Nick Wright argues that the new centrist analysis of the party’s last election disaster raises more problems than it solves — and the answers to those questions are anything but a rush back towards administering neoliberalism. This article first appeared in the Morning Star.
Labour Together’s analysis of why and how Labour lost the 2019 election — labourtogether.uk/review — contains much useful information but is a polite fiction designed to allow Labour politics to stumble along untroubled by a clear-eyed view of the principal cause of that defeat
It presents some awkward truths. The main conclusions are that the Tories were more successful in turning out non-voters; that only in London did Labour’s vote hold up, and that the main turn-offs for voters were the leadership, Labour’s Brexit positioning and a manifesto perceived as undeliverable.
Each of these conclusions contains a kernel of truth and corresponds with doorstep experiences.
Where the report is on uncontested ground is in the conclusion that the demographic expression of Labour’s declined working-class base stretches back decades.
There is a note of realism in the report that resonates for all tendencies who look to Labour, both those who see Labour’s political project as the gradual amelioration of conditions by piecemeal (or even radical) reform — and those who are essentially comfortable with the neoliberal economic order and ground their expectations in an accommodation with big business and the banks.
For the tendency in the labour and socialist movement that sees parliamentary politics as but one aspect of the historic role of the working class to win power for itself — and shape the state and the economy in it own class interests — the report is an elaborate evasion of reality.
There is broad consensus in that a new leader being elected and Brexit being “done” are not solutions to the long-standing problems Labour has in constructing an electoral appeal to the changing demographics of 21st century Britain.
Accounts of the weaknesses in strategy, organisation and campaigning infrastructure revealed during the 2019 election campaign resonate with the almost all who have practical insight into these.
But the report fails the basic test of political honesty by not tackling the political, organisational and ideological roots of these failures, misfirings and malfunctions.
It cannot do this because it is predicated on the assumption that Labour is “Together.”
This is not even a polite fiction. It is a nonsensical inversion of the truth.
Labour was beaten because it was divided and the electorate had no confidence that it could provide a coherent government. In the 2019 general election Labour, with 10,269,051, votes got fractionally under a third of the votes cast (32.1 per cent). Two years earlier it took 12,878,460 (40 per cent) gaining 30 seats with its highest vote share since 2001 .
It was the first time the party had gained seats in nearly three decades under Blair, Brown and Miliband.
What had changed? In 2017, the party was led by man who owed his position as leader to an unprecedented outpouring of affection and enthusiasm for his transparent honesty, long-standing anti-war stand and an energetic anti-racism fused with an anti-imperialist understanding.
The rapper Akala backed Labour with this insight: “So why will I be voting now? Jeremy Corbyn. It’s not that I am naive enough to believe that one man (who is, of course, powerless without the people that support him) can fundamentally alter the nature of British politics, or that I think that if Labour wins that the UK will suddenly reflect his personal political convictions, or even that I believe that the prime minister actually runs the country.
“However for the first time in my adult life and perhaps for the first time in British history, someone I would consider to be a fundamentally decent human being has a chance of being elected.”
Despite repeated attempts by the party’s big-business-backed right wing, a majority of the parliamentary party and a media campaign of unprecedented hostility to remove Corbyn as leader – and direct sabotage by leading elements in the party bureaucracy – the party won the largest increase in votes in many a year and eroded a 20-point Tory lead to the point where the governing party lost its majority.
If that stilled many of Corbyn’s critics for a while it did not end the intrigues and conspiracies, as the leaked report into the handling of anti-Semitism allegations shows.
For a while Corbyn held an advantage and the principal reason why these people — the personification of capital in the Labour movement — were temporarily silenced was because the credibility of their political approach was in ruins.
So what happened between 2017 and 2019 for Labour to lose its momentum?
Labour entered the 2017 campaign not expecting to win and with the party machine covertly fixated on allocating resources to protect the PLP right wing. It was the renewed party membership, substantially mobilised by the leadership and its constituency, trade-union and Momentum supporters, that transformed a defensive campaign into an headlong advance.
The Tory campaign was so inept that its media advantage was markedly less effective than usual but this was, to a certain extent, compensated for by the perverse polarising effect of Labour’s challenging policies. This, and Brexit, were factors in galvanising the Tory vote which went up 5.5 per cent, mostly at the expense of UKIP.
