The 2019 UK General Election resulted in a crushing defeat for the Labour Party. They have suffered their worst electoral defeat since 1935 and they have been reduced to 203 seats. They have lost constituencies that should be true Labour heartlands like Dennis Skinner’s former Bolsover seat, West Bromwich West and West Bromwich East. The former Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, Ruth Smeeth, questioned where her party goes next after this election.
The next year will witness a debate at the heart of the Labour Party; which direction will the party travel in once Jeremy Corbyn resigns as its leader?
In normal circumstances, this election should have been an easy win for an opposition party. The Conservatives have been in power for ten years and presided over ten years of austerity. NHS waiting times are at their worst level ever. With home ownership rates falling to 63.4 percent in 2016, which represents a 9.9 percent drop from 2007, and wages only increasing by 2.9 percent this year, a more formidable opposition would have taken advantage of this context and argued that the need for austerity is over. This is what Corbyn tried to do in 2017 and 2019.
Two years ago, Corbyn managed to increase the number of Labour MPs from 2010 and he was close to achieving power. But this year was different as it was an election that centred on Brexit. The Conservatives had a simple message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ so that they could then focus on other issues like health, education and reversing police cuts, policies that Labour are traditionally stronger on than the Tories.
Meanwhile, Corbyn’s Brexit stance was a neutral one. Considering 61 percent of constituencies that Labour won in 2017 voted to leave the EU, this left many of his voters feeling abandoned by their party. That same year, Labour campaigned for a hard Brexit, but they have wasted two years frustrating Britain’s EU exit, which meant the desire to ‘Get Brexit Done’ was far stronger this year than in 2017. This is why we witnessed so many seats in the Midlands, Wales and the North switch allegiances.
Although many Labour policies like scrapping tuition fees proved popular in 2017, this year promises of free broadband failed to wash with the electorate.
A rejection of far-left politics is a trend that is being witnessed throughout Europe. Since Germany’s Social Democratic Party chose Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, two staunch socialists, to lead them, a Forsa poll found that their support has decreased by three percent.
As Andrew Neill said last night- Labour have already lost the 2024 election because the SNP dominate Scotland. This gives them time to reinvent themselves.
As Brexit unfolds, the SNP will push for a second independence referendum in the next decade. Considering leaving the EU gave the nationalists a renewed purpose following the 2014 Scottish Referendum, a second defeat would rob them of their purpose. This means Labour may have an opportunity in the 2020s to reclaim lost seats, but that depends upon the SNP’s fortunes post-Brexit.
Like 2019, 1983 was an election that changed the political landscape. Margaret Thatcher was re-elected with a 144-seat majority and she brought in policies like privatisation, low taxes and small state government. Labour responded in 1994 by electing Tony Blair, a moderate who accepted the Thatcherite settlement.
Labour wins elections when they fight for the centre ground. Their next leader must be another centrist who can accept the Conservatives’ Brexit settlement, and other radical changes they will implement, that appeal to the electors they lost to the Tories this year.
But the problem Labour faces is that the far-left dominates the party. Last year, pro-Corbyn group Momentum won control of the party’s National Executive Committee, which sets the strategic direction of the party and initiates policy development. They were also instrumental in deselecting established MPs like Frank Field, and they are unlikely to go anywhere. This will make it harder for a moderate to win a leadership election.
The favourites to replace Corbyn are Angela Rayner, Emily Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long-Bailey, all close allies of the current leader. The Week reckons the only centrist with a chance of winning is Yvette Cooper, but her odds are 14/1 as she might be seen as ‘too close to Blair and Brown.’
Labour is facing an existential crisis. With the Tories and the SNP occupying the electoral ground for the most important constitutional issues of the day, they have struggled to adapt to this era. But until Britain has left the EU and the Scottish Question is settled, Labour must aim to use the next decade to reinvent themselves or face permanent defeat.