Please tell me exactly why Labour lost the 2019 election. I heard it was because their program was too leftish that time. Now I've read this passage on Wikipedia:

In June 2020, the Labour Together report on the 2019 election concluded that the second referendum policy was a major contributor to the Party's defeat "by a country mile".

What? Isn't Brexit an unpopular idea (I saw the polls)? Has this changed? I visited that Wiki page because I've just read in a BBC article that the new Labour leader wants Boris to stop "dithering over Brexit", "get this deal done", and "deliver it for the British people". What? Isn't it a Tory talking point? What is happening?

P.S.: Yes, I realize that it may basically be two different questions: why did Labour lose last year, and what is Labor's today's stance on Brexit. Or it may be one question, I don't know, it's hard for me to tell.


3 Answers 3


First of all, one needs to keep in mind that the first-past-the-post election system distorts the election results quite drastically. The Tories got their massive majority in parliament based on 43.6% of the votes.

In light of the Brexit issue, it seems meaningful to compare the Tory + Brexit party vote share of 45.6% to the Labour+LibDem+Greens+SNP vote share of 50.3%. In a proportional system, it seems very plausible that the same voting pattern would have let to a left-progressive coalition and a second Brexit referendum.

Vote numbers are available here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results

One explanation for Labour's bad performance in the poll is that while the Tories managed to minimize losing voters to the Brexit party, plenty of remainers didn't trust Corbyn on Brexit and voted LibDem instead.

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    It doesn't matter what you think about the first-past-the-post system; it's the system they chose and it works for them.
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 16:29
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    @RedSonja : I agree that it is the system they chose, but it rather obviously doesn't work for them. Anyway, I also agree that my opinion about FPTP is not relevant to the question here, which is why I haven't commented on that in my answer. What is relevant is that FPTP means that there is much less of a connection between "being popular" and "winning votes" than the OP seems to expect.
    – Arno
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 16:41
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    @RedSonja it rather depends on who you mean by 'them'.
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 20:14
  • @Jontia the Brits
    – RedSonja
    Commented Dec 21, 2020 at 17:56
  • @Arno, the constituency system also posed another hurdle for Remain. Although the overall proportion of Brexit/Remain support is about 50/50, Remainers are very geographically concentrated in a small number of predominantly urban constituencies, whilst the vast majority of constituencies are somewhat pro-Brexit. That is, there are a small number of localities where there is almost swivel-eyed support for Remain and almost everyone is for Remain, but in most localities Brexit has a healthy majority and Brexiteers modestly outnumber Remainers.
    – Steve
    Commented Dec 21, 2020 at 23:59

It is extremely hard to prove which factors mattered to voters and the possible explanations will be polluted by groups pursuing their specific agendas

Voters make broad judgements about parties and their leaders during elections. And voters are not uniform. For example, many vote out of long term loyalty to a party with little thought or analysis; others switch voted depending on local issues or the personality and stance of their local MP; some consider which party leader would make the best Prime Minister on a variety of reasons; a few (and it probably is a small minority) look at the policy proposals as a whole and weigh up which they prefer.

Given this, producing a single explanation is impossible and we should be suspicious of any argument that claims a single factor in policy produced the result.

Another reason to be suspicious of single factor explanation based on policy differences is that many voters also consider competence an issue. If a party has a bunch of great policies that are themselves popular but people judge the party or its leader incapable of delivering those policies, the policies will be irrelevant. Activists inside parties rarely seem to understand this basic point.

Consider how various factors might have influenced the relative perceptions of leader and party competence in the 2019 election.

While any reasonable analysis of Johnson would not highlight his competence or honesty, he was clearly in control of the party (despite opposition which he mostly disposed of) and created a manifesto with a clear and simple message ("get brexit done"). Many voters disagreed with that policy, but at least it was clear.

Corbyn was not clearly in charge of his party. His MPs were uncomfortable with his leadership. He had failed to crush antisemitism (many supporters claims this was a media plot and he is clearly not an anti-semite which might be true but isn't the point). The problem wasn't anti-semitism, it was his incompetent management of it in the party. Then the policies and manifesto. There were something like 50 key policies many designed to appeal to particular groups. But they were sometimes poorly thought through, frequently contradictory and lacked any sense of focus or priority. Swing voters whose concern was competence looked at the manifesto and saw no hint of priorities and no simple message they could grasp. Trying to appeal to many individual groups of activists sent a signal that the party was poor at prioritising or making difficult choices, not a good quality in a possible government.

