A much-anticipated review of Labour’s 2019 election defeat, by a group of MPs, union leaders, officials and activists called Labour Together, has produced a 154-page report of findings and recommendations. These are the main points.
It was, the authors concluded, “a terrible defeat for Labour”, one which “poses profound questions about the future prospects of our party”.
As well as losing 59 seats, the second-highest loss by any opposition for a century, the report notes that the party shed votes in every part of the country, with the most significant swings being in north-east England, West Midlands, Yorkshire and Humberside and the east Midlands.
To be the biggest party in the Commons at the next election, due in 2024, Labour would need to make 82 net gains from the Conservatives, with a national swing of 7.9% – almost as much as the 8.8% seen in the 1997 landslide for Tony Blair.
The authors point to a long-term decline in voter loyalty to Labour, connected to weaker community links, such as through trade unions. It says Labour’s vote share declined between 2001 and 2010, then recovered slightly in 2015 and significantly in 2017 – but the fundamental issues remained.
The 2017 result in particular, where Jeremy Corbyn defied expectations by denying Theresa May a majority, “contributed to a failure to reflect honestly on the reasons for the increase, or analyse the continuing underlying weaknesses in Labour’s voter coalition”.
In fact, the report says, 2017 heralded much of the heartland vote collapse seen two years later. It cites analysis showing that in 18 English and Welsh seats lost for the first time in the post-war period in 2019, the Conservatives had increased their vote share by an average of 14% in 2017. Some seats such as Bolsover, Sedgefield and Walsall North had seen a cumulative swing from Labour to the Conservatives of more than 25 percentage points since 2005.
The report is unflinching in its analysis of how the leader’s appeal to voters plummeted between 2017 and 2019. Had his popularity stayed at its peak level, it says, Labour’s vote share in 2019 would have been 6 percentage points higher.
By September 2019, it finds, 67% of voters disliked Corbyn, most strongly, and only 12% liked him. It links this to issues including Corbyn’s handling of complaints of antisemitism in the party, Labour’s Brexit position, and a perception of disunity due to events such as the defection of MPs to the short-lived Independent Group.
The report says research suggests an “intense” dislike of Corbyn was a key factor among voters who switched from Labour to the Tories; they raised issues such as antisemitism, perceived support for terrorism, and unaffordable policies.
The views of one 52-year-old woman who voted Labour in 2017 are summarised in the report as: “Frightened at the possibility of a Marxist government. Disgusted at Corbyn being a terrorist sympathiser. Most disturbed about plan to nationalise BT as I fear it would allow a Labour government to spy on internet users.”
In a poll of Labour members carried out for the report, 57% named the Brexit policy of promising a second referendum on any departure deal as the single most unpopular and challenging idea to sell to voters, citing views such as “dithering”, “dire”, and “reflecting division”.
This, the report finds, repelled both leave and remain voters. Of those who voted Labour in 2017, the party lost 1.9 million remain voters and 1.8 million leave voters in 2019. Given the generally pro-remain views of Labour voters, this represented a much higher proportion of leavers.
For many of those who changed their choice between 2017 and 2019, voting for another party in the European elections in May provided “a conveyor belt” away from Labour, the authors say.
Even those who stayed with Labour seemed to do so despite the party’s Brexit policy rather than because of it, with majorities of remain and leave backers saying they preferred to either stop Brexit entirely, or “get Brexit done”, respectively.
The report finds a paradox: individually, most of Labour’s policies were popular, but as a package they were seen as unrealistic, with voters not trusting the party to deliver them.
In open-ended questions, Labour’s policies were cited as a positive reason to vote for the party, with policies like free broadband attracting majority support. But, the authors say: “The resistance came mostly as people evaluated the overall package of proposals.”
Some cited affordability as a worry; others expressed scepticism about whether the manifesto could be delivered. The worries were shared within Labour, the report found, with some activists saying the seemingly endless flow of new policies had “an advent calendar feel to it, with each new day opening a door promising more stuff”.
Labour also faced problems with policies that had merely been discussed at its autumn conference, but not implemented. Members polled for the study said Labour’s apparent plans to abolish private education were raised negatively on the doorstep, even though this never became a policy.
The cumulative effect of Corbyn’s unpopularity, the Brexit position and the manifesto was bigger than the sum of their parts, the report argues, making the party seem unelectable by too many voters.
The authors write: “To go into an election with any one of these vulnerabilities – an unpopular leader, a problematic position on the key issue of the day, or serious questions about the deliverability of key policies – would be a challenge, one that might be offset by strengths on the other two fronts. But to be in a weak position on all three at once arguably had a ‘snowballing’ effect that was fatal to Labour’s chances of securing sufficient support to win.”
Noting that the structure of the party is “far from transparent”, the authors commissioned a chart to show how it works, which uncovered at least five “executive directors”, at least 13 “directors”, and at least 15 “heads of”.
This confusion and lack of coherence was, they say, “a central problem afflicting Labour’s ability to develop an election strategy and prepare to implement it”. This caused policy delays, for example, over Brexit, with the authors saying earlier clarity on the issue might have mitigated the party’s difficulties over the policy.
The report also criticises the central policy on messaging, saying there was an overly rigid media strategy. The party’s online campaigning, much-praised in 2017, was not as good in 2019, while the Conservatives’ efforts in this area had greatly improved.
Much of the blame for this ground campaign is directed at central policies, such as delayed readiness due to the long process of reselecting sitting MPs. The report also cites poor choices in where to allocate campaigning resources, with 80% reportedly going on seats Labour hoped to win rather than focusing on defending seats, dozens of which were lost to the Tories.
This happened, the report says, “in the face of clear evidence available from the start that a far larger number of Labour seats were at risk”.
It says that of 27 Labour-held seats lost narrowly to the Conservatives, 21 were not on an initial list of seats to be defended. The Tories won all of these by fewer than 700 votes, including Bury North and Bury South, Bolton North East, Stoke-on-Trent Central and Blyth Valley.
In parallel to the divisions over Brexit, the report finds Labour faced a gradual loss of voters more likely to be associated with the leave side – older, less educated and socially conservative.
This was another ongoing process, the report notes, which had been masked by the relative success of the 2017 election, with much of it happening before 2019 and even before the Brexit referendum. Of those who voted Labour in 2010 but voted to leave in 2016, four in 10 had already stopped voting for the party by the time of the 2015 election.
On age group, the split was stark. Labour won the backing of 62% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 51% of 25- to 34-year-olds. But among those aged 55 to 64, the party was 21 percentage points behind the Tories, rising to 47 percentage points among those aged 65-plus. And while the party led over the Conservatives among graduates, for those with no qualifications it lagged by 33 points.
As Labour’s vote share evaporated in its heartland towns, more or less the only place it saw a rise in support was in or around large cities characterised by both high deprivation levels and many professional workers, and with high proportions of black, Asian and minority ethnic voters or students, such as London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham.
This in part appeared to mean that any benefit to Labour from an influx of new voters was mainly felt in places where the party was already going to win. While the number of newly registered voters was higher in 2019 than in 2017 – 3.2 million against 2.3 million – and two-thirds were under 35, overall turnout fell slightly. While turnout was mainly seen in cities, it often fell in towns where Labour lost, such as Stoke-on-Trent.