By Nick Clark
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Why Labour lost the general election

This article is over 4 years, 2 months old
Issue 2685
Jeremy Corbyn rallying with supporters in Middlesbrough the day before the general election. Labour held the seat
Jeremy Corbyn rallying with supporters in Middlesbrough the day before the general election. Labour held the seat (Pic: Jeremy Corbyn/Flickr)

Labour lost the general election because Leave voters in its former seats thought it would betray them over Brexit.

Of the 60 seats that Labour lost, 52 of them backed Leave in the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Overall Labour’s vote was down by almost 8 percent. But it fell by more than 10 percentage points in the strongest Leave areas.

Election-day polling by Lord Ashcroft’s organisation found that more than a quarter of Leave supporters who voted for Labour in 2017 backed the Tories or the Brexit Party.

Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell—who helped to push Labour towards backing remaining in the European Union (EU)—admitted, “It was Brexit that did this.”

“I own this disaster,” he added.

And in an article published on Sunday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said people who voted for Brexit due to decades of unemployment and inequality had turned against Labour.

“The gap between the richest and the rest has widened,” he wrote. “Everyone can see that the economic and political system is not fair, does not deliver justice, and is stacked against the majority.

“I saw that most clearly in the former industrial areas of England and Wales where the wilful destruction of jobs and communities over 40 years has taken a heavy toll.

“It is no wonder that these areas provided the strongest backlash in the 2016 referendum and, regrettably for Labour, in the general election.”

General election analysis—workers aren’t all right
General election analysis—workers aren’t all right
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He added that this meant there is also “an opening for a more radical and hopeful politics” and that it had “won the arguments” for its other left wing policies. The article outraged the Labour right, which still wants Labour to back Remain.

Against all evidence, its immediate response to Labour’s election defeat was to say people had voted not just against Corbyn personally but because of his left wing politics.

Labour’s right wing London mayor Sadiq Khan said, “Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was deeply unpopular with the British people” due to “our inability to put forward a credible and believable set of policies for governing”.

He added that he would carry on opposing Brexit.

Former deputy leader Tom Watson—who wanted Labour to back Remain—blamed Labour’s left wing manifesto.

They were backed up by supposedly left wingers such as writer Paul Mason.

He argued on Monday that Labour should have come out in support of Remain sooner—and sacked Corbyn. He thinks supporting right wing policies on “national security”, “crime” and “anti-social behaviour” would have been enough to keep hold of Leave voters.

Yet polling repeatedly showed that Labour’s left wing policies were popular.

People who didn’t like Corbyn as a leader overwhelmingly saw him as weak over Brexit.

A poll by YouGov in January showed that people who backed Corbyn in 2017 but didn’t now overwhelmingly turned against him because of Labour’s Brexit position.

Only a few opposed him because of his opposition to Trident, or thought that Labour’s policies were unrealistic.

The major difference between 2017 and 2019 was that the right pushed Labour away from accepting the Leave vote to having another referendum. It proved a disaster.

Right of Labour try to regroup while claiming to listen to people

The contest to replace Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader will see attempts to drag the party to the right.

Many of the potential candidates will argue that Labour has to “listen” to working class people—and adopt right wing policies.

Backbench MP Jess Phillips is likely to be the right’s favoured candidate.

She wrote in the Guardian newspaper that Labour had to “find a way to reconnect with those working class voters” who didn’t back it.

“I’ve never been afraid to say what I think,” she wrote—though she didn’t say what she thought reconnecting with working class voters means.

She only said this meant “trying something different,” and asking “difficult questions about the future of our party and the future of working class communities”.

For Phillips this generally means being right wing.

In a chummy interview with supposedly left wing writer Owen Jones, she said Corbyn’s opposition to allowing cops a “shoot to kill” policy was “pernicious”.

Phillips said what people “wanted to hear” is, “We will shoot him in the head.

“Immediately. Ten times. It’s about communication.”

Lisa Nandy is another potential candidate.

She’s a soft left MP who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet as part of an attempt to force him to resign in 2016.

Also writing for the Guardian, she said that working class people in towns such as Wigan felt that “Labour stopped listening long ago”.

She said the party had “lost touch with the day-to-day lived experience of many of the people we want to represent”.

“Should we really be rejecting nuclear power when it is one of the best sources of good jobs outside London?” she asked.

She had previously said that Labour has to be “honest about where immigration has had an impact and we need to be out in the public explaining why we should have strong labour protections”.

And she has written that while Labour “must reject a system that pits immigrants and citizens against one another,” it should allow “communities” to make decisions such as where to house migrants and refugees.

Labour’s current leadership and the party’s left wing members seem likely to back Rebecca Long-Bailey as Corbyn’s replacement.

They’ll need to reject the idea that appealing to working class people—or uniting the party—means adopting right wing policies.

Was the internet to blame?

The Labour left is also responsible for the party’s defeat.

After the 2017 general election, it aimed to win by presenting left wing policies in a more professional way.

Corbyn’s campaign dropped the mass rallies that had been key to its success in 2017. Labour left group Momentum focused on mass canvassing and social media. Corbyn raised confidence that socialist ideas can be popular. But union leaders and many activists staked everything on his electoral advance.

There were no big union or Labour demonstrations, no encouragement for strikes. Even when the Tories hit the rocks, the only response was parliamentary.

Labourism, the idea that parliament comes first and must discipline everything else, is in the end the problem. Being trapped in a world view limited by Labour and its internal battles is catastrophic.

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