Over the weekend after the election I took it upon myself to do some reflection. I’d voted, both in 2015 and 2016, for Corbyn and his new leftist agenda. Being a socialist I thought the manifesto was, in terms of policy, inspiring and thought Corbyn despite his many faults and lacking attributes was an honourable decent man and that this would contrast with Johnson; a lesser man shall we say. But despite my optimism, and in spite of my disgust for a Conservative Party which over the last decade has made the decent and hardworking families of Britain pay for a financial crisis that was a) not caused by them and b) hit them hardest, we lost. Very badly. In fact, let’s put this into perspective: Labour experienced its worst result since 1935, despite austerity and 10 years of conservative government, losing seats like Great Grimsby and Bassetlaw. Places that constitute Labour’s backbone on the electoral map – the so-called ‘Red Wall’. If this doesn’t seem devastating to you then you clearly don’t want a Labour victory – we must embrace how scary this result is in order to sober ourselves up to a point where we can discuss some hard truths and turn this around.
The first question that must be asked is what or who is to blame? I personally don’t subscribe to the Corbynista analysis that it was just Brexit, or the Blairite analysis that it was just Corbyn. This is much bigger than Brexit: our share of the vote in some of these ‘red wall’ constituencies has been depreciating since 2001 and we lost Scotland in 2015 (before Corbyn). In the 41 years since the end of the Labour government back in 1979, Labour has only had 13 years in power compared to the Conservatives who have experienced government 28 of those 41 years. The problem may be even bigger than first appears. For despite the fact that Labour was winning in the 1970s, it wasn’t anything close to the healthy majorities it experienced in the late 1940s and 1960s. The latter 1970s was often characterised not only by hung, Labour-led parliaments but also by glacial policy capitulation to Thatcher’s neoliberal dogma; such capitulation – repressed under Foot for a time – continued in the 1980s with Kinnock. In this sense, we weren’t just losing seats and votes but also the argument on policy and ideology.
The Blairite argument that this is a re-run of the historically bad 1983 election under Foot, which was largely blamed in the aftermath on the left of the Labour Party, is both weak and demonstrates perfectly how ideological dogma can prevent clear, insightful and honest analysis. There are parallels between the two elections, for example the ideology which sits at the helm of the party, the loss is on a similar scale to 1983 and many people found Thatcher in the aftermath of the Falklands War to be strong, patriotic and sensible in contrast to Foot. However, that’s where the parallel lines end. The election of 2019 did not feature a strong centrist party like the SDP-Liberal Alliance splitting the metropolitan and swing seat vote. It’s worth noting that the Alliance got 25.4% of the vote, not far off 27.6% of the vote secured by Labour. The election of 2019 featured the crumbling ‘red wall’ whereas 1983 saw Labour continuing to hold onto those seats, meaning that Kinnock had something vaguely secure to work with post-1983. The next Labour leader will inherit a dissimilar party in which seats previously thought safe are vulnerable, and in which certain demographics that could previously have been counted on as Labour voting are no longer so secure. In 1983, Foot was still far more popular than Corbyn in opinion polls and amongst the electorate. Furthermore, in 2019 there are obvious differences that appear as a result of historical change: modern forms of communication, contemporary technology and an obvious factor being Brexit and the excruciatingly uncomfortable line Labour had to straddle in order to reconcile its metropolitan and its suburban/town dwelling voters. A task it monumentally failed at. To add another problem into the mix, Labour’s huge loss here in Britain is the latest in a long line of traditional working class parties across the West that have fallen to the ascent of the right in relatively recent elections: the Socialists in France, Pasok in Greece, the Social Democrats in Germany, the Democrats in the United States to name but a few. The scale of defeat is global, which is in its own way quite worrying. It demonstrates, also, how internalised and lacklustre arguments made by many commentating on Labour’s electoral defeat are. The dominant narratives on Labour’s defeat are weak and often rooted in dogma. This begs the question: what actually caused Labour’s defeat?
This is a defeat that we must analyse forensically if we want a shot of winning again. It’s been established that this form of defeat has been on the cards and increasingly likely since the 1960s which means this is a long term problem deeply embedded in the Party and its relationship with the people it claims it represents. The honest answer is that there are many reasons for Labour’s defeat in 2019. But there are four main reasons for the defeat: the politics of presentation, the leadership (rightly or wrongly), factional infighting and the big-one – which arguably all the others stem from in lots of ways – the ‘culture war’. Let’s begin with this one because as I suggested the others stem in lots of ways from the ongoing ‘culture war’ not just in Britain and not just in 2019 but across the west and since the 1970s. Firstly, I implore anyone who wants to understand the deep political problems being felt across the West in relation to populism of the right, divided electorates and the rise of nationalism to read Matthew Goodwin and Roger Eatwell’s book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. It’s a book drenched in honest truths and deep insight into the war the left is fighting right now and what we must face up to if we want to win again.
