Long read: Lessons from the 2019 election result

JVL Introduction

Many evaluations of the general election results have now appeared.

We’re trying to select a limited number of these for reposting, ones that offer new or different angles, insights, evaluations. Ones that make you think.

This one, from Christine Berry’s blog, is quite long. But it does just that. She cites five lessons
1. Brexit and the right-wing nationalist moment
2. Leadership
3. Right policies, wrong message
4. The hollowing out of democracy
5. Organising – wide but not deep

Long read: Lessons from the 2019 election result

The battle for the narrative about Labour’s catastrophic defeat is already in full swing, and it is predictably proving to be a bloodbath. On both sides of Labour’s political divide, people are advancing explanations that conveniently confirm everything they already thought. For many on the centre-right, the problem was that Corbyn was too radical and that Labour should have advanced a more moderate centrist agenda. For some on the Corbynite left, the problem was Brexit and Brexit alone: Corbyn had nothing to do with it.

In all honesty, I have zero time for these kind of takes. After annihilation on this scale, if your response is a knee-jerk defence of your pre-existing correct views on everything rather than an instinct to take the time to understand what has just happened and what we can do about it, then you are not serious about changing the country.

In reality, there are no easy answers to the question of why this result happened, and neither of these explanations is wholly convincing (although it will come as no surprise that I think the second has a lot more merit than the first). On the one hand, if there is such popular appetite for a centrist alternative, then why did the Lib Dems have such an unexpectedly atrocious showing, with ChangeUK barely registering? And why are centre-left social democratic parties across Europe in crisis?

On the other hand, anyone who has knocked doors for Labour during this election knows that Brexit was not the only problem: time and time again people told us they just couldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, and there is simply no point in pretending otherwise. All that this achieves is to make us look delusional and belligerent. To have lost this badly, at least some of our hopes and assumptions about UK politics must have been wrong. It is vital that we take the time to understand what they are. This will most likely be a long process.

With this caveat, here are five lessons I think we can draw from last week’s results, along with my current thoughts on what they might mean for where we go from here.

1. Brexit and the right-wing nationalist moment

One thing that’s struck me about the post-mortems on the result is the overwhelming focus on why Labour lost rather than why the Tories won. This is in striking contrast to Labour’s unexpectedly good performance in 2017, which was put down by many on the centre-right of the party to a dire campaign by Theresa May. Yes, Johnson’s campaign was better than May’s in many ways. But if the result had gone a different way, it wouldn’t have been hard to weave a narrative that blamed his blunders: robotically repeating ‘Get Brexit Done’ at every opportunity, appearing evasive and shifty in debates, refusing to look at a picture of a sick child sleeping on the floor of a hospital. More to the point, Johnson is such a transparently unsuitable person to hold high office that his thumping victory demands explanation.

Of course, one response to all this – again, one beloved by the centre-right – is that this election was Labour’s for the taking and it was only Corbyn’s mistakes that allowed Johnson to win. But I just do not find this convincing. If the mood of the country was the one that prevails inside the London political and media bubble – of feeling ‘politically homeless’, torn between two unpalatable options – we might have expected a hung parliament. Instead, people turned out to vote for Johnson in droves. I’ve long thought that those who saw Johnson as an eminently beatable candidate seemed oddly impervious to the cautionary tale of Trump’s victory in the US. Those of us on the radical left have argued that a less centrist candidate than Clinton could have beaten Trump; centrists now argue that a more centrist candidate than Corbyn could have beaten Johnson. Maybe we should both take a few moments out from pointing fingers at each other and consider the possibility that there is more going on here than our inter-factional disputes: both Johnson and Trump represent a political tendency that is on the ascendancy across the world. When the history books are written, they will probably be written about in the same breath and as the inevitable product of wider trends and forces. We cannot fight this tendency unless we seek to understand it.

Although Brexit was not the only factor in this election, it at least has the merit of explaining why Johnson won as well as why Corbyn lost. Johnson’s pitch to ‘Get Brexit Done’ clearly resonated across the spectrum. It achieved his key strategic aim of uniting the Leave vote while the Remain vote split, especially after the Brexit party stood aside – Lord Ashcroft’s post-election polling graphically confirms this. More than that, it cleverly appealed not just to Leavers but also to Remainers who were sick of Brexit and just wanted it to be over with. It learned from May’s mistake of failing to make a compelling domestic offer. Its message discipline was impressive: let’s get Brexit done and focus on the people’s priorities – schools, hospitals and more police. Even I can recite it off pat. I can’t say the same for Labour’s campaign messages. Even during the campaign, I feared this was a bad sign.