Whether the lists of policies were good or bad is irrelevant to many voters. They want to see signs that you are competent enough to run a government when hard choices and clear priorities cannot be avoided. The Labour party failed to send those signals.

Was Brexit a big issue? Pro-brexit Labour people think it was key, arguing that Corbyn should have taken a clear stance that didn't risk undermining the referendum. But the evidence that voters abandoned Labour because of the specific Corbyn stance is weak: both pro and anti-brexit voters left Labour. But this misses the point for the voters concerned with competence. Ambiguity was the problem. A clear stance either way might have been better.

But the overall point is that a focus on policies or single factors is unlikely to provide a clear explanation for why Labour lost. Voters are complicated and are often influenced by a general impression of whether a party is competent rather than a specific policy stance or factor.

  • I downvoted for saying that the problem was not anti-Semitism (that was clearly at least part of the problem), that allegations of anti-Semitism in Labour were a "media plot" (inaccurate, Trumpian, and highly unfortunate in this context), and for saying that Corbyn is definitely not anti-Semitic (maybe he is not, but I think there are enough reasons for doubt—also, it is not an all or nothing thing).
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 17:51
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    @Obie2.0 My point is that, regardless of the truth of allegations of anti-semitism for Corbyn or the party, the leader and the party handled them very badly. This should not be contentious. Corbyn's management of the issue was clearly terrible whatever you think of his personal views or the prevalence of actual anti-semitism in the party. The visible signal to voters was that he was not competent at handling it. And I'm just reporting what many Corbyn supporters said about media plots, not agreeing with their judgement.
    – matt_black
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 18:09
  • You said "which is true"....
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 18:36
  • @Obie2.0 A fair point. I should have said "might be" and I've edited to change that. My bad. And thanks for the correction.
    – matt_black
    Commented Dec 20, 2020 at 18:39
  • Well, I would certainly add that expressing sympathy for Maduro/Chavez in 2018 or so, at a time by which Venezuela's spectacularly inept and corrupt governmental failures were all too apparent, amplified concerns about economic policies, including nationalizations of companies. This doesn't sound like a government that merely wants to divvy up the pie more equitably. Re. anti-Semitism, it's hard to say. Corbyn is certainly very pro-Palestine, which can quickly veer into anti-Semitism. Some in Labour seemed plain old-fashioned anti-Semitic and weren't sidelined. Commented Dec 22, 2020 at 7:11

One big reason and one that Corbyn himself pointed to was the massive rightwing media onslaught on Labour. Even the Guardian, which is considered to be on the left, climbed on that media band-wagon. Key to this was the weaponisation of anti-semitism against Labour. The rates of such in Labour is more or less as it is within the general British public, that is low.

But the media blew this up out of all proportion to the extent that the British electorate thought rates were as high as a third! It was basically a massive smear campaign.

I'd add that the same went for the media campaign for Brexit. It means that if Britain is no longer looking towards Europe then it will end up relying on the so-called 'special relationship'. Given the horror show - and I do mean horror show - across the Atlantic, that is the USA - with the current pandemic might give people real pause as to what this 'special relationship' may entail.

That this worked is due partly to the debasement of British political and intellectual culture where responsible journalism has gone through difficult times due to the encroachment of the net and their irresponsible algorithmic clictivism which has devoured newspaper ad revenues.

But whilst Corbyn might have lost this particular battle the overall argument was won about political citizenship, if the recent student strike by all the colleges of Cambridge over extortionate rent, is anything to go by, though here they were following the lead set by the students of Manchester University ...

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    When you say that Labour has lower rates of antisemitism, is that based on a survey of Labour voters, or Labour Party members?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 3:25
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    Based on your previous posts on this site and others, I am not too confident that you would recognize whether the Labour Party was more anti-Semitic than the general population or not. Certainly if you think that there is a "low" rate of anti-Semitism in Britain, you may have missed something.
    – Obie 2.0
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 3:52
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    The Disproportionate and weaponise comments have been rejected rejected by the Labour party, and reiterating such views led to Corbyn's suspension and continued loss of the Whip. Repeating them here isn't really helping
    – Jontia
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 12:03
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    @obie 2.0: I've lived in Britain all my life and I know the general history of Europe and I'm reasonably politically literate. I know a smear campaign when I see one. Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 12:10
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    @Mozibur at least he’s provided more citations than you have for this answer. Are you going to apologise for accusing me of lying?
    – Golden Cuy
    Commented Dec 19, 2020 at 12:43

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