As part of a series of opinion pieces on the election result, Heather Parry argues that it wasn't socialist policies but the view that Labour was ignoring voters that cost them the election
It took a matter of hours for both the centre-left voices within Labour and the pundit class to start pontificating about the failure of ‘the Corbyn Project’ after the election results rolled in on December 13th, giving two supposed reasons for the party’s inability to beat Boris Johnson’s Brexit-promising Conservatives: that voters supposedly distrusted the Labour manifesto, or that Corbyn himself was simply ‘unelectable’.
It should perhaps have been obvious that the media, having spent the last four years engaging in a public annihilation of Jeremy Corbyn’s reputation, would immediately try and inoculate itself from any possible shouldering of the blame, as if we have not all lived through this period and heard and seen this very media blitz in real time. Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on our memories; Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture (CRCC) have collated and analysed news coverage of the election campaign and, beyond this, of the media’s treatment of our dominant political parties overall.
Their report from the first week of the formal election campaign shows, in their own words, that “Labour had a substantial deficit of positive to negative news reports”. In visual form, this is even starker:
Rather than turn attention towards this, which can at best be termed undemocratic, corporate media pundits have focused their takes on Labour’s huge and unprecedented losses in the North of England, claiming that the party’s move towards socialism and away from neoliberalism is somehow anathema to Northern voters. Ignoring for a moment the extent to which the media and Conservative party campaign literature has spread misinformation about the manifesto (it was only last year that Newsnight projected a mockup of the Labour leader against a red ‘Moscow’ background with Soviet design, the obvious implication being that Corbyn was one of those ‘filthy Communists’ plunging the UK towards a cold, grim future), it should be clear that this is simply not the case; in Preston, the local Labour council has revitalised the area with socialist policies of community wealth building—and the area held strongly Labour in this election.
In my hometown constituency, the Labour MP John Healey, who has been member of Parliament for Wentworth and Dearne since 1997, held onto his position—but only by a hair, losing almost 25% of his vote share since the 2017 election. It is incorrect to say the people of Wath and Dearne rejected Labour’s vision, which has remained the same since 2017; many in that area will tell you, rather, that they felt their vote in favour of Brexit was being ignored by Labour’s second referendum policy. The constituency’s EU referendum vote was 70% Leave.
As a country, we’ve as yet failed to untangle the myriad reasons people voted for Brexit three years ago—but in parts of the de-industrialised north, which have never recovered economically since the 1980s, there is a growing weariness with both parties, a sense that neither New Labour, the Conservatives nor the coalition really did anything for them. At the end of the New Labour years, the number of people suffering deprivation in Rotherham, where I’m from, went up by 50% in four years; the lack of any political drive to bring new industry and worthwhile, well-paying jobs to these areas has brought with it a political malaise.
As Jack Shenker reported from Crewe and Nantwich, a constituency which also turned blue from red:
“At this election, the two major parties have very different visions of how to deal with the legacy of de-industrialisation and late capitalism’s intense regional inequalities, and the ideological gulf between them is enormous. Yet many of those same voters dismiss [Labour campaigners] with a weary refrain of ‘they’re all the same’ or ‘I want nothing to do with it.’’
Combine a failure on the part of New Labour to fundamentally revitalise these areas, or even to improve the fortunes of many living there, with an anti-Corbynite-Labour media onslaught and a 2016 pro-Brexit campaign that, at the very least, promised to fund the NHS to the tune of £18 billion a year (a promise quickly rescinded) and overhaul how the country is run (for better or worse), and you have a culture from which this election’s results, in the North at least, become a little clearer. Whether or not many voters in Yorkshire truly believe Brexit is the panacea it is painted as, it was at least a new option—when the others have failed to produce change, for them, for almost 40 years.
The post-election regrouping has begun, and it’s been heartening to see so many people recognise that however much voters want socialist policies, a neoliberal media will never allow it. So we must build on a grassroots level, listening to our communities and building these policies around what they need. We must go around the systems in place, because they will not allow what is needed.
As we go forward too we must remember that ‘the Corbyn project’ is not a cult of personality; it is a genuine passion, across the country, for socialist economic policies that have been shown to work incredibly well in parts of the de-industrialised north already. Of course, socialism poses a threat to the neoliberal mainstream, so we should not be surprised that it has been repackaged as a movement around one person alone; this way, it is much easier to dispense with.
I strongly hope that a grassroots, community-led movement can rise from the ashes of this election and that voters in the North, whose lives are likely to be made much harder thanks to Boris Johnson's Brexit, will see that there is, in fact, another way forward—one that brings communities together, giving them more power over their future.
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