'Labour took wrong lessons from 2017'

Published: 13 December 2019 at 15:12


VIEWPOINT: Labour History Research Unit analyses historic defeat for party

The Tories, it is clear, fought a very effective and disciplined General Election campaign.  The message about getting Brexit done resonated.  The party’s unadventurous manifesto was part of this.  It promised little except an end to the ongoing Brexit stalemate. 


The victory bears some comparisons with Donald Trump’s populist appeal to working-class American voters but the better comparison is probably with the May 2019 election in Australia where the conservative candidate Scott Morrison beat the much favoured Labor candidate Bill Shorten.  Boris Johnson made the shrewd decision to hire Isaac Levido who had helmed Morrison’s campaign and who revamped the Tories’s online campaign.  Morrison claimed to be speaking up for the ‘quiet Australians’ who were sceptical of grandiose plans for social change being offered to them.  Many working-class voters in northern constituencies may felt something similar.

The result also suggests that the 2017 election was unusual.  The 2019 results (with a Labour meltdown) were what many expected to happen two years earlier.  Depriving Theresa May of a majority persuaded many in Corbyn’s Labour machine that there was a large constituency for radical political change and Labour could afford to be bolder. They took the wrong lessons from what happened.

For Labour, this was the worst result since the 1935 election but, for many, will be compared with the 1983 election.  Corbyn is now fated to be linked with Michael Foot: two left wing leaders with considerable integrity whose appeal was resisted by the electorate.  The 2019 Labour approach was very different to Tony Blair’s in 1997 where the strategy was that it was better to under-promise and over-deliver.  Corbyn’s Labour did the reverse, offering the electorate a transformative programme.  It ended up losing many of its working-class heartlands including Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover. 


Clearly, Brexit was a part of this (the party’s approach was a fudge which was also impossible to sell politically) but it is only part of the explanation.  Another is that many voters made clear that they could not vote for Corbyn, who they distrusted: too left-wing, too metropolitan, too other-worldly: to be blunt, too weak.  The issue of anti-semitism had a major impact, leading the Jewish Labour Movement to disown the party’s leader.  Corbyn failed to deal with this and did not seem to know how to do so.  His reluctance to apologise was hugely damaging, creating a feeling of hurt among many voters that will last for a long time.

The issue is what will happen within Labour now.  There clearly needs to be a debate both about the leadership but also about policy, strategy and principles.  Historically, this is not something that the party does well [as documented in Rohan McWilliam and Jonathan Davis (eds.), Labour and the Left in the 1980s, which was the work of the Labour History Research Unit].  Labour has found it difficult to do this without huge amounts of blood on the floor. 


What the left wing membership is likely to want is some form of Corbynism without Corbyn.  This risks making the basic political mistake: claiming there is nothing wrong with a policy, only its presentation. They will also have to deal with the question of Brexit which is now inevitable.  Labour will need to be clear about the kind of coalition it wants to build.  Can it be a broad church once more? Can it produce a version of the future that will (unlike what happened in 2019) sweep the country?  The Labour History Research Unit offers itself as a space for that intelligent and difficult discussion that the party needs.


Professor Rohan McWilliam is Director of the Labour History Research Unit at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU)