Brexit

2019 end of year review: The Labour Party

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Despite the chaos of the past few years and months, politics in this period has actually unfolded in slow motion.

In 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party and, since then, a lot of people (myself included) have been waiting for a pretty calamitous election performance by his party.

Theresa May’s incredibly successful efforts at self-sabotage stalled this inevitability in 2017 – leaving 2019 to finally deliver the bad news to Corbyn and his acolytes.

Labour has now thrown itself into a period of introspection. Oh good. Rather than listening to the electorate, or even the party’s elected MPs, Labour will survey a relatively small, unrepresentative group of people – the party’s 400,000 strong membership – about its future direction.

And although the result of the next Labour leadership election is less predictable than in 2015 or 2016, when MPs launched a coup against the party’s floundering leader, I’m not confident that common sense will win the day.

As we have started to see over the past few weeks, cheerleaders of the Corbyn project will present the 2019 general election as an unwinnable war – a mission so complex that even the best political minds couldn’t have mastered.

Simply put, in my view, that is not the case. I think there are a few simple things we can learn from 2019, which should inform Labour’s future choice of leader and its political strategy.

BREXIT

The line/excuse from the Labour leadership is that the 2019 election was dominated by Brexit. They claim they lost because everyone wanted to talk about Brexit, instead of public services and austerity.

This is like a schoolchild handing in Maths homework in their English class and then complaining about getting a sh*t mark.

Brexit has dominated the national conversation since 2017. We are on the verge of departing the European Union in just a few months’ time. To assume that this would be anything other than a Brexit election reveals a GCSE-level understanding of British politics.

The Labour leadership is trying to change the debate – to claim the election result was out of their control. But this ignores the fact they totally botched the party’s Brexit policy.

Now, I’m not saying that Labour’s dilemma was easy. The party had to keep voters happy in pro-Brexit towns, and anti-Brexit cities. But it’s final policy, and the party’s general incoherence since 2017, was laughable.

Essentially, Corbyn has no foresight in terms of Brexit, perhaps because he’s actually quite ambivalent about the issue. He was buffeted by competing forces within the party for two years, constantly shifting his narrative and merely facilitating confusion.

Labour’s Brexit plan should have been firm and unwavering, established in the days following the referendum.

Firstly, it should have made it clear that it respected the referendum result, but would only vote for a Brexit deal if it met requirements on workers’ rights, environmental protections etc.

This was essentially Labour’s policy in 2017 and, as we all know, it worked pretty well.

However, the party’s policy beyond that point was muddled. It should have said firmly, from the outset, that if the Tories brought back a Brexit deal that didn’t meet its tests, the party would support a second referendum – between the Tory deal and remain – with Labour campaigning for the latter.

Instead, Corbyn said that as Prime Minister he would negotiate a new deal with Brussels, and then offer this to the electorate in a second referendum, alongside an option to remain.

This policy was totally incoherent.

Firstly, there was no evidence that Brussels would agree to the sort of deal that Labour was proposing – particularly cherry-picking access to the single market.

Secondly, Labour’s policy of beginning a whole new series of Brexit negotiations merely bolstered Boris Johnson’s “get Brexit done” narrative. Pollsters have repeatedly said that Johnson’s three-word slogan was the only one that cut through during the election period. The Tories must have based this idea on extensive research. In which case, Labour either didn’t commission similar polling, or actively ignored the feedback they were given.

Thirdly, and perhaps most damningly, the party couldn’t say how it would campaign in a second referendum.

In interview after interview, journalists rightly pointed out that Labour could end up campaigning against a Brexit deal that it had itself negotiated.

Once again, if Corbyn believed that the electorate would swallow this steaming heap of garbage, he must have a pretty dim view of voters.

Indeed, a research paper from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change (granted, not an impartial source, but the guy knows how to win elections), found that many former Labour voters were frustrated with Corbyn’s equivocal approach.

One voter, from Bishop Auckland in County Durham, said in the research article: “He sticks on the fence. He says he’s neutral, how can he be neutral? You want to leave, or you don’t.”

Another person, from Worksop, added: “The Labour Party, their stance on Brexit was just wishy-washy for ages and I still think it is now.”

The question is this: which policy would have won more votes? A coherent policy that was pro-Remain but based on the idea of respecting the referendum result; or an incoherent policy that tried to keep all options open? I’m definitely in the former camp.

LEADERSHIP, CREDIBILITY, AND IDEOLOGY

Ultimately, this confused Brexit policy helped to cement Corbyn’s personal unpopularity.

YouGov polling says that 35% of people who left the party in 2019 did so because of Jeremy Corbyn, with a large proportion doing so because of his Brexit stance.

As I wrote for the Spectator in 2016, Corbyn hates personality politics. He thinks politics is about values, and that we should avoid the Americanisation of British politics at all costs.

