There are many lessons to draw from the election but the Labour right will try and obscure these core questions in the coming weeks, argues David Moyles
Clearly the results last Thursday were devastating. Not only because we had an opportunity to achieve genuine change but also because we know how much worse life is, how much worse it will get, under the Tories. And of course, because time is running out on climate change. Maybe not the end of the world, but certainly a critical contributing factor to the end of the world.
The question now is where next? These notes are intended as a contribution to the debate on where next for the Labour Party and, in particular, the debate on leadership.
In particular I intend to argue:
Firstly, we lost because of a failure to distance ourselves from the establishment not because we were too anti-establishment. On Brexit and Scotland, the Labour leadership backed the establishment. The manifesto failed to highlight the key, provocative, ways in which we would challenge it.
Secondly, there is a fundamental divide in society between those who want to protect the status quo and those who want to challenge it. That divide runs through the middle of the Labour Party and it is the people on the other side of it who forced us into the compromise positions that lost the election. Therefore, we should not see this as a friendly debate; it is a battle for the survival of an anti-establishment voice at the heart of mainstream British politics.
Thirdly, those in the Labour Party who want to resist radical change will attempt to create a false dichotomy between the metropolitan left and the ‘northern working class’. They will tell us we must choose between the two Rs, Remain or Racism. The only path to winning an election in the future is to resist this dichotomy.
I should add that a strong extra parliamentary left - necessary anyway to oppose Johnson over the next five years - can only help to boost those arguing for the right direction in the Labour Party - just as it provided the raw materials for the Corbynite swing in the first place. Moreover, involvement in such a movement is the only way to maintain the enthusiasm and engagement shown by tens of thousands through this election campaign.
1We did not appear to offer radical change to the right people
This may seem like a bizarre claim given our manifesto and given the thousands of radicals enthusiastically mobilising for it.
But to the disengaged, disenfranchised and left-behind in towns particularly in the north of England, we appeared to be propping up the establishment not tearing it down. These people had (rightly or wrongly) seen Brexit as a chance to change the status quo for the better. For the first time in a long time something in national politics - the referendum- went their way and against the establishment. We went into the 2017 election promising to respect that result. In 2019 we did not. We catastrophically underestimated the extent to which Boris looked like he would get Brexit done (we all know there will be years of trade negotiations etc but compared to a second referendum his policy seemed to respect democracy more.
How tragic to watch first time Tory voters from Blyth tell Sky News they voted because they ‘wanted change’. In 2017 Corbyn had been a breath of fresh air and an honest straight-talking non-politician. In 2019 - thanks to the push from the people’s vote campaign and the failure to push back - the right and the media could successfully cast him as a fumbling u-turning defender of the Westminster / Brussels status quo.
In Scotland too the near wipe out is a result of our opposition to an insurgent demand for change. Here the wipe out began in 2015, the election after indyref. A right-wing labour leadership defended the union and looked like Tories-lite.
We do also have to be honest about the manifesto. If on Scotland and Europe we caved to the right, on the manifesto we suffered from the limitations of the social democratic politics of some on our side. It was packed full of great policies but it wasn’t spun together in a way that presented a clear inspiring vision for transformation.
Nationalising electricity has widespread support and is sensible but hardly sends sparks flying. What would the sum total effect of better transport, green investment, free education etc be for a northern town? A politics rooted in the idea of better stewardship of the state and economy is more comfortable with policy than with vision. We got glimpses. Giving 10% of companies to workers; a green industrial revolution; end billionaires and homelessness. The politically engaged got the vision. - and many were massively enthused by it. But the election campaign, the policy grid and the spin seemed at times to be more concerned with sensible policies than with rocking the boat too much. I honestly can’t remember what Labour’s NHS policy was but I do remember that Boris promised 50,000 nurses. This is not a gripe with the manifesto but with how key figures chose to communicate it.
On key issues and at key moments people around the leadership compromised with - or tried to avoid upsetting - the right who were baying for Corbyn’s blood; on the people’s vote campaign, on Scotland, on our vision. It is this that cost us electorally, not our opposition to neoliberalism and war, and not our ability to motivate thousands of people, mainly young, in a way no previous election campaign has ever been able to.
2The debate about where next is not just a friendly disagreement
The Labour Party has always contained both those who would seek to manage capitalism better and those who would seek to destroy it. For most of its history it has been run by the former, albeit with a view to making it work better for ordinary people where possible. For much of its recent history the attempt to make things better for ordinary people was abandoned. In general, when the right won positions in the Labour Party, the left, having nowhere to go, “respected party democracy”. When the left won positions or policy victories, however, all hell would break loose. This pattern has repeated itself through debates around nuclear disarmament in the 50s to the SDP break from Labour in the 80s, through to the present day.
