It has become something of a tradition for Labour Party members and voters to be disappointed upon the release of the exit polls in recent years. From the 2007 Scottish Parliamentary election to the 2019 General Election, it has been a hard twelve years for Labour, and never harder than last Thursday night. Yes, people will argue that it was only expected that Corbyn would crumble and the Tories would be left triumphant; but even the most pessimistic polls were hesitant to suggest such a disaster.
And what a disaster it was. The worst number of seats for the Labour Party since 1935. Once again all but wiped out in Scotland. The collapse of the Red Wall and the decimation of our traditional heartlands. This isn’t the sort of election an opposition party should be facing after nine years of Tory government. Nor is it the sort of election result that leaves us ‘one more heave’ away from government. The last time Labour suffered a fourth successive election defeat was 1992. In that election, we gained seats. The Tories squeaked in with a majority, but by the end of that Parliament, that majority had been lost. And at the following election, Labour won a landslide. That’s not going to happen in 2024.
During the election night coverage, BBC journalist Andrew Neil said there had been two previous transformative elections. 1945, where Labour won our first majority, our first landslide, and went on to build the welfare state. 1979, where Margaret Thatcher triumphed and tore up the post-war settlement and remodelled Britain in her own image. In Neil’s view, 2019 was a third such election. I think he was right.
Where does Thursday’s result leave us? A resounding Tory majority means an easy passage through Parliament for Johnson’s dreadful Brexit deal. Brexit, combined with Trump in the White House (where he is likely to remain until 2024 considering the dearth of inspiring alternatives offered by the Democratic Party) means a trade deal with the US will all but certainly put the NHS centre of the table. The size of Johnson’s win means he will likely be able to remain in 10 Downing Street as long as he wants. The nature of Johnson’s win, shattering Labour’s traditional heartlands, leaves the potential for a fundamental redrawing of the electoral map from which Labour may never recover. And in addition to all that, there is the very real sense that the 2019 General Election will prove the final nail in the coffin for the union; in Northern Ireland, there are more nationalist than unionist MPs for the first time ever, while in Scotland the SNP swept the board and previously staunch Scottish Labour unionists have swung their support behind indyref2.
How did this happen? Who, or what, is to blame? And where do we go now?
Just as the 2014 Scottish independence referendum shattered Labour’s coalition in Scotland, so too has Brexit belatedly shattered Labour’s English coalition. The Labour Party as an organisation took a stance our voters disagreed with over Brexit, just as the Scottish Labour Party did on independence; on what is perceived as the biggest issue of the day, Labour abandoned its traditional voters and suffered the consequences. Long periods of ambiguity on Brexit were no doubt deeply harmful to Labour’s position here, and when a position was finally settled on – a second referendum – it was attacked on all sides, leaving the Tories to sweep up our traditional Leave-voting heartlands while failing to make gains elsewhere. Perhaps a more strongly Remain stance would indeed have helped make these gains materialise, as some on the right of the party suggested, but I am sceptical; such a strategy would have involved a total reinvention of Labour and what it means to be a Labour voter, a reinvention which was not going to happen, at least not quickly. The Tory’s own Brexit reinvention was not done overnight either, but over many years, and only thanks to inroads in northern seats made by Theresa May in 2017. And ultimately, in order to make the gains necessary in Remain-leaning seats to offset the losses endured in northern Leave seats, Labour would have to abandon its socialist principles entirely. It would be the Labour Party in name only.
But Brexit alone is not the only factor. Jeremy Corbyn entered the election as the most unpopular political leader in history. This was not entirely his own fault; yes, he could, and should, have handled the antisemitism controversy better than he did, and no doubt some of his past associations hurt him, but it must be remembered that Corbyn was under siege from all sides. Attacked by everyone from the Tory press barons to his own backbenchers, Corbyn endured a vicious onslaught that no leader could come out of unscathed. The press, the Tories, and certain Labour figures threw everything they had at him, and eventually some of it stuck. In the end, the public did not get to see the real Jeremy Corbyn, the compassionate socialist who knew this country deserved better. Instead, people judged the man the media presented him as, and we are all suffering for it.
Although the messenger was shot, the message he carried was popular. Labour’s policies have proved hugely popular when polled individually, and the 2019 manifesto, like the 2017 one before it, offered a real blueprint for the radical change the UK so desperately needs. Socialism has seen a renaissance these past four years. People support nationalisation of public utilities, a well-funded NHS, a public transport system that works and is affordable, a Green Industrial Revolution, more and better jobs, higher wages, a social security system that gives those who are struggling the dignity they need and deserve. Labour has changed the conversation, and when the focus is on real policy issues, rather than leadership or Brexit crises, we are winning the arguments. It is vitally important that this defeat is not seen as a defeat for socialism and the ideas we have fought and campaigned for. A radical socialist agenda isn’t just a ‘nice to have’, it’s a necessity, and it’s only going to be needed all the more by the time Labour return to power. We did not lose because we were too radical; if anything, we lost because we were not radical enough in our vision for democratic, economic and social renewal.
This is not the time for recriminations and rushed resignations. This is not a time for throwing blame and launching witch-hunts. We must take a step back, reflect on our defeat, and move forward with purpose. People are crying out for change, and contrary to what some on Twitter seem to believe, the change they want is not a return to 1997. People feel abandoned; they feel our democratic institutions have left them behind.
At the heart of Labour’s future direction must be the renewal of democracy and empowering ordinary people. This sense of abandonment and lack of democracy is a key driver in pro-Brexit sentiment, and it’s time we as a party understand and respond to that, and in turn develop solutions to re-enfranchise these people. It is these same sentiments which have driven support for independence in Scotland; this too Labour must respond to. For too long Scottish Labour has blamed its defeats on being ‘too socialist’, or ‘too weak on the union’ – let’s not forget that it was under arch-Blairite and unionist diehard Jim Murphy that Scottish Labour lost 40 of our 41 seats in 2015. The truth is that Scottish Labour’s traditional base has migrated to the SNP because of the question of independence. Being more unionist isn’t going to win them back. It’s past time Scottish Labour sits down and has an open, honest conversation on our future, and on where we should stand on the question of independence. Make no mistake, an ever-increasing number of Scottish Labour members and voters are coming to view independence as the best future for Scotland, or, at least, the least worst. Among Scottish voters as a whole, I have no doubt support for independence is only going to grow further, particularly after last Thursday. If independence is now, as seems likely, inevitable, it is imperative that Scottish Labour can make a positive, socialist, internationalist case for Scotland’s future outside the UK.
The 2019 General Election was a watershed moment. The future of Brexit and the union was set, and the future of the Labour Party cast into doubt. What matters is what we take from this defeat, and where we go from here. If Labour can learn to understand the concerns of the millions of people, from Lands End to John O Groats, who are crying out for real change and democratic renewal, we may yet find ourselves in a position to govern again.