After nearly a decade of austere and divisive Conservative government, the Labour Party has endured its worst general election defeat since 1935. This outcome, by any measure, is one of the most remarkable in postwar history. Labour, which aspired to regain office after the Conservatives lost their majority under Theresa May in 2017, now risks another ten years in the electoral wilderness. The party has been routed and the radical left humiliated.
Jeremy Corbyn, the defeated party leader, inspired many voters after his election in 2015, particularly the young, through his opposition to austerity and free-market economics. But he was destined never to be prime minister for the reasons we outlined in our pre-election leader.
Labour’s problems did not, of course, begin with Mr Corbyn. It was under Ed Miliband in 2015 that the party lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats to the SNP (as we predicted in a 2011 leader would one day happen), a fate from which Labour may never recover. In 2019, in its post-industrial northern English heartlands, Labour lost to the Conservatives in spite of austerity. Certainly, Brexit played a role but there were other forces in play: many working-class voters believed that Labour had left them behind, ignoring their concerns about cultural dispossession and fracturing social cohesion.
The Brexit debate exacerbated the tensions within the party’s fragile electoral coalition of socially liberal Remainers and socially conservative Leavers. The conservative right, meanwhile, was united by the Leave project, which gifted Boris Johnson a chance to remake the incumbent Tories as populist insurgents. Mr Johnson’s crude vow to “get Brexit done” and his promises of higher public spending had a seductive appeal to both Leavers and weary former Remainers.
Mr Corbyn’s supporters should not attribute Labour’s humbling to Brexit alone, however. In numerous Leave seats, the Labour leader’s past association with extremists and his vulnerability on issues of national security were far greater problems than the party’s support for an EU referendum.
Many of Labour’s policies, such as the renationalisation of public utilities and higher taxation of top earners, were individually popular. After decades of market failure, John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, rightly challenged the belief that the private sector is inherently superior to the state. But Labour’s overall programme was not deemed credible by many voters. Indeed, as the party added pledges such as a four-day week, free universal broadband and £58bn of pension compensation for so-called Waspi women, they were suspicious of its seemingly boundless generosity.
The Conservatives, by contrast, benefited from a deliberately streamlined manifesto that promised higher public spending in the areas of greatest concern to voters (health, policing and schools). Having opportunistically abandoned Osbornite austerity, and embraced borrowing for investment, Mr Johnson was able to make a more optimistic pitch than his predecessor Mrs May could.
Although Labour now holds its lowest number of MPs for 84 years, it has cause to be grateful that its defeat was not even greater. The self-inflicted errors of Change UK and the Liberal Democrats (such as the party’s support for the revocation of Article 50) helped spare Mr Corbyn’s party a yet worse fate.
If Labour is to win again, it must fundamentally reinvent itself and regain the trust of those voters it has grievously alienated, the Jewish community most pressingly. It will need to elect a leader who is popular within the country, rather than merely the party, and who has a vision for renewal.
Labour should not refrain from confronting the defining challenges of our age: the climate crisis, the degradation of the public realm and economic inequality. Yet its response must be credible, rather than simply radical, and it must appeal to voters’ feelings of insecurity as well as their aspirations, not just their altruism. A healthy democracy depends upon a strong and vigorous opposition. We hope Labour can at least fulfil that role.
This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning