Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long Read
  2. /
2 September 2021

Labour’s lost future: the inside story of a 20-year collapse

In 2001 a resurgent Labour Party held 412 seats. Today it has 199. Why?

By Harry Lambert

Twenty years ago, the Labour Party under Tony Blair cruised to re-election. Labour lost just six seats in 2001, returning 412 MPs. The Conservatives, meanwhile, who lost more than half their seats overnight in 1997, added only one, leaving them on 166.

Throughout its existence, Labour had never been in power for more than six consecutive years. It was re-election, rather than the 1997 landslide, that marked the high point of New Labour. In the wake of its 2001 win, Labour was “broadly hegemonic”, says Douglas Alexander, who coordinated that election for the party. It had won in England, Wales and Scotland. The result appeared to confirm, as John Gray put it in 1997, that “Tory Britain is gone for good”.

Two decades on, it is Labour that has lost more than half its seats. The party’s razor-thin Batley and Spen by-election victory in July may have quietened critics, but it cannot mask the fact that Labour today has only 199 MPs, a loss of 213 over 20 years. The Conservatives, by contrast, have increased their vote share in every election since 1997. In 2019 Boris Johnson won a greater vote share (43.6 per cent) than Blair ever did.

How did Labour collapse? Is the party’s 20-year decline the result of inevitable structural change, or can it be traced back to individual decisions and mistakes? To find out, the New Statesman spoke to more than 20 key figures, from former leaders and ministers to senior advisers. Could they, between them, identify ten key moments in Labour’s collapse?

The roots of Labour’s long decline need to be understood if Keir Starmer is to address them. Since January, his personal approval rating has tumbled from 39 to 26 per cent, which he wished to seem unperturbed by when we spoke in June ahead of Batley and Spen, a by-election he expected to lose. The vaccine roll-out, Starmer told me then, had become “the single biggest determinant of where the polls are in the last six months. One party is up, one party is down, one leader’s up, one leader’s down.” (Starmer’s ratings have not improved in the two months since, even as any feel-good effect from the vaccine has faded.) The Labour leader wanted the party’s most recent period of discontent to be seen as part of a larger story. “There’s been a trend for at least ten years, but arguably since about 2005,” he said, vaguely, “of [a] disconnect, and the loss of what were once traditional strong votes.”

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 best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. 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 weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
I consent to New Statesman Media Group collecting my details provided via this form in accordance with the Privacy Policy

When I asked Starmer to reflect on the sources of Labour’s decline, he highlighted two moments from its years in power: the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which Starmer opposed as a QC at the time, and Labour’s failure to defend its economic record after the 2008 financial crash. There was, Starmer thinks, a “lack of confidence from 2010 onwards, to defend the last Labour government, and to make the argument that the financial crash wasn’t the fault of the Labour government”.

But there are other failings that are harder for Starmer to highlight, from the party’s ineffectual handling of concerns over immigration to its ill-guided Brexit strategy (in which Starmer, as shadow Brexit secretary, played his part). To understand the causes of Labour’s slide other observers are required, including those outside the party. Nigel Farage puts it bluntly to me: “What you’ve witnessed in slow motion over nearly 20 years is a large section of Labour voters who are absolutely disgusted with the party and are in no rush to go back.”

Many Labour voters are repelled by Farage. (“I do not accept any premise from Nigel Farage,” Starmer says when I put this to him.) But in many of his party’s old heartland seats, it is Farage and Boris Johnson who now have appeal, not Labour. For the former foreign secretary David Miliband, Labour’s 20-year decline is “a failure of politics – it wasn’t inevitable or preordained. We all bear some responsibility.” The party’s broad coalition has shattered – a fracturing that began 20 years ago, on the night Labour celebrated its historic re-election.

Content from our partners
Stella Creasy: “Government’s job is to crowdsource, not crowd-control”
With capacity comes opportunity
On the road to efficiency

1. A feeble victory

In 2001 Labour won 15 more seats than Margaret Thatcher had at her peak in 1983. But Blair’s triumph was hollow: voter turnout had collapsed, falling from 71 to 59 per cent. In victory, New Labour had lost nearly three million votes. Fewer than one in four of those eligible to vote backed Labour, giving Blair a weaker mandate than any prime minister in the 20th century.

