There was open warfare in Parliament yesterday as furious Labour MPs vociferously tore into the perceived lack of leadership of Jeremy Corbyn and his staff; firmly blaming him for the party’s catastrophic loss in last week’s general election.
With the new contingent of MPs taking their seats yesterday, it marked the first real opportunity for the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) to confront their outgoing leader. The Huffington Post reported that Catherine McKinnell (MP for Newcastle North) read out a list of north-eastern constituencies that had fallen to the Conservatives, alleging that people in charge of Labour’s election campaign had completely neglected their heartland seats; instead focusing on trying to unseat Iain Duncan Smith and Boris Johnson. There is no doubt that the loss of so many seats in the previously-Labour strongholds of Northern England, North Wales and the Midlands was the reason that Boris Johnson was returned to Downing Street, however, is it simply as cut and dry as blaming the soon-to-be outgoing leadership?
The Blame Game
Within hours of the release of the exit poll, it was clear two very different factions within the Labour Party had rather different ideas as to what was to blame for Labour’s worst electoral performance since 1935.
A quick note on that oft-repeated statistic; Labour in 1935 gained 154 seats in the Commons, which in itself was a vast improvement on the 1931 election during which they lost 235 seats and ended up on a paltry 52. The cause of Labour’s quite appalling electoral performance in the early 1930s can largely be chalked down to the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the resulting formation of a National Government – headed by the then-leader of Labour Ramsay McDonald. Following outcry from the trade unions, the Labour Party promptly expelled its own leader and appointed Arthur Henderson who went on to lose the subsequent election by a margin of 418 seats. So whilst this is indeed the Labour Party’s worst performance electorally since 1935, the mitigating factors at play during the 1930s might suggest that this defeat is even more catastrophic for the party than those which came before.
Anyway, turning the clocks forward eighty years, it became clear that Corbyn, the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and their camp lay the blame squarely at the feet of the media and the Shadow Cabinet members who openly came out for remaining in the EU during the campaign whilst also, admittedly, taking some of the blame themselves. However, one point that was repeated over and over by Corbyn supporters was that the decisive loss was not a rejection of the policies put forward in their manifesto.
One dissenting voice, who might well have been expected to swing behind the leadership, was Jon Lansmann – the head of the Labour grassroots group Momentum. In the midst of his immediate reaction, he blithely suggested that the manifesto was a case of ‘too much, too soon’. And he has a point; Labour’s manifesto contained pledges to nationalise at least five main utility networks, to scrap tuition fees, to compensate the WASPI women, to provide free broadband to all, to create a Green New Deal, to scrap Universal Credit, to create a National Care Service and, of course, the promise of a final say on Brexit.
The purpose of this article is absolutely not to pass judgement on these policy objectives, nor to comment upon their financial sustainability. However, two years since Theresa May embarked upon her minority government odyssey, the domestic agenda has, with a number of notable exceptions, been overwhelmingly focused on Brexit. The sheer number of policies Labour was proposing would have, to borrow a phrase from Jo Swinson, provided seismic change at a pace that our politics has not followed for a long while.
The role of Brexit
I’ve briefly touched upon Brexit but it would be foolish to not suggest that at least part of Labour’s failings during this election would not have happened if the party had adopted a clear Brexit strategy a whole lot sooner. At the party’s annual conference in September, they finally agreed to adopt what would loosely become their official election policy on Brexit.
A Labour government would have gone back to the EU, renegotiated a deal along the lines of Sir Keir Starmer’s now infamous “six tests” and put the deal back to the people against an option to remain. This clearly was an attempt to please both the metropolitan remain seats the party holds in areas like London and Bristol and the ardent leave seats found in the West Midlands and the north. Rather tellingly, it didn’t work.
Yes, Labour’s sole gain this election came from the Conservatives in Putney, the former seat of Justine Greening and an area that voted 51.7% to remain in the EU. However, potentially because of the party’s policy on Brexit, a large number of traditional Labour voters abandoned the party and, instead of doing the unthinkable and switching directly to the party of Margaret Thatcher, supported a third party; that of Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. On average, in areas where the Brexit Party stood candidates, the Labour vote fell by 8.6%, compared to only 7.3% in areas where there was no candidate. So whilst the Brexit Party gained zero seats last Thursday, their siphoning of the Labour vote certainly allowed the Conservatives to win; either simply by steadily increasing their voters from 2017 or by hoping the Brexit Party took enough voters off Labour to allow them victory through the back door.
