In the immediate aftermath of an election, its meaning is established. Once this is fixed, it is almost impossible to shift. There are plenty of such mythical explanations for defeat. Most famously, in 1959 Hugh Gaitskell and his supporters claimed Labour had lost its third election in a row because of the party’s association with nationalisation. It soon became the conventional wisdom and, on that basis, Gaitskell tried to revise his party constitution’s Clause IV, which committed it in principle to the public ownership of industry. But it wasn’t necessarily true: Labour lost for many reasons, with Gaitskell in particular having made a terrible mistake over tax policy during the campaign from which he wanted to divert attention. And for Gaitskell, Clause IV had always been a bugbear and he seized his chance to be rid of it, using defeat as an excuse.
So it is in 2019. Even before any results had been declared but just after the announcement of the exit poll, John McDonnell stated that Labour had lost because of Brexit. By claiming this, the shadow chancellor was repeating the line issued to the shadow cabinet in a briefing document likely to have been written by Seumas Milne, Jeremy Corbyn’s director of communications. This stated that the result was overwhelmingly due to Boris Johnson’s repeated statement that he would ‘get Brexit Done’. Despite this, the document continued, Labour’s policies were popular. No mention was made of Corbyn’s contribution to the defeat.
This analysis has been repeated by countless Corbyn-loyalists in TV and radio interviews since and by the leader’s social media outriders. Corbyn has also reiterated its two basic claims: Labour lost because of Brexit while its policies were popular.
A few have expanded on the logic of this analysis, claiming that had it not been for Brexit, Labour would have won, citing the 2017 result as evidence that with Brexit out of the way a Corbynite party could recover its position.
This argument is however based on another myth: that Labour increased its vote in 2017 purely because of Corbyn’s leadership and policies that mobilised new kinds of especially younger voters to the cause. More nuanced analysis however highlights the exceptional nature of the campaign and in particular the decisive contribution of the staggeringly ill-judged Conservative strategy.
In any case, the evidence suggests that while Brexit contributed to Labour’s 2019 defeat it was by no means the most important one. One survey suggests that of those 2017 Labour supporters who voted for another party in 2019, 37 per cent said it was due to Corbyn and only 21 per cent by its Brexit position.
And if Brexit did reduce Labour support it was one felt across the Leave-Remain divide: its vote fell by ten per cent in Leave-voting areas and six per cent in Remain voting areas. That suggests it was Corbyn’s approach to Brexit rather than Brexit itself that was to blame for the issue hurting the party. For his stubborn neutrality of the issue was the worst of all possible responses to the issue, alienating both sides, meaning that while Johnson united the Leave vote, Remainers voted for a number of different parties.
Corbyn loyalists are now calling for a ‘period of reflection’ to consider the result. This process is to be led by Corbyn himself who has no intention of imminently departing the stage. But given their assertion that it was Brexit that lost the election this is – to put it at its politest – a paradoxical position, because they have already decided the matter.
Of course, a genuine consideration of the result is vital for a party that has just suffered its fourth election defeat in a row. But that is not the Corbynites’ real motive. For such a protracted debate – one shaped by Corbyn and his supporters – can only end with an endorsement of their analysis, one designed to exculpate the leader and his strategy from criticism and to lay the foundations for the election of a Corbynbite successor, the super-loyal Rebecca Long-Bailey and scupper the chances of the likes of Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry.
So far only a few Labour MPs – most of whom voted no confidence in Corbyn in 2016 – have challenged the Corbynite interpretation of the result. Jeff Smith said Corbyn’s claim that Labour had ‘won the argument’ even if that didn’t mean a majority was ‘Exactly the kind of self delusion we can’t afford to indulge in at this time”. Many, though, are still keeping quiet and some – like Lucy Powell – have even endorsed calls for a period of reflection. This means that since the exit poll was announced Labour members – the ones who will decide Corbyn’s successor – have only been exposed to the Corbynite version. Unless they take to the airwaves and challenge the call for a period of reflection it might already be too late for those MPs who wish to change their Labour’s course.
Steven Fielding is Professor of Political History at the University of Nottingham and is writing ‘The Labour Party: from Callaghan to Corbyn’ for Polity Press, to be published in 2021