Few paid attention to this at the time – MPs were elected just the same – and Blairites casually blamed Labour’s vast poll lead for discouraging voters from showing up. Why vote in a foregone election? But a warning light was flashing. Rob Ford, professor of politics at the University of Manchester, tells me the 2001 collapse in Labour’s turnout is one of the “most underestimated statistics” in politics. For many core Labour voters, abstention was their first break with a party to which they never returned.

That makes the 2001 election look like the “canary in the coal mine” today, says Ford. “You know all those people who stayed at home? They vote Tory now.” In Sedgefield, Blair’s seat in County Durham, 7,000 Labour voters dropped out of the voting bloc. Blair still won comfortably, but at each successive election, Labour’s base ebbed away. In 2019 Boris Johnson’s Tories seized the seat, overturning what had once been a Blair majority of 25,000.

It took two decades of errors to lose Sedgefield and many seats like it. But for too long New Labour took its heartlands for granted. “With the exception of by-elections, I don’t recall doing a focus group in those core Labour seats from 1997 to 2008,” says Deborah Mattinson, Starmer’s director of strategy and a longtime Labour pollster. There were no grounds for complacency: Blair’s win in 2001 was always weaker than it looked. It was a triumph won in apathy. Beneath the surface, Labour’s base had already begun to crumble and drift.

2. The road to war

Even at the 11th hour, Labour might have avoided Iraq. Andrew Adonis, a key Downing Street aide to Blair, remembers listening in astonishment as Donald Rumsfeld, the then US defence secretary, offered Labour an improbable lifeline in the days before the Commons vote on the war in March 2003. “There are workarounds,” Rumsfeld said at a press conference, should the British “not be involved” in the initial phase. There had been “a great deal of debate inside the building” over the decision to invade, says Adonis, but Rumsfeld’s lifeline came too late: within hours, No 10 had briefed out its unwavering commitment to war.

A set of Ipsos Mori polls had made it clear that public support for invasion was conditional. If Saddam Hussein was proved to be hiding weapons of mass destruction, and the UN Security Council supported invasion, a strong majority would back the war. But if neither happened (as neither did), two-thirds of voters were against it. The New Labour project was gambled away, if not openly sacrificed, for what Blair – fuelled by successful interventions in Kosovo (1999) and Sierra Leone (2000) – took to be a higher cause.

“Iraq really knocks Blair’s credibility,” says Ed Balls, the former Labour adviser, MP and minister, while for Douglas Alexander it “robbed [Labour] of a lot of authority internationally”. “Tony lost a lot of his wind after the Iraq War,” says David Lammy, the shadow justice secretary. “It expended a lot of political capital, and it was hard to see the gains.”

Between October 2002 and mid-2003, Blair’s personal approval rating plummeted from 41 to 29 per cent, never to recover in full. That July, the Tories took their first sustained poll lead in 11 years. Having failed to convince a third of his MPs to back the invasion, Blair lost the power to reshape the party at will. New Labour’s many achievements, foreign and domestic, would soon be eclipsed. As Rob Ford puts it, Iraq “legitimised the desire for a huge chunk of the left to write off” New Labour. Two future Labour leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, would win the leadership by leveraging their opposition to the invasion – if only retrospectively in Miliband’s case.

Blair still won the 2005 election, as his allies are eager to note. But he held on to just 66 per cent of his 2001 voters, with a million switching to the Lib Dems. Labour won in 2005 with 35.2 per cent of the vote, the weakest percentage on record. “That’s normally a losing share,” says the political scientist John Curtice. “Labour only won thanks to the electoral system.”

The Tories under Michael Howard had in fact quietly beaten Labour in England by 70,000 votes. But Labour’s well dispersed coalition of voters, and largely intact heartland base, allowed the party to win 92 more English seats. Blair was further saved by Labour’s 41 seats in Scotland, without which he would have failed to win a third majority. Labour got lucky.

