The Commission believes that the significant and unexpected increase in Labour’s overall vote share in 2017 contributed to a failure to reflect honestly on the reasons for the increase or analyse the continuing underlying weaknesses in Labour’s voter coalition outlined in Part One.
The absence of any open, objective, collective and consensual process for scrutinising and understanding what happened in 2017 allowed for different conclusions to be drawn internally, by those advocating different strategies and approaches including around Brexit, with the result that the post-referendum consensus within Labour began to fracture. Organisationally, the accepted view that the 2017 campaign was effective meant that longstanding and emerging problems were not addressed.
The respective contributions to the increase in Labour’s vote share made, for example, by Remain/Leave dynamics, the appeal of radical policies, or the Party’s increased membership base, were not rigorously investigated or tested; neither was how they might play out in different circumstances against the much bigger challenge of winning a parliamentary majority, nor were the reasons often cited as holding Labour back, such as disunity and division.
Moreover, as we summarised in Part One, there were clear signs in the 2017 result, as in previous elections, of the trends and dynamics that would cost Labour support and seats in 2019. There were swings away from Labour and a consolidation of Conservative votes in many seats we went on to lose in 2019. In fact, all six of the seats we lost in 2017 were long-standing Labour seats in Leave-voting towns including Mansfield, North East Derbyshire, Copeland, Stoke-on-Trent South, Walsall North and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. With the exception of Copeland, these seats now all have very large Conservative majorities of over 10,000 votes.
There is evidence that the leadership were conscious of these worrying trends. In the summer following the election, Jeremy Corbyn launched a “summer tour of the towns”. The subsequent reluctance to adopt a second referendum position reflected concerns about the fragmentation of Labour’s historic voter coalition. However, the task of holding together Labour’s coalition might have been made easier had these trends and what they meant been more widely understood across the labour movement.
This failure to interrogate the 2017 result applied equally in Scotland, where a planned retrospective did not go ahead due to the Scottish Labour leader resigning. Though Labour improved on its 2015 position, there was no external process looking at the role of Labour’s arguments on independence, public services or its position on a second referendum; nor were the benefits of maintaining a consistent campaigning message from the local elections thoroughly analysed or investigated. Furthermore, the numbers underlying our small recovery at the 2017 general election show that Labour was far from turning the tide on the long-term trends highlighted in previous chapters.
A central problem afflicting Labour’s ability to develop an election strategy and prepare to implement it was confusion about leadership, governance and lines of accountability. Time and again in oral and written evidence we heard that a lack of clarity about where and by whom crucial decisions were being taken, during the build-up to and during the campaign, significantly hampered Labour’s efforts.
This is an old problem that has beset Labour campaigns in the past, but instead of being addressed seems to have got worse. 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. We have heard that the National Coordinators were “side-lined”. 
Significant staffing changes were made in October, with the Leader’s Chief of Staff and Political Director moved to Labour HQ. Whatever its merits, this restructuring turned out to be unfortunately timed, deepening what some saw as a vacuum of leadership just as the election period began.
As a result, the Party lacked a shared strategy and approach that everyone across the organisation both understood, and felt accountable for, their part in advancing. This was a key factor behind a lack of focus and consistency running through the campaign that we highlight in this chapter, and failures of coordination and integration running through digital and ground operations that we look at in the next two chapters.
As we find in Part One, what many voters saw as the central question in the election, Brexit, was a particular weakness for Labour.
The Commission recognises that this was always going to be a difficult issue for the Party, given its voter coalition. Disagreements within the movement reflected a real dilemma and real trade-offs between positions closer to different sections of Labour’s electoral base, which would have been likely to lose the Party support on one side or the other.
It was clearly damaging for Labour to be seen as not wanting to come down on either side of what was widely acknowledged as the main issue of the day. At the same time there is no doubt that promising simply to stop Brexit, or drive it through, would have cost Labour significant numbers of votes. The Commission saw no conclusive evidence that a more absolute position on either side of the debate would have led to a better net result.
