Learning the right lessons from the UK Labour Party loss

Seán Rainford
8 min readAug 17, 2020


I recently had the opportunity to read George Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn. Written in 1941, at the height of the Battle of Britain, Orwell believed that the ongoing World War could only be won on the basis of socialist transformation. When he tried to predict what the coming “English Revolution” would look like, he was clear that the the way the country was organised would fundamentally change.

England is a family with the wrong members in control

The whole system of privilege would be replaced by egalitarianism and common ownership. England would become an unambiguously socialist society. But the counter-intuitive part of his prediction was that much of England’s traditional life would remain — the monarchy, the established church, the system of law. Ordinary English life and custom would continue, however much some socialists wished otherwise.

George Orwell

I mention Orwell’s essay here because it highlights the need for English socialists in particular to integrate their platform with national sentiment. This insight was sadly missing from the Labour Party’s electoral strategy during the December 2019 UK general election. That election saw the party’s worst defeat since 1935. Despite his flaws, Orwell recognised in 1941 what is still a problem for the socialist left today — a distrust of English working class patriotism.

And I write in terms of England and English socialists because, for all intents and purposes today, the UK Labour Party does not have a significant footing in Scotland anymore and does not run in the North of Ireland. With the rising likelihood of Scottish independence, for better or worse, England and Wales is where Labour must focus its efforts.

Since the election result, many on the Labour Right have called for a reversal of Corbynism and a return to centrist policy. Many believe that the new leader, Keir Starmer, is preparing to bring the party in this direction. However, such a direction would fundamentally misunderstand the reasons why Labour lost so badly.

Why Labour lost

As outlined in the Labour Together report, the reasons for Labour’s defeat are threefold:

  1. the party’s position on Brexit resulted in a collapse of working class support,
  2. Labour’s manifesto had no clarity or captivating vision, and
  3. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was unpopular, amplifying the first two problems.

The problem with the manifesto was that it lacked a coherent vision of what a future economy could look like. It consisted of what seemed to be off-the-cuff announcements of new policy ideas like free broadband which, taken individually, were popular but when put together did not seem fully thought-out or credible to the public.

Exacerbating this problem was Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. People simply didn’t see him as a credible prime minister capable of leading his party or implementing its policies. Those of us sympathetic to his politics have to admit that. The advantages he had in 2017 of an incompetent opponent in Theresa May were no longer there either.

However, Brexit must be at the front of any scrutiny into the defeat. In 2017, Labour promised to honour the result of the 2016 referendum and take Britain out of the European Union. When put with the popular manifesto of that year, the result was a gain of seats — although not a victory — for the first time since 1997. In 2019, Labour promised to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement and then put it to a referendum against remain. The result was catastrophic. When compared to Boris Johnson’s simple ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan, it was clear how the public — weary of Brexit drama — would vote.

Taking the base for granted

There are a number of reasons why the ‘People’s Vote’ policy was always going to be disastrous for Labour. Two out of three of the party’s marginal seats were in areas that voted Leave. Working class constituencies were mostly Leave voting along with much of the ‘Red Wall’ of traditional Labour heartlands — prime targets for the Conservatives, who knew that Brexit was Labour’s Achilles heel.

To some within Labour, it was blatantly obvious that such a policy would be an electoral calamity. Those who warned about the consequences of endorsing it were dismissed too easily as ‘Lexiteers’ or even as Tory-sympathisers. In truth, all that they were arguing was that telling the public to vote again amounted to telling the public that they had voted the wrong way. This was bound to go down like a lead balloon in Labour’s heartlands.

Labour support in its old working class base has been haemorrhaging for years. Part of reconnecting with it could have been by taking ownership of Brexit and making it work for working class communities — EFTA membership, as advocated by MP Stephen Kinnock, could have done this. Indeed, throughout 2017 and 2018, when Labour generally led in polls, a soft Brexit was broadly its position. Instead, Labour doubled down on the liberal metropolitan argument that ‘the people had been lied to’. Too many liberals simply could not comprehend that the public may have had reasonable grounds for wanting to leave the EU.

Although it shouldn’t need to be said, recognising that there can be reasonable grounds for voting for Brexit does not make you a Brexiteer. From my point of view, as an Irish person and an internationalist, Brexit makes little sense. But from the point of view of a person who has seen their community decimated by globalisation and deindustrialisation, voting for Brexit could be a powerful blow against the establishment. ‘Take Back Control’ channeled a desire to reverse decades of power and accountability being taken from communities across Britain.