Why did Labour’s breadth of support fall away? Partly because of an irreversible decision taken in 2004, one that Curtice describes to me as “absolutely fundamental to the Brexit story”. Its effects took longer to play out than the aftermath of Iraq. Its electoral consequences proved to be far more significant.

[see also: Tony Blair: Without total change Labour will die]

3. “We thought the numbers were going to be tiny”

In 2005, as Labour celebrated its fragile third term, Rob Ford, then a young PhD student, wrote a paper on what he called the “iceberg issue” of that year’s election: immigration. Between 1998 and 2004, the number of new migrant and asylum settlements in the UK had more than doubled. Public concern over immigration as the key issue facing Britain had risen sixfold in that time, from 5 to 30 per cent.

Yet the issue lay submerged, Ford wrote, because those most worried about it had not voted. In future, Ford predicted, the party best placed to win these voters would not be the Tories but Ukip, which had polled all of 2.2 per cent in 2005. A decade later, in 2015, one in eight voters backed the party. Many of the most disengaged immigration sceptics of the 2000s, Ford says, were hiding in plain sight in Labour’s heartland seats.

In 2004 Labour had made a seminal decision that would both contribute towards it losing its heartlands and propel the UK out of the EU. When ten eastern European countries (the “A10”) joined the EU that year, the government chose not to impose seven years of “transitional controls” on the free movement of labour, despite every other major European economy doing so.

“We didn’t because we thought the numbers were going to be tiny,” says Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s lead adviser in the Treasury at the time. “Migration is really good for our economy and our society,” he adds. “I think most people support it, as long as it’s managed and run in a fair way. We didn’t help people prepare for it.” Blair and the Foreign Office saw a diplomatic benefit in backing open borders, while the Home Office predicted between 5,000 and 13,000 arrivals per year in the decade after accession. That estimate was off by an order of magnitude: five years later, more than 800,000 A10 workers had emigrated to Britain.

Rank opportunists could twin anxiety over immigration with EU membership. “If I could connect open-door immigration and leaving the EU,” Farage says, “that was the magic bullet. Ever since 2004, that was the argument I made.” To those swayed by Farage or dispossessed by economic competition, Labour offered next to nothing. In his 2005 conference speech, Blair was unrepentant, telling delegates: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalisation. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.” He added migrant workers “make Britain not weaker but stronger”, which may have been true in sum, but was not felt to be true everywhere.

For Blair, free movement was a fact in a globalised world. Competition could not be shut out, only beaten. Douglas Alexander, a cabinet minister under Blair and Brown, tells me he sees the limits of that thinking today. “We were inclined to say a steel worker can become a coder. They didn’t hear that as an invitation. They thought it was a reproach.” For Gisela Stuart, a Labour MP for 20 years until 2017, her party “got into a position, after 2004, where anyone who spoke out about immigration was dismissed as a racist. Warehouse jobs wouldn’t even be advertised locally, and the Labour Party was incapable of giving those people a voice. The mistake wasn’t so much the original error, but how we responded to it.”

“These issues needed to be addressed or they would fester,” says Jon Cruddas, a Labour MP since 2001. But the Blairite worldview was that eight in ten jobs of the future would require a degree; Britain was moving to a “knowledge economy”, in which traditional industries mattered less. Labour did not fear losing its working-class communities. The view, says Cruddas, was that politically “they had nowhere else to go”.

The polls since the 2001 election
Use of PollBase and Britain Elects data

4. A failure of nerve

If three acts in Labour’s long tragedy occurred under Blair, only one dates directly to Gordon Brown. It is the most able and disruptive leaders who shoulder the greatest responsibility for Labour’s fall, and as prime minister Brown was neither. He offered a reheating of New Labour, but without its sense of purpose, leading man or chancellor – the job to which Brown was suited. In June 2008, a year after replacing Blair, Labour was polling 27 per cent, a low it had not hit since 1983.