What does seem clear is that the drawn-out process by which Labour’s position was arrived at, and lack of clarity in how it was communicated, added to the costs of a compromise position. Had Labour’s final position been settled earlier, and communicated with greater consistency and conviction, the difficulties posed by the Brexit question might have been mitigated. As things were, however, Labour’s response to the issue was too easily framed as reactive rather than proactive, based on fence-sitting and fudge rather than democratic principle, exacerbating perceptions of its leadership as indecisive, weak, and evasive.
After two years of a hung parliament, defined by Brexit indecision with a series of meaningful votes, indicative votes, and the failed cross-party talks where the public mood was growing tired with the lack of progress, and with a new Conservative Prime Minister in their honeymoon, there is little question that Autumn 2019 was a profoundly difficult context for Labour in an election.
We have received submissions arguing that Labour should not have “allowed” the December election to proceed when it was self-evident that the Conservative Party wanted an election around these issues. However, for the purposes of learning lessons for the future, the Commission is conscious that Labour is unlikely to have much say on the timing of the next election. Our purpose is to ensure we are in the best possible position whenever it is called.
Labour was not “election ready” in November 2019. It is clear from the following chapters on the online and ground campaign that our infrastructure was creaking and not fit for purpose. Labour HQ in Southside was under-staffed, with many teams subjected to hiring embargoes.
Labour’s finances had been under pressure for some time. It had been reported in February 2019 that Labour was forecasting a budget deficit for the first time since 2015. National Executive Committee (NEC) members were concerned about Party finances, with one member tweeting in February 2019 that “now an election looks unlikely anytime soon, we need to cut costs to build the war chest”, although another said that the Party had built up a “very healthy fund to fight a general election.” House of Commons analysis shows that Labour received 47 per cent less in donations in 2019 than in 2017. The Electoral Commission reports that the Conservatives raised three times as much as Labour in pre-election donations, with the Liberal Democrats also receiving more donations than Labour.
Labour’s election-readiness had also been disrupted by the process for reselecting sitting MPs, which had taken up much of 2019. Many constituencies did not have their candidates confirmed until late in the day. Party staff told us that this often delayed the assignment of Organisers, in some cases out of concern not to be seen to “take a side” in factionally sensitive contests. Some MPs told us they had held off preparation of campaign literature till after the summer for fear of “tempting fate”.
Furthermore, the time of year was a particular challenge, limiting Labour’s ground campaign in many seats, particularly those in rural areas. It is not clear that the Party had any contingency plan for a winter campaign, despite the creeping inevitability of one with the appointment of a new Prime Minister, and looming Brexit extension.
Many of our respondents and submissions highlighted confusion about Labour’s message in 2019, often contrasting this with 2017, when they felt we had a much clearer one.
Labour’s initial headline message, “It’s time for real change”, put economic and policy issues front and centre in a way that implicitly linked to some of the underlying issues and frustrations that the Brexit vote was seen to have expressed. According to some accounts, this “tested brilliantly”. In responses to our survey, several comments highlighted the Party’s promise of change as its most effective message.
However, opinions within the Party on “It’s time for real change” remained mixed, and it was not used consistently. Indeed, very few we spoke to could spontaneously recall that this was Labour’s core message.
Labour often seemed to default to a message focused on the negative impact of austerity and its promise to end it, though this emphasis proved less effective than in 2017, in the face of Tory claims to have turned the page on austerity and their manifesto pledges in areas such as the NHS and policing.
In later stages of the campaign, it was deliberately supplemented or replaced by “Labour On Your Side”, intended to appeal more effectively to Leave-supporting voters.
This lack of any consistent message which linked to an overarching political strategy was a significant disadvantage in the campaign.
The effectiveness of the Conservatives’ “Get Brexit Done” is widely acknowledged. It’s clear that they started testing this approach as soon as Boris Johnson became Prime Minister, developing a clear and powerful campaign which captured a public mood. “Get Brexit Done” was not just a well-crafted slogan but an integrated political and governing strategy, with the Conservatives using every opportunity to create the impression that their words would be backed up by action, ahead of and during the election campaign.
In contrast, Labour’s lack of an overall, unifying and agreed campaign strategy was reflected in its lack of message discipline and consequent lack of cut-through with many voters.
