Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
31 January 2020

It’s not just Labour that should ponder its 2019 defeat

The underlying story of what happened in 2019 might ease Sajid Javid’s fiscal headache. 

By Stephen Bush

Why did Labour lose the 2019 election? I think it was as easy as ABCD: anti-Semitism, Brexit, Corbyn, and demographic change.

Labour lost votes because of anti-Semitism; specifically, as far as most voters were concerned, because of Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of competence in handling the issue. For many British Jews a minority of other voters, Labour’s was a moral failing but for the majority, the damage that anti-Semitism did to Labour’s electoral prospects was mostly about how it affected the party’s perceived competence.

Labour lost votes because of Brexit. The overwhelming majority of Leave voters wanted to leave the European Union, as did a critical minority of Remain voters. In 2017, Labour was a pro-Brexit party trusted by Leavers because of its policy positions on a swathe of issues that are of a high priority to Remain voters. By 2019, for a variety of reasons, they had become an anti-Brexit party, distrusted by Remainers and strongly disliked by most Leavers.

Labour lost votes because of Corbyn, who was, by December 2019, the least popular leader of the opposition on record. This unpopularity was particularly acute among Leave voters but was a systemic issue across most of the electorate. Corbyn had a net negative approval rating among every age and demographic and only among voters aged under 35 did he emerge as the preferred option when voters were given the so-called “forced choice” question of Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn.

And, finally, Labour lost votes because of demographic change: the long process whereby Labour is now able to win and hold constituencies like Putney and Exeter, once Labour only in landslides, but cannot win seats like Stafford, and Elmet and Rothwell, key marginals as recently as 2005. The big problem for Labour, as it stands, is that while the demographics that makeup Exeter and Putney are the fastest-growing in the UK, they are concentrated in a handful of constituencies: there are a lot more Elmets in the House of Commons than there are Putneys.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Which of those problems will fix themselves and which will Labour’s next leader have to actively resolve? It’s a tricky question for Labour – but also for the Conservatives, particularly as far as their looming Budget is concerned. But the one the Tories should occupy themselves with is that last: demographic change.

Content from our partners
How do we secure the hybrid office?
How materials innovation can help achieve net zero and level-up the UK
Fantastic mental well-being strategies and where to find them

Despite the Conservatives’ large lead over Labour as far as votes cast is concerned – they led by 11 points at the general election – their 80-seat majority is not actually that large historically speaking and they would need only very small increases in the Labour and/or Liberal Democrat vote to end up with a small to non-existent majority. In fact, in the nightmare scenario, the combined Labour-Liberal Democrat vote wouldn’t need to improve at all to wipe out the Conservative majority – just 30,000 better-distributed votes would achieve the same thing.

The Conservative pain points are best typified by Winchester, where in December the party saw off the Liberal Democrats by 985 votes and Reading West, where, in 2017, despite a huge Labour lead nationwide and the Tory incumbent, Alok Sharma, having been promoted to the cabinet (which usually slightly boosts the sitting MP), the Conservative vote still went down.

But there’s a Conservative opportunity, which is to make up for the seats that are moving away from them by making further inroads and winning seats like Makerfield or Hemsworth, which they almost won this time. The Conservatives made a point of ruling out big revenue raisers, like higher income tax, VAT and National Insurance (they are also committed to a pricey increase in the NI threshold). I wouldn’t be surprised if internal Conservative Party politics means that there is irresistible pressure further down the line in this parliament to unpick Alistair Darling’s tax increase for people earning between £100,000 and £125,000, who effectively pay tax at a rate of 60p in the pound. That also comes with a price tag.

All of that, coupled with the large spending increases they have already committed to on health and education, means that both this year’s Budget and subsequent fiscal events will actually be quite tight for the rest of the public realm.

The question I would be asking myself, were I Sajid Javid or Rishi Sunak is: is the Conservative Party going to lose Reading West anyway? Are we heading to a situation where Labour becomes the party for not just the majority of working-class people but for the majority of all people who are actively in work? And could that then unlock a number of ways to raise revenue?