But briefly after becoming prime minister, Brown had an opportunity to call an election that in hindsight – whatever the outcome – would likely have helped the party. In the autumn of 2007 Labour under Brown held a six-point poll lead, reversing the deficit he had inherited. He dallied over an election, allowing the press to believe one was imminent, only to back out after internal polls suggested Labour would lose seats (but retain its majority). That prevarication broke his premiership. “It was a disaster for him,” says a key aide. “He tried to claim it was a long-term view when everyone knew it was short-term polls.”

Brown’s dither, which John Curtice describes to me as a “crucial, fatal decision”, had another effect: it helped save David Cameron. In September 2007, 44 per cent of voters approved of Brown, with only 23 per cent backing Cameron, whose advisers believed they were on the verge of an internal Tory revolt. Party donors and MPs were slow to return calls and reluctant to meet. But after Brown fumbled the election call, Cameron’s approval rating soared by 16 points as Brown’s fell by 13.

Had Brown called an election, there were three likely scenarios, all of them preferable to what transpired. One: Labour held its majority, avoiding another election until late 2012 (rather than spring 2010), giving it time to bring Britain out of recession. Two: a hung parliament that left Brown or Cameron dependent on the Lib Dems, but with that party still then led from the centre left under Menzies Campbell rather than by Nick Clegg. As William Hague put it to me: “Any other Liberal leader in our lifetime would have been far harder [for the Tories] to deal with.”

The third scenario, a Tory win on the eve of the financial crash, might have been the most beneficial of all. It would have weakened the most potent attack line wielded by the Conservatives to this day: that you cannot trust Labour with the economy.

5. “I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left”

When the financial crash hit in 2008, Gordon Brown reacted adroitly, but Labour was soon damned politically. Stewart Wood, an adviser to Brown, tells me that the prime minister knew Labour’s response “would give the Tories a total gift for the next election”; but that was the price of good policy. The Tories capitalised.

George Osborne had promised to match Labour’s spending plans in 2007, prior to the crash. Once it hit, he decried those plans. Labour had “maxed out the nation’s credit card”, he told parliament, failing to “fix the roof while the sun was shining”. In reality, Britain’s net debt fell under Labour, from 37 per cent of GDP in 1997 to 34 per cent on the eve of the 2008 crash. That statistic may seem dry, but it is critical: Britain’s debt soared (to 64 per cent of GDP by the 2010 election) only after the crash hit. Had Labour lost in 2007, that debt would have risen on Osborne’s watch.

Once in power, the new Tory chancellor was able to justify austerity on a falsehood: that Labour had grossly overspent in the 2000s. He was aided by a cheerily idiotic note left by Labour’s Liam Byrne for his successor at the Treasury in 2010 (“I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left”). In reality, Labour’s failure over the crash was one of regulation, but that was an ideologically difficult argument for Osborne to make. Even Farage, a former commodities trader, agrees that the crash was caused “by getting rid of some of the basic rules that had lasted in the financial industry for two to three decades”, not by Labour’s profligacy.

Yet by 2010 “Osborne was making these ridiculous arguments”, says Alan Johnson, who was home secretary under Brown, while Ed Miliband, the newly elected Labour leader, was “doing nothing”. Miliband and Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor from 2011, both recall struggling against the rigid orthodoxy of the time: that spending cuts were vital. “Christine Lagarde [of the International Monetary Fund] would arrive to do press conferences with George [Osborne],” reflects Balls, “and say she felt chilled at the prospect” of Labour in government – even as economists inside the IMF warned about the pitfalls of austerity. Osborne, Balls notes, had helped Lagarde secure the IMF job.

In the decade since, that economic orthodoxy has shifted to the left, but Labour’s credibility has not recovered. On the eve of the 2010 election, Labour was three points behind the Tories on the economy. Five years later, it trailed by 18, as it continues to do.