Interviews with Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidates show that there was also a failure to devolution-test some of our key messages and to give the devolved campaigns enough freedom to operate. For example, in both Scotland and Wales, where the NHS is devolved, lots of messaging and focus from the Labour Party is much less relevant. There was often a failure to coordinate on this, as Scottish Labour and the Welsh Labour Government and special advisers were not given advance warning of significant Labour policy commitments in devolved areas. This meant they were unable to line up their own announcements on those areas to come out at a similar time in a coordinated way. This was problematic as commitments made for England in devolved areas always led to immediate questions about what the Welsh Government or Scottish Labour will do, meaning campaigns in Scotland and Wales often ended up being reactive and “on the back foot”.
The Commission understands that Labour in Scotland invested few resources in polling and research between the 2017 and 2019 elections, with only one Scottish poll conducted in this period. The loss of in-house voter research capacity after the 2017 election also diminished the party's ability to constantly test and refine messaging. Given Scottish politics operates in a totally different context to England or Wales, the lack of any voter research was a failure that essentially meant people were operating without adequate information. In the future, this must be addresses and a substantial investment is needed in voter research in Scotland.
As we have learnt from Part One, perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn, perceived indecision on Brexit, and a lack of trust that the Party could or would deliver its policy promises drove significant levels of support away from Labour in the 2019 election.
Leaders of left-wing parties will always face a barrage of ruthless personalised attacks and smears from the right, both in the mainstream media and now increasingly via social media networks.
There was clearly some hope that negative perceptions of Jeremy Corbyn would soften when he was seen on the campaign trail, as had been the case during the 2017 election. However, as polling evidence set out in Part One shows, perceptions of Labour’s leader started at a much lower level at the beginning of the campaign and had barely improved by polling day. This was entangled in a range of issues including Brexit, defence and security, foreign policy and the handling of anti-Semitism.
A key reason for the Party’s failure to deal with these issues effectively was a fundamental problem of disunity around Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Labour has been, and has been seen to be, a divided Party. Criticism of the leadership from within – and from those who had left the Party – as well as public factionalism, clearly contributed to negative public perceptions. As energies were focussed internally, less attention was given to how to deal with the Party’s vulnerabilities or how to take voters’ concerns seriously.
Labour did have a plan to blunt the impact of the Conservatives’ promise to deliver Brexit by highlighting the threat to the NHS from a trade deal with Donald Trump. This had the merit of linking the Conservatives’ most important message with potentially potent concerns, such as the affinity of their Leader with a particularly unpopular US president and their trustworthiness on the NHS.
In retrospect, Labour could have mitigated the difficulties created by Brexit had it moved more quickly, by defining and communicating its position more clearly from an earlier stage to limit the damage. By the time the election was called, Labour’s position was not only less than ideal to many voters on both sides of the debate, but also seen to have been arrived at in a way that weakened its ability to project strong or principled leadership on the issue.
Thousands of our survey respondents described Labour’s Brexit policy as one of the most unpopular and challenging to sell to voters. Indeed, over half of the Labour Members (57 per cent) who responded to our survey cited the policy to have a second referendum as the single most unpopular with voters.
In some cases, Brexit “blocked almost all other conversations”. Responses characterised it as “dithering”, “dire”, “reflecting division”, “clearly a turn off to some voters and not sufficient to others”, and a policy that “made Labour look like it wasn’t listening to voters”.
Some described it as having merit but difficult to sell: “when explained people saw sense in it, but many were already set against it and didn’t want to talk”.
For some, the lack of clarity surrounding the policy was seen as “indecisive” and therefore “wasn’t trusted by Remainers, Leavers or those in between”.
The closest thing to a strategy for dealing with negative perceptions of Labour’s leadership and position on Brexit seems to have been a heavy reliance on policy announcements to shape public debate and media coverage. However, as we see below, this served to exacerbate another of Labour’s long-standing vulnerabilities – that of “credibility”.
It is widely believed that Labour’s 2017 advances were helped by a popular manifesto which, combined with the operation of broadcast impartiality rules, offset some of Labour’s disadvantages by focusing coverage and debate on issues such as taxation, public services and the economy.
