A HISTORIC DEFEAT
CHAPTER ONE: THE SCALE OF THE DEFEAT
- This was a terrible defeat for Labour. This result, with losses across the North and Midlands, Scotland, and North Wales, poses profound questions about the future prospects of our Party. Labour’s electoral coalition had been fracturing for a long time and was broken in 2019. We were rejected by many of the communities we were founded to represent.
- We lost all types of voters everywhere compared with 2017, except in London.
- Age, education and place are the new electoral divides even more than traditional conceptions of class.
- We have seen dramatic changes in relation to older voters, those with lower levels of education and qualifications.
- Labour lost votes across every region and country in the UK; Labour’s vote share declined most in small, medium, and large towns, but consolidated in cities.
- Labour lost support amongst all classes but amongst working class communities the most.
- The swing away from Labour in our heartland seats in the 2017 election, masked by the much better than expected result, foreshadowed our 2019 defeat. The Conservatives made significant gains in 2017 in seats they would go on to win in 2019.
- Labour faces a substantial challenge to win the next election, with a historic swing of over 10 per-cent needed to gain a majority of one seat. No major party has ever increased their number of MPs by over 60 percent, which is what Labour would need to do to win in 2024.
CHAPTER TWO: LONGER-TERM DRIVERS
- The roots of our 2019 loss stretch back over the last two decades. In that time, we have seen a steady realignment of our politics through long-term changes in the relationship between our party and voter coalition, including political alienation, demographic change and cultural shifts.
- Across the regions and nations of the United Kingdom, the Conservatives have steadily increased their vote share and seat tally over this period. Labour’s vote share declined dramatically between 2001 and 2010, then recovered marginally in 2015 and increased again substantially in 2017, before collapsing in 2019. The consistent nationwide growth in Conservative support since 2001, particularly marked in some places where seats became vulnerable, prepared the ground for the significant increase in seats in 2019.
- Labour’s roots in many of our traditional communities have weakened, as party loyalty has declined, and trade union membership has reduced, whilst many of the structural and institutional links between our party and the Trade Union movement have declined. In the 2000s, we saw a move away from Labour in our working class communities driven by a perception that there was little difference between the major parties, as well as deindustrialisation and demographic change. This showed itself in abstentions, or protest votes for other parties exacerbated by crisis points such as the financial crash of 2008 and the expenses scandal in 2009.
- Cultural divides have accentuated the drift away, leaving some voters with the view that Labour no longer represents them, and are not listening to them.
- Labour has failed to renew our bonds with older voters, resident in many of the town seats in our (former) heartlands. These areas have experienced demographic aging and an exodus of younger voters. Labour has done badly with older voters who have lower levels of qualifications.
- Labour has experienced substantial losses amongst voters, who went on to support Leave in the referendum, for over a decade. Labour had already lost significantly more of these voters before the referendum than it did in the 2019 election. Four in ten of those who voted Labour in 2010 and went on to vote Leave in 2016 had already defected from Labour by the time of the 2015 election. In 2019, 25 per cent more of this group were lost, leaving Labour with only a third of its 2010 ‘Leave minded’ voters.
- Voter volatility has been high throughout the last decade. It peaked in 2015, when around 40 per cent of 2010 voters switched to different parties. This helped Labour in the 2017 election. In 2019 high levels of voter volatility worked against us, with more voters swinging to the Tories, Brexit Party, Lib Dems and nationalists in Scotland and Wales.
- Many of these trends are global and have had similar and negative impacts on social democratic and centre-left parties around the world.
CHAPTER THREE: THE ISSUES IN THIS ELECTION
- There is a broad consensus across our Party – mirrored in the results from our survey of Labour members - that a combination of concerns about the leadership, Labour’s position on Brexit and our policy programme damaged Labour’s chances in this election. Our weaknesses going into this election were interlinked, and indivisible. They catalysed long term trends between Labour and our voter coalition.
- This was an election where people were more often voting against the scenario they feared most, rather than for the party they liked best. We failed to provide a believable narrative for change, that enough of the electorate could vote for.
- Concerns about Labour’s leadership were a significant factor in our election loss in 2019. ‘Stop Jeremy Corbyn’ was a major driver of the Conservatives’ success across all their key groups including previous non-voters, and among all the swing voters Labour lost to the Tories.
- In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal poll ratings dramatically improved over the campaign. Had these levels been maintained, Labour’s vote share in 2019 would have been 6 points higher. The very low poll ratings on leadership going into the 2019 election cannot easily be disentangled from the handling of issues like Brexit, party disunity and anti-Semitism.