Labour’s vote rose by 9.6 per cent, some of which was Labour support returning from its UKIP day-trip. In Scotland the SNP lost 21 seats across the board to other parties, with Labour regaining six.
Because Labour entered the 2017 election committed to respect the Brexit referendum result it was able to appeal to a very wide constituency that — whether it voted Leave or Remain — understood the vote as a democratic mandate.
This killed UKIP as threat to Labour in seats where Brexit had mobilised sections of the working class which had long been outside electoral politics but saw their vote in the referendum as an expression of their class interests and which, for many, chimed with the radically redistributive aspects of Labour’s manifesto.
This is where the general effect of Labour’s fatal abandonment of its principled position over Brexit, was most concentrated, where the Brexit Party gained a strategic wedge of votes, where the Red Wall collapsed and where the Tories were able to mobilise people who don’t usually vote.
In these key seats, as in Scotland, the margin of votes between Labour and its opponents is quite small. Where Labour Together is right is in identifying these as places where Labour’s decline has been as rooted in the past as in immediately contemporary events.
This past is of de-industrialisation, job and skills loss and the magnified effects of public spending cuts, PFI and privatisation.
These are places where the neo-liberal New Labour, Tory and Lib Dem consensus in favour of big business and the banks commands very little support and where the marginal benefits of Britain’s financialised economy do not reach.
In 2017 Labour challenged this consensus. In 2019, critically over Brexit, Labour had abandoned its democratic credentials. Labour had lost trust and its manifesto, in some ways more radical than in 2017, could not gain traction because the Tories had Get Brexit Done as a message which, in places where it mattered, was decisive.
By 2019 the mood among Labour activists was markedly different. One former parliamentary candidate remarked: “The difference was palpable in the atmosphere among the party members — new and old. Where there had been enthusiasm, there was lethargy and fatalism.”
There is a real sense that the way in which the manifesto was rolled out gave the impression that it was designed to aggregate special-interest groups in order to create an electorally successful bloc of voters.
But the policies — which were seen as credible and realisable in 2017 — did not constitute a coherent whole while the decisive question was Brexit and the issue was trust.
Starmer was not the only person in Labour’s shadow cabinet who made the subversion of conference policy on Brexit a personal political project, but he was the strategic brain who allowed others, like Blair’s mendacious mouthpiece Alistair Campbell and the poisonous People’s Vote campaign, to do the heavy lifting.
The issue that came up for me on the knocker — from a retired Kent miner who had voted Labour all his life — was simply: “If we can’t trust you to keep your promise on Brexit how can we trust you on anything else.” And this from a man who was enthusiastic about the manifesto.
The perverse paradox is that in the Covid-19 crisis a Tory government has spent the kind of money that, in the hands of a socialist ministry, would reconstitute the welfare state, guarantee employment and training, finance the NHS and transform the education system into a fast track to improved life chances for millions. And that would be before cancelling Trident or building a single council house.
Corbyn’s unpopularity was a real factor in the election. Even if we take the media hostility and red-baiting as routine, the question is how such a transparently confected yet, in a short period, so electorally effective smear could work.
This is a question that Labour Together cannot analyse without a forensic examination of the evidence that much of the anti-Semitism issue was confected, magnified by the media or compounded by malign elements in the party apparatus.
Where clear evidence of this exists, in part in the leaked report, it has been suppressed. The campaign to brand Corbyn an anti-Semite has very little connection to the real problem of the kind of routine anti-Semitism that exists throughout British society and everything to do with an Israeli-government-sponsored campaign to destroy the prospect of Number Ten being occupied by a man who takes UN resolutions about Palestine seriously.
Labour’s anti-semitism problem evaporated the moment Jeremy Corbyn resigned as leader and it won’t regain its characteristic toxicity until another serious socialist emerges as prospective Labour leader. It was designed to erode Corbyn’s moral stature and, to the extent that anti-semitism was not dealt with where present or repudiated where it was obviously confected, it was damaging.
Labour is changed by the last three years. It is instructive that no one could get elected leader by openly repudiating Labour’s redistributive policies, and this process is only succeeding by dividing and weakening the left and eroding its influence in the membership and trade unions. Active measure by all kinds of actors are in play to achieve this.
Labour’s new style is to stay silent on the radical policies which it pioneered over the last years. This abandonment of the contested ground in which class politics is conducted in effect concedes this ground to the class enemy.