Feb 05, 2021
7 mins read
In this article I explain why Labour lost the last four general elections and how the party can learn from those defeats to win the next election.
From John Smith to Tony Blair
John Smith became the leader of the Labour Party in 1992 and set up the Social Justice Commission in the same year to formulate socialist policies for the next Labour government. Those policies were, in the words of the former Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, the “bedrock for the radicalism of the first Labour term after 1997.” The Commission’s report, which was published after John Smith’s death, sought to end poverty and disadvantage and create an economy that worked for “every citizen, in every community.” One of the poverty reducing policies in the report was the national minimum wage, a headline policy later adopted by Tony Blair’s government.
As a result of John Smith’s leadership and policies, and aided by events, notably the collapse of the pound on Black Wednesday which badly damaged the Tories’ reputation for economic competence, Labour achieved a commanding lead in the polls and became a government in waiting. Sadly, John Smith died on 12th May 1994. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the beneficiaries of his political legacy, thanks largely to a combination of Smith's legacy and people being sick of the Tories, Labour won a landslide in 1997, winning 418 seats, the most the party had ever won.
The period between John Smith’s death and the 1997 general election is worth studying and is covered in depth in Lewis Minkin’s book the Blair Supremacy. During most of that time Blair focussed on party management and identifying and gaining central control over all power bases in the party.
Who damaged the Labour Party?
Having gained total control of the party and benefiting from the electoral dividend provided by the legacy of John Smith, Tony Blair had an opportunity to transform the country and make Labour the natural party of government in the UK. However, it was not to be, the opportunity was wasted. While Labour did win the next two elections, in 2001 and 2005, victory came at a very high price. Between 1997-2010, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown lost Labour a total of 5 million votes and 160 seats, squandering Smith’s legacy. Brown won just 8.6 million votes in 2010 and lost 97 seats in that election alone. By 2010 the public was as sick of New Labour as it had been of the Tories in 1997. Even Labour voters were sick of New Labour.
Blair and Brown lost 5 million votes and 160 seats for a number of reasons. One reason was that Blair led the country into a war of aggression against Iraq. This precipitated a clamp down on civil liberties in an attempt to prevent blowback from that illegal war, an example of this being the attempt to impose ID cards on an unwilling public. New Labour's authoritarianism jarred against the party’s positive policies such as increasing rights for minority groups, increased funding for pupils, Sure Start centres for children and paternity rights for fathers. The consequences of New Labour's foreign policy shifted the party right and detached it from the socialist based platform that had helped it win a landslide. The party also shifted right on domestic policy by embracing neoliberal policies like private finance initiatives (PFI), an extortionately expensive way of funding public services.
The contradictions caused by shifting the party right and disengaging from John Smith’s socialist bedrock led to New Labour becoming incoherent and unstable as a political organisation. No amount of spinning could hide the dichotomy or repair the breach of trust with the public caused by the Iraq war. This combination of factors ultimately led to a heavy defeat in 2010. The electorate simply did not understand what the Labour Party stood for. It was bemused by a left-wing party being right wing. If people wanted a right-wing party they already had the option of voting Tory.
Repairing the damage
Ed Miliband made modest gains in 2015 but lost 26 seats and made no real progress. It was not until a socialist was elected leader and presented voters with a left wing manifesto that Labour made sense to the electorate again and they understood what the party represented and offered. There were no mixed messages and that clear understanding was self-evidently welcomed by the electorate. Under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn the party won 12.9m votes and recorded its highest vote share increase since 1945. It is a rarely reported fact that Corbyn, a socialist, won more votes and gained more seats than any other Labour leader this century.
The vote share increase under Corbyn’s leadership was highly problematic for people in Labour who call themselves centrists. The term centrist is misleading, centrists do in fact hold mostly right-wing positions. Since 1997, despite the party winning a landslide on the bedrock of John Smith’s socialist programme, centrists had insisted the party could only be successful from the centre and not from the left. Corbyn proved their orthodoxy to be false. Corbyn won more votes in England and 3.3 million more votes in 2017 than Blair won in 2005. The election results of this century clearly show Labour loses votes when it shifts right and wins votes when it shifts left. The result of the 2019 election being the exception. That election was about one issue: Brexit.
How Labour was sabotaged
Rather than accept their centrist orthodoxy was false and obsolete, Labour centrists, incited by Tony Blair, sabotaged the election of a socialist Labour government in 2017. Corbyn needed just 2,227 votes across 9 constituencies to be invited by the Queen to form a government. It is beyond any reasonable doubt that if Blair and his supporters had not persistently briefed against the party and discouraged people from voting for Labour then Jeremy Corbyn would be prime minister today.
It is now generally accepted that the main contributory factor of the defeat at the 2019 general election was the current leader Keir Starmer insisting the party support a second referendum and campaign to remain in the EU. By doing so he cast Boris Johnson as a defender of democracy and allowed him to leverage the 17.4 million leave votes from the 2016 referendum. It was always obvious that defying the 65% of constituencies which voted to leave the EU would guarantee defeat for Labour and victory for the Tories at the 2019 general election.
How Labour can win the next election
Having reviewed the period between 1992-2005 and having also examined the results of the four most recent general elections, it is clear that Labour loses votes when it shifts right and gains votes when it runs on a left-wing platform and its messaging is coherent and clear. Keir Starmer is shifting the party right and, like New Labour in its latter stages, is delivering contradictory and incoherent messages to the public as a result. His shift to the right is probably an attempt to win back leave voters he alienated by trying to stop Brexit.
This problem is caused by his own political opportunism and it is not in Labour’s electoral interests for Keir Starmer’s problem to become the party’s problem. Having changed his position on Brexit three times in four years, he now supports the Tory deal and by doing so has also alienated remain voters as well as leave voters. It is not credible to suggest that a leader who has effectively double crossed both leave and remain voters can win power.
Another problem is Labour's excessive and heavy handed party management, a legacy of Blair’s leadership and a culture enthusiastically being revived by Starmer's acting general secretary, David Evans, a self confessed Blairite. As the Labour Report revealed, the culture of right-wing members bullying left wing members, rigging elections and ignoring and misusing party rules and processes still exists. This is an important issue which must be addressed because if Labour did win power on a left wing platform it is highly likely the Labour government would be undermined by the right wing of the party.
Keir Starmer is actively fostering and encouraging the continuation of a top down central command system controlled by the right wing and is applying Labour rules differently to right wing and left wing members of the party.
If Labour wants to win power it must remove these obstacles. In practical terms that means replacing Keir Starmer with a socialist leader who will adopt and build upon the policies in the 2017 and 2019 manifestos, increase democracy within the party and introduce the open selection of parliamentary candidates so local members can choose who will be their MP candidate and replace incumbent MPs who are hostile to the left wing policies Labour needs to offer if it wants to win power.
If the party carries out those actions it is highly probable it will win the next general election. If those actions are not taken a Tory victory will be almost inevitable.