- The Tories won the 2019 election primarily by consolidating the Leave vote. In contrast, Labour lost support on all sides. Compared with 2017, in net terms, Labour lost around 1.7 million Leave voters; and around 1 million Remain voters. We also failed to attract swing voters, winning over far fewer swing voters than at any other recent election, and turning out fewer new non-voters than in 2017.
- Non-voters (both those who did not vote in 2017 but turned out in 2019, and those who voted in 2017 but not in 2019) played a critical role in the Conservative success. According to analysis conducted by Datapraxis, well over 4 million voters turned out in 2019 who had not voted in 2017. In 2017 Labour benefited much more from 2015 and 2016 non-voters but in 2019 the Tories overtook Labour among 2017 non-voters, by turning out many older and Leave voters as well as some younger voters.
- Whilst individual policies polled as popular, resistance to Labour’s reform programme came as people evaluated the overall package in our manifesto. Affordability, and the negative impact on the economy or their own personal finances were raised as concerns by voters. Unlike in 2017 many thought our manifesto was considered as unrealistic, risky and unlikely to be delivered.
- Labour suffered a meltdown in Scotland, polling well below even the Tories, with the SNP making significant gains. The SNP gained at Labour’s expense among key swing voter tribes. Brexit, the UK leadership and our position on a second Independence referendum were key factors in our loss.
LABOUR’S 2019 ELECTION CAMPAIGN
CHAPTER 4: THE NATIONAL STRATEGY
- The absence of an objective and open review of our 2017 general election loss was a key strategic error for Labour. The 2017 result masked continuing underlying voter trends in Labour’s historic voter coalition. Many of the constituency advances made by the Conservatives in 2019 were built upon significant advances in 2017.
- The 2017 election result shaped the Brexit debate, by breaking the consensus that had held to that point, and the hung Parliament that followed. This provided the context for the 2019 general election, which was an extremely difficult one for Labour.
- Labour went into the 2019 election without a clear strategy of which voters we needed to persuade or how. In the aftermath of 2017 there was an intention to reconcile Labour’s traditional supporters but this was not sustained and the strategy that was developed was inadequate. There was no sustained strategy for dealing with Labour’s perceived weaknesses.
- It was unclear who was in charge with insufficient lines of accountability for decision making. There was an unrealistic target seat strategy that was not evidence based. Hard decisions on seat targeting and prioritisation were avoided.
- Labour was unprepared for an election, with no clear message compared with our For the many, not the few campaign in 2017. The number of policy announcements created doubts about their deliverability and the media strategy meant policies didn’t have time to land and left candidates poorly briefed.
- Our Party has spent substantial periods of the last five years in conflict with itself resulting in significant strategic and operational dysfunction, resulting in a toxic culture and limiting our ability to work effectively. Responsibility for this rests not wholly with one side or part of our movement. Across our movement we should accept our part in these divisions and the impact this had on our ability to work together and present a united front to the public.
CHAPTER 5: THE ONLINE CAMPAIGN
- Despite all the activity and resources invested, Labour lost the online campaign in an election where it was more important than ever before.
- Whilst the Tories learnt from their failure online in 2017, Labour did not invest and strengthen its online capacity, making use of the brightest and the best available. The groundwork was not properly laid to test strategy, tactics or messages ahead of the 2019 election campaign.
- Online campaigning was hamstrung because it was siloed off from broader strategy and communications rather than centrally integrated. Poor internal coordination, exacerbated by factional tensions, resulted in slow, inconsistent decision making and an inability to act quickly.
- Our digital infrastructure was underfunded and inadequate. Candidates and local party campaigners found it very difficult to access and use the tools or support necessary to wage the campaign online consistently enough. Some of these systems were creaking in 2017, but the lack of internal reflection meant that issues went unresolved.
- Not enough was done to rebut attacks in digital spaces or elsewhere against the leadership, our Brexit position, or to reassure people about our policies and plans for the country. The Party’s social media channels became simply an additional broadcast platform rather than a dynamic and responsive tool for targeting, engaging and persuading groups of voters.
- Labour’s supporters online spent too much of the campaign talking to themselves rather than reaching out to convince swing voters to support Labour. In contrast the Tory online presence was vastly improved from 2017, at national and local level, using proxies to attack Labour and build support for the Conservative campaign in key seats. The Conservatives central message of “Get Brexit done” lent itself to their very effective approach to organic shares and “distributed spin” online.
CHAPTER 6: THE GROUND CAMPAIGN
- Labour activists should be proud of their campaigning efforts in tough conditions. Our volunteer army is one of Labour’s strongest assets. Yet in this campaign, they were let down.