In an ideal world, perhaps he would be right. But we all know this isn’t an ideal world, and certainly not when you’re the leader of the Labour Party.

I am convinced that the most important factor to an election result in the 21st century is the personality of a party leader. People don’t pay a lot of attention to politics (and who could blame them), and they’re ultimately looking for someone to trust.

Someone to trust with our economic security. Someone to trust with national defence. Someone to trust with negotiations with world leaders.

Successful leaders in recent years have also been able to attract and retain the spotlight of the media – even if it means being brash or downright offensive. I don’t pay much attention to David Cameron anymore, but I was impressed by one passage from his new book. He said that the media landscape has changed. A safety-first approach doesn’t work anymore. As a politician, you have to get people talking about your issues, even if that means creating controversy.

American politics provides a perfect example. The key talking points that I remember from the 2016 US election were: Hillary Clinton’s emails, the border wall, and China. Even if his policies were downright stupid, these were all Donald Trump’s issues. He gamed the media.

And if you look at successful political leaders across the Western world currently, there is clearly a blueprint for success: media-savvy, authoritative, ideological.

Trump, Sturgeon, Johnson, Macron, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, Obama – they all fit this pattern.

In contrast, Corbyn doesn’t. The Labour leader is ideologically impassioned, but he lacks the presence to inspire a nation. To put it frankly, he’s a terrible media performer. He’s thorny in interviews, often picking trivial fights with presenters, and doesn’t have the capacity to deliver a slick, seething putdown.

These criticisms might seem mean-spirited, since I’m literally talking about someone’s character, but this is the same judgement that voters are making. People in Westminster project their understanding of politics onto the rest of the country. We in the media make our political decisions based on a complex understanding of policies and manifestos. Like Corbyn, we see personality politics as a bit cheap (perhaps because most people in politics didn’t have any friends at school).

That is not how the country at large makes its political calculations. Core values and key policy pledges (how much money for the NHS etc.) are important, but you might as well write your manifesto in crayon, if you don’t have a leader to sell it to the nation.

And so, the worst thing for the Labour Party would be to pick a leader who is instantly forgettable, due to their perceived ideological purity.

Having previously worked for a faction of the party, I can confidently say that Labour is broadly united on policy.

Aside from conflict over the need for mass renationalisation, the party has a coherent economic ideology – based on investment in left-behind areas and ensuring that the super-rich pay finally start paying taxes.

Likewise, in terms of foreign policy, there’s pretty much universal agreement that we need to defend our existing alliances with the EU and NATO, while offering strategic, humanitarian support to people blighted by war and authoritarianism. There are only a handful of cranks in the Labour Party who hold an aggressively anti-Western attitude. The problem is they can mostly be found in the leader’s office.

Thus, whichever candidate is elected as the next Labour leader, the ideological direction of the party will not fundamentally change. So, the question is who can best convince the nation that they – as a person – should be trusted with the keys to Downing Street. Personality is way more important than policy.

THE MEDIA

Finally, the second core argument used by the leadership to defend their spectacular recent failure has been media bias.

Corbyn cited the media in his speech on election night, and Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, later said that broadcasters had allowed the Labour leader to be “demonised and vilified” during the election campaign.

Of all the daft ideas used to explain Labour’s election loss, this is probably the most frustrating.

Indeed, there is literally no science to back up this claim. There is no hard proof that more people saw or read anti-Corbyn news than pro-Corbyn news during the election.

Two of the dominant right-wing newspapers, the Times and the Telegraph, have pretty hard paywalls on their websites. That means the vast majority of people won’t have accessed their content during the election. The Mail and Express are free sites, but they’re rivalled by the Guardian, the Independent, the Huffington Post and a range of independent micro-sites that are to a greater or lesser extent pro-Labour.

What’s more, although the BBC had the occasional slip-up, I think accusations of systemic anti-Labour bias are way off the mark. Again, as someone who worked there for several years, I think the opposite is probably true. Let’s not forget that one of the most viral social media videos of the election campaign involved Andrew Neil bludgeoning Boris Johnson.

And it would be amiss not to mention Channel 4. I’m a big fan of the broadcaster and I hope it manages to repel threats from Dominic Cummings over its public license, but it’s hard to deny that Channel 4 is anything but anti-Conservative. Therefore, Labour had the tacit support of one of the country’s biggest networks. Cries of media bias ring a bit hollow, in this context.

Plus, if you suspend logic and entertain the notion that the media is biased against Labour, what exactly does Corbyn or his successors plan to do about it? How exactly are they going to rival the Murdoch press? Or are they happy to use it as a convenient excuse, when they are smashed by the Tories in every future election until the robot apocalypse?  

Over the next few months, Labour needs to regain at least some understanding of political reality. Otherwise, Boris Johnson will win the next election with the same ease as 2019. For the good of us all, Labour cannot allow that to happen.

Sam Bright is the Founder and Director of Backbench

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