Analysis: Labour's electoral mountain

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

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Image source, PA Media
Image caption,
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband (right) looked into Jeremy Corbyn's (left) election strategy

MPs Ed Miliband and Lucy Powell were key figures behind the new report into Labour's election defeat in December 2019.

And you could say they know a lot about losing elections.

Mr Miliband was leader when the party suffered a worse-than-expected result in 2015, and Ms Powell - his former chief of staff - played a key role in that campaign.

When they announced the review days after the election, some in the party felt their track record disqualified them from sitting in judgement on the failures of a subsequent leadership.

But in some ways, they were rather well qualified for the task - with both MPs back on the front bench under Sir Keir Starmer's leadership, and with a direct responsibility to act on their own recommendations.

As well as Mr Miliband and Ms Powell, 13 other "commissioners" were involved in compiling the report, drawn from unions, local government and from different parts of the country.

The commission had access to private polling, it surveyed 11,000 members, carried out some in-depth interviews and convened a "citizens" panel to explore the scale of the problem.

Some of the research was commissioned from the Campaign Company - set up by Labour's recently appointed general secretary, David Evans, and the corporate alma mater of Sir Keir's chief of staff, Morgan McSweeney. So they will be well placed to act on the report's findings.

What makes the report particularly interesting - which the MPs will know from bitter personal experience - is it argues strongly that Labour's electoral woes did not start and end with its former leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Media caption,
Jeremy Corbyn announced on election night he would not lead party in future campaign.

It does not suggest the scale of the last election defeat was somehow historically inevitable.

Instead, it declares that "a combination of views of our party leadership, Brexit and a manifesto that was not seen as credible sealed our defeat in 2019".

No surprise there.

But the report then twists the knife a little further, adding: "In the words of our candidates and activists, the strategy was inadequate, the organisation was muddled and the execution was poor."

Digital disaster

The review's conclusions then places some aspects of the campaign under the telescope.

Labour's digital offer was credited with helping to appeal to younger voters in 2017 - but by 2019, the party had been outgunned financially and creatively by the Conservatives.

"Our digital infrastructure was underfunded and inadequate," the report says.

It may also surprise seasoned political commentators that the Tories were more successful than Labour in 2019 in motivating previous non-voters to go to the ballot box.

New leader, old problems

The report paints a portrait of a party riven by "factionalism", "internal arguments" and "division".

But it issues a stark warning to those who believe a change in both the party leadership and the political landscape will necessarily bring Labour much closer to power.

"It would be a mistake to believe that a different leader, with Brexit no longer the defining issue, would in itself be sufficient to change Labour's electoral fortunes," it says.

And this is perhaps the true value of the report for the new leadership.

Image caption,
Sir Keir Starmer took over as Labour leader in April

It serves as both a reality check for activists and an opportunity for the new regime to argue that a break from the past is necessary.

And the report declares Labour has "a mountain to climb" - with the authors clearly thinking of K2 rather than a Scottish munro.

Different class

Although largely drawn up before the coronavirus crisis hit its peak, the authors found very little buyer's remorse amongst those who had defected from Labour to the Conservatives in December.

And it argues that the party drew the wrong lessons from the 2017 result.

"We treated it like a victory, the Tories treated it like a defeat," Ms Powell tells me.

In fact, in many "traditional" Labour seats, the Conservatives eroded their rivals' majorities in 2017 and set the table for gobbling them up two years later.

And this was simply an acceleration of a process that began in 2005 - possibly, in some areas, even amid Labour's 2001 victory.

Image caption,
Labour MP Lucy Powell was involved in the review of the party's performance in 2019

By 2019, Labour was a party of younger city-dwelling graduates and of ethnic minority voters.

Older residents of towns - skilled manual workers in particular - continued to drift, or even run, away.

As the report puts it: "Age, education and place are the new electoral divides even more than traditional conceptions of class."

Things can only get worse?

The coalition of voters that propelled the party to a landslide victory in 1997 has been fractured - yet Labour would need a similar swing now to deprive the Conservatives of power at the next election.

And the report suggests that right now, rather than suggesting "things can only get better", they might get even worse.

It said: "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."

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 these tendencies are abating.

The future, not the past

So, what is to be done?

Well, the report seems somewhat stronger at diagnosing the underlying problems than providing the solutions.

There are 43 recommendations. Some are obvious, such as making better use of volunteers' skills and better support in target seats.

These would perhaps get the party at least on the foothills of that political mountain.

Some suggestions are organisational and practical - how to deliver a message, rather than what that message should be.

Several are focussed on improvements to the digital strategy, and some are about changing the way activists behave on the doorstep - trying to persuade people, rather than identify and mobilise a diminishing number of supporters.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The report said voters found the manifesto for the 2019 election 'undeliverable'

But some recommendations will be challenging to achieve, such as using independent organisations to help ensure Labour's manifesto is credible and deliverable.

The manifesto is clearly the result of political decisions and arguments.

And it's not at all clear the group that currently signs off the document - the clause five committee of trade unionists, national executive members and shadow ministers - would defer to the judgment of outside experts.

Although on the surface it sounds sensible, this would require a massive culture change in the party.

Given Labour's losing streak and the internal criticism of the "everything but the kitchen sink" nature of the 2019 manifesto, perhaps the party's stakeholders are ready to change.

We'll see.

Every solution brings a problem

Elsewhere, there are not clear solutions to some of the party's difficulties.

In the past, rather radical measures were taken to deal with factionalism.

For example, in the 1980s, Neil Kinnock - from the party's soft left - expelled the Trotskyite far left group Militant.

While the report highlights the problem of "patronage", it has been a time-honoured tradition for some unions to get together to try to ensure their candidates are selected in "safe" seats.

And party leaderships from the right and left have parachuted their favourites into constituencies just ahead of a general election.

So, while the report says Labour HQ needs "a skilled, professional, diverse, and engaged workforce" and staff appointments "should be based on ability to do the job", perhaps they need to apply similar criteria to candidate selection - and more widely in the Labour movement.

Some changes required will be less tangible than very specific recommendations.

In some ways, winning elections is less about individual policies or politicians - many of which or whom are not unpopular - and more about whether the party as a whole, and its leader, can be trusted to deliver.

Above all, the biggest challenge will be to convince some of Labour's lost voters that it "speaks for people like me", while still speaking up for newer, younger supporters too.