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Why UK Labour lost? Part 3: Its Brexit innit

Written By: - Date published: 6:14 am, January 13th, 2020 - 28 comments
Categories: Brexit, International, Jeremy Corbyn, labour, political parties, politicans, Politics, uk politics - Tags: , , , , ,

Many commentators say that the election result for Labour was about more than Brexit. It was, but Brexit was by far one of the major reasons for the result. 43 of the 47 constituencies Labour lost in the 2019 election were leave constituencies. To argue that Brexit was not a major factor, or that perhaps Labour could have won with a stronger remain position, is utterly deluded.

In his concession speech Jeremy Corbyn said Brexit had been one of the main reasons for Labour’s loss. This sentiment was shared by Momentum leaders Jon Lansman and Laura Parker during election night coverage. Others in the party and in the commentariat have dismissed this as too simplistic or a way of avoiding other issues (eg Corbyn’s leadership). 

As one of my earlier blogs post alluded to, this election was about Brexit. The Tories won on a policy of get Brexit done. The election was called because parliament was in deadlock over Brexit. The election was to break the deadlock and get a new direction set.

For Labour Brexit was not good ground to be fighting an election on. In 2017 Labour’s increase in support happened when the election debate moved beyond Brexit onto other policy areas.  Trying to use the same tactic in 2019 was not possible. Therefore to win Labour had to have a clear position on Brexit, and find a way to win both leave and remain voters. It was much like trying to pull a rabbit out of a hat when there is no rabbit or hat to be found.

In 2017 both Labour and the Conservatives stood on a platform of respecting the 2016 referendum result. In 2017 both Labour and Conservatives had leave and remain MPs, happy to deviate from the party line and express opinions in the media. In short neither party had a real advantage over the other on Brexit. Also negotiations with the EU had only just begun, and whoever won in 2017 would have to negotiate the withdrawal agreement and subsequent ongoing relationship with the EU.

For Labour it would have been better having lost the 2017 election, to let the Conservatives get Brexit done. If it went wrong it would be on the Tories watch. If it went ok, then the debate would move onto other issues that were potentially better ground for Labour (eg NHS funding, education etc). For Theresa May, the Brexit negotiations bogged her government down and resulted in her losing 3 votes in the House of Commons attempting to get her Brexit bill through. Ultimately it was the end of her leadership. But for Labour, the last 2 and a half years of Brexit paralysis was as damaging.

The party opposed May’s deal, but was split over what should happen instead. Some in Labour wanted a second referendum. Some MPs wanted a Norway style arrangement where Britain left the EU but stayed in the customs Union. A few MPs from mainly leave voting constituencies thought it best just to vote for May’s deal. It quickly became a factional issue. For those opposed to Jeremy Corbyn had since 2016 condemned his refusal to call for a second referendum. Others argued against taking such a position and called for the Party respect the referendum result – as it has promised to do in 2017. Former Labour MP Laura Piddock in her letter to voters after losing her constituency of North Durham put it this way:

I repeatedly argued, inside my party, that we should respect the result of the referendum and avoid a second one. Of course, when you are in the Shadow Cabinet, you are bound by collective responsibility and I respected that.

Laura, who prior to the election has been considered a potential future Labour leader, had respected collective responsibility. Contrast this with former Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson, who was in the media on a daily basis calling for a second referendum and for Labour to adopt this as its strategy. A number of other high profile remain MPs did similar.

The UK Labour Party needs to seriously consider the way it presented itself to voters over Brexit. 

The eventual change in position came after months of pressure, and a polling bounce to the Liberal Democrats after Jo Swinson became leader (a poll bounce that did not last up till the election). Internally those aligned with Progress the New Labour/Blairite aligned faction within Labour really pushed the second referendum. However the left of party struggled with this issue. Momentum aligned Guardian Columnist Owen Jones started 2019 opposing a second referendum, but by June was supporting a second referendum. After the General Election Owen Jones claimed Labour’s second referendum position had cost Labour the election. Momentum, and Corbyn supporters generally were split on Brexit. Just as EU membership had been a minefield for Harold Wilson in the 1970s, so too was it for Corbyn and Labour in the 2010’s.

Labour appeared incoherent on Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, a former Eurosceptic was trying to balance a line so not to alienate leave or remain voters. His opponents in and out of Labour could use this against him. And to the general public it was not clear how a Labour Government would resolve the crisis. The 2019 position of negotiating a new deal where the UK remained in the Customs Union then putting this deal to a referendum where remain would be the other option, alienated traditional Labour voters in leave constituencies.

43 out of 47 constituencies Labour lost voted leave in 2016. Had it not moved to a second referendum position, the party may have had a tougher time in London (where it did quite well in 2019). But when 52% of the country voted leave in 2016, and with little sign of public opinion shifting since then, taking a stronger remain position was not wise.

The question of Brexit and the European Union was a huge challenge for Labour from 2016 onwards. After this defeat Labour will have to seriously reconsider its position. This will not be easy for the Party. But only with a viable social democratic position which respects the 2016 referendum result will it return to government. 