- Activists were misdirected and resources were limited and misallocated. Too much attention was paid to seats Labour was unlikely to win, and not enough to defending our vulnerable seats in our heartland areas of the UK including in Wales and Scotland.
- Ground campaigns were undermined, with Freeposts arriving after postal votes had been received by voters, crashing digital tools that created more work not less for candidates and campaign teams, and a lack of best practice messaging and policy and doorstep briefings.
- A long-term lack of engaging, relevant year-round campaigning and Labour locally taking the blame for austerity has fuelled mistrust in Labour and the view that we are the ‘establishment’ Party in areas that have seen little investment over many years.
- Our campaigning structures were not well integrated, including around community organising and digital organising, with resources split, and distrust, including between and within staff teams and relationships with elected representatives, limiting joined up effective campaigning and member mobilisation.
- Divisions and factionalism undermined our election readiness, with a lack of trust hampering teamwork at all levels of the Party. Our membership base and areas of high activity are not in the places we needed them.
- A lot of the issues with our ground campaign relate to old fashioned, highly bureaucratic, siloed and hierarchical organisation that has not been brought up to date and methods of campaigning and communication that do not fit modern reality.
THE WAY AHEAD
The final part of our report seeks to offer a way forward. As a commission we set ourselves the challenge of looking to the future at how Labour could build a majority coalition. This was no easy task, but we believe there are grounds for cautious optimism, as the ground-breaking work we commissioned provides the basis for a political strategy moving forward.
Our view is that our 2019 loss should be mobilising not paralysing. Labour can, and should be, the party of big and transformational change in our country and our communities, as long as this is believable and rooted in people’s lives and communities. Indeed, this is what many who voted Conservative for the first time in 2019 were voting for. However, Labour cannot be complacent about the seats we currently hold, and we must be mindful that without fundamental change there is further we could fall.
Our political strategy, organisation and campaigning infrastructure needs major overhaul. We must not shy away from necessary and tough choices if we are to rebuild our relationship with the country and revolutionise the way we engage and listen to voters.
Part Three contains further explanation of what a winning coalition could look like and how it could be forged. It also contains a large number of recommendations about work that needs to begin now to develop the political strategy and fundamentally reform the Party’s campaigning ability. The summary below explains the main themes.
CHAPTER 7: THE SCALE OF THE CHALLENGE
- This Commission does not think the task of rebuilding a majority for Labour at the next General Election is impossible, but no-one should underestimate the scale and nature of the change that is necessary within our Party and in how we interact and engage with the public in order to achieve that.
- Labour should not be complacent that our vote share can only go up at the next election. There are 58 seats across the country which only require a small swing away from Labour to the Conservatives to be lost. Given the long-term trends set out which are particularly stark in some places, there is no evidence that these trends are abating. This should be of primary concern.
- Moreover, there is no guarantee that our new ‘core vote’ will stick with us, given that this is concentrated in areas where other parties have held seats in the last 10 years, and this electorate is particularly volatile.
- Labour faces a substantial challenge at the next election. To be the largest Party we would need a swing to Labour of 1997 proportions. To win a majority of 1 we would need to increase our number of MPs by 60 per-cent up by 123 seats, something no major Party has ever done.
- If Labour does not reverse its fortunes in Scotland in a significant way, it would need to win North East Somerset from Jacob Rees Mogg to form a majority government.
- Labour needs to build a winning coalition of voters which spans generations, geographies and outlooks. This requires holding on to our current voter base (which should not be taken for granted), mobilising and inspiring more younger voters to turn out for Labour, as was achieved in 2017, while at the same time building a bridge with former Labour voters who are very distant from Labour presently, and attracting more swing voters.
The next chapters lay out a potential basis for how Labour can go about building a winning coalition for the future (Chapter 8), and building a Party and movement that can meet this challenge (Chapter 9).
CHAPTER 8: BUILDING A WINNING A COALITION FOR THE FUTURE
- All parts of the Labour Party need a collective process of reflection and reconcilliation about the scale of the electoral task Labour faces to create a shared understanding about what it will take to rise to it.
- Labour should reassert its mission to fundamentally change the country by getting into power, winning elections and being a movement that can bring change. Our entire organisation must be focused on that task.
- Labour needs to organise in local areas over years not months so that is seen as being at the heart of communities that it seeks to represent.
- We recommend that this report and other materials should form the basis of a political education programme across the party, from the Shadow Cabinet to CLPs, Labour groups to the wider labour movement, via webinars and social media to training events and dissemination of key findings. It’s a process Labour did not go through after any of the recent election defeats which allowed for views to widely diverge about the task in hand and how we might rise to it.
