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Friday 13 December 2019

General Election 2019

The kamikaze battleplan

Philip Webster dissects Labour’s catastrophic campaign which sets up another brutal fight for the party’s soul

It took an awful long time for the True Believers in the Jeremy Corbyn project to accept that their dream of gaining power on the back of an unarguably Socialist ticket was in ruins.

As Labour candidates, canvassers and even officials in the party’s Southside headquarters in Victoria Street not far from Parliament warned daily that the party was heading for losses rather than gains, Team Corbyn ploughed on regardless, throwing money at unwinnable targets and ignoring Labour-held marginals that it had taken for granted. One insider termed it the ‘Kamikaze battle plan.’

Labour from top to bottom is in shock. But there was a far different mood six weeks ago among its high command as Johnson finally got his wish of an election.

During week one of the campaign there was genuine optimism among the closest advisers in Corbyn’s office, Seumas Milne (pictured top), Andrew Murray and manifesto writer Andrew Fisher, and at HQ Karie Murphy, his former chief of staff, and Amy Jackson, his former political director.

Mike Hill (right), Labour MP for Hartlepool during a tense general election count

There had been an improvement in the polls and these True Believers felt they were on the same trajectory as in 2017 when Labour came from behind to deny Theresa May a majority.

Get out the manifesto promising renationalisation and the ending of tuition fees, topped up with some policies on climate change, and Corbyn would be on the march again.

Less optimistic were members of the shadow cabinet who believed Johnson would have little difficulty making this a Brexit election, with Labour exposed as the only party without a clear position. Their biggest worry was Corbyn’s lost popularity, driven by his response to the Salisbury poisoning, his handling of anti-semitism and his failure to take a line on Brexit.

As the catastrophic results came in early on Friday, there was no feeling of relief or pleasure among the realists in the shadow cabinet and senior ranks of the party who had long known that Corbyn’s toxicity among voters and the party’s hopelessly uncommitted stance on Brexit would have precisely this outcome.

The realists knew that as one battle had ended in ignominy another was under way. Indeed it had been running throughout the campaign. Quietly, almost unnoticeably, while the hopes were still high, but more overtly once the game was up.

This was the battle for Corbyn’s succession. And while his hard left adherents in Momentum, the unions and elsewhere accepted that the time had come to throw their leader overboard, they were not about to give up their control over Britain’s main opposition party.

For these people, the struggle never ceases. Labour attacked when it should have defended – and as the chances of achieving even a hung parliament disappeared, the preoccupation of Team Corbyn and its social media acolytes was all about ensuring that potential successors who could keep the flame alight were given prominence on the airwaves.

Predominantly pro-Brexit, mainly northern MPs like Rebecca Long-Bailey, Richard Burgon, Laura Pidcock and Angela Rayner were pushed forward, preferred to more senior figures like Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, and Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, whose ‘crime’ was Remoanerism.

Labour’s shadow business secretary Rebecca Long Bailey during the election debates in November 2019

Now as a triumphant Boris Johnson begins to push Brexit through at pace, Labour is once more caught up in a brutal inquest about its failings, and an even bloodier fight about its future.

Once again we question whether a party that will have been out of power for 14 years by 2024 can survive as anything more than a rump while its more mainstream, centrist members retire from politics or move elsewhere.

We have already seen the first salvos. Quite predictably the Corbynite wing of the party was out on the airwaves on Friday morning – party chairman Ian Lavery included – blaming those who had been pushing for a second referendum for the scale of the defeat. Working class voters had lost trust in Labour because it had backed away from its decision to honour the 2016 referendum.

But defeated MPs like Phil Wilson, who lost Tony Blair’s Sedgefield seat, called that “mendacious nonsense”. Corbyn was a bigger problem and to say otherwise was delusional. Yvette Cooper became the most senior figure to lay much of the blame at Corbyn’s door. She said the outcome was not just about Brexit. “It was about perceptions of the party, perceptions of the leadership.”

That argument will rage for months, long after Corbyn departs, whenever that is. He has argued for a “period of reflection” before he makes way. Many are not prepared to grant him that.

Jeremy Corbyn embraces Karie Murphy as he arrives at Labour Party HQ following a snap election in June 2017

The beginnings of the disaster were in the air at the start of the campaign. According to a former cabinet minister,  worries about Corbyn on security grounds had increased. “In 2017 the things thrown at him – IRA, Hamas etc – seemed historical. But being equivocal over the Salisbury poisoning cast him in a terrible light among Labour voters to whom patriotism is everything.”

According to one strategist there were only about 30 seats in the country which Labour could say with total confidence would be safe, while at the same time, their internal polling told them there was not a single seat it could be confident of gaining. (How right that turned out to be.)

To counter that Team Corbyn argued that they had been in exactly the position in 2017. Get the manifesto out, Corbyn on the telly and watch us move, the logic went.

Corbyn and John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor, were the public face of the campaign and McDonnell took much of the responsibility for ensuring the backroom operation had political direction.