In 2019, however, the evidence we reviewed in Part One suggests that an attempt to use new policy announcements to distract attention from Labour’s perceived weaknesses in other areas was self-undermining.
The media strategy appeared to be to announce a new policy every day, but there seemed to be very little flexibility in adapting or responding as the debate developed. This meant that the Party would end up gazumping its own positive coverage, rather than letting a story run and build from it if a policy landed well, and sometimes distracted the press from negative stories about the Conservatives. It also left the Party very little flexibility in anticipating and harnessing the symbiotic relationship between traditional and social media, as we explore in the next chapter.
Our inquiries indicate that this rigid adherence to a traditional media “grid” did not simply reflect a lack of creativity or failure to keep up with an evolving media landscape, but was directly related to a combination of silo-like structures and factional tensions that fostered a culture of top-down control and internal territoriality.
The many policy announcements of the election campaign had merits in themselves, but their aggregate effect was to create doubts about their deliverability, detracting from the value of the programme as a whole and Labour’s credibility as an alternative Government. This included policies announced or debated at Labour Party Conference in September, which the General Election followed usually soon after, as well as the Manifesto itself and subsequent announcements rolled out during the campaign.
One problem was that the quantity of policies, and lack of prioritisation among them, meant that those that could have been most electorally advantageous were overshadowed. For example, the Resolution Foundation has shown that seats lost by Labour to the Conservatives included a particularly high proportion of households reliant on Universal Credit, but Labour’s plans in this area did not seem to be prioritised as a policy or campaign message.
The scale of the programme and apparent lack of focus also created doubts about whether it was a realistic plan for government. Many have said that Labour’s agenda of economic reform felt like a programme for several terms of office squeezed into a single document. One experienced Labour Council Leader told us they feared Labour’s policy programme risked sounding like “a 25 year programme crammed into a five year government” – a feeling echoed by a sympathetic commentator, who described it as “a programme more suited to ten or 15 years than a single parliamentary cycle”.
This meant that some pledges to key target groups, such as a promised 5 per cent public sector pay increase, or fulfilment of the demands of the WASPI campaign, seem not to have cut through to – or been believed by – enough of the voters who stood most to benefit. Meanwhile much of the agenda, whatever its merits, appeared to be insufficiently relevant to, or rooted in the lives and communities of, the voters Labour needed to win over; this risked reinforcing the dangerous sense of disconnect we highlighted in Chapter 2.
As the data in Chapter 3 show, the overall effect of this approach led to a further breakdown in trust and credibility, a problem that had been growing over many years and was greatly catalysed in 2019.
Respondents to our survey thought that Labour’s most popular policies were:
• Ending austerity/increasing public spending
• Nationalisation of rail and utilities
• Green New Deal and 2030 net zero carbon target
• Raising the minimum wage
However, 67 per cent of survey respondents didn’t think Labour’s manifesto was effective at appealing to the public. Other than the Brexit position, Labour’s least popular policies, according to our respondents, included:
• Free broadband
• Abolishing private schools’ charitable status
• Compensating the WASPI women
Clearly there is variation here – with nationalisation seen as a positive by some and negative by others – and these views do not always match up with polling evidence on the popularity of policies; for example, as noted in Chapter 3, there is in-principle support for Labour’s position on private schools, correctly stated. However, these responses give a strong sense of which policies, for whatever reason, Labour members and campaigners felt worked well or proved problematic on the doorstep - which may have been related to issues of how policies were perceived and whether they were felt to be a sufficiently relevant priority.
An LGA survey of 822 Councillors found that 51.2 per cent judged the manifesto to be “Mixed – some popular policies but hard to sell overall.”
A review of Labour’s campaign by former adviser to the Shadow Chancellor and Labour Together Commission member James Meadway argues that Labour’s economic policy offer was less compelling than in 2017 for a number of reasons:
• less prominence was given to tax rises that highlighted who would pay for new spending (appealing to some voters’ perceptions of the economy as a “zero-sum game”) while greater reliance on borrowing – whatever the economic justification – reawakened voters’ worries about affordability
• the sheer number of pledges, lack of prioritisation among them, and lack of emphasis on the most electorally significant, meant that those that were receiving the most attention were often not the most relevant to voters’ lives and concerns
• as the Conservatives moved to an ostensibly post-austerity, pro-interventionist position, Labour emphasised the greater quantity and scale of its pledges, but didn’t engage sufficiently with the issues of democratic control and pride of place that are increasingly key for many voters
Many of these points were reinforced in other evidence this Review received or reviewed.
