New Labour Together Report investigates Labour’s 2019 Election Defeat with crushing honesty – but glosses over senior saboteurs behind the Labour Leaks dossier
A 150-page report published this week by research group Labour Together serves up some stone-cold truths and analysis into what may have led to Labour’s downfall in the 2019 General Election.
This article has been written by Olivia Bridge.
Even amidst the Coronavirus pandemic, it has not long been forgotten that the Labour Party crash-landed into an unprecedented defeat to the Conservatives six months ago, losing 59 seats while the Tories won with a hefty majority of 80.
The catastrophe this alone presents to Labour cannot be underestimated. The Tories now sit comfortably in one of the biggest majorities since the Second World War while Labour’s meagre 202 MPs in the House of Commons marks it a historical low for the Party since 1935.
The crushing loss is only made worse by the favourable cards that were dealt to Labour at the time. Facing an almost ten-year Tory rule and having come tantalisingly close to thrashing the Tories in 2017, it would have appeared a likely win for Labour. Yet it suffered enormously. The Labour Together report begins, “For a major party to fall this far behind after nine years in opposition – and four elections – is historically unprecedented”.
The Party has been attending to its wounds ever since, which included booting Jeremy Corbyn out of his position as frontman and handing the keys over to Sir Keir Starmer. This report, led by Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell and a panel of 14 other Labour MPs, now details the monumental task Sir Starmer now has at hand.
It comes with a stark warning: even with a new captain at the helm, the Party has an uphill battle ahead – a “mountain to climb” – if it so to win the 2024 election and avoid a Tory stronghold of almost twenty years. Starmer will have to make new UK records and obliterate his opponents on a scale that has never been done before; bleak, but not impossible.
Labour Together’s analysis makes for a sobering read. Deeply entrenched factionalism has always been an issue within the Party, but add ramped up rows into the concoction and it is clear to see why voters became hostile to Corbyn, the manifesto, and the Party’s wishy-washy stance on Brexit. The issues rumbled alongside each other before forming into a thunderous black cloud, raining misery on every step of the campaign trail and dampening hopes for the survival of the Party in years to come.
And the report doesn’t stop there: it criticises the alienation of the working class, Labour’s dismissal of demographic change and cultural shifts in the country, a disorganised online campaign and, of course, antisemitism. However, where the report does fall short is on the recent ‘Labour Leaks’ dossier in which it emerged senior members of Labour staff actively sought to sabotage Corbyn and the Party.
Still, members and Party officials should take heed to the report’s heavy warnings. Its analysis points to an accumulation of issues that began at least to decades before the 2019 election. However, it would be a dangerous illusion to believe that a fresh leader with Brexit over and done with “would in itself be sufficient to change Labour’s electoral fortunes.”
So, why did Labour lose?
Youth support at the expense of the working class
The working classes that stood before the 2019 election had evolved over a period of two decades, yet Labour failed to address this gradual tectonic shift and failed to adapt to the demands of the new voter demographic that stood before it.
To rub salt in the wounds, Labour invested its time and energy elsewhere: in university cities and younger crowds. The result saw a surge in popularity in the youth at the expense of the ‘traditional’ working-class, where voters can often have socially conservative views on issues such as immigration and so-called ‘political correctness’ culture. As a consequence of their alienation from a Party that took them for granted, an eyewatering amount of voters switched onto the Conservative’s for the first time ever – which was enough to tip the scales in Boris Johnson’s favour.
The issues rumbled alongside each other and formed into a thunderous black cloud, raining misery on every step of the campaign trail
Powell when speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme said Labour’s red wall had “been crumbling for twenty years.” Labour Together pinpoints the loss on a lack of local Labour clubs and declining Trade Union memberships while recognising that loyally left voters had been drifting away far before they went to the ballot box in 2019. But rather than set to work rebuilding the wall and listening to those becoming disillusioned, the campaign remained blinkered by gaining popularity among the youth. This in part further explains Labour’s seemingly online popularity too, where the youth disproportionately congregate.
Although the phenomenon is hardly new as younger demographics have always been left-leaning, the Tories made phenomenal gains in all other voting groups while Labour, it seemed, pigeon-holed itself with young students which only served to polarise older voters and exacerbate growing working-class distrust. Labour lost support among all the classes in the UK, but Labour Together notes it suffered the most in gaining the confidence of its root voter base.
Backlash to “Woke” Views and Social Media Incompetence
The report notes that online discourse may also have played a pivotal part in tipping ‘on the fence’ voters into Conservative territory.
There had been an “explicit backlash”, the report continues, against so-called ‘politically correct’ or ‘woke’ views that have “arguably accelerated by the interplay between traditional and new media.”
While online and social media platforms continue to grow and become a medium for current affairs and news, “the consumption of newspapers and linear broadcasting has declined.” The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University now considers online media and social media such as Twitter “now more important sources of news than print for every age group”.
Labour, it seemed, pigeon-holed itself with young students which only served to polarise older voters and exacerbate growing working-class distrust
This meant the General Election was forced to play out in two arenas, print and social media, which presented a plethora of new-age challenges such as the ways in which parties organise and communicate with people.
With this in mind, Labour appeared inept at mobilising their online presence, and although generated more engagement online in terms of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’, Labour Together finds the proportion of support fell in line with the proportion of its voter share.
In other words: Labour remained stuck in its echo chamber of voters and “increasingly struggled to prove its relevance” in a sphere where discourse is taken in “chaotic and fast-moving online spaces.” Social media popularity achieved nothing at bridging divides or targeting undecided voters. It may very well have done more harm than good as Labour members, swept up in the momentum of its online voice, mocked, belittled, and refused to win over those sitting silently on the fence.
