Labour has a “mountain to climb” if it is to get back into power, according to a major review of the 2019 general election defeat, which paints a picture of dysfunctionality, toxicity and drift inside the party’s election-fighting machine.
Negative perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, doubts about the manifesto and the party’s ambivalent Brexit stance reinforced each other in a “snowballing” effect to deliver December’s catastrophic result, the 150-page report by the party group Labour Together argues.
However, it was also the product of two decades of demographic and political change that hit the party’s traditional base, and could endanger more Labour seats in 2024.
“Labour’s electoral coalition had been fracturing for a long time and was broken in 2019. We were rejected by many of the communities we were founded to represent,” says the report, seen by the Guardian. “We lost all types of voters everywhere compared with 2017, except in London.”
Using interviews with senior party figures, as well as previously unpublished polling and new analysis, the report identifies significant shortcomings in the election campaign, which followed 18 months of debilitating parliamentary wrangles over Brexit.
Key findings include:
• Labour “went into the 2019 election without a clear strategy of which voters we needed to persuade or how”, and failed to settle on a coherent message with the power of 2017’s “For the many, not the few”.
• “It was unclear who was in charge” of the election campaign, and relationships were soured by years of infighting which had created a “toxic culture” and “significant strategic and operational dysfunction”.
• Labour was outgunned by the Tories in the digital war, with messages poorly coordinated and most of them failing to reach beyond the party’s base.
• Helped by their clear “Get Brexit done” message, the Conservatives succeeded in turning out 2 million previous non-voters, accounting for two thirds of the increase in their vote share.
• Labour’s seat targeting was “unrealistic” and “not evidence-based”, and many candidates felt they did not receive enough support from the national party.
Labour Together was set up to unite MPs and activists from different traditions, a number of whom – including the former leader Ed Miliband, Steve Reed, Lisa Nandy and Jim McMahon – have been given prominent roles in the shadow cabinet of Corbyn’s successor, Keir Starmer.
The 2019 Election Review was prepared by a 15-strong panel of commissioners, including Miliband, the Manchester Central MP, Lucy Powell, James Meadway, who advised the former shadow chancellor John McDonnell, and the Birmingham Ladywood MP, Shabana Mahmood.
They find that Corbyn’s leadership was a “significant factor” in the 2019 result. His public approval ratings collapsed at around the time a group of Labour MPs including Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna left to found the Independent Group, citing antisemitism within Labour and its Brexit policy.
The report says: “‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.”
Had Corbyn been as popular in December as he was two years earlier, Labour’s vote share could have been 6 percentage points higher, the analysis finds.
When it came to Labour’s radical manifesto, launched at an upbeat rally in Birmingham, the analysis found that individual policies were popular, but doubts about the leadership stoked a perception that the package as a whole was not deliverable.
A Datapraxis analysis of YouGov data found that “many came to the conclusion that the manifesto as a whole was unrealistic, risky and unlikely to be delivered. This undermined the positive response to individual policies, making them seem less credible.”
It shows that 2017’s better-than-expected performance masked the fact that Labour’s vote share had continued to decline in a string of heartland seats – many of which the party went on to lose to the Conservatives two years later.
And it points out that another 58 seats could be lost, with a further swing of 6% to Boris Johnson’s party.
“Despite now representing fewer constituencies than at any time since 1935, Labour cannot afford to be complacent about the seats it currently holds,” the report says.
In order to win the 124 additional seats it needs to form a majority government in 2024, Labour would have to increase the number of MPs it has by 60% – something that has never been achieved by any party.
And if Labour fails to “reverse its fortunes in Scotland in a significant way” it will have to win a swath of English seats, right up to Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg’s in North East Somerset, to secure a majority.
Starmer, who became Labour leader in April, has so far announced few new policies, instead focusing on strongly criticising aspects of the government’s coronavirus pandemic response.
The forward-looking section of the Labour Together review is based partly on a “coalition-building” workshop, bringing together “urban remainers” from London and Manchester, and leavers from towns in Lancashire and Yorkshire.
Carried out by the consultancy firm Britain Thinks, the exercise identified common ground, including a “strong and unifying desire for economic transformation of their lives”.
“This was particularly notable in relation to issues which affect their personal security and lives; issues ranging from social housing and rent controls, to decent pay and living standards, as well as significant investment in their local infrastructure and amenities, like high streets, town centres and decent employers,” the report says.
It recommends that Labour focus on trying to build a coalition around the idea of transformational economic change rooted in voters’ own lives and problems, and combine this with rebuilding “trust and credibility” in the party.
“We believe there is a way ahead for Labour to win the next election, but the road is hard and the journey will not be easy,” it concludes. Starmer and Labour’s new general secretary, David Evans, are expected to pay close attention to the report.
Allies of Corbyn insist Brexit – not his leadership – was the overriding factor behind the election result, and lay some of the blame at Starmer’s door for pushing the party towards a pro-referendum position. They are irked that the report’s authors did not interview several key figures, including party directors Karie Murphy and Seumas Milne, the former general secretary Jenny Formby, and Corbyn himself.
Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, the two most outspoken proponents of Brexit in Corbyn’s deeply divided top team, said: “Let’s be clear, people lost trust in Labour after failing to deliver change after 13 years in government. This was brought to a head when the party ignored the democratic vote for Brexit; it was the excuse that allowed loyal Labour voters to finally break with a party they felt had been ignoring them for far too long.
“Time and time again we warned the shadow cabinet that yielding to the pressures for the party to become more pro-remain and supportive of a second referendum would inflict damage on Labour’s election chances.”
A Labour spokesperson said: “We thank everyone who contributed to this independent report. Its attempt to understand the challenges and opportunities facing the Labour party is welcome and we will read it carefully. By harnessing our collective skills and energy we will build a party and a movement that wins again.”