Each day began with a strategic conference call organised through McDonnell. On the line usually were Ian Lavery, Andrew Gwynne, shadow communities secretary, Murphy and Milne. At around 8.30am Murphy, Milne, Corbyn’ spokesman James Schneider, and other figures like Niall Sookoo, director of campaigns, met to discuss daily strategy.

Week two saw a boost for Labour with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s car crash interview on Grenfell, but that was quickly balanced by the resignation of Tom Watson as Labour deputy leader, and then the defection of Ian Austin and John Woodcock to Johnson over the security ‘threat’ of Corbyn.

A Labour supporter wearing a Jeremy Corbyn themed Christmas jumper

A shadow minister remarked that the defectors knew what they were doing because what did for Corbyn in the north was the sense that he was not patriotic, sided with Russia and was anti-semitic. “They were speaking directly to voters in constituencies like theirs and saying that if you love this country and its values, you need to vote for Boris Johnson.”

Around Corbyn the view was that the more he was seen to be embattled, the more it motivated his Momentum base because all of this was part of a media and establishment conspiracy against him.

At this stage in week two insiders were astonished at the production of a film promoting the re-election of Rebecca Long-Bailey in a seat she held with a majority of more than 20,000. It was a pretty clear sign that her leadership campaign would roll quickly with the support of the Corbyn praetorian guard, although insiders in HQ said the production happened because they wanted her to be the face of a northern-focused campaign.

It was also around this point that several of the big unions, led by Len McCluskey of Unite, and including Tim Roache, of the GMB, and Dave Ward of the CWU, came together to demand a shift in policy on Brexit. Labour, they agreed, while promising the public a final say, must support whatever deal it managed to negotiate.

Starmer and Thornberry were then summoned to a Westminster meeting where they were warned about the need for “message discipline”. Their warnings that the switch would damage Labour’s hopes of being seen as the Remain party went unheeded.

Labour’s stance on Brexit was always going to mean trouble, and there are many senior figures today who accept that Corbyn’s own reluctance to embrace his party’s wish to take the Remain mantle has been justified by events.

Corbyn and shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry meet after both retaining their parliamentary seats

The problem was that his policy of “constructive ambiguity” that worked in 2017 did not stand up this time. Labour’s stance of renegotiating with Europe but then not necessarily backing the deal it negotiated looked ludicrous, with Thornberry and Starmer saying they would campaign to remain, Corbyn and Long-Bailey staying neutral and Lavery favouring Leave.

By the third week, Team Corbyn felt they were getting somewhere. Announcements on broadband and free dentist checks won the party some decent headlines and made them believe they were succeeding in stopping the election being a one-issue affair.

“We are setting the agenda,” said one strategist.

But other former ministers were distraught that after McDonnell’s careful planning to show that Labour’s plans could be paid for, the pledges on dentistry and broadband allied to £80bn of spending commitments outlined in the manifesto were incredible and implausible. One former minister said: “It is desperation tactics. Buying votes just does not work. They are not idiots out there.”

A Corbyn loyalist defended the moves, saying they could capture the public imagination and generate enthusiasm, as similar efforts had in 2017.

By week four, Labour’s strategists – realists and True Believers alike – were hopeful that the manifesto launch would finally produce lift-off.

Corbyn supporters at a rally in Nelson, north-west England in December 2019

But there was no immediate sign of a bounce. From a Corbyn supporter came the view that the polls were always slow to react, and that on the ground the policies were beginning to cut through. The view on his side of the argument was that Corbyn had done well in the TV debates and that just as the pollsters did not catch up with the reality in 2017 the same was happening again.

But the pessimists in HQ were taking an altogether different view and, according to an insider, talking about which leadership campaign they would back. A loyalist said: “In 2017, Jez was a novelty. People had not made up their minds about him. Now they have. Most of them are negative.”

One Labour candidate in the north who was to lose their seat told me: “Corbyn is killing us. They don’t like him; they don’t understand him.”

Another said: “People love our spend, spend, spend programme but don’t think there’s any chance we could implement it.”

Another: ‘”The attitude seems to be if the Tories are not bothering with fiscal rules any more, why do we need to bother. Then they ask you to go in a television studio with Andrew Neil and you get butchered.”

Inside sources say that at this stage more and more politicians and apparatchiks were in agreement with Sookoo, the director of campaigns who was in charge of the elections strategy until Murphy was transferred from the leader’s office before the election, that more resources should be put into defending existing seats and that less should be spent on trying to win impossibly difficult new ones.

But Milne, Jackson and Murphy still held the whip hand and were implacably in favour of their offensive campaign to take Tory seats. This 80:20 offensive strategy had been the approach in Corbyn’s office since 2017, with tens of thousands of pounds spent on recruiting community organisers in those seats to mobilise the activists. As one strategist said: “They could hardly give up on that now, having spent millions.” He added: “We hope there will be a day of reckoning.”

The other big development in week four was Corbyn’s announcement that he would stay neutral in any referendum choice between his deal and the option to remain. One Corbynite team member said that  the leader should have said it months ago, but at least the issue was now dealt with. A shadow minister said Corbyn had ‘thrown a lifeline’ to the Lib Dems who could now abandon their disastrous ‘revoke article 50’ policy and become unquestionably the Remain party.

