My personal reflections on the election defeat we have just witnessed.
I believe across the party we now have to analyse the evidence about what went wrong – and what went right – with as much dispassionate objectivity as we can muster. Of course, in the midst of the emotion of defeat and grief we must also support each other with respect and compassion. That means curbing the natural urge to leap to instant judgements designed to serve the interests of one faction or leadership contender over another. It does not take a genius to work out that defeat was neither all down to Brexit, nor was it all Jeremy’s fault.
I feel very lucky and privileged to have had the chance to contribute to developing Labour’s environmental policies over the past 18 months. My reflections are simply based on my own observations from that position and the limited amount of campaigning I was able to do locally and in Watford.
For me, while Brexit was clearly a huge factor, it will be largely irrelevant in terms of shaping a vote-winning strategy for future post-Brexit elections. Of much more enduring significance is the decades-long feeling of neglect and abandonment of both leave and remain voting communities (including in parts of our own S W Herts constituency).
Perceptions of Jeremy as Leader were significant in doorstep and street stall conversations, but are also largely irrelevant for future campaigns. However, we do need to develop a far more effective strategy for countering biased media reporting and the propagation of lies, which will not go away with a different Leader.
Some have criticised the manifesto as bulky and indigestible. But I believe that, on every major issue – austerity, education, the NHS and social care, the climate and environment emergency, public ownership – we were on the right side. Far from being the ‘hard left’ agenda of the accepted media narrative, our manifesto owed much more to the co-op movement than Marx!
The manifesto had to be ambitious and broad to tackle the depth of the challenges communities face after a decade of neglect and austerity. But the work I was part of also convinced me we would be capable of delivery on this scale. Work to prepare ourselves for government was already underway when I started working for Sue Hayman in 2018, mindful that the Tories’ minority government could fall at any moment. We had expert input from former civil servants, including Bob Kerslake (former head of the civil service), and during the election campaign every shadow team held private discussions with current civil service Departmental heads to help ensure what we promised could be delivered smoothly and rapidly.
Detailed evidence, discussion, challenge and scrutiny underpin every policy commitment in the manifesto. For instance, the Plan for Nature drew from the excellent work set out in the People’s Manifesto for Wildlife. We had discussions with many environmental campaign groups as well as individuals like Chris Packham and George Monbiot. Sue Hayman, myself and the policy lead in Jeremy’s office made visits to the RSPB at their Sandy HQ to discuss nature and habitat recovery. Each individual policy proposal was scrutinised and challenged by Jeremy’s office, communications and other policy teams, robustly costed and challenged by the shadow Treasury team. Only those which survived this process were approved for public release. As the campaign got underway, we analysed environmental campaigners’ demands and some commitments were tailored to fit – hence the promise to plant two billion trees. Extensive work followed to explain the manifesto, culminating in Friends of the Earth scoring Labour’s policies above every other party’s, and Greenpeace putting us a close second to the Green Party.
Looking ahead, we must now harness all the energy and enthusiasm poured into Labour’s Green New Deal and the really solid work building the Green Industrial Revolution to turn around this government’s climate and environmental apathy ahead of the 2020 Glasgow COP.
I accept that all the effort we put in was not enough to make this into the climate emergency election it should have been. There probably were examples of potentially vote-winning policies which got sidelined in favour of eye-catching headlines without policy substance. Of course, Labour always faces an uphill task to set the daily campaign agenda. In response, the communications strategy this time was to pack the grid with policy announcements. On some days three or more press releases were issued, as well as a multitude of social media posts, infographics and video clips. To take one day at random, Friday 6th December saw the press conference on the leaked Brexit advice on N Ireland customs checks, as well announcements and statements on the BBC leaders’ debate, electrifying buses, grass roots sport, high streets and business rates. To say the least, it was not always clear what was our main message, and no doubt resource was wasted on internal disputes about whose policy should lead.
Decisions about which seats to target (both to attack and defend) are critically important to success. In 2017, it seemed more effort went into defending seats we won easily than in attacking seats we narrowly missed winning. It was natural therefore in this election to direct more effort into attacking winnable seats, especially in the South. But it now seems that strategy left many sitting MPs in the Midlands and North vulnerable without enough organiser or activist support, and many of those seats were lost, while of the Southern target seats only Putney was won.
The process for candidate selection must also be carefully examined. It was not just in the plum retirement and suspension seats where it seemed that rules to give local members a say were far too readily sidestepped. Selections were stitched up by the NEC and Regional Directors and inevitably members feel unenthusiastic about working hard for candidates they had no say in choosing. Every effort should always be made to allow the local party to run selections and ensure access for all members to the process.
Analysis must be based on sound evidence and there is much I have not yet seen which will be necessary to understand and learn from this election:
- the age, gender, ethnic, socio-economic and geographic breakdown of voters by party
- the number of postal voters by party, and the seats in which postal votes swung the result
- the seats in which the Labour vote increased against the national trend, and those in which it fell the most, and what seem to be any common factors linking those seats
- how many activists took part by seat, how successful they were and the effectiveness of different campaign tools – phone banking, doorstep apps, etc
- the numbers of positive and negative ‘hits’ achieved in social media versus mainstream media.
Finally, none of us has a monopoly on the truth and each of us has an important contribution to make, from many different viewpoints. That must include not just the shadow Cabinet, NEC, unions and affiliates, defeated and successful MPs and candidates. We also need to seek out and listen to party and MPs’ staff, regional staff and organisers, canvassers, phone-bankers, media and digital staff, as well as members and supporters. We need to hear from all of us and cannot move forward together unless everyone feels valued and heard.