Great Britain election: Why Labor and Liberals lost

Friday, 13.12.2019
10:05 p.m.

The two parties could hardly be more different. But they have had one thing in common since Thursday night: Labor and the Liberal Democrats are the losers in the House of Commons elections in Britain. The Social Democrats, alongside the conservative Tories one of the kingdom's two major people's parties, had the worst result since 1983, and the number of liberal seats in the lower house almost halved. How did these devastating results come about? And how should it go on now?


It seemed clear in the run-up to the election that Labor would not win this election. Nevertheless, speculation persisted until the very end that the party could set up a minority government if the conservatives also brushed past the absolute majority. This scenario was clearly missed – Labor now holds only 203 out of 650 seats, 42 less than before. The party simply did not have enough to oppose the government in the election campaign. Charlie Beckett, media professor at the London School of Economics, described the former Labor Party during a panel on election night as "catastrophically useless opposition of historic proportions".

Labor's path to failure

More than anything else, Labor is likely to have been harmed by the fact that the party had not clearly positioned itself towards Brexit until the end. Against the party's pressure to position Labor clearly EU-friendly, party leader Jeremy Corbyn held firm to wanting to negotiate a better deal with Brussels. The people should then decide in a new referendum between this new exit contract and the cancellation of Brexit. The idea was basic democratic – but too vague, for both the Brexit supporters and the opponents among the Labor voters.

  The party leader was probably the second most important reason for his failure. Jeremy Corbyn has mobilized many young voters in the past two years and enjoys the status of a left-wing cult figure in parts of the party. On the eve of the election, mainly young people in London queued up to hear him speak, "Oh, Jeremy Corbyn" chants sounded for hours, sung to the melody of the stadium classic "Seven Nation Army".


But for the majority of the British, Corbyn was considered unelectable. The 70-year-old entered the election with the lowest approval ratings of a British opposition leader since the 1970s. This is mainly due to his hard left-wing stance, his previous support for the Irish independence movement – and his inability to apologize for anti-Semitism in his own ranks or to do something about these tendencies within the party. He announced Friday that he did not want to lead the party to the next election.

  The third reason for Labor's failure was the party program: it was so left-wing that even many left-wing parties felt it was too delicate. The move away from the Party's Social Democratic core was ambitious, but not mass enough for a center party that Labor should have asserted itself in this election. The motto "high taxes, extremely high expenditures" now turns out to be a very unwise campaign promise.

  In the election campaign, the full strength of the party should actually have unfolded – as it did before the 2017 election, when Labor caught up massively in the past few weeks and contested the then Prime Minister Theresa May's majority. But instead of scoring close to the citizens, Corbyn's party leadership miscalculated and misused its resources. With a strong focus on the electoral constituencies, she neglected her supposedly safe terrain along the "red wall" in the Midlands and Northern England – and lost several headquarters there to the Tories.

Another party, similar fate


AFP / Paul Ellis
In vain against Brexit: Liberal leader Jo Swinson after she lost her seat


The Liberal Democrats have completely different omens, especially when it comes to their economic program and party leadership. Nevertheless, the party suffered a fate similar to that of Labor: it suffered a severe defeat in the election. With 11 of a total of 650 seats in the lower house, her political influence is almost gone. While the result is little worse than the 2017 election, which gave the party 12 seats, several Labor and Tory MPs have since spilled over to the Liberal Democrats. So the party last got 21 seats and at times profiled itself as a point of contact for parliamentarians who demonstratively wanted to distance themselves from Boris Johnson's tough Brexit course and his controversial actions to dissolve the parliament. Even so, the party lost instead of winning.

  On the one hand, this is due to the party's Brexit course. The Liberal Democrats were the only ones to take decisive action against leaving the EU – which initially gave them great encouragement. At times, around 20 percent of the British could imagine choosing "LibDem". However, party leader Jo Swinson spanned the arc for many when she radicalized her former call for a second referendum and announced that she wanted to abolish Brexit by law instead. Many citizens saw this as patronizing and undemocratic, says Iain Anderson, a political risk assessment advisor in London. These voters overflowed to Boris Johnson after presenting his agreement with the EU.

  In addition, Jo Swinson simply could not keep up with the popularity of her two competitors Johnson and Corbyn. She had only become party leader six months before the election. The failure in her own constituency of East Dunbartonshire must have hit her particularly hard – she lost with only 149 of over 50,000 votes against the nationalist Scottish SNP. Swinson announced her resignation as party leader the day after the election.


Ultimately, however, the Liberal Democrats probably thwarted British electoral law. It does not provide for a second vote and is designed for a two-party system. Choosing a small party like the Liberal Democrats in most cases means giving away your vote. After all, 11.5 percent of the votes are behind the 11 seats of the Liberals – but these only led to 1.7 percent of the seats in parliament.

  In the end, Labor and Liberal Democrats also contested the votes of opponents of Brexit – making conservatives the strongest force in some constituencies. Tactical voting could have prevented that, but it would have required better coordination between the different party leaders. Now she is united in failure.


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