The toxic combination of an unpopular leader, confused message on Brexit and a manifesto rejected as fantasy pushed Labour to its lowest point in almost a century in the December election.
Bringing back the smallest number of MPs since 1935, Labour has a mountain to climb to get back into power, according to a Labour Party review of the 2019 election defeat released on Friday.
Just to become the largest party in the UK requires a swing towards Labour on the scale of Tony Blair’s 1997 Labour landslide. To win outright, Labour must increase its total number of seats by 60%, something no party has ever done before – more Everest than Ben Nevis.
But the report also concluded that the defeat was not solely down to Jeremy Corbyn‘s leadership, manifesto and Brexit.
The 15-strong panel of commissioners, including former leader Ed Miliband and Manchester Central MP Lucy Powell concluded that this defeat had been a “long time coming” and could be traced back to two decades of demographic and political change that had fractured Labour’s voter coalition.
“It was a historic defeat, but it was a long time coming,” Ms Powell told Sky News in an interview about the 150-page report she helped to write.
“Along the way there were positive points – particularly in 2017 when we really did mobilise non-voters in a way we hadn’t done before – but in many other working-class communities which have been de-industrialised, where political alienation has taken place where there is a real desire and thirst for change, the Labour Party has not been offering the kind of change that these voters and communities have wanted.”
The party lost all types of votes everywhere when compared with 2017, except in London. Labour lost 1.7 million Leave voters and one million Remain supporters. It also failed to win over swing voters and turned out fewer non-voters than in 2017.
The report also lays bare the shortcomings of the Corbyn operation going into the 2019 general election, concluding that the leadership lacked a clear strategy and a coherent message. The report also said there was a “toxic culture” in the party, spawned by years of infighting which resulted in “significant strategic and operational dysfunction”.
However, the commission refused to lay all the blame for Labour’s defeat on Mr Corbyn and Brexit, saying it “would be a mistake to believe that a different leader, with Brexit no longer a defining issue, would in itself be sufficient to change Labour’s fortunes”.
“Labour could have further to fall unless deep thinking is done to overcome the deep problems that have been growing for many years.”
Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader, appealed to the party to “put aside the factionalism and division of years”.
“We owe it to the people whom we represent to look outwards to the country rather than inwards,” Mr Miliband wrote in the Guardian.
But Mr Corbyn’s leadership was a decisive factor in the disastrous 2019 defeat, according to the report, which found that the “Stop Jeremy Corbyn” message was a “major driver” of the Conservatives’ success across all key groups, including non-voters and swing voters.
The report also concluded that Labour was beaten by the Tories in the digital war.
“Our organisation and campaigning is not fit for purpose: our methods still owe more to the 1990s than the 2020s,” said Mr Miliband. “And while we prided ourselves on digital innovation in 2017, the Conservatives were miles ahead of us last year. A top-to-bottom transformation is required.”
Some changes have already begun: Mr Corbyn has gone – as have many of this team – and Brexit is done. But the party has so much more to do to win back those lost working communities along the Red Wall while also trying to win back seats in Scotland: not since 1955 has the Labour Party formed a government with fewer than 40 seats in Scotland; they currently hold one.
Sir Keir Starmer, who became leader in April, has so far avoided being drawn into the debate. He has instead focused on scrutinising the government’s handling on the coronavirus pandemic, but surely the way to bring a divided Labour party, and his disparate, disillusioned voter base together is to sketch out a new economic settlement, a new social and economic plan.
The unanswerable question right now is the extent to which the coronavirus crisis will not just reshape our economy but our communities too.
Richard Burgon, a key Corbyn ally and former shadow justice secretary, believes the divisions that characterised the past four years for Labour have been transformed by a public health crisis that will fundamentally shift the centre ground of politics further to the left.
“We basically, tragically, got smashed at the general election but going forward I think that coronavirus, and the economic crisis that I fear is on its way hot on the heels of coronavirus will mean that the Labour Party really needs to carry on putting forward radical innovative bold policy solutions,” he told Sky News. “I think people’s demand for practical policies that protect living standards will actually increase in the months and the years ahead.”
Tony Blair’s election victory of 1997 is the stuff of Labour history. Sir Keir will have to better it to win the keys to No 10.
That is a ballot box challenge that would surely seem impossible in normal times but these are not normal times. The coronavirus pandemic will force big economic change – and on this the commissioners of the report think they can build consensus across a very disparate group of Labour voters – be they lapsed or active.
It gives Sir Keir a mission that will not just rally his party – but just might rally those voters who have left Labour behind.