The warning signs of previous election results, coupled with the very clear fragmentation of the Labour electorate over previous months and years, should have made the risks of a snap election clear. Had a proper, open review of the 2017 election taken place, not only would the underlying trends be better understood and shared, the process itself would have helped foster a culture that was data- and evidence-driven.
The key seats target list illustrates this point: at best, an insufficiently evidence-based over-reaction to the 2017 results; at worst, a failure to take necessary decisions with limited resources.
Labour’s initial target list was ambitious: 96 battleground seats of which 66 were offensive and 30 defensive. This was defended with the argument that judgments made in 2017 had proved excessively timid.
According to one report, 80 per cent of Labour’s resources were directed towards the seats the Party hoped to win. Huge numbers of staff and activists were sent to campaign in constituencies such as the Prime Minister’s own seat of Uxbridge, while numerous candidates in seats targeted by the Conservatives were left to fend for themselves without national support.
This Commission has heard evidence that this strategy was pursued in the face of clear evidence available from the start that a far larger number of Labour seats were at risk:
The Commission also heard that Labour’s identification of potentially winnable seats was not properly evidence-based, for example in Scotland, where insufficient resource was being directed to constituencies which might, under different circumstances, have offered opportunities for advance.
Several weeks into the campaign, as evidence mounted that many more seats were in need of urgent defence, Labour did eventually add them to the list. However, this was done without reducing the number in other areas, with the effect that resources were being spread too thinly and, according to some accounts we received, no seats were being adequately defended. For example, by the end of the election campaign, nearly every seat in North Wales was on the target list – meaning, in the view of local campaigners, that none were.
As important as Labour’s failure to thoroughly analyse and understand the dynamics at work in the electorate, was an absence of informed reflection on the effectiveness of its organisation and operations. This was even as the Conservatives’ machine overhauled their campaign structure, digital know-how and ground campaign methods in the aftermath of 2017.
This left longstanding weaknesses unanalysed and unaddressed; in some areas they were allowed to get worse.
Complexity and lack of clarity at senior level fed through into Party functions. The structure of the Party is far from transparent, but an organogram prepared for this review by Common Knowledge identified at least five “Executive Directors”, at least 13 “Directors”, at least fifteen “Heads of” and five “Managers”. This reliance on separately managed teams risks institutionalising “silo-working”, limiting horizontal communication and collaboration, and making it harder to provide strategic leadership and coordination of functions that cut across different teams.
The absence of a widely agreed and understood strategy, confusion over who was in charge, and barriers to internal flexibility and collaboration, were exacerbated by the fact that internal factional tensions had led to the duplication of functions, structures and responsibilities, with many internal turf battles and conflicting approaches.
The failure to conduct a rigorous and honest appraisal of what had and hadn’t worked in 2017 also meant that weaknesses in Labour’s campaigning techniques and infrastructure were not addressed. Many of the tools and methods that, as we shall see in subsequent chapters, caused so many problems in 2019 were already creaking and outdated by 2017.
However, this challenge was about more than a one-off review or “upgrade”. Most profoundly, it has become clear to us that Labour does not have the structures or the culture needed to foster innovation and learning. This requires a willingness to experiment, combined with a framework to ensure outcomes are objectively assessed against relevant metrics, data is shared, and lessons consistently implemented. Instead, we found that a lack of strategic and organisational coherence resulted in a campaign that was disjointed and unimaginative, defaulting in many areas to closely guarded domains of authority and time-worn ways of doing things.
In the next two chapters we look at how this fundamental lack of strategic integration and structured innovation, not a new problem for Labour but one deepened by the internal divisions and culture of distrust of recent years, fed through into Labour’s campaign both online and on the ground.