Previous posts in this series

Why UK Labour Lost? Part 1: Historical Context

Why UK Labour lost? Part 2: UK Labour’s strange loyalty to First Past the Post

28 comments on “Why UK Labour lost? Part 3: Its Brexit innit ”

  1. Wayne 1

    In any event by the next election (2024) Brexit will have been done. The next election won't be fought on Brexit.

    Presumably in 2024, Boris Johnson will be campaigning on what a good job he has done with Brexit and how the UK economy is surging ahead as a result. If that is the case, then it is likely to be a winning formula.

    However, if the economy has not done so well post Brexit, Labour will campaign on how their socialist solution will bring prosperity for the many. Presuming that the next Labour leader will still have the same socialist enthusiasm as Jeremy. The dream of Jeremy's new socialist Britain may be less than 5 years away.

    • soddenleaf 1.1

      Missing the point again. Engage the issues, dont ignore them. Labours big mistake was not accepting the brexit referendum. Then offering the figleaf of a full integration with the eu referendum (kill the pound) and so moves the issue on. This is called leadership.

      Engage Boris. Once the new leader is chosen they must accept the referendum decision, this immediate brings into question Corbyns ability and everyone asks why Labour hasn't distanced themselves from him and anything name after him. Policies can have many supporters, parties many leaders, this Corbyn idolatry is misplaced at best.

      Engage Boris, by every day in the house, declaring he broke brexit, he missed opportunities, he giving away the silver, thats a Labour party. Taking it to the wealthy, standing up for the little guy. Labour lost because it's London Mps feared a their proeu electoratss, so gave a feeble response to brexit.

      Ignoring Brexit, rather than engaging and doing politics… …Labour would have won, the Tories wanted to kick brdxit down the road, thought it won't happen, but Labour supporters kicked them hard and Labour's leadership did not run the ball. Had they Labour would have won.

      Now the Tories have moved to the center, having to appease a rump of new mps from heartland Labour. Brexit means Tories can't run right on beatingup the eu, comin back with new deals that dont mean nothing. And when brexit starts hitting get blamed (if labour finds its base and articulates for them) for taking everyone into this tory mess.

      Decade from now, full integration with the Eu, based on a up to date view of the world not a shoringup of cold war Europe.

      • Wayne 1.1.1

        That strategy only works if Brexit is seen to have failed. If the actuality of Brexit is seen to be OK, then it is pointless to have another Brexit debate in 2024.

        You will know within 2 to 3 years whether Brexit has succeeded or not.

        • soddenleaf

          The strategy that a referendum unlikely to pass in a decades time, that would kill the pound, and a brexit where nothing goes wrong… …yeah no.

  2. Puckish Rogue 2

    This song might help people understand why Labour lost (be careful if you're playing this at work)


    • Drowsy M. Kram 2.1

      +1 PR; might catch the video later.

      • Puckish Rogue 2.1.1

        I just realized that, given the title of the youtube clip, giving a warning wasn't really needed laugh

    • Anne 2.2

      Thanks PR.laugh

      Never understood why the Brits got their knickers in such a twist about it anyway. Nothing was going to change whichever way they went. The rich will stay rich and the poor stay poor and never the twain shall meet.

  3. Weasel 3

    Five words in your treatise says it all "Labour appeared incoherent on Brexit".

  4. Gosman 4

    If this analysis is correct (and there are a number of flaws in it such as it ignores that Voters gave Corbyn rather than Brexit as their main reason for not voting Labour in 2019 http://www.deltapoll.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/12/JCL-web.pdf) it highlights how badly Corbyn was a leader. He was not able to impose on the Labour party a coherent Brexit strategy and failed to compromise with May when he had the chance to get Brexit done so that he could focus his attacks on other issues while the Conservatives were much weaker in the House.

  5. Dennis Frank 5

    Ha! I see Weasel has already said it! Labour appeared incoherent on Brexit. All your other analysis, while seeming valid and pertinent, is unnecessary.

    Doesn't matter that Boris presents as a clown. He was the only political leader promising to give the people what they want. Gosman blames Jeremy, but in consensus politics you can't credibly blame a leader for a consensus position. Jeremy, seems to me, is a principled politician – they always articulate an agreed party policy or position even when preferring something different.

    Labour looks like a party full of people who can't keep up with the play. Being unable to tune into the public mood is evidence that you haven't got what it takes to succeed.

    A second referendum was never going to fly (unless it was framed on a different basis to the first). Those in Labour & LibDems who supported it seemed to be suggesting that democracy doesn't work – while being too dishonest to say so. The combination of arrogance and idiocy is astonishing. Hardly surprising that the masses are becoming contemptuous of liberals and the left generally.

    I believe Labour could have won this election, by both giving the electorate what it wanted and providing a positive alternative to the Conservatives. That would have required them to frame Brexit as a progressive move. Of course, it would have been authentic only on the basis of sufficient Labour movers & shakers being genuinely progressive. Voters would have gone for that option if they sensed Labour knew what progress they wanted to make, and knew how to make that progress happen.