A prime example of this is Blyth Valley. Blyth Valley, the third seat and first Conservative gain to declare on the night, voted to leave the European Union by 59.8%. The area had only had an Conservative MP once before, during the early 1930s (see, that earlier short tangent did pay off ) and yet returned the Conservative candidate shortly after midnight. This was in no part to the 8.3% that voted for the Brexit Party and the astonishing 15% drop of Labour supporters. Yes, the Conservatives increased their vote share by just above 5% but without the Brexit Party candidate standing, there was no guarantee that enough Labour leave voters would bite their tongue and place a cross next to the Conservative candidate. The phenomenon of Labour losing seats that voted to leave the EU could be seen across Conservative gains throughout the night; Workington, Burnley, two seats in Bury, two seats in Stoke-on-Trent, Bassetlaw, West Brom East, West Brom West, Bishop Auckland, Wrexham, Redcar, Wolverhampton South West and, perhaps most astonishingly of all, Sedgefield; the former seat of Tony Blair.
The casualties in the north voted almost exclusively to leave the European Union. There were some notable exceptions but, on the whole, the almost complete trend of seats that turned blue being leave-voting seats in undeniable proof that the Brexit solution that Labour were offering was simply not good enough to many a northern Labour voter. And this is without even mentioning Jeremy Corbyn’s plan to ‘remain neutral’ during any future referendum; a plan that was affirmed as being “odd” by the Labour MP for Cardiff North Anna McMorrin when I sat down to interview her during the election campaign.
The Corbyn Factor
However there is still one overarching factor that many a surviving MP believes cost Labour this election; that of Jeremy Corbyn himself.
Corbyn has always been a polarising figure both within and outside of Labour. Beloved by many of the younger activists who catapulted him to power in 2015, despised by many of his own MPs who tried to get rid of him a year later. Within the parliamentary party, as soon as the results began to confirm the accuracy of the exit poll, there was little hesistation as to who should bear the brunt of the blame.
Ruth Smeeth, formerly one of Stoke-on-Trent’s two Labour MPs, perhaps summed up the mood amongst the moderate Labour candidates when she declared that Corbyn’s “personal actions have delivered this result for my constituents and for swathes of the country overnight.” Her voice was joined by other losing candidates in Chesterfield and Sedgefield, but also by successful Labour MPs including McMorrin and Dame Margaret Hodge. The growing calls for him to resign his post immediately are unlikely to be successful, in part due to the wishes of Corbyn allies to secure the necessarily support in order to make sure the Labour leadership remains upon the path charted by Corbyn.
So why was Jeremy Corbyn such anathema on the doorstep? Corbyn, who enjoyed the lowest net satisfaction ratings by an opposition leader since the 1970s, was lambasted for his supposed economic illiteracy and his failure to root out the anti-semitism problem within Labour. The now infamous Andrew Neill interview, of which it must be said Boris Johnson somehow skirted his way around, was a public relations disaster for Labour; Corbyn’s refusal to apologise to anyone let down by the anti-Semitism within Labour clearly played badly. Other factors that caused lasting damage to his reputation included his previous support for Irish republicanism and for his association with the groups of Hamas and Hezbollah; the latter directing connecting to his perceived lack of action amongst his critics.
So what did go wrong?
It’s almost impossible to state definitively why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party fell to such a monumental defeat last Thursday. Whilst the personal unpopularity of Corbyn is undoubtedly the aspect most of the media will focus upon, the failure of the party to establish a clear and consistent Brexit position over the past two years undoubtedly contributed to the drubbing. The manifesto too was perhaps a case of throwing everything at the wall and hoping at least some of it would stick; although first-hand accounts suggest that only a few policies actually cut their way through the Brexit-orientated election battleground to reach the average voter.
During yesterday’s meeting of the PLP, the newly elected MP for Leicester East Claudia Webb; a strong ally of Corbyn, rather optimistically stated that there was a “lot to celebrate” about last Thursday’s result. Given the events of the past week, one might think that the likes of Stella Creasy, Melanie Onn, Ruth Smeeth, Peter Kyle, Caroline Flint and the other fifty-five Labour MPs who did not rejoin their colleagues yesterday might be slow to agree.