Meanwhile, Labour was royally snookered by trying to hold together an electoral coalition that spanned the Brexit divide. I am getting extremely bored of the sterile debate between Remainers arguing that Labour was too Brexity and Lexiteers arguing that it was not Brexity enough. Both can throw around stats about the percentage of Leave and Remain voters that abandoned the party, and the seats it lost or might have lost with a different position. To me, what these stats actually show seems obvious: there was no easy way out of this dilemma, no cost-free Brexit position that could have won Labour the election. Actually, Labour’s position on Brexit seems to me to have been a decent stab at squaring the circle, as well as possibly the only genuinely feasible route to bringing the country back together. But it clearly failed. Of course, both sides can probably agree that the leadership’s dither and delay in arriving at this position was the worst of all worlds, alienating both sides and decimating Corbyn’s political capital by making him look weak and unprincipled.

Going forward, though, the more important question is what Brexit represents and how we deal with that. The terms of debate around Brexit have been overwhelmingly set by the far right. Ultimately, both the Remainiacs and the Lexiteers dismally failed to make any inroads for their point of view in the places where it mattered. With hindsight, it now seems clear that the main achievement of the People’s Vote campaign was to ensure that Brexit continued to be the main dividing line in British politics for three long years, slowly eating away at Labour’s attempts to move the debate onto other issues. They failed catastrophically to persuade Leavers to think again, that circumstances had changed or that the result had been a mistake: they actually seem to have further entrenched and polarised people’s positions. Ashcroft’s post-election poll found that just 5% of people voted Leave in 2016 but now think we should remain.

Meanwhile, it is all very well for Lexiteers to claim that making a strong Lexit case from the off would have won Labour the election – but the reality is that this position has always been a fringe view in the Labour party itself, never mind the wider public, and those who advocate it have never made any serious efforts to popularise it successfully. It is not clear who else they think should have been doing this, when they signally failed to do it themselves. To me, it seems symptomatic of a lingering oppositional mentality on the left – one that is too happy to point fingers of blame elsewhere when we lose, rather than taking responsibility for creating the conditions where we can win.

I also think that this result must surely force us to revisit a cherished assumption of the radical left: that, because right-populist phenomena like Brexit and Trump are driven partly by material conditions of disempowerment created by neoliberal policies, a left-populist economic agenda of economic empowerment can compete with these phenomena and win. Notwithstanding the mistakes made by Labour’s campaign, perhaps we need to ask if this election has tested that idea to destruction. Even if it is true that implementing such an agenda would address many of the problems that fuel these right-wing projects – as I still believe it is – it does not follow that offering this agenda is, in and of itself, enough to neutralise these projects politically. In 2017, Labour was able to deflect from Brexit by putting forward a popular domestic economic agenda. In 2019, this proved impossible. This is partly because the political context had moved on, but perhaps this crunch point was always coming: focussing on material economic conditions was ultimately not enough to neutralise the other meanings of Brexit, namely post-imperialist English nationalism and rage at the political class. Adam Ramsay has made this case eloquently here.

Before writing this, I revisited a blog I wrote after the 2017 election result, and found this:

“We need to build a stronger consensus around a progressive response to the crisis of globalisation. As Chaminda Jayanetti points out, in this election it looks like Labour has managed to walk a remarkable tightrope, picking up the votes of both disgruntled lefty Remainers and ex-UKIP Leavers. But it won’t be able to fudge this question forever. As I’ve argued before, forging a truly progressive path through this swamp means building a politics that’s open to people but closed to big money. It means being both creative in finding ways to tame globalised capital, and unwavering in pushing back the tide of racism and xenophobic nationalism. This is a delicate balance to strike, and it needs to be thought about carefully if that tightrope isn’t to turn into a trip wire.”

Given subsequent events, I think the analysis holds up pretty well. Labour has made some efforts to address this question, such as McDonnell’s International Social Forum. But it has not been nearly enough, and it has so far remained an internal debate rather than an outward-facing political project. We urgently need to work with progressive forces in other countries to build our shared understanding of the right-wing nationalist moment we seem to be living through and work out how we can respond. This shouldn’t need saying, but as anyone who has read their 1930s history will know, the depressingly predictable Blue Labour calls for the left to be more anti-immigrant are precisely the wrong response. I’m already hearing so many stories of people of colour experiencing a rise in racist abuse because of this election, or even making contingency plans to leave the country. This is the reality of what has just happened, and solidarity with migrants and people of colour is just not negotiable for any serious left political project right now. (For the best analysis on this, read gal-dem.) The million-dollar question is how we counter the rise of racist nationalism, not how we better triangulate towards it.

2. Leadership

But of course, Brexit was not the only reason Labour lost. Opinium’s post-election polling confirms what many of us experienced on the doorstep: 43% of non-Labour voters cited the leadership as the main reason for their decision. Actually, this doesn’t tell us a great deal. One of the tendencies I think we need to beware of is the temptation to seize on seemingly objective quantitative polling evidence to provide easy answers to the question of why Labour lost. In fact, the real question is why people didn’t feel they could vote for Corbyn – and that’s a question that only deep qualitative research (otherwise known as listening to people) can answer.