The Labour Party was built to serve the interests of the traditional, town-dwelling working class. This is a simple fact. It obviously also relies upon the metropolitan intellectual classes to vote for it as well in order to secure a broad coalition of seats. Often these two groups of people shared the same desire for the country: social justice and an end to the cold grip of the Liberal and Conservative parties. These two groups of people, in a generalised sense, have very different cultural norms and identities. So for example, metropolitan intellectuals value ideas such as society and multiculturalism whereas the town-dwelling working class values ideas such as community and patriotism much more. The language these two groups often speak in is often worlds apart and desires in economic policy are often motivated by different things – the metropolitan intellectuals are often motivated by socialist or ideological economic policy and town-dwelling workers are often motivated by communitarian interests. In essence, since Labour started to mop up vast amounts of the Liberal vote in the 1920s and 1930s, it has had to reconcile two groups who agree vastly on the economy in relation to good public services, moderate redistribution of wealth, workers rights, security at work; but who disagree on cultural issues such as the role of family, the constitution and cohesion of communities and society but also on Britain’s place in the world. These two groups can be reconciled if the narrative is good enough to provoke interest from both sets of people and the policy platform finds some middle ground between the two. This cultural divide could be found in 2019: policies on immigration, the perceived lack of patriotism, the perceived anti-western foreign policy, the culture of divisive identity politics, our Brexit policy which it’s safe to say was a spit in the face of town-dwelling traditional workers who voted for Brexit to name a few. Further problems arise when these people, legitimately, raise concerns about immigration or about sovereignty and some decry them as racists or fascists. Its as if the meaning or gravity of these words has been forgotten. The demography of the party membership is also important. Our party, from the wider membership to the leadership, is dominated by the urban middle-class with the town-dwelling working class seemingly an endangered species. The language of the party in a wider sense is very urban based, very middle class orientated – talking about the toils of the working class rather than listening to them and talking for them. The campaign essentially said it’s obvious that these policies are good for us without explanation as to why and without integration into a stimulating narrative.
In essence, what has occurred is that since the 1970s is that the work done by the Labour Party of 1945 to reconcile these two groups in the aftermath of the war has been undermined by the diminishing role of trade unions, the lack of working class involvement in the Labour movement and the party taking heartland votes for granted (the phrase “you could put a donkey up with a red ribbon and it would still win” springs to mind) and then the shift in policy in the 1990s under New Labour. All of which has deepened our ties with metropolitan intellectuals and urban areas but has corroded the allegedly unbreakable link between the party of labour and the labourers themselves. It is not inevitable that the working class will vote for the party that is on the left of politics. It is inevitable, however, that if we don’t understand that we are a party of labour and not primarily of socialism that we are doomed to die.
This then leads to the other main factors in the defeat. Firstly, factional infighting must stop. Part of the genius of the Labour Party is that its broad church means that it can bridge this culture gap when it comes to policy. I am a socialist, but the Labour party isn’t, and neither is it a Liberal party. The two factions of the party that have held the leadership since 1994, the Corbynistas and the Blairites, battling one another along with the rest of the party is a major part of what has caused defeat. A party divided is a party that loses. Such a statement is defended purely by history. Secondly, whether you like Corbyn or not, he was a problem on the doorstep. The current polling suggests that he was the most unpopular post-war Labour leader. There is obviously as discussion to be had over the media as there was a vendetta by the media against Corbyn and the vilification and the abuse was and is appalling. We must obviously discuss party policy with regards to the media and the democratisation and regulation of it. However, media vendettas against Labour leaders is nothing new and is to be expected when press ownership is dominated by right wing, multi-millionaires. The unfortunate truth is that rightly or wrongly Corbyn’s perceived links with questionable organisations, his lack of charisma, his inability to communicate with voters north of Islington and outside of cities and the constant bumbling by the leadership as a whole over the anti-semitism problems in the party were a major part of the party’s electoral drubbing.