The ‘Centre Ground’

As well as this, arguing for a reversal of a democratic decision is not a moderate position . What was ironic about Labour’s approach to Brexit was that it was figures like Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, and Andrew Adonis who were most unshakably pro-People’s Vote — figures most associated with the ‘centre ground’. If those who usually advocate a moderate, triangulated position are suddenly arguing for the most extreme of all options, there’s probably something else going on.

What Labour should have done going into the general election was offer a radical yet coherent manifesto, just as it did in 2017. That kind of platform could have embodied the public’s clear desire to move away from neoliberalism. Additionally, Labour should have promised a single market/customs union exit from the EU. This would have satisfied the democratic decision of 2016. Both of these strands would have captured the national sentiment in the country.

The ‘Blairite’/’moderate’ faction of the Labour Party are correct in that the party has only ever won elections when it appealed to a broad consensus of the British people, rather than just its base. What they miss is that this consensus is not always the same — it depends on the circumstances the country faces. The consensus of the 1990s is not the consensus of the 2020s.

Socialism and patriotism

But even deeper than this, Labour has only ever won elections when it speaks to the patriotic desire of the British public to improve their country. When socialism is put forward as a succession to the national inheritance, rather than its opposition, Labour wins. This was seen in the victories of Attlee and Wilson, and even Tony Blair to an extent.

In this context, perhaps someone like Corbyn was never going to be able to lead Labour to victory in 2019. While he undoubtedly renewed the party’s radicalism, his perception as being unpatriotic and anti-Western may have been an obstacle he could not overcome. Of course, as the leaked internal reports into the party’s 2017 campaign showed, Corbyn was always working with one arm tied behind his back. If his parliamentary party had united behind him in 2017, it’s possible that he could have become Prime Minister. However, many of the circumstances of that election did not exist in the election of last December.

Whether or not Corbyn was the right man for the job is probably less relevant than what the party was saying to ordinary working people. Capturing the national sentiment and pitching democratic socialism in line with their patriotism could have been done effectively, I believe, by committing to Brexit alongside a radical platform. Such a platform could have answered the public’s desire to truly ‘Take Back Control’.

Possibly more controversially, the prevalent attitude in both wings of the Labour Party of viewing Leave-voters as nothing better than racists and xenophobes would have to end. Ordinary working class citizens are arguably not as socially progressive as ordinary Labour members. The Blue Labour tradition — economically radical but socially conservative and pro-Brexit — should at least be listened to.

“England your England”

The consequences of the way that the Brexit vote was handled have led to the deep divisions within the United Kingdom being exposed. England’s clear preference to leave the EU was contrasted with the clear preference in Scotland and Northern Ireland to remain. The possibility of a break up of the UK has become significantly more likely.

For Labour, this represents an existential threat. If Scotland secedes, an old constituency that Labour once depended on will be closed off forever. It will face fighting elections in an England seemingly dominated by the Tories. The answer to this threat is for the party to dedicate itself to being a true working class movement again — with all of the inevitable (and possibly uncomfortable) consequences that entails. The over-dependence on the liberal metropolitan middle class will have to end.

Clement Attlee (centre) during the 1945 Labour victory

In short, Labour has to learn the lesson from Orwell — socialists can’t take the working class for granted. If they don’t try to embody the best of working class patriotism, that patriotic feeling will be harnessed by others into nationalism. We forget too easily that Attlee’s 1945 victory was forged on the idea, taken from the Anglican hymn, of building “Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land”. A victory for socialism, yes, but one that was in full concordance with the traditions and sympathies of ordinary English people. Orwell’s socialist revolution out of the ashes of war did not materialise, but the Attlee government brought it as close as it’s ever been.

That Labour generation turned the horrors of war into an opportunity to remake England and Britain forever. They took back control from private capital and redistributed it to ordinary citizens. A socialist utopia was never going to arise out of WWII (or Brexit), but Labour managed to turn a bad situation into an opportunity for renewal. It failed to do the same last December. And as a result, the already existential threats to Labour’s future have been made exceedingly worse.

Let’s hope that the Labour Party can learn the right lessons from the election defeat, not the wrong ones.

Originally published at http://seanrainford.wordpress.com on August 17, 2020.



Seán Rainford

MA and LLB grad, socialist. Stuff on politics mostly, some old essays from university as well.