    • Gosman 5.1

      How is not spending 80 Billions Pounds plus more per year as well as renationalising key elements of the economy like the Railways and Utilities not "providing a positive alternative to the Conservatives"?

      As for Brexit Corbyn was trying to keep his Activist supporter base happy while providing room to complete a progressive Brexit. Would you have prefered he abandoned his supporter base?

      • Dennis Frank 5.1.1

        The western myth of progress is still influential, so he just needed to push that button in the voter psyche. Those two bits of policy were never going to do that. The result proves that mass perceptions of a positive alternative weren't catalysed.

        No to the second question. Do you really believe he was providing room to complete a progressive Brexit? I saw no evidence of that. I suspect voters didn't. Even if they did, it didn't impress them. Spelling out a progressive Brexit may have. Providing voters with a vision of it is even more likely to have done so.

        • Gosman

          Please tell me what policies would have been MORe progressive than the ones promoted by UK Labour during the last elections?

          The policies included massive re-Nationalisation of key elements of the economy.

          Big tax rises for the very wealthiest in soceity.

          Huge increase in government spending for social and capital projects.

          I have yet to see a more progressive set of policies promoted by a mainstream political party in the Western World.

          • Dennis Frank

            You're on the wrong track. A policy mix is only ever going to win you an election in normal times – and even then it usually isn't enough (stuff like leadership & charisma play a greater role).

            The UK has lurched from crisis to crisis in recent years like a drunken sailor. Anyone who fronts as a calm hand on the tiller and tells the crew where the ship is headed wins the support of the crew (if they agree with the trajectory). Jeremy gave them his calm, but Labour prevented him from pointing to the way through the turbulence.

            • Gosman

              Labour didn't prevent him from doing anything. If he was a leader with any ability he would have driven through his ideas.

              • Dennis Frank

                Like Trump, you mean? You ain't wrong. A forceful leader does tend to have that effect, whether in politics, business or other organisational contexts. I do find Corbyn lacking in that respect. Still, the fact remains that consensus does impose an operational constraint.

                Power in a leader can reshape the consensus, of course. Only someone personally involved at the top level in UK Labour would really know if the collective will overwhelmed their leader. Jeremy's a gent and a democrat. I suspect he just deferred to the current consensus rather than trying to steer it in a genuinely progressive direction. So to that extent, I acknowledge your point is valid.

    • Phil 5.2

      A second referendum was never going to fly (unless it was framed on a different basis to the first). Those in Labour & LibDems who supported it seemed to be suggesting that democracy doesn't work – while being too dishonest to say so. The combination of arrogance and idiocy is astonishing. Hardly surprising that the masses are becoming contemptuous of liberals and the left generally.

      There was a very clear and obvious path for defending a second referendum:

      "You've seen the last three years of bungle-fuck on offer from the Tories as they fail to negotiate a Brexit deal with Europe. We want you, the voting public, to reaffirm whether or not this is what you want your politicians to continue spending all their energy on. Or, would you rather we stayed in the EU after all?"

      • Dennis Frank 5.2.1

        Okay, that's a similar rationale to that used by those calling for another referendum on MMP here. It's a partisan view, held by those who don't like the decision made by the majority. It requires Labour to refight the battle from a position of weakness. You can see why the prospect struck them as unpalatable.

  6. Brutus Iscariot 6

    "Progressive" voters generally opposed Brexit not for fundamental reasons, but because they didn't like the sorts of people who voted for Brexit – it became a tribal issue.

    To me this was and is a complete failure of vision and imagination. A more socialist Britain would be eminently more feasible free from the EU yoke, and Corbyn recognised this.

    The EU is also better off and more easily to deal with its own integration, without a perpetually grouchy and obstructionist Britain in the mix.

    • soddenleaf 6.1

      I disagree. Obviously the thought of their nincompoop relatives that moved to the eu coming home was far greater challenge.

      As to being free of the EU, there is the conspiracy that brexit was a ruse to clear the deck for full integration. Decades of Thatcherites reformulating the relations has created a bureaucratic nightmare. Brexit will hurt, Britians will want back in. The mighty pound will become a second eu currency speculators use, a kiwi dollar even…

      No, progressives have won the space for new concessions thanks to brexit.

    • Gosman 6.2

      If Corbyn recognised this why didn't he impose his ideas on the party?

  7. DS 7

    Brexit isn't simply about abstract questions involving the EU. It's a culture war by another name, and that which Brexit represents isn't going away.

    Basically, British politics is becoming Americanised: https://phuulishfellow.wordpress.com/2019/12/13/a-latter-day-king-canute-the-british-election/

  8. Graeme 8

    My partner is a Brit, the family came out in '66 on the Northern Star. Still got lots of family back there and in regular contact. They are mostly up north, and from their demographic you'd pick they would be Labour. All are Leave.

    Facebook post from her cousin first thing the morning after

    OK, best of five then…

    It was all about Brexit

  9. pat 9

    Yes Brexit was foremost, however 1 voter in 3 didnt turn up

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