Thursday’s General Election was monumental for the Conservative Party, winning 365 seats with the largest majority for the party since Margaret Thatcher’s landslide victory in 1987.
Boris Johnson’s repetitive message to ‘get Brexit done’ resonated with many Leave voters in such a dramatic way that nearly all safe Labour seats in the North of England swung to the Conservatives. The election has proved to be a catastrophic defeat for the Labour Party and had led to them losing 59 seats. Corbyn has announced that he will not lead the Labour Party into the next general election, potentially stepping down by early 2020. This can potentially call to question, what kind of leader is now required to take the Labour Party out of this dismal loss and back into a position of strength like in 2017? Were Corbyn’s leftist policies the cause for Labour’s loss? Was it the anti-Semitism and his perceived apathy towards the victims of it? Or was it due to his ‘on the fence’ position on Brexit giving people no clarity? Either way, the election showed that the party needs a new strategy, and it needs one soon if it has any possibility of holding Boris Johnson to account in the upcoming Brexit deal negotiations.
It is imperative to consider the different components at play which inevitably led to the Labour Party facing one of its greatest losses in electoral history. Throughout the campaign, it is clear that one topic dominated the newsreels and the recent election discourse – Brexit. Not only that, but the Conservative Party made sure as part of their election strategy to focus on Brexit relentlessly in Labour safe seats that overwhelmingly voted for Brexit. Previous Labour stronghold seats such as Blyth Valley, Darlington, Bishop Auckland and Redcar unimaginably turned blue. These places were devastated by Thatcherism and the allegiance of people in those constituencies (especially coal miners) to Labour was sacrosanct. Even areas which remained Labour saw their majorities drastically decrease, with votes instead heading towards the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. This siphoning of votes by parties who had a strong Brexit agenda and platform undoubtedly swung the election in Boris’ favour. Looking at previous televised election debates, Corbyn’s unwillingness to share his true position on Brexit was met with heckling and jeering; a clear display of people wanting less uncertainty and wanting clear answers to what the party would actually do. Their response to renegotiate a deal and have a second referendum was seen by Leave voters as another attempt of going against the will of the people and another excuse for ‘dither and delay’ in the Brexit process. It is no wonder then that people in these seats that voted Leave were tired of continuing their support for a party that is not speaking for them. But Labour faced a deeper problem within its ranks, with an estimated 3-4 million who voted leave also voting Labour in 2017. Labour also became a safe haven for many Remainers, who believed that the party was the most able to secure the softest Brexit and a second referendum. But Corbyn was inevitably put in between a rock and a hard place, trying to appease two diametrically opposite voters to try and unite them but this ultimately failed, thanks to the continued Conservative Brexit mantra. Brexit looks like a key issue that has called to question whether old party lines matter. The issue has blurred the differences between classes, which is why it is so unusual to see those in the working-class who would traditionally vote Labour end up voting for a party that would not usually have their best interests at heart.
The party was also heavily hit by the recent escalation of anti-Semitic behaviour, with ten Labour MPs leaving the party due to Corbyn’s inaction. A 2016 independent inquiry announced by Corbyn had offered suggestions to deal with it, not all these suggestions have been implemented to this day. But Corbyn himself has been accused of anti-Semitism, by not cracking down on instances with enough seriousness and vigour, as well as taking part in events with people accused of anti-Semitism. On top of this, Corbyn has always been a divisive figure in the party, both for his hard left-wing stance and his past. His previous associations with Hamas and the IRA have always worked against him, and many of his policies in his manifesto sounded ideal yet economically far-fetched e.g. free nationwide broadband. Despite all this, it is clear Brexit plagued the party and did supposedly insurmountable damage.
What actions are present for the party now? Corbyn has already said that he will not stand in the next election as leader, with a new leader expected early next year. Having suffered four consecutive electoral defeats, the Labour Party needs a new strategy by turning away from Corbynism, appeal to voters who had forgone previous Labour allegiances and change the party’s identity. One of the main potential contenders to take over Corbyn’s job is Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary. Starmer has no history of being on the hard-left and could potentially move the party much closer to the centre, towards the side of the social democrats. Other serious contenders include Emily Thornberry (Shadow Foreign Secretary), known for her praised performances during Prime Minster’s Questions, yet she still belongs to the more left-wing side of the party. Also on the potential list is Jess Phillips, who is well regarded as a Labour centrist and has explicitly shown interest in starting a Labour leadership contest should Corbyn lose. However, a unifying factor that all leadership hopefuls should consider is to re-connect with Leave voters, which will especially be a challenge as the aforementioned contenders were all pro-Remain.
Re-appealing to disenfranchised working-class Labour ex-loyalists and a shift closer towards the centre is the only way to repair the damage done by this General Election. This election highlighted several problems endemic in the Labour Party which cost the party dearly at an unimaginable scale. It took its safe seats for granted, its failure to establish a solid position on Brexit lost key voters and it was mired in scandals which cost them more votes. It is clear that Corbyn’s direction for the party is one that does not work and a new approach from a new leader who is better able to connect with the disenfranchised can allow the Labour Party to once again represent those people that they were meant to represent. A strong Labour leader is also required to hold the Conservatives to account as Brexit is now officially underway, now more than ever since the party has painted itself as the sole party that can get Brexit done in a favourable way. Only time will tell if the Labour Party can reinvigorate itself and become a formidable force in British politics once again.