Sienna Rodgers: How Labour lost the 'Red Wall'
As hurt over Labour's election defeat quickly shifts into a battle for the party’s future, LabourList editor Sienna Rodgers reflects on what went wrong – and how the party can get back on the road to power
The first key moment of Labour’s general election campaign was actually created by a Tory. Victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested, lacked “common sense” when they followed the fire brigade’s instructions to stay put. The leader of the House of Commons later apologised for his comments, but the damage was done. For Labour insiders, it was precisely this sort of miscalculation that would clinch the election for Jeremy Corbyn. The “nasty party”, as it was dubbed by Theresa May herself, was still here. This is what Labour’s conference slogan, “people before privilege”, was designed to encapsulate.
Reassured that the Tories would reveal further contempt for voters, and thus implode before polling day, Labour launched an overwhelmingly positive campaign. The party was brimming with policy ideas thanks to a fearless set of announcements at conference in September, and activists were ready to evangelise on the doorstep whatever the weather.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson kicked off his own campaign with a baffling, negative message: a Telegraph splash that attacked Jeremy Corbyn personally and used typically antediluvian language to do so. All in all, Labour had good reason to feel cheery at the start of the campaign.
When Tom Watson revealed that he would be stepping down as deputy leader on Day One, the surprise move was considered to be a blow to the campaign by Corbynsceptics. Most commentators relayed that in their own analysis. But neither the leadership nor most of the pro-Corbyn membership shared this view.
It helped that Watson decided to leave in the least acrimonious way, promising to work towards a Labour victory and publicly recognising his “shared interests” with Corbyn. The Tories described this as a setback, but it didn’t look like one from the perspective of most party members.
Then came the floods. Across Yorkshire and the Midlands, people’s homes and financial situations were being devastated, and the Prime Minister appeared to be on the back foot. Remarking that a national emergency would have been declared “if this had happened in Surrey”, Corbyn was calling the shots while Johnson seemed reluctant to visit the affected residents. When he did make the journey, they didn’t hold back on their criticisms. Yet as Labour emerged from the crisis with an enhanced reputation for compassion, a political development with more tangible consequences had unfolded.
In seats such as Mansfield – a key Labour target – Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was no longer going to stand. In fact, the rival Leave party would not be putting forward candidates in any seats won by the Tories in 2017. Would this really help Johnson, when the Brexit Party would still be splitting the vote in Labour Leave constituencies?
As it turns out, the answer is yes. In Don Valley, for example, the Tories won with a mere 1.4 percentage point increase, as Labour dropped by nearly 16 and the Brexit Party newly secured more than a 14% share of votes. This dynamic, which can be found in many of the Labour-turned-Tory Leave seats though not all, suggests Farage’s decision was crucial to the result.
“So many people in Dudley North quoted the Tory slogan at me I was convinced the seat was a goner, and the chances of similar seats being lost started to seriously worry me”
Corbyn was confident that using this to link Farage and Johnson together, along with the US President, would highlight a toxic “Trump alliance” that would repel voters. The unappealing character of this Brexit pact could tie up with Labour’s most successful message: “Save our NHS”. It was used effectively in the televised debates by Corbyn, as well as by activists. A voter tells you we should “get Brexit done”? Tell them not to trust Johnson with our NHS.
But the severity of the original problem was being underestimated. The fact that so many people in Dudley North quoted the Tory slogan at me when I knocked on their door convinced me that the seat was a goner, and the chances of similar seats being lost on the same basis started to seriously worry me.
My mid-campaign trip to that Leave-voting Midlands constituency also brought into sharp relief the differences in Labour’s ground game across the country. On a weekend in London, literally hundreds of supporters would turn up to a single canvassing session in Kensington or Chingford. But a ‘Super Sunday’ in a so-called ‘Red Wall’ seat? Around 40, maybe.
Lower numbers weren’t the only challenge. The briefing would be less thorough, which meant members of my canvassing group weren’t informed that Ian Austin was not re-standing in his old seat, for instance. Momentum’s digital map tool was useful in getting people to make the journey to a marginal, but it was often a bit of a mess once you arrived.
Labour activists in Remain areas had an easy job of it if Brexit came up in conversation with a voter: we’re offering you the chance to vote Remain, which is a more democratic route than the Lib Dem idea of cancelling the 2016 result altogether. This argument worked well.
Talking to Leave voters was trickier, as it was difficult to counter the straight-forward Tory offer with a proposal to get Brexit sorted within six months after another gruelling referendum. It was also challenging due to the vast amount of policy detail often required to address their other concerns.
Labour’s manifesto was proudly radical. It had a solution to every problem, and members thought it was brilliant. Why didn’t everyone else think so? The problem was not the substance of Labour’s policy programme but the way it was communicated.
The broad framework of a ‘green industrial revolution’ was woefully underused. By the time we got to manifesto launch day, Labour had already announced the following and more: parts of the Treasury set up in the North; free adult education for six years; a £26bn NHS “rescue plan”; a four-day week; gender pay gap closed by 2030; solar panel in public spaces; 320,000 climate apprenticeships; guards on trains; free and fast broadband for all. On the day itself, Labour couldn’t help but announce a big housing commitment as well as one million green jobs.
“Hundreds of supporters would turn up to a single canvassing session in London. But a ‘Super Sunday’ in a so-called ‘Red Wall’ seat? Around 40, maybe”
There wasn’t a single focus for each day: two manifestos – one for disability and another for work – were published on the same day, with separate press releases the night before. Policies were coming out thick and fast, and no clear theme bound them together. A general guarantee of “real change” simply couldn’t cut it – not in the face of the direct and reassuring “get Brexit done”, which must have made voters feel as if they would be ticking something off their to-do list by voting Tory. And it couldn’t succeed when the battle over Corbyn’s personal unpopularity was already so challenging.
The Labour leader has said he will step down in March after overseeing a leadership election. The deputy spot is vacant, too. Already, the party has descended – at least online – into a vicious factional war, with many members preferring to attack barely-formed leadership bids rather than pause and reflect on the disastrous result.
The truth is that neither Labour’s Brexit position nor Corbyn’s unpopularity can be solely responsible for the losses. It was both, but a whole lot more, including a disconnect that has been growing for decades.
The array of contenders is wide: Rebecca Long-Bailey from the Corbynite left; Angela Rayner and Lisa Nandy from the soft left; Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry in the ‘served well and largely kept their heads down’ section; Jess Phillips and Yvette Cooper as the openly Corbynsceptic.
Whether the contest is fought along those Corbyn-era lines is yet to be determined. But certainty can be found in this: whoever takes over must be able to identify the root causes of Labour’s poor electoral performance, and also convincingly sell solutions without returning to bland and drab policy-making. That is the only route to winning over both the membership and the electorate.