Why Labour Lost the 2019 Election
This may be a little late, considering the election was over a month ago, and everyone's analysed it to death, but I feel I ought to chip in here, because there are lots of theories floating around, none of which I feel really get to the heart of the issue.
The Conservative Party won an outright majority, with 365 seats (326 being needed for a majority) and Labour were 162 seats behind, with 203. Overall, the Conservatives had gained 47 seats and Labour had lost 59. None of the smaller parties reached fifty seats, and although the SNP won seats from both Labour and the Conservatives, the main issue here was the seats won and lost by the two main parties.
A common knee-jerk complaint made by Labour after the election was that Corbyn had received adverse media coverage. It's undoubtedly true that the large right-wing newspapers such as the Times and the Mail and "left-wing" Guardian criticised Corbyn throughout his time as leader of the Labour party. However, the right-wing press has been criticising Corbyn since he was elected Labour leader in 2015. The 2017 election was much closer-fought. No party managed to win a majority. The Conservatives got 318 and Labour got 262. The Conservatives actually lost 13 seats and Labour won 30. The concerted conspiracy of the right-wing press wasn't working. Frankly, it's wishful thinking to imagine the press has so much control over the results of an election—a pleasant excuse for a losing party not to have to do any soul-searching. The Times might cost you a vote here and there, but it doesn't account for 162-seat gap. Frankly, for a left-wing party to assume that the electorate gullibly swallowed the Times line, instead of considering its own failures as a party, is deeply condescending. It's also dangerous, setting the party up to make the same mistakes again.
Similar arguments about the British electorate is just a collection of racist idiots etc etc, aside from being delusionally out-of-touch, fail to explain how a country shifted so far to the right in two years that the gap could grow from 56 to 162.
We're going to actually consider what Labour did wrong in this election. There has been an obvious shift in Labour's position on Brexit, from a pro-Leave party in the 2017 election, admittedly still working out the details of the Brexit deal it intended to pursue, to a fence-sitting position in 2019. Labour announced intentions to hold another referendum, allowing the public to choose between a settled deal (a difference from the 2016 referendum, in which the details of a leaving deal were unclear) and remaining in the EU. Aware that many of Labour's traditional supporters live in working-class Leave-voting areas, I was cautious about taking such a line, suspecting it might lose a few votes. I admit I never suspected it to have quite such a devastating effect.
The reasons for the Leave vote in 2016 were complicated. The Leave campaign stressed immigration and taking control of borders, which allowed the Remain campaign to accuse Leave-voters of racism and xenophobia. The Remain campaign mainly focussed on free movement of goods and people. But there were other reasons to support leaving the EU, including the austerity regime the EU imposed on Greece, against the wishes of the Greek people, in return for money. It's the control an international organisation originally founded as a trading partnership has on the domestic economies of member states which is why I personally oppose the EU. However, what's most relevant for this essay is the geographical break-down of the results. In Leave-voting areas, the Conservatives won 294 seats and Labour won 106. In Remain-voting areas, the result was less extreme, but Labour still won 96 seats and the Conservatives won 71. Before the election, Statista polled Leave and Remain votes by which party they intended to vote for. Of Remain votes, 34% were planning to vote Labour and 14% Conservative, and of Leave voters, 9% said they were planning to vote Labour and 53% to vote Conservative.
This is important, because many of Labour's traditional voters, on whose vote the party feels it can most rely, voted Leave or live in mainly Leave-voting areas. Leave won in many parts of the Midlands, and Northern industrial towns. The West Midlands was 59.3% Leave, the East Midlands was 58.8%, the North East was 58% and Yorkshire and the Humber was 57.7%. These are areas which Labour used to see as their heart-lands.
In Blyth Valley in Northumbria, 60.5% of the population voted Leave. A former mining area, it's hardly natural Conservative territory. But Ian Levy, the Conservative candidate, won, receiving 42.7% of votes, gaining 5.4% of the vote since 2017. Labour received 40.9% of the vote, losing 15% of the vote since 2017.
James Grundy won Leigh, Lancashire (Greater Manchester officially, but it will always be Lancashire to me) for the Conservatives with a majority of 1965, the first time the Conservatives had won for nearly a century.
Workington, a Leave-voting former mining town in Cumbria, returned Mark Jenkinson for the Conservatives. The only time the Conservatives had won Workington since the Second World War was the 1976 by-election and Labour had won every general election since 1979. The 'Workington Man'—a northern, Leave-voting, traditionally Labour-voting constituent—was a key right-wing target through-out the election campaign of, in particular, the Conservative Party. And it seems to have worked. The Conservatives have not only taken Workington but some of the safest Labour seats in the country. Redcar, Bolsover in Derbyshire, Don Valley in South Yorkshire and Ashfield in Nottinghamshire had never returned a Conservative MP until 2019. Bishop Auckland in County Durham has returned Labour MPs since 1935, but in December returned Dehenna Davison for the Conservatives. Burnley in Lancashire last returned a Conservative, Gerald Arbuthnot, in 1910.
The only seat which swung from the Conservatives to Labour was Putney in London. While any seats are welcome, Putney is hardly what the Labour party sees as its traditional die-hard support-base. The 2011 census found 46% of the population to be of the "managerial, administrative & professional" class. There is a real danger—which some Labour members have embraced—of Labour becoming the party of the middle classes while the Conservatives portray themselves as the party of the working (and landed upper) classes—which indeed seems to be their open and admitted strategy. I say "danger", because the fact remains that the Conservatives are not a working-class party. It's deeply attached to liberal economics and reducing government spending. This is not an economic programme which benefits the working classes. When the only real working-class party in England abandons the supporters which it let down in 2019, in favour of pursuing the Putney professional, the populations of many northern ex-industrial towns will have no one to represent their genuine interests at all.