Theme: Parties & Elections | Content Type: Blog

A Mountain to Climb: Labour Together's 2019 Election Review

Paula Surridge


David Dibert

| 6 mins read

The context of the review

The Labour Together review of the 2019 election was published on 19 June 2020, almost exactly six months after the party suffered its worst defeat since 1935.

The report echoes the findings of other post-mortems of the 2019 election, and suggests that the defeat was the result of perceptions of the party leadership, Brexit, and the manifesto. But it also highlights that the roots of this defeat pre‐dated the Brexit referendum and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader, with each perhaps better viewed as symptoms of the increasing divide between the party and parts of the electorate.

‘A mountain to climb’

The first section of the report states that the trends that led to the loss of seats in 2019 were evident in 2017, though not acted on. A lack of reflection on the 2017 result is alluded to here and becomes a recurring theme of the report.

While the report recognises that there are long-term challenges that must be understood and addressed, there is also a focus on the well‐trodden ground of the 2019 election—Corbyn, Brexit and the manifesto.

There is little reflection on why Corbyn was less popular at the start of the 2019 campaign than at the start of 2017. There is a suggestion that splits within the party contributed to a fall in ratings between December 2018 and June 2019, but a similar drop between Feb 2018 and July 2018, is not explained. Some evidence suggests that this was linked to the reaction of the leadership to the Skripal poisonings and unpacking the relationship between this and the trends already highlighted is perhaps a missed opportunity to offer advice to the new leader on how to avoid a similar misstep in future.

The impact of the party’s Brexit position will likely be debated for years to come. The data in this report show that Labour lost voters on both sides of this divide, and notes that the ‘protracted avoidance of a clearer stance’ contributed to Corbyn being perceived as weak or indecisive. Further evidence that trying to apportion blame between these issues is unhelpful for understanding the defeat.

Looking ahead, and with Brexit ‘done’, the report sees a future for the party by implementing a radical economic programme to unite a broad left‐wing coalition of voters.

It also sounds a note of caution—the Brexit divide lies along a set of values, with social liberalism at one end and social conservatism at the other. It notes that the voters Labour needs to unite on economic issues are deeply divided on non‐economic issues.

‘Divisions and factionalism’

The failure to carry out a review of the 2017 election is marked out as a key strategic error for the party. The better‐than‐expected result in 2017 was treated as a victory and poorly understood, despite many of the trends that would result in lost seats in 2019 being evident.

Given that much was made of Labour’s relative success in online campaigning in 2017, the report is highly critical of the online campaign in 2019. In part, this reflects an improved online offering from the Conservatives, who reached beyond their traditional supporters using digital media while Labour were guilty of talking only to the converted.

Divisions and factionalism are highlighted as hampering the ground campaign.  Considered by some to be a strength the party could draw on, activists were not used effectively, so that what should have been a key advantage was not realised.

‘The way ahead’

The latter part of the report focusses on the seats and swings needed to achieve a parliamentary majority of one in 2024.

It provides an analysis of groups of voters and the key differences between them that need to be bridged to create an election‐winning coalition.

On Brexit, these groups are divided, and the larger groups leant away from Labour. While, the data analysis suggests that these groups have some points of agreement, particularly around key economic messages, there is a note of caution  about the dangers of a political landscape dominated by ‘cultural’ issues beyond Brexit.

The final chapter makes forty‐three recommendations of ways the party must change to become electorally competitive. These range from allocating each region its own shadow cabinet lead to dedicated polling of BAME voters. Collectively, they are a call for action to make the party more outward‐looking and to move beyond internal conversations.

The past as a map for a more complex future

Running to 153 pages, no one can accuse this review of not taking the scale of the defeat seriously. It rarely, however, takes sides—preferring to admonish all involved and recommending a widespread ‘education programme’ across the Labour movement.

The danger in this approach is that there is something for everyone, each of the factions the report seeks to bring together can find comforting evidence for their own preferred future path while avoiding the uncomfortable truths that must be confronted for Labour to rebuild.