John Rees looks at what was lost and how to win again
Let’s take a step back and gain some perspective.
Many people have put a lot of faith and energy into the Corbyn project so its not surprising they feel demoralised by the election defeat. But that isn’t the best place from which to formulate a strategic response since it often results in exaggerated claims about the depth of defeat.
So let’s begin with what has happened and what has not.
It is true that this is a more than usually important election defeat. The Tory party that won is more than usually right wing, headed by a more than usually right wing prime minister. It has a very substantial Commons majority. This will allow it to suppress much of the discontent within the Tory party, at least for a time. It may even, though this is much less certain, allow the Tory party to realign itself with the majority pro-Remain opinion in the ruling class by conducting the Brexit negotiations in such a way that they allow access to the European market.
But, however all that may be, a hard right Tory party will be able to go on the offensive against working people to a degree not seen since the Thatcher era, although Johnson lacks Thatcher’s sense of purpose and is not riding a wave of popular support for deregulation and privatisation in the way Thatcher was able to do as the post-war welfare state consensus collapsed.
So much for what has happened. But what is it that has not happened?
Firstly, don’t confuse the loss of seats with a loss of votes. Labour lost a lot of seats but there has not been a collapse in the popular vote for the Labour Party. Labour gained 10 million votes, down from the nearly 13 million it gained in 2017, but still a better result than that Labour gained under Ed Miliband in 2014 or Gordon Brown before that.
Secondly, don’t assume this marks some fundamental shift in working class consciousness or a move from class based consciousness to some kind of culture war based on national identity, ‘northernness’ or anything else. A third of working people have always voted Tory, and a couple of million more (at most) doing so in this election doesn’t change the map of national consciousness significantly. Indeed, some of what let the Tories in was the vote for the Brexit Party, a single issue party that is very unlikely to be around in the next election.
On the issues beyond Brexit - the NHS, nationalisation, the gap between the rich and the poor - Labour was in tune with working class views as expressed in multiple opinion polls over many years. That won’t change.
What lost it for Labour was the turn to Remain and Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived weakness as a leader, issues highlighted by YouGov’s poll which asked voters who left Labour at this election and why they had done so.
The first of these is so obvious from the places that Labour lost seats that it is virtually unarguable. Virtually, but not quite. In the bunker of left Remainism the honour guard still claim otherwise. Their argument goes that Labour lost votes to the Lib Dems so we can’t say that it’s the failure to retain Leave voters that lost Labour the election. This is multiply wrong.
Firstly, those votes lost to the Lib Dems were lost without consequence. The Lib Dems lost one more seat (and their leader) than they did in their already catastrophic 2017 showing. So the votes Labour lost to them (which was anyway half of the votes it lost in Leave areas, according to the Ashcroft post election poll) made no difference to the result.
Secondly, 56 of the top 60 most vulnerable Labour seats were in Leave areas. Bluntly, Meg Hillier in my area of Hackney could lose half her nearly 40,000 votes and her Tory challenger would still be languishing far behind on 6,000 votes. Not so, as we know to our cost, for many MPs in Labour Leave seats.
Finally, of the seats Labour lost only 3 were in Remain areas (and one of those was Kensington where the press boosted tactical voting on the basis the Lib Dems could win). Spin it all you like but that fact will never change.
Jeremy Corbyn’s perceived weakness as a leader is partly related to the issue of Brexit, although actually his stubborn insistence on retreating as slowly as he felt he could from the 2017 position of respecting the Leave vote speaks to the opposite case.
The forces ranged against him on this issue, from Sir Keir Starmer to John McDonnell, are actually to blame for the debacle. They and the Another Europe is Possible clique ran a uniquely unsuccessful campaign whose only practical effect is to have forced Labour into a position which materially assisted in its election defeat.
But the perception of Jeremy Corbyn as a weak leader originates more deeply in the Labour Party than the abandonment of the 2017 position to respect the referendum.
The Labour Party is a house systemically divided against itself. As we have long argued in Counterfire, and as Lenin argued long before us, Labour’s right wing is structurally linked to the political establishment while its members and voters are largely working class.
Nothing could prove this hypothesis once again to be true better than the past behaviour and current occupations of Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell, John Mann, John Woodcock, Ian Austin, Joan Ryan, Louise Ellman, Luciana Berger, Tom Watson and their parliamentary colleagues.
Any leader unwilling to unleash a war to the finish with the PLP right wing, that is with a majority of the PLP, would look weak. And this mattered far more than any personal traits or leadership style that Jeremy Corbyn had. Indeed, for better or worse, one might argue that it was Jeremy Corbyn’s ability to absorb abuse and rise above repeated mutiny that kept the boat afloat for as long as it did.
