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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images Jeremy Corbyn arriving for the count at Sobell Leisure Centre for the Islington North.
uk election 19

How did it all go wrong for Jeremy Corbyn?

Labour looks set for a historic defeat in the general election.

THE UK ELECTION result looks set to be the worst night for the Labour party this century and is likely to herald the end of the Jeremy Corbyn era. 

The exit poll, released at 10pm on Thursday night, suggests that the party’s Brexit strategy has failed miserably, with Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party predicted to gain a large majority. 

Speaking on the BBC, shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally John McDonnell called the result “extremely disappointing”.

As for Corbyn himself, speaking after his re-election in Islington, he signalled that he would step aside after a “process of reflection” – not quite a resignation but an indication that his leadership is coming to an end soon. 

Ahead of the election, the focus had been on the ‘red wall’, a block of seats across the north of England that were traditionally Labour but largely voted Leave in 2016 – and whether voters could be tempted to vote Conservative.

While not all results are in, it does seem that Boris Johnson, with his none-too-subtle message of Get Brexit Done, has successfully breached that Labour wall. 

The projected results – the worst for Labour since 1935 – suggest that Corbyn will be forced to resign, setting up a battle for the future direction of the party. 

The rise and fall of Corbyn

Corbyn, a left-wing backbencher who has represented Islington North in London since 1983, was elected as leader of the party in 2015 on a surge of grassroots activism that rejected the New Labour tagline of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years. 

It was a shift from ‘third way’ politics that few expected. For some Labour members, it was a long-awaited renaissance, while for many Blairites it was a fundamentally misguided mistake. 

After surviving an attempt to remove him as leader, Corbyn headed into the 2017 general election with the polls suggesting his prospects were poor.

He didn’t win, but he also didn’t suffer the humiliating defeat many predicted.

Instead Labour won 40% of the vote and managed to deprive Theresa May of a majority.

There were hopes that the party would do one better this time and return to government for the first time since 2010. 

However, as 12 December drew nearer, it soon became clear that the chances of a Labour majority were falling fast. 

The Corbynmania of 2017 seemed to have largely dissipated, while the polls consistently predicted that the Conservatives would emerge yet again as the largest party.

The coming days will bring more analysis and discussion of what exactly went wrong, but even in the hours since the exit poll data was released, all indications suggest that the Labour’s Brexit gambit failed to pay off. 

So what was that gambit and how did the party get it so badly wrong?

Labour had been hoping that a comprehensive, costed manifesto would win over voters. From promises of a ‘green new deal’ to a reinvigorated NHS, Corbyn had tried to fight the election on his party’s strengths, as opposed to Brexit.

But the challenge for the party was to satisfy two key constituencies – the young, urban voters who largely voted to remain and supported Corbyn personally, and the older working class communities in the north of England that voted to back Leave. 

Blythe Valley, one of the earliest seats to declare a result, seemed to represent the nature of Labour’s problem. A forming mining community that had never elected a Tory candidate, tonight it flipped to hand the party a majority of several thousand. 

Later, Workington – a key target Leave-voting Labour seat – fell as feared to the Tories. 

Since 2016, the quandry had been clear, with both sides of the party trying to force Labour to adopt a clear position on an issue that had split the country. 

Slowly, and against the better judgement of some more radical activists, the party shifted towards a more explicitly Remain position, going as far to promise a second referendum on a new Labour deal with the EU.

“We must fight with every fibre of our beings to say between now and 31 October, and afterwards if there is a general election, that any terms of departure, from any government, must go back to the British public for the final say,” Labour’s foreign affairs spokeswoman Emily Thornberry told her party conference back in September

Still, Corbyn’s own opinion remained under scrutiny. Never a natural Europhile and indeed more of a EU sceptic, the Labour leader had promised to take a neutral stance in any future referendum. 

scottish-labour-conference-2015 PA Archive / PA Images Corbyn during happier times in 2015. PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

It was an ambivalence his opponents had seized on and in recent weeks Corbyn had fixed on a soundbite to defend his position. 

Repeatedly, he said that “the country has to come together”.

Tonight’s exit poll suggests that voters didn’t buy it.  

Not just Brexit

Tonight, Corbyn and his allies were quick to blame Brexit. 

Brexit, he said, “has contributed to the result the Labour party has received across this country”. 

Still, he remained defiant: “The fundamental Labour message, about justice and equality in our society, will be there for all time.”

However, some MPs and candidates instead viewed Corbyn himself as the problem. 

Scottish Labour MP Ian Murray tweeted on Thursday evening:

Every door I knocked on, and my team and I spoke to 11,000 people, mentioned Corbyn. Not Brexit but Corbyn. I’ve been saying this for years. The outcome is that we’ve let the country down and we must change course and fast.

Gareth Snell, a sitting MP admitted live on the BBC that he would lose his seat – and suggested that Corbyn and O’Donnell should go. 

His opponents have said the same. Former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne tonight called Corbyn the “handmaiden to a Boris Johnson landslide”. 

Certainly, it was a difficult election for Corbyn. Accusations of anti-semitism and a sluggish response to the issue had dogged the Labour leadership for months, while the drumbeat of Brexit made it difficult for the party’s messages on the NHS and nationalisation to cut through. 

More recently, Johnson had accused Corbyn of supporting the IRA – a claim that could have potentially cut through with voters.

Not just Corbyn?

While Corbyn and his leadership team will no doubt receive the major share of the blame, it’s also a fact that the ‘red wall’ was wobbling well before 2015. 

Ahead of the election, Guardian journalist John Harris travelled across the UK talking to voters. 

“Once a culture of industry, trade unionism and reflex Labour-voting had started to wane, people in post-industrial England felt increasingly cut off from politics,” he wrote at the start of December. 

Now, the party will have to make a choice – whether to ditch Corbyn or Corbynism in general. And the option they’ll choose is not immediately clear. 

With reporting from Press Association

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