The first word that comes to mind when thinking of the general election result for Labour is catastrophic. A fall in vote share was bad enough, especially as all the other main parties registered an increase, but to make a net loss of approximately 60 seats1 is inexcusable for the main opposition party. Even worse, some of the seats lost were in supposedly safe areas such as Sedgefield (previously Tony Blair’s constituency) and Bolsover (Dennis Skinner).
Why did Labour lose so badly? Many reasons will be given over the coming months as the party seeks to work out why they can’t win an election without Tony Blair, but I think it comes down to three reasons: Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit and Scotland.
Three years ago I asked: Should Corbyn remain leader of the Labour Party? My conclusion was that he was still untested, although the results of three elections since he became leader were not encouraging. More importantly though, I felt that he lacked the confidence of MPs, and that in itself was reason for him to go. A net gain of 30 seats in 2017 gave him some breathing space though, and left open the possibility of squeaking into power as a minority or coalition government in 2019.
Unfortunately, this election demonstrated that Corbyn is a liability for the party. The one message that was clear throughout the campaign was that voters didn’t see him as prime minister material, with the worst net approval ratings of any leader of the opposition (Johnson and Swinson also had net negative ratings, but not as low as Corbyn). Some Labour candidates, including the one in my constituency, didn’t mention Corbyn anywhere on their election material – in stark contrast to the Conservatives who made a big deal about Johnson being the party leader.
Time and again the message from the Labour activists on the ground was that voters liked some Labour policies but couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a party led by Corbyn. The Labour candidate in my constituency, who lost by just 105 votes, stated that 8 out of 10 people raised the issue of problems with the party leadership. In one of the most marginal seats in the country, a better leader could have made the difference between victory and defeat.
Even more frustratingly, Corbyn is hanging on to the job whilst a ‘period of reflection’ takes place in the party. One lesson that Labour sorely needs to learn from the Conservatives is how to ruthlessly dispatch underperforming leaders – if the results had been the other way round then Johnson would have been given 48 hours to decide whether he would like to resign gracefully or be forcibly ejected from the leadership.
The lack of a clear, easy to explain policy on Brexit meant that the party lost votes in both Leave and Remain areas. When the Conservatives have ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the Lib Dems go with ‘Stop Brexit’ (both a tad unrealistic, but at least the aspiration is clear), the Labour policy of ‘negotiate a new deal and put it to a second referendum, where most of our MPs will campaign against our deal and the party leader will remain neutral’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Scotland and the SNP
As recently as 2015, Labour held 40 out of the 59 seats in Scotland. Since then they have been almost completely wiped out, back down to a solitary seat after a short-lived improvement in 2017. The reason for this is a resurgent Scottish National Party, and the choices available to the electorate north of the border, notably:
- If you are pro-independence, you will likely vote SNP as the only major party supporting it.
- If you are pro-remain, your choices are the SNP or the Liberal Democrats.
- If you are pro-union, the Conservatives are your best choice, as the party most likely to win and the least likely to do a deal with the SNP which includes another independence referendum.
Why then would anyone in Scotland vote Labour when there are alternatives who are more likely to be in a position to deliver on their policies, and who have been far more consistent about them to boot?
Where to now?
It’s unlikely that anything will happen over the festive period, but as soon as it is over Labour need to get a new leader in place as quickly as possible. The next few months will be critical with regards to our future relationship with the European Union, and the country needs an effective Leader of the Opposition who can hold Johnson to account. Until that time, we’re reliant on Ian Blackford and the SNP at Westminster.