The irony is that Labour was right: austerity was unnecessary, as Balls argued forcefully in 2010 and Boris Johnson admitted in 2019 (claiming in an interview that he had privately argued against it). But however right Labour may have been on the detail, the party lost the argument: Cameron brandished Byrne’s note throughout the 2015 election campaign. In the most memorable moment of that year’s leaders’ debates, Miliband denied that Labour had overspent in government. The audience gasped. Five years on, it was too late to push back. “We allowed this thing to take on a life of its own,” says Alan Johnson.

6. Crushed by coalition

Osborne had a willing deputy as he rewrote the narrative of the financial crisis: Nick Clegg. The Lib Dem leader’s decision to go into coalition proved subtly lethal for Labour. At first, it looked like a boon. Lib Dem support collapsed and most of these voters tilted left; by February 2011, Labour had leapt to 39 per cent in the polls, tying with the Tories. But Clegg helped legitimise austerity, argues Balls, allowing Osborne to make cuts under the cloak of a “national government in the national interest”.

“The weekend after the [2010] election,” Balls says, “Clegg decides the only way he can justify going in with the Conservatives is by making Labour the enemy of progress – profligate, irresponsible Labour, who got us into this crisis.” Soon Clegg was parroting Osborne and attacking Balls: “Who was whispering into Gordon Brown’s ear, budget after budget, creating this huge fiscal deficit?” the deputy PM asked Andrew Marr with wilful inaccuracy in January 2011.

The coalition was never a given. Clegg could have forced Cameron to rule uneasily in a minority government, or refused austerity as the price of a pact. Hague, a lead negotiator in the coalition talks, tells me he was struck by how easily the Lib Dems accepted cuts: “They sort of rolled over on that straightaway.” The coalition, he says, “detoxified the Conservatives quite a lot”. Balls is blunt: the way Clegg went into coalition was “incredibly destructive to centre-left politics in Britain”.

[see also: Keir Starmer’s Labour desperately needs to stand for something]

7. A tale of two Milibands

Throughout the late 2000s one figure hovered over Labour politics: David Miliband, who came within six MPs of beating his brother to the leadership in 2010. Was he the party’s lost saviour? Perhaps, or perhaps not. His critics say that he lacked the conviction to depose Brown as prime minister, and he lacked the charm to win over enough Labour MPs in 2010, assuming his victory was assured. He was perhaps closer in charisma to his brother than Blair.

Yet David Miliband might have made a difference. As a former foreign secretary, he was the established politician, and the 2015 election was close enough that a marginally better candidate might have defeated Cameron; Labour came within 25 to 30 Tory-held seats of forming a coalition with the SNP. When YouGov asked voters about their preferred prime minister in 2014, Cameron beat Ed Miliband easily – but David Miliband beat Cameron.

When I spoke in August to David Miliband, his analysis was clear. Labour’s path since 2010 shows that there are “laws of politics”, and Labour broke them. “If you trash your own record rather than build on it; if you privilege party opinion over general opinion; if you’re not credible as a vehicle, so that your radicalism is turned against you; if your leader is repulsive to large sections of the public [he stresses that he is not referring to his brother]; and if you assert rather than argue,” he said, “it’s really hard to win.”

Austerity and the coalition, he argued, should have helped Labour. “The reality on the ground was on our side, as Sure Start centres were being closed, as class sizes were rising, as the ‘Big Society’ was collapsing. That government of 2010 to 2015 failed in its central task.”

For Alan Johnson, who held five cabinet posts from 2004 to 2010, the consequences of Ed’s victory cannot be understated. “No one won that 2010 election,” he says. “We lost, but it was a hung parliament, with everything to play for. We had our best result ever in Scotland [in 2010]. Here was our chance to spend one period out of office, then come back, because people were still thinking of us as a party of government.” Instead, he says, the five years to 2015 were “a disaster for us. People made up their mind about Ed very quickly.”

When Starmer looks back on the 2010s, he too is critical of Ed Miliband, without naming him. “There was a distancing from the record of the Labour government [in 2010]. We were not saying, as we should have, that under Labour we massively reduced class sizes; we made work pay, taking millions of people out of poverty; we put a lot of money into the NHS; crime went down; and the economy, until 2008, was doing very well.”

