The long-awaited review of Labour’s 2019 election result is more notable for what it doesn’t say than for what it reveals. It contains many details of experiences in the failed election bid, but never addresses a central question: was the election ever winnable by Labour, when after 2017 the Tories had focused on maintaining power at any cost, and had learnt from Trump and Erdogan that the way to win elections was blatant lying to smear and annihilate opponents?
The Tories were able to mobilise their base, the report says, turning out around two million of their supporters who didn’t vote in 2017. A major driver of this success was its campaign to “Stop Jeremy Corbyn”, that motivated the party’s previous non-voters and the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories. According to the report: “Among voters who switched from Labour to the Conservatives, concern about Jeremy Corbyn was intense … Labour Leave voters who switched to the Conservatives were likely to talk about terrorism, anti-Semitism, what they saw as extreme far-left policies, or unaffordability.”
What the report doesn’t make clear is that Corbyn’s unpopularity was manufactured. In 2017 Corbyn won many new voters and improved Labour’s ratings dramatically. But since then he was systematically and mercilessly vilified. The report cites by way of example a 52-year-old woman who voted Labour in 2017 but switched to the Tories in 2019. She said she was “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.”
Where did all these far-fetched ideas come from? Apart from the obvious suspects like the Daily Mail, the Sun, and the BBC, the report gives us some clues. It describes how the Tories invested heavily in digital media after 2017, intensively testing content for impact and setting up a network of “supportive outriders” like the Campaign Against Corbynism Rebel Media, Working4UK or Parents’ Choice, that did not acknowledge their political connection. The Tories’ professional approach “proved highly effective, particularly in exploiting negative perceptions of Labour’s leader,” says the report, and they began testing their messaging on Facebook as soon as Johnson was elected Tory head. Labour’s research found “a Facebook Group in Dudley which built followers by posting local news which hosted a large amount of anti-Labour and anti-Jeremy Corbyn content, with ‘comments’ being used to organise protests against Jeremy Corbyn’s visit to a local pensioners’ club during the campaign; this story later appeared in The Sun, with the headline ‘Jeremy Corbyn heckled as “dirty IRA scum” when he arrives in key Dudley marginal.’ The account hasn’t posted since 12 December 2019.”
The Tories dealt with their shortage of skilled media personnel by handing over their digital campaign techniques to a commercial consultancy, but the report does not draw the obvious conclusion that the funding for such outsourcing was readily available from deep-pocketed donors. And it notes the intervention of at least one foreign government: “Labour support among Hindu voters fell significantly in this election, due to the extensive sharing of anti-Labour content across a network of Whatsapp groups.” Hindu voters who supported Labour in 2017 were 42 percent likely to withdraw their support in 2019. This is evidence of how Modi’s government directly campaigned among British Indians on the grounds that Corbyn was anti-Hindu because of the Labour conference position on Kashmir.
But the Tories were aided in their campaign by the activities of hostile Labour MPs who accused the Labour leader of anti-semitism and demanded the party take a clear “Remain” position. “The sharp collapse in support both for Jeremy Corbyn and Labour between December 2018 and June 2019 coincided with the defection of MPs to form ‘The Independent Group’, disagreement over Labour’s position on Brexit going into the European elections and the controversy of the Party’s handling of anti-Semitism.” These MPs were vociferously in favour of a second Brexit referendum and amplified the factional activities of leading Labour MPs like Tom Watson and … Keir Starmer.
The politics of the run-up to the election is omitted from the report. The wrangling over Brexit in Westminster facilitated a sustained propaganda effort by Johnson to portray Labour as delaying the country’s democratic decision from being carried out, through his “Get Brexit Done” slogan. However, the report doesn’t highlight the weakness of Labour’s response but instead focuses on the internal confusion caused by competing bureaucratic power centres. “There were multiple power centres with no clear chain of command – including an Executive Director of Campaigns, Leader’s Office, Party Chair, General Secretary, National Coordinators – with no single person setting the strategy.”
Since it frames the problems with the election campaign as a purely technical question, the report concludes with a purely technical answer. What we need is “A coherent strategy to build a winning coalition at the next election” with confusion eliminated by centralising strategy decisions. The strategy should include a “big economic change for the whole country” – but this is no different from any Labour policy of the last forty years. The report recommends a “Strategy group chaired by the Leader and involving key members of the Shadow Cabinet and a political lead tasked with election strategy – responsibilities would be the development of political strategy and the plan to execute it.” “This strategy needs to be based on data and evidence and robustly scrutinised and understood by all levels of the organisation.”
What this means in practice, the report tells us, is that “Keir Starmer has recently said that ‘we will be going into [the Scottish Parliament election] with a Labour Party position that is not for a second referendum.’ This position has now recently been agreed by the Executive Committee of Scottish Labour. This clarity is welcome, and as a party we should now unite around this position and focus on building a strong message for the 2021 elections.” Clearly, this strategy is being based on an agreement between the bureaucracies at the top of the party, not by data. What surveys were done with those many Scottish Labour voters who deserted the party after its abortive unionist stance in the independence referendum?
The commitment to build “a genuine popular movement of party members, trade union supporters … deeply rooted in our communities through good local government” etc. sounds good – but is negated by a top-down messaging strategy that doesn’t engage community self-empowerment. The intrusion of corporate management-speak – such as “best practice” – ignores the actual experience of successful practice like the Preston community wealth-building model (perhaps because it was too closely associated with the Corbyn leadership’s economic policies).
The report is careful to state that the responsibility for internal party conflict “rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement.” I disagree. The factionalising that plagued the party in the election campaign was driven by an anti-Corbyn faction at the heart of the party machine and the parliamentary party. At the root of it was opposition to Corbyn’s policies, not his leadership style or personality. The avoidance of discussing this fact makes the document a recipe for a corporate-style makeover of the party, where hierarchies are preserved while paying lip-service to member involvement. The new anti-factional message means silencing Corbyn supporters while the opposing faction rules the roost.
As Ailbhe Rea writes in the New Statesman, “the report reads even more fascinatingly as a document, not about Labour’s past, but Labour’s future. It isn’t so much an analysis of Corbynism, as a blueprint for Starmer and Starmerism. … Keir Starmer and the parliamentary party took the knee for George Floyd and supported peaceful protest, but the Labour leader, on his new LBC phone-in show, which reaches exactly the voters Labour needs to win back, notably did not support the way in which the statue of Edward Colston was toppled.” This is Labour stripped of its politics, a corporate shell of a party.