Social media popularity achieved nothing at bridging divides or targeting undecided voters
Labour organisation and propaganda machine Momentum itself has pat itself on the back for “outperform[ing] the Party in terms of member engagement”, but Labour Together finds that it remains “unclear what effect Labour-friendly organisations had in broadening Labour’s support.”
In fact, one damning indictment in the Labour Together report finds that “Labour’s supporters online spent too much of the campaign talking to themselves rather than reaching out to convince swing voters to support Labour.”
The Man, the Manifesto, or Brexit?
Ever since the election, the left has retreated and retorted to its usual coping mechanism: blame the media, the moderates and the remainers.
Undoubtedly, Brexit played a part in Labour’s fall from grace as Corbyn stood indifferent to backing either of the Leave or Remain camps, but Labour Together attributes the defeat to three key areas:
- Concern around Corbyn’s leadership and a perceived weakness as potential Prime Minister
- Brexit divisions where Labour failed to attract either Leave or Remain camps
- Little confidence in the execution of the manifesto in terms of economic risks, unrealistic aspirations or an inability to deliver on its promises
Any one of these vulnerabilities is enough to challenge any election, the report finds, but to suffer from all three at once meant Labour “snowballed” towards its fatal verdict.
The cause is hotly debated, but negative perceptions of Corbyn can certainly be attributed to the media’s relentless assault against his character. This theory does coincide with mainstream media’s ramped up depiction of Corbyn between the years 2017-2019 as, somehow between these short years, voters switched from supporting the Labour leader to actively disliking him. By September 2019, Corbyn’s ratings were at rock-bottom lows.
One damning indictment in the Labour Together report finds that “Labour’s supporters online spent too much of the campaign talking to themselves rather than reaching out to convince swing voters to support Labour”
Seeing Corbyn as ‘weak’, ‘unfit for office’, and indecisive on Brexit to a backdrop of antisemitism claims swayed many voters into intensely disliking him. Many regarded his perceived weakness to be out of touch with ‘ordinary people’. Had voters maintained a similar level of enthusiasm for Corbyn from 2017 to 2019, the British Election Study team estimates that Labour’s vote share would have been six points higher. Instead, YouGov data finds 67% of all voters ‘disliked’ Corbyn, including those who had supported him in 2017.
The ‘radical manifesto’ didn’t play so much as a part in Corbyn’s image as people had originally thought. Labour Together discovered that many people welcomed the proposals outlined in the manifesto, but voters were disengaged and actively distrusted it if it were left in Corbyn’s hands to deliver. That said, some voters who did turn up for the Tories instead expressed fear that far-left policies appeared unaffordable and that the manifesto came too close to comfort towards Marxism.
The report summarises bluntly: Labour was not “election ready” in November 2019.
However, crucially missing from this analysis is mention of the saboteurs at the heart of the Labour Party who had actively ramped up dislike of the Labour leader and undermined the two elections during those very crucial years.
The report does allude to the issue, stating that Labour has been in “conflict with itself” for the past five years, but skims past the contents of the controversial leak that spread like wildfire across Twitter.
Crucially missing from this analysis is mention of the saboteurs at the heart of the Labour Party who had actively ramped up dislike of the Labour leader and undermined the two elections
Senior party members were implicated in the leaked dossier, intended to be for Labour eyes only on the antisemitism scandal. But members were left distraught to read page after page of WhatsApp messages and emails from staff members criticising Corbyn, his allies and the membership as a whole – even going so far as to complain when the 2017 election saw Labour gain more seats than anticipated.
Diane Abbott, on the receiving end of abhorrent racist abuse at the time, was a focal point in the exchanges, but other WhatsApp groups cropped up to ‘purge’ so-called ‘Trots’ from the Party which further included jokes about Corbyn and other voters being ‘shot’.
Crucially, the dossier pointed to prove that these members attempted to pin and weaponise antisemitism claims onto the Labour leader as a means to undermine him by purposefully mishandling the complaints.
The dossier throws another spanner in the works: had senior officials backed the Party leader instead of seeking Corbyn’s downfall, would the election have yielded such calamitous results?
Perhaps Labour Together should have withheld its report today to wait until the NEC panel had investigated staff members from the leaks. The analysis would appear far more robust with this additional element of hostility towards Corbyn hedged in. As it currently stands, the report appears blind-sighted to the obvious treachery that went on behind the scenes.
Instead, Labour Together decides “divisions and disunity within the Party” came from elsewhere, such as the MPs who defected into the Independent Group.
What is evident is that Sir Keir Starmer needs to move mountains if he is to gain even molehills of voters back, and Labour must transform to distance itself from its toxic past.
As it currently stands, the report appears blind-sighted to the obvious treachery that went on behind the scenes.
The task at hand is enormous: to win the 2024 election, Labour needs to increase its total number of seats by 60% – a task Ed Miliband describes as “Herculean” since no Party has ever achieved such a victory in history. Starmer has to outshine Tony Blair’s legendary Labour win of 1997, and this time, as reiterated by Miliband again, reliance on university graduates in cosmopolitan cities is not enough to paint the UK red.
Starmer may have had a stuttering start and fails to arouse enthusiasm in the far-left, but the Party is a far cry safer in his hands than any of the other Corbyn ‘continuity’ candidates as this report has shown.
The membership and activists, too, must meet a compromise if it opposes a permanent Tory Party to govern the country for the next decade or two. If it is widely agreed divisions and internal arguments have soured the appeal of the left, let this be the end of the raging culture war. The far-left cannot continue to sulk at the arrival of a moderate leader and remain hostile to any compromising measures the Party may seek to sledgehammer the disparities.
The moral superiority and self-righteousness of being on the ‘right side of history’ needs to end, if Labour is to ever make its mark in the history book of the modern era at all.
[Header image: The Sunday Times.]