Winning elections isn’t supposed to be easy. With Labour’s attitude, they could carry on losing forever
On January 28th, Labour’s election coordinators submitted a report to party chiefs on why they lost the election in December. It was leaked to the Financial Times, who reported that they blame Brexit and four years of “unrelenting attacks” on Jeremy Corbyn’s character for the loss, alongside a long-term decline in Labour voting in former coalfield areas and the campaign’s scattershot policy launches. On Brexit, the report states “There was no easy way for Labour to deal with what became a political crisis over Brexit after 2017”, because its members and most of its 2017 voters supported Remain, while most people in the constituencies it needed to hold or win voted Leave.
For Labour to blame Brexit is no surprise: as early as 10:15pm on election night, John McDonnell was on the BBC saying “we knew it would be tough because Brexit has dominated this election… I think this was a Brexit election”. Later that night at the count in his Islington North constituency, Corbyn himself said: “Brexit has so polarised and divided debate in this country… that has contributed to the result that the Labour Party has received this evening.” No doubt they had decided days or weeks before that this would be the excuse if they lost.
For people like us, who would like to see Labour win, this is a miserable attitude to take. “There was no easy way for Labour…” gives the odd impression that they expect political questions to have easy answers. If they did have easy answers, they probably wouldn’t be political questions. Here’s an easy prediction: at election 2024 there will be new challenges for Labour and those will be pretty tough as well. To decide that some issues are too hard to win on is to decide to carry on losing forever.
A few awkward facts about Brexit and the 2019 election make Labour’s excuse untenable. First, the election came 1,267 days after Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Labour had three and a half years to come up with something that worked for it on Brexit, but instead, a mere 64 days after he became Conservative leader, it was Boris Johnson who first used the slogan that won the election.
Second, Brexit was not an “easy” issue for the Tories. It dominated and then destroyed Theresa May’s career as Prime Minister. After the 2016 referendum, the Conservative vote was more divided over Brexit than Labour’s: a poll we did in March 2017 showed that of people who had voted Conservative at the 2015 election, 57% were Leavers and 43% Remainers. Labour’s 2015 voters were more united: 64% voted Remain and 36%, Leave.
 These figures don’t include voters in the 2015 election who did not vote in the 2016 referendum, but their numbers are small enough that they don’t make a significant difference here.
Third, as he became Prime Minister, Johnson faced a gigantic risk of his own making. He had promised, time and again, that Britain would leave the European Union on 31st October. He put it in the starkest terms: that he’d “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for another delay. Surely, failing to meet the deadline would lead to punishment from voters.
Fourth, Johnson’s Brexit deal was no political superweapon. A poll we did in October showed that it was initially popular but easily undermined by attacks, and reality bore this out: a few weeks later in our November poll, support for the deal had actually fallen.
Fifth, this was not just a Brexit election: our November poll showed that the NHS was exactly as important to voters as Brexit was. Public services, particularly the NHS, have always been a Labour strength, and the health service was suffering like never before after almost a decade of Conservative government.
There was no reason for Labour to look at this election and think it was unwinnable. The difference between the Conservatives and Labour in 2019 was that the Conservatives understood and tackled the risks and opportunities for them surrounding the biggest issue facing the country, and Corbyn’s Labour simply ducked it. Just how the Tories went about dealing with Brexit ought to be instructive.
Johnson’s goal last autumn was to prove that he meant what he said about leaving: he needed to build up such credibility as a Leaver that voters would stick with him even if he broke his big promise. His approach was to create a conflict in which he became a target for the Remain lobby, and allow the voters to see him suffering for Brexit. Although he didn’t have to actually die in a ditch, he took such repeated, public humiliations that his determination was obvious. Each loss in Parliament was headline news. Lady Hale reading out the Supreme Court’s verdict was the most compelling political theatre of the year. Johnson was clearly ready to go through anything to get the Brexit he wanted, and he drove the message home with that simple three-word slogan. This is why our early-November poll on why Brexit was delayed showed that people were much more likely to blame “MPs in Parliament”, or to think “getting a Brexit deal that satisfies everyone is impossible” than they were to blame Johnson’s ability or motives.
By contrast, Labour failed to take advantage of its many opportunities to capitalize on Brexit because Corbyn showed no leadership at all. The ultimate demonstration was his refusal to take a position in the second referendum Labour offered. How could the public trust a leader who would negotiate a deal, offer people a choice on whether to accept it, but refuse to ask them to vote for it? Where Johnson made personal sacrifices to achieve the Brexit he wanted, Corbyn wasn’t prepared even to offer an opinion.
The benefit of establishing authenticity on one big issue is clear in what else happened at the election. As noted, the NHS mattered to voters just as much as Brexit, and ought to have been a Labour strength. Yet, in our November poll, 34% of voters thought the Tories would “do the best job” on the NHS, exactly the same percentage as thought Labour would. This was not just because Johnson’s Conservatives had compelling offers on the NHS like 40 new hospitals and 50,000 new nurses, but because voters had decided they could believe such claims from Johnson but doubted what Labour was offering. In what was actually an NHS-plus-Brexit election, the Tories won by tying with Labour on one issue and crushing them on the other.
The fundamental dishonesty of Labour’s analysis of the 2019 election is in treating Brexit as though it were an external factor outside of their control. Brexit did not leap out of nowhere and clobber Labour’s chance of winning: Corbyn saw Brexit coming, didn’t like the look of it, and threw his hands up. This is despite having an enormous amount of time to get things right and divided opponents who only came up with weak solutions. The fact that Labour also failed to open any significant gap to the Tories on the NHS ought to underline that there was a deep problem with how people perceived the party and its leader — not just a temporary issue that would fade away by the time of the next election.
Hopefully Labour’s next leader will learn from what happened at this election — not just from where Labour went wrong, but also from the smart ways the Conservatives took advantage. They should understand how Johnson publicly demonstrated his determination over Brexit, in order to neutralize a weakness. They should see how the Conservatives narrowed Labour’s advantage on the NHS, taking on an issue that’s usually difficult for them, because it was important to voters. Most of all, they should relish getting stuck in to the most difficult issues of the day, campaigning and winning on what voters really care about, rather than wishing the circumstances away.