This pattern is no coincidence, it is rooted in the fact that the divide in British society, the divide between those who seek to bolster the establishment and those who seek to counter it, is a divide that runs not down the middle of parliament but straight through the Labour Party. At times (e.g. under Blair) the left part of the party was barely visible, at other times it has led the party. But the right has always sought to limit its influence (while capturing votes it can mobilise or motivate).
In the coming debate nobody (except maybe Jess Phillips) will come out and say that everything Corbyn did was rubbish, that Momentum should be expelled. They’ll say that we need to be more electable. They’ll say that the best way to stop the Tories is to win elections. They’ll bide their time. But have no doubt they will seek to destroy the left. They deeply resented having a voice of genuine opposition at the top table and will do all they can to eliminate it.
Why point this out? Isn’t this unnecessarily confrontational? No. Because if we don’t organise to fight for our side it doesn’t mean there is no fight it just means we will lose. Because otherwise thousands of enthusiastic activists will get drawn into a ‘conversation’ about what went wrong and duped into backing those who would systematically reverse all the progress the left has made in labour in the last few years.
We should be in no doubt, when they say Corbyn was to blame for the defeat they don’t mean we should have a slightly more engaging speaker or someone better at rhetoric or with an ‘aura of competence’ (read posh). They mean we should abandon anti-imperialism in general and Palestine in particular (forget that the Iraq war was immensely unpopular and resulted in the haemorrhaging of millions of votes including to UKIP). When they say the manifesto was to blame, they are not talking about spin or how we pulled it together into a vision, they are saying that voters will never vote for radical social democracy, that we mustn’t present a vision of change (forget that the policies were popular and that there is an immense desire for change destabilising centrist politics across the western world)
3We should resist the false choice between the two Rs, Remain and Racism
We will be told we face a choice between the metropolitan left and the northern working class. That one cannot be progressive on issues of race or sexuality or climate change while appealing to the left behind from the former industrial north. As though young city dwellers in precarious jobs with poor housing don’t care about economic issues. And as though white manual workers are incapable of thinking about global justice.
There have always been those who have pushed labour in this direction, from ‘British jobs for British workers’ to arguments over whether the anti-fascist movement could be anti-racist to blue labour to the immigration mug. The kernel of truth this time is of course that we should not have told 17m people they were too stupid to have their referendum result count. But respecting the referendum result is hardly the same as a blue labour family values anti-immigrant agenda. There is zero evidence that we can’t appeal to both young metropolitan radicals and workers from small (ex-)industrial towns. There is plenty of evidence (immigration mug) that abandoning socially progressive types leads to an uninspiring campaign that can’t mobilise.
Marxism itself arose from a fusion between radical intellectuals and the working-class movement. History shows that progressive movements are stronger when they unite these forces and weaker when we imagine we have to choose between the two.
We can already see the choice presenting itself. ‘Will you accept Corbyn was just too radical for these ordinary, decent, hard-working folk?’ ‘What will you do to stop Boris Johnson’s cliff edge when transitional arrangements run out?’ ‘We don’t want the votes of racist OAPs anyway’ etc.
A radical Labour Party would slice this Gordian Knot by emphasising the real transformational change - across the whole country - offered by the policies developed over the past few years without kowtowing to the Remain establishment.
The above is a view on how a Labour Party could continue to capture the radical imagination of thousands of activists while winning an election. Is that Labour Party this Labour Party? Maybe not. Viewed historically the election of Corbyn looks like an unexpected fluke. None of the potential replacements has played his role in extra parliamentary movements (partly a product of their relative youth) or is as rock solid as him on all the key political questions. All are more a part of the Labour Party bureaucracy.
But it would undoubtedly be a good thing if Labour did not lurch back to the right, if it continued to offer a transformational agenda and if it did win the next election.
All of this will be less likely if activists misunderstand the lessons of this election. And all of it will be more likely if there’s a strong movement against all the worst things that Boris does. That movement will not come just from branch committee meetings but will be built by activists within and beyond labour, focused on more than internal machinations. That movement can provide additional backbone to any new leader and an additional barrier to anyone trying to push labour back to the centre. The extra parliamentary movement played an essential role in creating Corbyn, it will need to play an essential role in sustaining Corbynism.