Nine lessons…but no carols
As it’s Christmas, here are nine lessons from the 2019 UK general election. This was an election when Labour, after nine years of Tory government doing bad things to people, collapsed to its lowest point since 1935, with the loss of two and a half million votes in two years, and sixty seats including ones that have had a Labour MP since the first world war. It puts Labour in a situation where it is almost impossible to win the next one, so Corbyn can reasonably be said to have lost Labour three elections in a row. Having burnt down the house, what can we learn from the smoking ashes?
1. The only point of British socialism, and the institution which embodies it the Labour Party, is to gain democratic power to make our country more equal, more free, and more united. This is expressed in Clause One of our constitution. Anything which detracts from this goal, or subverts attention away from it, no matter now enjoyable or appealing, must be resisted. There’s only one cause and that’s Clause One.
2. In our parliamentary democracy, with its first-past-the-post system of elected local MPs, the only measure of success is how many MPs you elect. Labour needs to win a majority in the House of Commons to form a government — around 320 seats. Labour currently has 202, many with waver-thin majorities like Wansbeck. This means that other measures, such as share of the vote, are entirely meaningless. Labour can pile up votes in safe urban seats, delivering majorities of over 20,000 in Liverpool and Manchester, but it means nothing if the Tories win more seats.
3. That means you need a strategy to win a majority of seats, by the identification of ‘target seats’. The party’s general secretary is said to have declared that every seat was a target seat, which of course meant that none was. A target seat strategy directs resources to the places where it matters most, not vanity projects like pouring resources into seats that Labour has never won like Uxbridge and Chingford & Woodford Green.
4. As we learned in the 2019 general election, leadership matters. This was the Corbyn election. The wisdom of creating a cult of personality, with ritual chanting, shrines and knitted effigies should now be assessed. Labour had a Leader who actively repelled voters, repulsing people who had voted Labour before, and communities hitherto seen as the Labour heartlands. This was no surprise — many wise and sensible folk warned that Corbyn was electoral Kryptonite during the 2015 leadership election, and this was proved by the local elections, European elections (when Corbyn Labour came third), and the 2017 general elections. Why Jeremy Corbyn was still leader at the time of the 2019 election should be a question addressed in the post-mortem. The lesson of this unfortunate period is that Labour needs a Leader who appeals to voters, not weirdos.
5. A leader that appeals to people is a good start — but the policies matter. These need to be underpinned by an overall sense of competence and authority, making the deliverability of individual policies more credible. Labour’s manifesto became the target of ridicule and incredulity. Once candidates had listed pay increases, free dentistry, a four-day week, free university tuition, free broadband, and free social care, all that was missing was a set of steak knives and a voucher for Nandos. ‘Are you going to nationalise sausages?’ is a reasonable question in the context of a manifesto promising to put civil servants in charge of all manner of services, from delivering gas and electricity, to making cancer drugs. In 1997, the pledge card was confined to five clear, costed policies which demonstrated an overall approach, not a list for Father Christmas written by a six-year old. This seemed to work better.
6. Don’t blame the media. Every Labour leader is demonised (in Blair’s case, literally). The Mail and the Telegraph will always be beastly to Labour’s leader. The point of leadership is to establish a media operation which can take on a hostile press, deliver eye-catching opportunities for broadcasters, make well-briefed and articulate spokespeople available, and rebut all mistruths before they take hold. These days, this job is much easier than it was in 1997 because social media allows the creation of channels of communication which are not controlled by media barons. In 2019, Labour’s media operation was a disaster — inarticulate spokespeople, endless ranty speeches, and Jeremy ‘can I just finish’ Corbyn getting rattled by reasonable questions. A good start might be to stop making journalists feel physically threatened at Labour events.
7. There is no correlation between size of party membership and electoral success. So Labour needs to stop fetishising the size of membership (‘biggest in Europe’) as though it mattered. Flooding seats with activists makes little difference to outcomes, as the Tories’ success has proved. Indeed if Labour’s membership went down by, say, 100,000 cranks and racists as they returned to their real political homes, that would enhance Labour’s prospects.
8. Most people are not paying attention to the election campaign. It is a low hum in the background — which words, and what images cut through to the foreground? What sticks in the mind of the voters? Boris Johnson had a slogan, and you know what it was without me needing to tell you. What was Labour’s counter message? Two images stick in most people’s minds from the 2019 election — Boris Johnson with manual workers, and Boris Johnson driving a JCB through the Brexit wall. Johnson delivering the milk was clever too, until he hid in a fridge. Where were Labour’s visual metaphors? Labour had one tactic — rallies. Rallies are great for the converted — they can chant ‘Jeremy’s’ name over and over, show each other their latest ‘Jeremy’ tattoos, and engage in the Two-Minute Hate of Laura Keunssberg, but they look and sound horrible on the outside.
9. And lastly, listen to the MPs who lost, and their agents and staff. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has a sizable minority of Corbynites, after the partial success of their stich-ups and parachutes. Just as the party needs to move on, this lot will want to sanctify the memory of Jeremy. They are a barrier to meaningful reflection on what went wrong, because they have just landed jobs for life, and probably feel quite chipper. So let’s hear from those former MPs who watched their majorities evaporate thanks to Corbynism, and listen to what they can teach us. There’s a political adage — if the voters tell you they don’t want ham and eggs, don’t offer them double ham and eggs. There will be those who want to offer triple ham and eggs at the next election, and shove it down our throats until we like it. Their voices, whether inside the PLP or the thoroughly discredited ‘outriders’, should be dismissed and discounted if Labour is ever to win again.
Paul Richards is a writer and commentator, and author of How to Win an Election.