Richard North, 24/12/2019  

With just a day to go before Christmas, the reverberations from the Labour defeat have still not decayed, with the topic set to dominate the news agenda well into the new year.

But, before the rest of the nation closes down for the festivities, YouGov has injected some more research which will help fuel and inform the debate. It comes in the form of an article by Chris Curtis, the organisation's political research manager, headed: "In their own words: why voters abandoned Labour".

"There's been a lot of soul searching within the Labour Party since last week's election", writes Curtis, who seems to be rather given to understatement. But he then addresses the million-dollar question: "Why did they face their fourth consecutive defeat at the ballot box, and fall to their lowest number of seats since 1935?"

As Curtis works for a major opinion polling organisation, he goes about his task by having his people speak to nearly 500 voters since the result, but not just anyone. Those who voted Labour in 2017 but defected this time are the target on the basis that, since the party's vote share fell by nearly eight percent, "understanding why these voters left might help the party better understand how they can win them back".

I'm not sure that this alone will tell us as much as Curtis thinks it does, but the work nevertheless produces some interesting results, even if they don't actually tell us anything new: in a nutshell, the man tells us that "voters had clearly gone off Jeremy Corbyn".

Corbyn and his leadership was in fact mentioned by 35 percent of the YouGov sample, and thus constitutes the main reason for defection. Second, a long way down at 19 percent, came Brexit. An important issue here was the support for a second referendum: twice as many "leavers" defected over Brexit than "remainers".

However, Curtis says that isn't the whole story. Firstly, a substantial minority of voters left the party because they didn’t believe the party to be "remain" enough. Then, as we have also surmised, the party's view on Brexit interacted with views of the party's leadership. In other words, Brexit and Corbyn's leadership were two sides of the same coin – nothing new there either.

YouGov's data had already showed that the aversion to Labour wasn't just because Corbyn's position was too far towards "remain" (just three percent thought this) or too far towards "leave" (just six percent said this), but rather the fact that he didn't seem to have any position at all. This had the effect of casting the Labour leader as "weak and indecisive".

Even though Brexit dominated the discussion, Curtis tells us it is important not to forget the importance of other policy areas. These were mentioned by 16 percent of those who abandoned Labour. In most cases, this was to do with the economic policies proposed in the manifesto and a feeling that they are undeliverable and would cost too much.

Interestingly, there was one other factor which came up in the survey – a significant minority left Labour to vote tactically. In total, ten percent of the voter sample said that this was the main reason they didn't vote for Labour this time around, the majority of those being "remainers".

Since these voters would almost all have been in seats which Labour didn't have a hope of winning anyway (because of the nature of tactical voting), Curtis thinks that their votes would not have had a substantial impact on the result.

And there we have it – a research base to tell us what we already knew: that Corbyn was a major factor in the defeat of Labour, something which was evident some time before the election and, in retrospect, is the easiest factor to determine.

Doubtless, the YouGov data will be seized upon by the newly-formed Labour commission, set up to review the reasons for the party's failure to win its fourth general election in a row.

The review, headed by Lucy Powell, is to include in its membership former Labour leader Ed Miliband – perhaps unsurprising as Powell ran Miliband's 2015 election campaign. But, already, he has been accused of "breathtaking arrogance" by MPs who think that Miliband himself failed to learn from 2015, when he led Labour to a loss of 26 seats at the general election then resigned the leadership the morning after polling day.

According to The Times, one shadow minister takes the view that: "The party simply doesn't need a post-mortem carried out by a self-nominated group consisting of a failed leader and his chief of staff who themselves have not given an adequate explanatory account of their lost election in 2015".

One can immediately see how this review is going to be a bundle of fun, set to keep us entertained over the coming year, especially as it is Miliband who is largely seen as responsible for Corbyn taking the leadership of the party.

In an effort to democratise Labour he abolished the electoral college that used to choose leaders, in favour of a one-member, one-vote system. He also opened up participation so people could pay £3 to register as supporters. Both moves, his critics say, paved the way for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership bid.

Yet, if this commission – and the commentariat in general – focus solely on Corbyn's leadership, they may well be missing the point. If this evaluation has any merit, then Labour was always going to have a hard time, and the scale of the defeat experienced was perhaps only brought forward by one electoral cycle.

The structural changes in the electorate in the (former) Labour heartlands means that the block Labour vote can no longer be relied upon, other than in the inner cities, where the appeal is largely to middle-class "progressives", public sector workers, the dispossessed poor and the immigrant ghettos.

Given the propensity of the legacy media to indulge in personality politics, though, it might be unrealistic to expect its commentators to set their horizons beyond a limited performance review of the Labour leader. Such is clearly the case with the Telegraph which has Rosa Prince focus precisely on the personalities with little thought for the underlying issues.

Nevertheless, she does refer to a "trenchant analysis" of where Labour went wrong, found in a leaked memo suggesting party chiefs frittered resources on remain-voting Tory seats rather than shoring up vulnerable constituencies, like Durham, Redcar, Sedgefield, and so many more in the North, Midlands and Wales.

It is unlikely, though, that any local campaigning could have overcome the combined effects of Corbyn's inadequacies as a leader, and the structural changes in those vulnerable constituencies.

Prince observes that most Labour MPs and activists will take a break from politics this week. When they return, she says they face a battle one side has been fighting since long before the election, the outcome of which will determine whether they wish to remain a Left-wing shouting shop or become a serious alternative party of government.

Above all, she adds, that coming battle "will determine if, in a largely two-party democracy, a viable opposition will exist at all". In all probability, though, that battle is already lost. The evidence indicates that the party must go far beyond the process of releasing itself from the influence of Corbyn and his allies, which Prince describes as a "purge".

To a greater extent, the party should be asking itself whether there is even a role for the Labour Party in the 21st Century, and whether it needs to reinvent itself in a manner that speaks to the needs of the electorate as it exists, rather than as the pundits imagine it to be.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few