members from both sides of that argument and for many it was an issue, but not the only one. We did lose Labour Brexiteers to the Tories this time, but not all of them. In taking the middle path, did we fail to convince others? Yes, but we aimed to bring the country back together which was still the right thing to try to do. But we did fail to make the Tories own this mess they have made.
The idea that one last heave in our marginal seats was anywhere near good enough was completely wrong. I often likened this election to throwing a pack of cards up in the air and I think this was right given that we certainly had new Labour voters coming our way from across politics, but that we lost far far too many from our traditional voter base too. The Lib Dems didn’t really do us any harm here and provided a place to go for disillusioned Tory voters. We squeezed the Lib Dem vote as hard as we could and we did benefit from the very hard work of the Tactical Vote campaign.
The biggest concern on the doorstep, and on almost every door we knocked, was the Labour leadership. This means Jeremy Corbyn was mentioned by name, with occasional references to John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, but pretty much all Jeremy. These mentions were not positive. They split into two groups:
1.The complete regurgitation of media attack lines: “Corbyn supports terrorists”, “Corbyn is a threat to national security”, “Corbyn wants to take us back to the 1970s”, “Corbyn’s policies would bankrupt the country”, etc. People who said this stuff were unlikely to engage in any real conversation. They were happy with confirmation bias, and were going to vote Tory/ not vote anyway. Some may have been Labour voters once upon a time, but most had consistently been against us.
2.More concerning were the real former Labour voters who recognised that Johnson was lying to them (and this worried them) but they all distrusted Jeremy too, and were also more likely to cite some of our policies as a reason not to vote Labour: renationalisation was less popular than in 2017, free broadband appealed to very few here, they agreed with our aims regarding the environment, the NHS, schools, etc, but consistently could not see how we would fund the policies. Even the grey book did not convince.
Do I think Jeremy deserved all the criticism he got? No. But he was seen as ‘too left wing’ and too reminiscent of the past rather than of inspiration for the future. I advocated for him to be PM over Johnson and I still would, but within the last 12 months we passed a tipping point where Jeremy’s ability to inspire young people, new members and voters, was surpassed by his name turning people off. At that point, a replacement would have taken us into an election fresher, rather than on the defensive. The media are a huge problem for us but we cannot just hunker down and cry about this being unfair- it is unfair, but we need to manage this far better.
Antisemitism came up on relatively few doors, and Johnson’s racism was mentioned as much. People are under no illusion about Johnson’s dishonesty and that he has been openly racist, but this has been more recent and may not have sunk as deep in voters’ minds as Labour’s problems with antisemitism. We have consistently failed to restore confidence in our anti-racist credentials, and I think this is the very first issue any new leader must confront, and decisively.
Back to policy. We provided an unconvincing advent calendar of so many policies, almost none of which got through to voters.
We have to learn from our adversaries. The Tories won in 2015 with a simple message “We’re all in this together”, they won this time with “Get Brexit Done” and a few (but not many) core policy offers. 2017 was less good for them because they did not have a very clear message centred around a few core policies. In 1997 “Things can only get Better” worked well for Labour alongside Education, Education, Education – we forgot about that it seems. In my leaflets I stuck to the same five pledges on every piece of literature but with this battle being lost over the airwaves, there was little we could really do here.
Real Change as a slogan did land a bit, so we went with that as much as possible locally. Nationally there should have been five core policy messages centred around Real Change and then they would have landed.
We also had a message that absolutely does not work somewhere like Swindon – aspirational Swindon where very very few people would self-identify as victims. When you pit ‘us’ against ‘them’ people have to decide which side of the line they fall. It is hard to see why identifying as a victim would be attractive to people who have worked hard and are enjoying life’s small pleasures, or who are struggling but proudly trying to get on. No one here is a billionaire and very very few are even millionaires, but if Labour’s tax pledges seem punitive, even of the ludicrously rich, this can be a turn off. For the Many would have been a better slogan without the second clause of Not the Few.
So, what would have worked? On the doorsteps people told me that they didn’t mind paying a little more tax on their (pretty average) incomes in order to have faith that we could deliver on our public service promises. The middle and working classes (and let’s be clear that demonising the hardworking middle class is a sure fire way to shore up their Tory voting tendencies) do not see themselves as victims so the narrative must be centred on fairness for wealth redistribution, not punishment for success. Austerity was roundly rejected by all so we could have got this right. Subtle, but this was really important.
As an aside, it also doesn’t help that the people at the top of the Party who know how to win elections are not there. Even the most basic strategist knows that ‘we can win everywhere’ is a very poor way to plan to prioritise resources. Pit strength against weakness, and don’t spread yourself thin. Also, just get the basics right like organising the Freepost drop on time rather than 10 days after the postal ballots have landed.
But I’ll tell you what did go down well: honesty and positivity. Both from me and my team, and also on the national stage when we had the chance to speak about positive plans for the future. Voters did tell me that they preferred Jeremy to Johnson in debate as he actually answered the question and didn’t bully or lie. We don’t have to stop being ourselves to get this right next time, we just need to be strategic in our messaging, our choice of leader and the wider perception of our movement, including management of the mainstream media who still hold much sway with the electorate. We can keep inspiring our members to take part in a positive vision for the future that will also inspire voters, since you cannot deliver that vision without winning their votes.
What next then? A new leader first and I truly hope that the debate around who this will be will be more about who can deliver a winning manifesto for the change we all need to see and provide hard and credible opposition to this awful government, rather than an emotional and irrational quest for the most ideologically pure. Labour is a broad church of views and we could do with being a little more tolerant across that church and trying to see what voters in the 21st century actually want, rather than what we think they want.
We did win over 19,000 votes here (a swing of 4.1% to the Tories which was only half as bad as the national swing) and that must not be forgotten. Actually, the most useful thing we could do now would be to find out at the individual level why people did vote Labour. This is the foundation on which to build.