Like many of my friends on the Left, whether they are Labour members, supporters or who just vote Labour because there isn’t another leftish option at the moment, I greeted the announcement of the exit polls result last night with utter horror.
I stayed up to find out the fate of my local election (stunned to see the support for my candidate had evaporated to be overtaken by the LibDems – although it did match the YouGov MRP prediction) and the Cambridge election (well done Cambridge and congratulations to Daniel Zeichner for managing to hold on amidst the disaster).
I saw Jeremy Corbyn win his own seat with a big majority, and I saw his speech conceding that he would not lead the Labour Party into the next general election.
And I saw the different analyses of what went wrong.
The “party line” from the Corbyn wing, both in the leadership and the Momentum pressure group within the Labour Party, is that the Left failed to move the agenda away from the single issue of Brexit and that people just went with the Conservative slogan of “Get Brexit Done” instead of considering other policies and instead of choosing a nuanced approach. Many on the Left will be inclined also to blame the national media, who chose to portray any hint of nuance as “confusing” and “unclear”, and who were gleeful in reporting the Right’s perpetual demonisation of Corbyn himself.
The right wing of the Labour Party is proclaiming that it proves “Corbynism” is just a wrong-headed approach. Their answer is to surrender and return the Labour Party to the centre-right ground it occupied under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
The racist wing of the Labour Party (by which I mean, the hardline Leave faction) obviously chose to compare the 2017 result and manifesto with the 2019 one and declare that the main difference was “respect the referendum” versus “2nd referendum”.
I am very much on the Left. I am in the Labour Party only because there is no realistic chance of a full-on socialist revolution for the time being, and until we get one, we still have to work to help the people who are suffering now. The “parliamentary road” will never actually get to the total reorganisation of society that I want to see, but it can do a lot to prepare, and it can do a lot to help the least well off.
The first claim made by the Right that I want to address is one that I believe Alistair Campbell made, which is that it is “ludicrous” to continue believing that an agenda “so far to the left of the general population” can possibly win.
There’s two assumptions there: the first is that the policies were unpopular, and that Blairism remains an easy sell; and the second is that winning is the most important thing.
But it is far from clear that the general population still holds the same kinds of values as in the Blair years. The Blairites managed to hold Ed Miliband away from an anti-austerity message in 2015 and it was a defeat. Gordon Brown (the economic intellect of Blairism, in the same way as John McDonnell is Corbyn’s partner in their project) lost in 2010. As McDonnell said when asked to react to the exit poll, the polls all showed the individual leftwing policies offered by the Labour 2019 manifesto were popular and enjoyed support.
What is clear, however, is that these policies were far to the left of the media’s position. While the population may have changed, the people reporting on politics are largely of the same economic class, with the same concerns, and come from either a centre-right or a rightwing background. I watched for four years as entirely unearned hatred spewed forth, and there is a strong feeling that anyone espousing leftwing policies would have met with similar abuse from these angles. Even the less rightwing press had become deeply invested in the Blairist project. There was a concerted campaign, starting before Corbyn was even elected leader, to obscure the reality of what he believes in and to ridicule the idea of a move to the Left. The media sought to create the reality they wanted by pretending it already existed, or by presenting a false “both sides” narrative. As many of my friends took to quoting, “if one person says it’s raining, and another says it isn’t – the journalist’s job is to stick their head outside and find out for themselves!” (I’ve paraphrased from memory here, but that’s the gist of it.)
The other key point is that we are at a point where we need to look at what the country needs and what the planet needs. The centre-right Blairist project ultimately failed Britain, and would certainly be inadequate to the task of rebuilding what has already been torn down by 9 years (soon to be presumably 14 years) or Conservative policies designed to undo all the gains made for human dignity and rights in this country by the Attlee and Wilson governments (and even the early Blair government) – it is not hyperbole to say that the Tories fundamentally want to roll back the political and social situation to something like the 1930s, or even the 19th century. The class of people represented by Boris Johnson, and his fellow Tory cabinet, are the class of people who are trained to believe that they rule as of right; the 20th Century has been a direct challenge to that belief and socialism the most direct challenge of all. (Remember, when the Magna Carta made a similar challenge to the divine right of Kings, the monarchy kept trying to roll that back and eventually we had to behead one to get the point across!)
It will take a serious leftwing agenda to save and restore all the social security systems created by Attlee’s government. The NHS, in particular. (We’ve already lost the presumption of misfortune rather than idleness, that underpinned the support for those out of work.) It will take a hard, state-driven, effort to combat climate change in ways that do not either deliberately or incidentally punish the poorest and most vulnerable. It will take a concerted effort to improve and encourage learning and education in this country, and to open up access to full economic involvement for the more isolated regions.
If such policies are needed – or more accurately, if we believe these are the measures we have to take to put our country and its people back on track – then offering watered-down, inadequate, versions of these cannot be worthwhile. “Winning”, only to do not-enough, is not winning at all. It’s surrender to the right-wing narrative.
Finally, I heard people both on the centre-right and on the racist centre-left (i.e. “Leavers”) claim that working-class people who voted for Brexit had abandoned the Labour Party because the Left had called them too stupid to realise what the effects were, and that Brexit was racist – “or, in a veiled version, said ‘we didn’t get the message across that this would be economically bad for them, and that Brexit is racist’.” (Approximate quote from one comment heard on the election night coverage).
To that, I think we have to hold up our hands. Okay, we can say, they weren’t too dumb to realise all that. But that means that we have to accept that a certain proportion of the population (I refuse to accept that it is really the “working class” we need to talk about here – it’s more general than that) is actually just really fucking racist, and happy to be that way.
If you point out something is racist, and the person doing it says, effectively, “Yeah? So what?” the answer is NOT to become more racist. Racism is a serious problem, both as a drain on an economy, and more importantly, as a denial of human dignity and a degradation of humanity. The hardline “Leave” faction want us to say it is okay to surrender the racism point as long as we get to deal with some of the other issues.
The choice facing the Labour Party is stark and unforgiving. We cannot afford to surrender on social justice, on climate change and our belief in the basic human dignity of everyone. We cannot afford to compromise and agree to be “just half-racist”. We have to combat each and every one of those points. But doing so may mean a long struggle to shift the ground back from the Right.
The Labour Party began in 1904. It took 41 years to form a majority government, and to shift the political agenda away from the 19th Century and the acceptance that there is just a natural order of things where the rich rule and the rest serve and live in squalor. The Tories have been working for 40 years to undo that change and to roll things back to how they used to be.
But they haven’t done it yet. We can and must find ways to reverse the backward drift.