After the election - the fight for Labour

by Alex Davidson

The 2019 British General Election was mainly about Brexit. The Tories’ slogan of “Get Brexit Done” won the day where it counted.  52 of Labour’s lost 60 seats were in Leave voting areas in England and Wales in the 2016 EU Referendum. Of the other eight losses, 6 were in Scotland. (1). The other two seats lost were in Remain voting areas of England: Kensington in London, traditionally Tory; and Stroud, where the Liberal Democrats stood down in favour of the Greens as part of the so-called Remain Alliance, allowing the Tories to win. (2)

The explanation for Labour’s defeat lies mainly in the Brexit story of the last three and half years. Other factors cannot be discounted including the decline of mining and manufacturing over decades in the north of England and the relentless demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn.

Immediately following the 2016 EU referendum, Labour adopted the position of accepting and respecting the result and went into the 2017 General Election fighting on an anti-austerity platform with the slogan “For the Many not the Few”. The Tories fought the election on the slogan “Strong and Stable”. Against the predictions of the polls, the mainstream media and the right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party, Corbyn increased the share of the Labour vote and removed the Tory majority in the House of Commons. Theresa May eventually and reluctantly resigned as Prime Minister having failed spectacularly to get her EU Withdrawal Bill through Parliament.

Meanwhile there was mounting pressure on the Labour Party leadership to call for a second referendum on the EU. Sir Keir Starmer led this campaign inside the Labour Party and, although resisted by Jeremy Corbyn, eventually secured a change of position, largely due to the dominant Remainer position held by the overwhelming majority within the Parliamentary Labour Party and also among Corbyn supporters. It should be noted that many people who had voted Remain in the Referendum accepted the result and expected it to be carried through.

The pressure, including from the so-called People’s Vote campaign, meant that the Labour Party went into the 2019 General Election saying that they would re-negotiate Brexit and put it to another referendum. Several leading Labour Shadow Cabinet members including Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry very publicly said, that in this second referendum, they would campaign to remain in the EU. While Jeremy Corbyn stated that he would adopt a neutral position, an understandable solution in a vexed situation, his Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, announced he would campaign for remain in a second referendum. This public stance of declaring that they would campaign to remain in a second referendum by leading Labour figures strained the credibility of the policy, especially in Leave-voting Labour seats in the north of England and the Midlands. 

Boris Johnson replaced Mrs May as Tory leader and Prime Minister and he returned to Parliament with a ‘not so new’ deal negotiated with the EU. When Parliament continued to thwart the passage of the Bill, Johnson expelled the Tories who opposed him and forced a General Election on his terms.      


Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the main Leave campaign in the EU referendum, had been brought in to 10 Downing Street as Chief Special Adviser to Prime Minister Johnson. His slogan “Get Brexit Done” resonated with many people fed up with the issue dragging on for so long as well as those who had voted to leave the EU. The Tories’ message was clear and in stark contrast to Labour’s weak and mixed message.

The Tories rejected an arrangement with the newly formed Brexit Party, which effectively replaced UKIP. When it became clear that there would be no electoral agreement with the Tories Nigel Farage then withdrew all Brexit Party candidates standing in Tory held seats. The Brexit Party stood candidates in Labour held seats and Farage made it clear that this was to take Leave voters away from Labour. Some other previous Labour voters who voted Remain in the Referendum may have given their vote to the main Remain party, the Liberal Democrats. However, all estimates suggest these were many fewer than the Labour Leave votes given to the Tories and the Brexit Party.   

Labour’s abandonment of its commitment to respect the result of the Referendum led to its loss of seats in Leave-voting constituencies. In these constituencies the Brexit Party picked up significant Labour Leave voters who probably could not bring themselves to vote Tory - yet the effect was the same, working for the Tories (see tables below).

Durham North West: Tory gain from Labour. Tory majority: 1144 (55.1% voted Leave in 2016)


No of Votes

%age Share of Vote

%age change from 2017 Election













Lib Dem












Bury North: Tory gain from Labour. Tory majority:105 
(55.7% voted Leave in 2016)


No. of Votes

%age Share of Vote

%age change from 2017 Election









Lib Dem
















Bolton North East: Tory gain from Labour. Tory majority: 378 
(58.1% voted Leave in in 2016)


No. of Votes

%age Share of Vote

%age change from 2017 Election








- 6.1





Lib Dem












In other constituencies the Tories won with greater majorities and didn’t need the assistance of the Brexit Party. Many of these were in areas with large Leave vote majorities, where the turnout was often low with many previous Labour voters staying at home. Wolverhampton North East is one example (see table below)

Wolverhampton North East: Tory gain from Labour. Tory majority 4080 (67.7% voted Leave in 2016)


No. of Votes

%age Share of Vote

%age change from 2017 Election













Lib Dem












If the ultra-Remainers, like Keir Starmer, had got their way and Labour had adopted a clear and firm Remain position on the EU then it is likely that more Labour seats would have been lost. 