Finally, the last main factor that affected Labour’s defeat was the politics of presentation. The Labour party is good at developing policy but we are currently not very good at communicating it. We don’t play politics well on the left and it shows. Part of the Conservative success is that they chose 5 policy points to focus on, left the manifesto short and vague and repeated the message again and again. Get Brexit done, and then unleash the country’s potential by investing in the NHS, infrastructure, policing and by limiting immigration. Whether these arguments are bullshit doesn’t matter in this discussion, what matters is were they well-liked as well as effective and yes they were. They had a planned and thought through campaign. They managed the line between too many media appearances and too few really well. They married perfectly their narrative with a sense of community empowerment, patriotism and aspiration. They spoke about bread and butter issues: good education, good healthcare and more police so that we can make our country healthier, safer and an opportunistic place to live. Don’t worry, I know most of their pledges smell of crap and are hollow but that’s not the point. The point is that the communication and the presentation was effective and vote winning. Imagine what the Labour Party could do if it can marry the politics of presentation with brilliant policies brought about since 2015. This is something it didn’t do in 2019. The campaign was rubbish, messages were conflicting and not precise in the slightest, there were too many policies and some of them dropped in at the last minute. There was no strategy and if there was it was weak and changed throughout the course of the campaign several times. There were too many media appearances and the manifesto was so detailed that it meant that scrutiny was too easy.
Though depressing, this defeat has given us a second chance. We still hold onto much of the ‘red wall’, many of the urban areas remain Labour, Wales remains predominantly Labour and the general direction of policy is promising in a plethora of ways. Labour must change though if it is to win. For those who consider Corbyn’s legacy to be the potential first step in the death of the Labour Party all I wish to say is you’re wrong. The party, knowingly or accidentally, has been placed firmly on the road to revival by the Corbynistas. This sounds silly after emphasising the epic scale of defeat in 2019, but stick with me on this one. The second question, and one that must be answered in part based on a strong and honest analysis of defeat, is how do we fix this? To answer we must look at the one that started them all. The 1945 election is as perfect as an election can get for Labour. Activists past and present look at it as the golden age of the party. The height of its power in which it not only won a remarkable election victory against the iconic Winston Churchill but it also forged the post-war consensus, some of which remains now; the NHS is the obvious example. What did they get so right back then to bridge the divides present in the culture war, to suggest a radical transformation of Britain and to do it despite the historically poor performance of Labour in government during the 1920s and 1930s? The answer is simple, it married radical policy with the politics of presentation whilst bridging the culture gap. Labour managed to channel the sense of national unity found in the war, and characterise their election message in one phrase: “the new jerusalem”. The manifesto is short but outlines the spirit of policy but more importantly it tells a story. The story is of a nation coming to the end of a horrific war and one that is at a crucial point in its history, does it decide to share the fruits of peace and ensure every man, woman, boy and girl has an opportunity to do well in life without fear of poverty, ill-health or poor quality of work or does it decide that the interests that created the mass unemployment, insecure work and whose failures led to war a chance to continue such a program after victory is won. It’s a powerful message, and one that is not steeped in dogma or ideology but in the advancement of communities, working people and the interests of the nation. Its patriotic, empowering and aspirational. One that sounds common sense but is truly a radical step in a different direction.
Let’s bring that back to today. The Corbynistas have done the first part of our two part revival. They brought us back to a radical policy position. This is a truly important step. The second part it that the Party must hold onto this radical policy but marry it with the politics of presentation and bridge the culture gap. The party needs to develop a manifesto that contains radical policies – not too many as to make a shopping list but enough to support our narrative – and then create a narrative surrounding the Party, the manifesto and the leader of a patriotic, communitarian, empowering program for government carried out by people of confidence and competence. Our policies need to reflect the priorities of those who vote for us. I don’t go down the pub and hear people talking about socialism and redistribution of wealth, I hear discussions about hospitals, crime and schools. We need to align ourselves with our voters’ priorities. We may value socialism but they don’t, they value a decent standard of living and good public services are a part of that. We surely owe it them after 10 years of Conservative government and austerity to make this change so we can win for them and defend their interests.
Labour can revive Britain but first it must revive itself. It started with Corbyn, it continues with an acknowledgement and analysis of our defeat and it ends with an acceptance of a new political culture in which we speak for people, in a language they understand, promoting the priorities they have. We have to face up to some hard truths that won’t be easy to swallow and the changes won’t be easy to make. But we must and need to build our own “new jerusalem” in 2024. To do this we must remember we are a party of Labour, so lets act like the party of Labour.
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Cover photo credit: HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY/HEATHCLIFF O’MALLEY