Why UK Labour lost?  Part 8: What it takes to win

The UK Labour Party in the 2019 election assumed that like in 2017, the release of their policy manifesto would see their support increase significantly. Assuming that 2019 would be a re-run of 2017 was a foolish mistake. Also in 2017 Labour was under new leadership, and it was the first time in many years Labour had a manifesto with things like nationalisation and spending increases to reverse austerity cuts. In 2019 everybody knew the manifesto would include these positions.

Labour’s manifesto did help the party increase its vote share and support in 2017. After that election, Labour needed to build on this. It needed to be finding or creating political space to promote policies like re-nationalising rail or saving the NHS. Instead, the political discourse over the last two and a half years has been about Brexit. This was unavoidable and Labour could not prevent this. This forced the party to spend considerable political capital engaging in this fight. Labour found itself in a position where it could not clearly articulate how it would keep its pledge to honour the 2016 referendum result, and provide a credible alternative to the Tories. Further too many in the party actually wanted to stop Brexit, a position Labour hadn’t run on in 2017. All of this meant other issues were given inadequate attention.

Image result for Labour's policy manifesto 2017 popularity
Labour’s 2017 Manifesto had overwhelming support polls showed. 

By the time of the 2019 election, Brexit eclipsed the political landscape once again. Trying to announce new policies in other policy areas was going to be difficult, even if there had been a strong strategy. Labour’s campaign strategy and messaging was not strong. An example of this was the free broadband policy. This was actually an interesting policy and an important debate to have. But the timing to announce this was poor. And the way it was sold to voters was hopeless. The policy came across as a cheap election bribe rather than a coherent policy.

The policy aimed to nationalise broadband and for the government to invest in high speed internet infrastructure in parts of the UK where investment was desperately needed. This policy should have been sold as part of a coherent regional development strategy. Invest in high speed broadband, helping to create business and jobs parts of the country that have been left behind.  Instead of this, the policy was sold as save £20 a month on broadband charges. This policy was launched mid election campaign where there is no time to properly explain or sell it. Thus the policy was reduced to a sound bite making it look like nothing more than an election bribe. Not surprisingly it failed to resonate.

The broadband policy was but one example of this. Labour needed to spend the last couple of years building support for its policies in the community. It needed its core policy message to be central to everything it did over the term of parliament. Policies like the broadband one should be announced mid electoral cycle, and take the time to explain yourself to voters. Instead of complaining about the media misrepresenting the policy, hold national road shows, use social media to explain and promote the policy. And in the process of this, engage with voters and allow supporters to have input into it. This takes time, is resource intense and won’t see a massive poll jolt. But such a process builds trust with voters, and come election time means the policy is clearly understood.

One of the other features of Labour’s campaign was the desire to centrally control the message. 20 years ago this was how you did politics. In the 21st century social media environment this is a) too slow and b) just looks contrived. Social media narratives are crucial for selling policy or ideas. It’s also how negative messaging or trolling works. An offical Labour Party tweet maybe seen by a few thousand followers. A good one maybe retweeted thus seen by a few more thousand.

For a message or hash tag to viral quickly, you need a number of posts or tweets sent with a consistent message and hashtag sent at once. Ideally people who are in different social media echo chambers so as to quickly gain a diverse audience. To do this, requires organisations and individuals to do social media posts. With 600 thousand members Labour was in a great position to own the social media narratives. Labour still tried to engage members and supporters by getting them to share content from the centre, rather than support members to create content themselves. This is a scary concept for those running campaigns. But to win in the 2020’s this is what is required.

Finally, Labour lost the campaign by having too many messages, rather than some core ones. Boris and the Conservatives had get Brexit done. Labour had a long and detailed manifesto. Some of the ideas had been heard before, some were new. But the branding of Labour’s offer to voters was poor. The Party were quick to talk of it as a radical manifesto. Actually most of the policies were  bog standard social democratic positions, common throughout much of Europe. Most voters didn’t read the manifesto. Most Labour Party members still haven’t read it cover to cover. What was needed during the campaign were some key big ticket policies or themes. Instead of talking about being radical, have a simple message about how you will make life better for voters followed by three popular examples. Then have the policy manifesto in the background to provide detail.

During the 2017 election polls showed that voters overwhelmingly backed Labour’s manifesto. This was and still is ground where Labour can win power. But behind this, the party needs an election strategy that properly sells these manifesto positions. In 2019 it was never going to be easy to move the conversation along from Brexit. But a decent strategy to sell its social democratic message was Labour’s best shot.

Previous posts in this series

Why UK Labour Lost? Part 1: Historical Context

Why UK Labour lost? Part 2: UK Labour’s strange loyalty to First Past the Post

Why UK Labour lost? Part 3: Its Brexit Innit

Why UK Labour lost? Part 4: Oooo Jeremy Corbyn

Why UK Labour lost? Part 5: Antisemitism

Why UK Labour lost? Part 6: New Labour and Blairism

Why UK Labour lost? Part 7: Momentum and the Corbynistas

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