“If you don’t own your track record where you can,” says Ed Balls, “it’s hard to get people to trust you to do good things in the future.” Alan Johnson is suspicious of the attitude towards Labour’s record that flourished under Miliband. “Suddenly, no one could find anything right about it. You had trade union leaders saying, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ Jesus!” He lists a cascade of reforms. “And yet it was no different from a Tory government? Do they still think that now?”

Ed Miliband pushes back against this. He says he did highlight how New Labour had improved the country, from investing in public services to introducing the minimum wage and new tax credits. But, he adds, “you don’t get kicked out for the things you did well. You get kicked out for the things you haven’t done well.” Miliband in 2010 was focused on addressing the new “politics of economic discontent”, he tells me. “It’s squeezed wages, it’s very weak labour market regulation, it’s the use of agency workers that allow people to be undercut, it’s [the lack of] housing.”

But by 2014, a discontent was growing that was about far more than economics. A new era of politics was about to begin, north of the English border, shattering the electoral rock on which Labour’s majorities had long been built.

Brother, where art thou: Labour leader Ed Miliband and his brother David at the 2010 party conference. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

8. Wipeout

Labour won 41 seats in Scotland in 2010. Five years later, it won one. John McTernan, who was chief of staff to the Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy in the months before the party’s collapse in 2015, recalls sitting in one focus group on a wet February night in Shotts, a small town between Glasgow and Edinburgh. When one middle-aged man dismissed Miliband to nods of agreement – “They chose the wrong brother” – McTernan says he knew Labour MPs were “pebbles in a landslide”. A leading Labour strategist agrees in part: “In 2015 Labour lost because people couldn’t imagine Ed [Miliband] as prime minister,” they tell me.

But Labour’s disintegration in Scotland had deeper roots. For Douglas Alexander, a Scottish MP for 18 years, Labour in 2014 encountered a politics it did not know how to speak. The class-bound loyalties that had long put a floor under its vote had been eroding for years. “You’d meet people who’d say, ‘Don’t worry son, I’m Labour,’ and at each election you’d meet fewer of them,” Alexander says. After the 2014 Scottish referendum, that class loyalty had for many been eclipsed by another identity – independence – that Labour could not offer.

It is possible to pinpoint key moments in Scottish Labour’s collapse before 2014. John Curtice thinks Blair held on too long, hurting Labour in the 2007 Scottish elections; others focus on the 2011 Scottish elections, when the SNP won a majority, forcing the 2014 referendum. But the “fundamental error”, says William Hague, was New Labour’s decision to devolve power to Scotland in 1998. Far from nixing calls for independence, he argues, devolution lit the fuse. David Miliband disavows such determinism. “If we’d been stronger in England and Wales,” he says, highlighting Labour’s weakness after 2010, “we’d have had less of a problem in Scotland.”

“All politics starts from the local,” says Margaret Hodge, who in 2010 successfully defended her Barking seat against Nick Griffin and the BNP. “We lost Scotland because we became completely dislocated from people.” But Alexander rejects this, noting that Labour MPs with the highest contact rates in Scotland lost in 2015, too. For him, the politics of the period was brutally simple. Nationalist referendums, he says, have “an afterlife – they burn like battery acid through old identities and old belongings”. Labour was taught that lesson in Scotland. After the 2016 Brexit referendum, having fallen under the control of a rank outsider, it became clear the party had learned nothing.

9. False dawn

Ed Miliband’s team had expected to prevail in the 2015 election, only for Labour to lose badly. “The party was in trauma,” says Alan Johnson, who remembers being briefed on how to claim victory on election night. Instead, Labour collapsed in Scotland and Ukip surged under Farage, as Rob Ford predicted a decade earlier. In the shock of defeat, Miliband stepped down, and Labour’s MPs inadvertently ceded control of the party.

