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13 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 11:06am

The one benefit of this terrible night for Labour: time to think about it

By Stephen Bush

The scale of the Conservative victory means a number of things: the first is that Brexit will definitely happen, the second is that the next election will, thanks to the Tories’ planned repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act take place at a time of the sitting prime minister’s choosing four to five years from now.

The only useful commodity that Labour and the Liberal Democrats have at the moment is time: to work out what exactly went wrong and how to fix it. We’ll be much better equipped to answer that in even a few days, when we can look at the broad sweep of the results.

I think – I say this merely because I think it’s useful to get your hunches out in the open so that you know how they may be subconsciously influencing your judgement later – that Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity acted as the political equivalent of an autoimmune disease: it didn’t on its own right finish the Labour Party off but it made it considerably more vulnerable. In 2017 he was sufficiently trusted by Remain voters that he could occupy a Leave position to reassure voters who disliked him and in many cases the Labour Party as a whole. By 2019 he was not trusted by Remain voters, which forced him to occupy an explicitly pro-referendum position. Had he not done that, Labour would have lost by even more as the majority of Labour voters are Remainers. But Remain voters still didn’t trust him enough to be won back entirely – even in Labour’s most heavily Leave seats, the votes of the Liberal Democrats and Greens, which went up in most seats, would have been enough to flip the result the other way – and Leave voters, who were already not sold on Corbyn, moved further away from Labour.

In addition, Corbyn’s unpopularity, and the perception that voters had of his incompetence meant that his policies, however popular, simply did not convince voters because some of them did not believe he could pull them off and some believed he would not even try. That unpopularity also had a destructive effect upon the Liberal Democrats. Although Jo Swinson did not land well with voters, to put it mildly, if you look at the history of Liberal Democrat gains, the popularity of their own leader has a loose relationship to their ability to gain seats. What matters to that party’s fate is how the Labour leader, whoever they are, goes down in the Conservative-Liberal Democrat battleground. This is because, in spite of the coalition, most voters regard the Liberal Democrats’ real candidate for prime minister as the leader of the largest anti-Conservative force – aka the Labour Party leader.

Or, you know, I could be completely wrong, and it could turn out that basically the only problem was that Labour failed to tackle anti-Semitism in its ranks and the same political offer, with a leader who had expelled anti-Semites from the party with speed and conviction, would now be in Downing Street.

Or I could be completely wrong and actually the Remain voters Labour won back didn’t care at all about another referendum and really Labour could have afforded to go into this election as a pro-Brexit party and that would have been the difference.

Or I could be right about Labour’s problems but actually they were entirely unrelated to the Liberal Democrats’ problems, which could all have been self-created. 

We will never know for sure but Labour – and the Liberal Democrats – will be better placed to know for sure once they have the full detail of the results to look at. In 2015, Labour’s deputy leader Harriet Harman commissioned a series of reports about what had gone wrong – but these were essentially pointless as Labour had already picked its leader by the time they reported. In addition to the large amount of serious academic study and post-election polling (usually the most reliable as pollsters have an exact understanding of what the country looks like, for one day only), the Equalities and Human Rights Commission will complete its report into Labour’s handling of anti-Semitism early in the new year.

All of these things will allow both parties to take a more informed position on what went wrong last night rather than simply leaping on whatever hunch proves most popular or has the most charismatic advocate in their parliamentary parties. 

The Liberal Democrats, unlike Labour, are in the fortunate position that their deputy leader, Ed Davey, is in parliament and more than capable of running the show temporarily so that they can chew over the results, look at the granular detail of what went wrong before immediately launching into a contest – if they choose to take that option.

Labour’s deputy leader is a letter marked “Goodnight and good luck, all love, Tom Watson” with a supplementary annexe reading “West Bromwich East: Conservative gain”. Jeremy Corbyn has said that while he will step down, he will lead the party for a “period of reflection”.

The reality is that because Labour’s nominal interim leader is the aforementioned letter and annexe, there is no ready alternative, beyond an interim leader elected by the National Executive Committee. It is difficult, to put it mildly, to see who that benefits. If you are a Labourite who wants to keep Corbynism it means a weird phase in which a leader picked by an electorate of 33 has to carry your flag for several months, unable to make any real decisions without a vote of the NEC first while being continually mocked in the House of Commons as a temporary measure.

There are a number of difficult short-term fights coming up for the Labour Party – not least the looming vote on Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement – and again, these are events that Labour is better off having behind them not ahead of them – let alone being navigated by a leader picked by the NEC.

These considerations also apply if you are a Labourite who wants to ditch Corbynism. And if you fear that Corbyn will stay on in a bid to maximize the chances of him securing his favoured successor – it is, again, unclear how that would be different with a shorter timetable and an interim leader picked by an NEC on which he has a healthy majority.

It’s true of course that Jeremy Corbyn is at least partially motivated by what he thinks serves the interests of his faction. This isn’t a good way of assessing if it will work or not – I remember not so long ago how some supporters of Yvette Cooper thought that putting Jeremy Corbyn on the ballot was an effective way to, as one of them put it, “fuck Andy Burnham” and to elect Cooper. I remember a little before that how some Blairites thought that switching to one member, one vote, would allow the majority that elected David Miliband in 2010 but was overruled by the electoral college to assert itself in perpetuity – instead they got Corbyn. Just because Corbyn thinks it is in his interests doesn’t mean he’s right.

Labour has suffered a catastrophic defeat – the only benefit of which is the certainty of time to think about it. They should make use of it.

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