- The Party should organise a series of training and listening events around the country bringing members together with communities in round table style events, and in new style, conversational door-knocking exercises – when public health permits - to listen to and engage with communities and the voters we lost.
- We need an agreed strategy about the voters whose support we must win to form a government to build a majority winning coalition. Detailed quantitative modelling undertaken by Datapraxis explained in Chapter 8 outlines the make-up of potential coalitions for Labour and what would be required politically to build them. Our innovative Britain Thinks work – bringing together different voter groups in a deliberative coalition building exercise - begins to show how bridges can be built and difficulties navigated. Crucially, this is about developing a narrative about what voters believe Labour should be for and its priorities while negotiating areas of difference.
- Based on this work outlined in detail in Chapter 8, the Commission believes a political strategy for building this future coalition should include the following:
- Labour must be the agents of change, and the party of big economic change for the whole country and every part of it, reaching places and people who have been held back.
- The change Labour offers must be rooted in people's lives, showing that we have understood and are acting upon hopes and concerns of voters we have lost, and relevant to the places people live. Understanding place, and developing a politics embedded in and understanding of communities, will be a vital component of this.
- The public need to know Labour's leadership is credible and can be trusted and is up to the task of governing.
- All parts of the leadership and party must be focused on this task as it is a steep enough hill with four years to climb and requires relentless drive. Work cannot begin soon enough and will require long-term strategic focus, leadership and some tough decisions. This task is for the whole of our Party and shouldn’t just be the responsibility of the Leadership. It will take a united team effort.
- A strategy group chaired by the Leader and involving key members of the Shadow Cabinet and a political lead tasked with election strategy should be established – responsibilities would be the development of political strategy and the strategic plan to execute it.
- In Scotland, Labour faces the additional challenge of resolving the constitutional questions that have undermined our credibility and relevance. Labour should get behind the resolved position on no new independence referendum set out by our new leadership.
- Labour can and must lead the debate about the different society and economy that must emerge from the coronavrius crisis. The unprecedented economic and health crisis will undoubtedly shape political and economic policies for a generation. We recommend work to understand and respond to how the crisis – health and economic – arising from coronavirus will shape this landscape.
CHAPTER 9: BUILDING A PARTY AND MOVEMENT THAT CAN MEET THE CHALLENGE
In our final chapter we make over forty concrete recommendations which arise directly from our findings and from the wealth of submissions we received. These recommendations fall under four broad objectives:
- Labour should be a well-led, professional, innovative organisation with a more inclusive culture. To build a winning team to change the country, we need to accept that we need to change ourselves and our Party. We need to build a long term political strategy which is understood and implemented at every level of our party with clear lines of accountability. This must be combined with serious culture change from top to bottom. From a more transparent HR and complaints processes to a more agile working culture, we must do everything we can to make our party more open to innovation and accessible and inclusive for everyone.
- The Party must be connected with the communities and voters we want to serve. To win again, we need to win back the trust of the British public, be in touch with voters, listening and recognising their concerns and working with communities to deliver positive change all year round, not just asking for their votes at election time. This means opening up our local Labour parties focusing outward rather than inwards, a more deliberative and open policy making process and focusing on relational rather than transactional campaigning to build support in our communities.
- Labour should build a genuine popular movement, involving our members, affiliated trade unionists and campaign allies so we are more than the sum of our parts. Our members and our movement are our greatest strength and to win again we must unleash their full potential. We need to make community organising central to what we do as a party and modernise our approach to doorstep canvassing by putting relationship building at its heart. We need to truly empower our members with the organising tools, training opportunities and resources they need to continue to build our movement and change the country. From our Trade Unions to our local councils to volunteer networks within Labour, we should be working more closely with our allies to grow our movement both online and offline through opening Labour Community Centres and organising across workplaces.
- The Party needs to revolutionise our digital methods and campaign tools. As digital technology disrupts and transforms political communication and campaigning, Labour is in danger of falling behind the curve. Labour needs to invest in and upgrade its technological infrastructure and capacities and should adapt its working culture and structures to match. We need a suite of responsive, user focused digital tools that empower our members and a data ethics policy that aligns with our values and helps us to drive continual organisational learning and change.
Underlying our recommendations is a vision of the Party we believe it needs to become to meet the challenges identified in this Review:
- A Party looking outwards to the public
- A Party thinking and working relationally, not transactionally
- A Party that understands that creating this new culture and building these new relationships will take years, not months.
We hope our findings and recommendations can help propel the Labour Party’s electoral fortunes in a positive direction and we as a Commission stand ready to help in the coming months and years to implement them.