“Words fail me,” says Gisela Stuart, remembering the way MPs allowed Jeremy Corbyn on to the party leadership ballot in a bid for “balance”. Miliband had diluted the power of MPs in leadership elections, depriving them of a say in the final vote, but they still controlled the ballot. The key was to select candidates the party could tolerate, which they failed to do. Thirty-six MPs backed Corbyn (35 were required), but few wanted him to win. Labour, soon to be faced with a fraught dilemma over Brexit, had chosen the worst possible time to pick a leader who could not lead the party.

Corbyn attracted tens of thousands of new supporters, eligible to vote under cavalier rules approved by Miliband. “People were joining from organisations that had spent their whole lives detesting the party,” says Alan Johnson. William Hague is not alone in thinking Corbyn was the “nail in the coffin” for Labour. But Jon Cruddas, who nominated him, sees it differently: Corbyn was “the only one with a moral critique of capitalism”, he tells me. “There had to be a reckoning.” In 2015, the party’s energy was all on the left. Any pride in New Labour was dead. Corbyn won easily against a weak field of candidates who had little to say and even less ability to say it.

Within a year, Corbyn’s approval ratings, weak since day one, had sunk to 25 per cent. Labour MPs moved a no confidence vote against him, only for party members to re-elect him. In spring 2017 Theresa May sought to capitalise, calling a snap election for June with the Tories 13 points ahead. By mid-May, when Corbyn launched Labour’s manifesto, that lead had not fallen. Ruin seemed imminent.

Three weeks later, Labour stunned observers by losing the popular vote by only 2.4 points, outperforming polls that had been narrowing rapidly. Corbyn might even have won a slightly later election. (Within a month Labour led in the polls, as it would for much of the next year.) James Schneider, a key Corbyn adviser, credits Labour’s bold manifesto pledges: to scrap tuition fees, renationalise the railways and reverse austerity by taxing corporations and the rich. “The outrage those policies caused in the media and political establishment helped to present them,” he tells me.

Schneider also points to the party’s 2017 slogan: “It was not just for the many, but not for the few”, purposefully tapping into the “antagonism of populism”. Farage also sees Corbyn as a populist – a fellow traveller, even. “He was doing the sort of thing I’ve done for years,” he tells me. “He spoke for those ‘left behind’ in a way that Miliband could never do.”

Many inside Labour say the 2017 results are an aberration. Corbyn temporarily held together Labour’s two warring Brexit tribes, while winning over disaffected Greens and protest voters. The Tory campaign was disastrous, they add, and May’s leadership lifeless: it is no surprise Corbyn did well. “If large sections of the electorate thought we might actually win, I think they would have run a mile from us,” says David Miliband.

But for some, 2017 was a roadmap, not a fluke. A leading member of Starmer’s shadow cabinet describes it to me as the great “inconvenient truth” in Labour’s 20-year collapse: the moment when the party’s move away from New Labour was shown to be all but justified.

Yet what was Corbyn’s triumph? Labour lost. Even Starmer errs when we discuss 2017, initially calling Corbyn’s campaign “successful” before correcting himself. In truth, the election was a success only on Labour’s own impoverished terms. Corbyn’s narrow appeal had subtle and severe consequences. The party racked up votes in its urban strongholds, but won 55 fewer seats than the Tories, a worse margin than in 2010. Labour now had a severe structural weakness: its support was overwhelmingly concentrated in cities and university towns. In 2017 few noticed this. Catastrophe had been avoided. But for how long?

10. Broken by Brexit

The tantalising truth of Labour’s two-decade decline is that it might have been arrested at the last. Despite Corbyn’s vacuous politics and his gross inability to deal with anti-Semitism, a failure that casts a long shadow, Labour may yet have escaped its fate. Had Corbyn known where to lead the party in March 2019, it might be in power now.

Labour in 2019 faced a stark choice: back May’s Brexit deal or cave in to demands for a second referendum. A Corbyn aide remembers thinking in Christmas 2018 that “when we get back to parliament, we’re just going to get railroaded into a People’s Vote”. Those who wanted a rerun are unrepentant. “The mistake wasn’t calling for a second referendum,” Andrew Adonis tells me, “it was falling to get one”, for which he blames Corbyn. Rob Ford is unconvinced. “Why didn’t we get a second referendum? I’ll keep it simple. Not enough votes. A majority of MPs would not back one.”