One ex-minister said: “We are lurching all over the place.”

In the middle of week five came the long-awaited switch in Labour strategy – too late according to many insiders – from offence to defence.

A march against Brexit in Brighton, June 2017

YouGov’s MRP poll – a recently developed technique called multilevel regression and post-stratification using a massive nationwide sample of more than 100,000 people – predicted 42 gains for the Tories and a majority of 68.

When chosen members of the media were told of the shift, they were informed that it had happened before the MRP poll because Labour’s private internal polling was suggesting similar outcomes.

According to insiders this was true. During week five, one told me: “Southside has been warned about this for weeks. Although there is a slight tightening in the national polls, the constituency polling in the North, Midlands, Wales and Scotland are telling us terrible things. They knew about this but just carried on regardless.

“Karie was told this from day one. But it has been offence, offence, offence.” Corbyn was still sent to target seats, but in reality the resources were switched to vulnerable Labour seats.

Team Corbyn let it be known they were changing strategy to promote more northern, working class and pro Brexit voices such as Long-Bailey, Burgon, Pidcock, Angela Rayner and Lavery. This produced wry smiles among members of the shadow cabinet who had been hidden from public view for most of the campaign. Even so it showed that the Corbynites, though in denial about the unpopularity of their leader, had rightly, though belatedly, realised the damage the Brexit stance was doing in the so called Red Wall, Labour’s heartlands in the north and Midlands.

Left to right: Rebecca Long-Bailey, John McDonnell, Angela Rayner and Ian Lavery listen to Corbyn speak

But the shadow cabinet also saw in the move the beginnings of the next leadership campaign, with the Corbynites putting themselves in the position of saying that he was right all along and should have been allowed to show his true colours as a Brexiteer. Labour’s Remainers were already preparing themselves for an onslaught, even though they had been “locked away in the cupboard” for most of the campaign.

One distressed Labour candidate fearful of losing their seat said: “What they won’t say – and none of their social media muppets will say – is that the primary reason people won’t vote Labour in leave areas is Jeremy and the fact that people don’t think he is patriotic and does not support our armed forces and the police.”

The final week brought some hope to Labour that its late switch in strategy was paying off. The second MRP poll suggested a Tory majority of 28, well below the first. Johnson’s ham-fisted response to pictures of a young boy suffering from pneumonia awaiting treatment while lying on a hospital floor may have helped to bring some traditional Labour voters back into the fold. But the apparent improvement was an illusion.

So as the inquest begins, the players in the next battle for Labour’s soul are already warming up.

Already out of the traps were Long-Bailey, Rayner and Pidcock, but the latter was a casualty in Thursday’s earthquake. They will be joined by Starmer and Thornberry, or one of those two, with other possibilities Jess Phillips, Dawn Butler, Lisa Nandy, David Lammy and Rachel Reeves. There will be pressure on Yvette Cooper, one of Labour’s best parliamentary performers, to go for it.

Yvette Cooper at The Centre For European Reform in Westminster, March 2019

John McDonnell ruled himself out of a pitch for the leadership in the early hours of Friday, but he may be a big player in the way the succession is played out.

He is understood to be a strong supporter of Long-Bailey and Rayner, the friends whose campaigns would be likely to be boosted by backing from the Unite and Unison unions

What remains unclear is the extent to which the candidates will disown the Corbyn inheritance and the carefully crafted line he took on Brexit. But the far Left, having captured Labour at all its levels apart from the parliamentary party, will not give it up without a fight. And while Neil Kinnock was ready to take on the Left in the wake of the 1983 debacle, there is no organised resistance to it at this stage.

Rayner, although from the Left, appears to be positioning herself as a consensus figure, refusing to talk down the achievements of Blair’s Labour government, and extolling the help it gave her as a mother at 17.

It has to be remembered that whatever the complexion of Labour voters, the party members themselves are overwhelmingly Remain. It is they not the voters who will elect the Labour leader.

Some Labour veterans fear that in order to get elected the contenders will promise to negotiate a softer Brexit or even Britain’s return to the EU, which might be popular with the party but anathema to a voting public that is fed up to the back-teeth with all things Brexit, even if they were Remainers back in 2016.

And so Labour girds itself for yet another leadership election. This one will presumably boil down eventually to a pro-Brexit northerner against a pro-Remain southerner.

Veterans hope the election will be about much more than that.

The inquest had begun long before the first vote was cast. There will be the usual blame on the media for distorting Labour’s message, but all but the most ardent admirers will surely accept that Corbynism is not a viable electoral offer.

A woman stands on a Labour placard as Jeremy Corbyn delivers a speech in Middlesbrough, 11 December 2019

It must consider how Labour can repair its links with the working class and rebuild the Red Wall in the North and Midlands which the Tories had such success in dismantling.

If Socialism has not cut through, where will Labour go now?

Talk of the emergence of a new third party taking in the Lib Dems, Labour moderates and Tory Remainers has restarted. Is it time for The Democrats to take the stage? To see off that possibility Labour’s next leader will have to show far more flexibility and empathy with the national mood than the man they have replaced.