The real lesson of this is that no leader unable to decisively defeat that Labour right would last very long.
So when all is said and done this was an electoral defeat and a serious one and it will have serious consequences. But it is not more than that. Does that mean that there weren’t any deeper more long term causes? No, there were. Clearly in 2017 Corbynism rescued Labour from a long term trend of being hollowed out in some core areas, just as European social democrat parties are being hollowed out.
But that has overwhelmingly happened as a result of adherence to neoliberal economics and neoconservative foreign policy. If Labour returns to that trajectory (whether in its Blairite, Brownite, or a Milibandite versions) then the path will resume its decline. Every indicator shows that the political middle ground has collapsed. The Lib Dems actually had an appalling election, their third in a row, despite the best efforts of their establishment and media boosters and of significant tactical voting campaign. And the media darlings of Change.UK have passed into oblivion in the blink of an eye.
So there is no path back that leads Labour into the old world of centre-ground triangulation.
Better for the left to ask where we were at the start of this process? What were the politics of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 when that remarkable surge into the Labour Party from the social movements began this phase of radicalisation?
At that time Jeremy Corbyn was anti-Trident, pro-Palestine without qualification, anti-NATO, anti-EU and had been all his political life. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s positions, after four years of pressure and the John McDonnell orchestrated compromises, changed and of those that didn’t they never became Labour Party policy. That was a failure. But if the next Labour leader moves right from the positions as of now then we are talking more Miliband than Corbyn, at best.
Will that make them more electable? I doubt it. Will they inspire a movement? No. Will Labour Party membership drop? Very likely.
The trouble is none of the embarrassingly large number of likely leadership contenders are set to defend the positions of the left as of 2015. Defeat is already pushing them to draw all the wrong conclusions. They are panic stricken when resolution is required.
Sir Keir Starmer is the real candidate of the right, since they know the ridiculous Jess Philips is not a realistic option. He, and Emily Thornberry, are the architects of the Remain policy that wrecked Labour’s chances in this election. Both are mainstream economically and Trident/NATO Atlanticists...which is entirely consistent with a bit of Democrat-inspired Trump baiting.
Clive Lewis is an even more enthusiastic NATO supporter, attempting to steer left by backing a reselection scheme which won’t get past a first PLP meeting.
Rebecca Long Bailey is the best of the candidates. She is the Unite/John McDonnell candidate but there is no guarantee that she will remain front runner. Her embarrassing claim that she would push the nuclear button during the BBC TV election debate and her loyalty to McDonnell in foisting the Remain position on the party should be a warning that she will not be leader of the left in the way that Corbyn was.
What all this underlines is that with a large Tory majority and a weakened parliamentary Labour left, the focus of resistance is likely to be outside parliament.
Corbynism made Britain an outlier in a Europe where mainstream social democracy was collapsing. Perhaps it will now rejoin the trend. But the class struggle is never confined to parliament. In France where the Socialist Party collapse was much greater than Labour’s recent defeat, the Yellow Vests and the general strikes have humiliated the parliamentarily invincible Macron.
In Italy, a prostrate left and a triumphant far right Salvini presented a sad prospect only a few months ago. Now the Sardines movement is revitalising the left.
Indeed, while that attention of the British left has been on the parliamentary and electoral left, the rest of the globe has seen a remarkable resurgence of street protests and a rebirth of the social movements on issues ranging from climate change to transport fares, from pensions to racism.
No doubt the pattern of struggle in Britain will be different to all these examples. Certainly any strategy cannot limit itself to street protest for the simple reason that, vital though this will be, it won’t be enough to rebuild the left in the working class communities whose links to the Labour Party have been weakened.
The unions need to be far more energetic in pursuing new members, and in defending existing members. Of course the electoral base of the movement will be weaker if the union membership and strike days lost remain at historically low levels. And, yes, any effective action will now have to reckon with the courts.
Community work will also be necessary, but this must be activist-oriented, not glorified charity work. The poor have many people prepared to offer charity, but not enough offering to help in self organisation. So community work has to linked to a national political strategy for change, and that cannot be limited to ‘delivering a vote for Labour’.
Finally, the labour movement needs history, theory, and politics. No kind of struggle can be successful without ideas. That’s why the first of the old triumvirate Educate, Agitate, Organise, is as important as the other two.
We will have to confront electoral political strategy again in the future, and we should not neglect whatever potential it has in the present. But for now that main slogan of the left should be ‘socialist ideas into the streets, into the workplaces, into the communities’. It is there we can make progress, and only there that we can rebuild the base of the labour movement in areas too long forgotten by the electoral wing of the movement.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.