Corbyn’s team shirks responsibility. The then Labour leader, long suspected to be an undeclared Brexiteer, was “never going to be a convincing advocate for an anti-democratic policy”, they say. Not only was a second referendum impossible to pass in their view, but it would have hurt Labour in any future election. Under Corbyn, the party could not trade Labour Leavers for Tory Remainers. “Tory Remainers hate Brexit substantially less than they hate Jeremy,” says James Schneider. “Your programme is going to have to shift and be milquetoast [to accommodate them], which was never going to work, as we did threaten moneyed interests.”

So why not back May’s deal? Here, perhaps, lies the party’s last lost hope. Both Farage and Hague tell me that, had Labour backed May, it is the Tories who would have suffered long-term damage. “If May’s deal had gone through,” says Farage, “there’s a very good chance that a large number of the Spartans [the fiercest Tory Brexiteers] would have got together with my crowd.” Hague agrees that backing a deal “would have transformed” Labour’s situation. May’s team thought Labour was close to supporting them, says Hague, but Starmer, as shadow Brexit secretary, was pivotal in resisting a deal.

Jon Cruddas regrets that Labour failed to respect the referendum and split the right. Corbyn, he says, “didn’t have the authority” to marshal the party. Schneider is similarly rueful about where Labour ended up. “In 2017 we said, ‘Big change can happen at the ballot box: you voted Leave, now vote for social democracy.’ In 2019 we said, ‘Big change can happen, but not that big change you voted for three years ago.’”

When I ask Starmer if Labour should have backed May’s deal, he is unequivocal. “No. And it’s very important that the history of this is accurately reflected. The Labour Party’s response to the referendum was to argue for a deal, a close economic deal, with the EU. We argued for that up hill and down dale.” May’s deal did not offer that, says Starmer. “The fault here lies squarely with Theresa May.” But wherever the fault lies, the fallout lay with Labour.

***

Since the 2019 election, a pandemic has reshaped the world. Johnson’s government has, in the Prime Minister’s own words, “secured [the] double distinction of being the European country w[ith] the most fatalities and the biggest economic hit”. And yet the Tories still lead Labour by four points, while Johnson leads Starmer by ten.

Starmer has spent the summer on the road, promising he will change minds. Can he reverse Labour’s decline? He tells me he will lead “a cultural change” inside the party. “We’ve got to get away from the division of the last ten years, and actually go back to core Labour values of unity [and] empathy.” Labour, he stresses in a phrase that feels better suited to a corporate away day than the doorstep, needs to be turned “inside out, so that we’re voter-facing” rather than “inward-looking”. That, Starmer tells me, is the core lesson from Labour’s past 20 years.

But voters differ. You can’t face them all. And there are, perhaps, far greater lessons to emphasise: that only one Labour leader born in the past century has won an election; that the party’s handling of Brexit was catastrophic; that Labour has not had a compelling programme for government in 20 years; that it is not clear Starmer knows what one looks like.

There are others, emphasised by those who helped Labour to power in the past. “People forget how hard it is to win,” says David Miliband. “We were in the business of seeking converts, not hunting traitors,” says Douglas Alexander of Labour in the 1990s, a spirit that is alien to many of today’s activists. “It’s all very well having a strong party membership or ‘movement for change’,” says Ed Balls, “but if that’s not a winning coalition, you’re going to spend a lot of time in opposition.” Any movement has to be aware of “what the country is telling us”, David Lammy says. “The Conservative Party is malleable. It drops things, it becomes new things. Labour has always struggled to do that.”

Those struggles matter. Labour remains the UK’s only governing alternative to the Conservatives. The party’s failures – its 20-year slide, its fractious present, its stuttering future – fail us all.

[see also: When red walls come tumbling down]

Topics in this article:

This article appears in the 10 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Labour's lost future