There is now a battle between the right and left in the Labour Party to explain the causes of Labour’s defeat in the General Election. Right-wing Labour never accepted Corbyn as leader nor the left policies developed under his leadership. Having failed to remove him as leader they continually undermined his leadership in a variety of ways including the charge of anti-semitism. This charge of anti-semitism has been pursued daily by the Jewish Labour Movement and the Parliamentary Labour Friends of Israel. The capitalist mainstream media has focused on this while barely reporting Islamophobia in the Tory Party. It is a well-worn saying that if enough mud is thrown then some of it will stick. The capitalist mainstream media are well aware of this.

Not surprisingly following Labour’s defeat, right-wing Labour are on a renewed offensive to change the policies and leadership of the party. “Right-wing” is never the term used by the mainstream media as they prefer “moderate” or “centre-left”. However, let us be clear, it is Labour’s right-wing, which is on the offensive and hopes to swing or at least confuse many Labour members, supporters and voters that the explanation for Labour’s defeat was not the issue of Brexit. They hope to convince people that the problem lay with Corbyn’s leadership, and not just that, but also with Labour’s policies.

Tony Blair, architect of New Labour and former Prime Minister, set out his explanation for the election defeat, and provided the narrative to be followed by his acolytes, in a lecture organised by his Institute for Global Governance a few days after the election. (3) He said that Corbyn was seen by people as “fundamentally opposing what Britain and western countries stand for. He personified politically an idea of random quasi-revolutionary socialism mixing far-left economic policy and deep hostility to western foreign policy”. He went on to say that “the takeover of the Labour Party by the far-left turned it into a glorified protest movement with cult trimmings, utterly incapable of being a credible government.” In conclusion he said that “Labour can keep to the programme of Jeremy Corbyn with a new leader in which case it is finished or it can re-unite the Labour and Liberal traditions”. His lecture traced the political history of the Liberal and Labour Parties from the nineteenth century and lamented the division among “progressives”.

He regaled his audience with New Labour’s attempt to re-unite these traditions and called for this approach to be taken again by the Labour Party. He warned that “Labour can keep to the programme of Jeremy Corbyn with a new leader in which case it is finished” and will need to be replaced by a new party. Blair referred positively to Roy Jenkins in this context. It was Jenkins who led a breakaway from the Labour Party to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP). Having damaged the Labour Party, the SDP eventually folded and with the Liberals formed what is now the Liberal Democrats. He neglected to mention that the defectors from the Labour Party (Chukka Umunna, Luciana Berger etc), who stood in this General Election as Liberal Democrats all failed to win.    

He did mention Brexit but gave a very unconvincing and distorted view of its effect on the result. And, of course, he didn’t refer to the campaign for a second referendum in which he and his former spin-doctor, Alistair Campbell, played a leading role and thus took no responsibility for the undermining and eventual changing of Labour’s position from that of accepting and respecting the 2016 Referendum result.

During the election of the next Labour leader the right-wing will pressurise candidates to adopt a pro-western position in terms of international policy, including support for Israel and following the USA into war; a watering down of the Manifesto commitments on public ownership and taxing the rich; as well as taking a pro-EU position. Keir Starmer and Jess Phillips won’t have a problem in agreeing to that!


The issue of Brexit is not going to go away. The Tory government will now be going into negotiations with the EU to agree a trade deal. Johnson has promised to conclude this within one year. As trade deals can be highly complex, many commentators think this is not doable within that timescale. Perhaps Johnson will be more inclined to keep to the promised timetable than to negotiate a radical trade deal with an intransigent EU. That would mean staying very close to the EU whilst not within it. This may be the best position achievable in the short term acceptable to British ruling circles, whose dominant position has been to remain in the EU.

In terms of the Labour Party, the EU will remain an Achilles heel until such time as the EU is seen for what it is, that is a Eurocentric capitalist organisation which imposes bad deals on developing countries, treats migrants appallingly, engages in war and forces neo-liberal policies on its citizens.

The last number of years have consumed the Labour Party and its members with referenda, elections and internal feuds. The domination of electoralism over campaigning and supporting workers’ struggles within Labour over decades is one of its great weaknesses. However, if struggle were to be lifted against the Tory government’s (and the EU’s) policies then class and political consciousness will develop such that socialist politics would gain many more adherents and activists. Victories can and need to be won and not just in elections.

(1) The election was fought on different ground in Scotland – see separate article, SNP dominates Scotland again by Frieda Park in this issue.

(2) Stroud constituency: Tory gain from Labour. Tory majority 3840 (54.1% voted Remain)


No. of Votes

%age share of Vote

%change from 2017 Election





















(3) Tony Blair lecture:

Blair’s acolytes following his narrative include Lord Andrew Adonis, who said on 29 December, “Corbyn and Corbynism have to be completely eradicated if Labour is to become an electable democratic socialist party”. Peter Mandelson, in an interview with the Financial Times during the Doha Forum on 14 December 2019, said, “the far left programme that was put forward is never going to be supported by enough voters to get us elected. So much is clear and demonstrated.”

Jeremy Corbyn in Nottingham alongside statue of Robin Hood