My own experience on the doorstep was that people gave a whole range of reasons for not liking Corbyn, some of them mutually contradictory. He was too indecisive; he was too dictatorial. He was too anti-Brexit; he wasn’t anti-Brexit enough. He was anti-semitic. He was too left-wing. He was a friend of terrorists. Some people couldn’t really say why they didn’t like him: they just didn’t. One of my own big mistakes going into this election was to under-estimate the influence of the media: after 2017, and indeed after Brexit, I thought that the political media bubble was less and less relevant to the everyday political discourse taking place in homes and workplaces. I was shocked by the extent to which the media had succeeded in turning this mild, unassuming and fundamentally decent man into a hate figure.

As others have pointed out, though, just blaming the media is neither entirely true nor particularly helpful. Any left-wing Labour leader will be subject to these kind of vicious attacks: the question is how we counter and neutralise them. And Corbyn did prove much more resilient to those attacks in 2017. As Owen Jones has pointed out, two years of Brexit deadlock – and Labour’s often poor handling of this – cannot be separated from Corbyn’s plummeting ratings. And he didn’t perform particularly well in the election debates which were his key opportunity to counter these negative impressions. For me, there are two lessons for us here going forward.

First, many of the complaints about Corbyn’s leadership style – though often made in bad faith by people who had no interest in seeing his political project succeed – rested on more than a grain of truth. I spoke to a lot of insiders in researching People Get Ready, and heard a lot of alarm bells ringing. People did say that Corbyn wasn’t a strong enough leader to bang heads together and sort out Labour’s snake pit of factionalism and fiefdom-building: “the result is stasis”, one told me. At the same time, others expressed frustration at the hoarding of power in a tight-knit clique around the leader’s office, in stark contrast to the party’s proclaimed commitment to bottom-up democracy. (Whatever you think of Labour’s position on Brexit, the battle between the membership and the leader’s office on this is a case in point.) Still others expressed concern – echoing some of Andrew Fisher’s recent comments – about a lack of talent on the front bench and a lack of professionalism in the back office. It’s difficult for me to say all this, as someone who has always defended Corbyn from such attacks and has a huge amount of respect for him as a person. But I think this result demands complete honesty from us all in facing up to what went wrong.

Indeed, in the wake of the election, I’m reflecting on my own reasons for dancing around these criticisms in my previous writings. Partly, this was born of a desire to avoid undermining the project any more than its external enemies were already doing. Partly, if I’m honest, it was down to a nervousness about being seen as insufficiently loyal: itself perhaps a testimony to the damaging effects of Labour’s toxic civil war and the bunker mentality it produced in the leader’s office. If we are to move forward, we have to face up to these issues and find a path beyond them. Reports that Seumas Milne and Carie Murphy have been moved onto permanent contracts with the Labour Party while other staff face redundancy do not bode well in this respect.

Second, this problem goes deeper than Corbyn’s personal failings. It’s perhaps unsurprising that people didn’t see him as prime ministerial, given that he rose to the leadership of the Labour Party almost by accident and has clearly never aspired to high office. This was in itself a symptom of the generational deficit of left-wing leadership figures in the Labour Party: two decades of Blairism had so hollowed out the party that, when this politics hit the buffers, the old stalwarts of the Socialist Campaign Group were the only people left standing who really spoke to the rising demand for change. One of our key tasks is to build leadership pipelines of the kind that Justice Democrats have created in the US by nurturing the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – as well as the shit-hot staffers that can help them win and govern effectively. My great worry is that this result if anything represents a step backwards in this respect: we have lost people like Laura Pidcock and failed to elect rising stars like Faiza Shaheen and Fran Boait. Building a new cadre of leaders who are competent, radical and relatable is going to be a long process, and we urgently need a strategy for doing so.

3. Right policies, wrong message

No doubt Corbyn’s opponents will be quick to point out that it is not possible to completely separate the question of leadership from that of policies. Part of the reason people did not trust Corbyn is because he was regarded as “extreme” and “hard left”. But even here, the story is complicated: there is no serious evidence that Labour’s radical policies were to blame for the result. Let’s take a few moments to pick this apart a bit.

First, evidence consistently shows that Labour’s policies are popular. For instance, this polling covered by the Independent shows clear majorities in favour of public ownership of the railways and utilities, higher taxes on the richest, and shifting the balance of power back towards workers. And this poll commissioned by NEON found that support for these policies has continued to increase since 2017. It was not these policies that cost Labour the election. Indeed, let’s not forget that two years ago, even Corbyn’s fiercest opponents felt obliged to give them credit for Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance. And not once did I hear newer policies like a four day working week raised on the doorstep as a reason for not voting Labour. This is supported by post-election polling showing that just 12% of non-Labour voters cited their economic policies as a key reason for not supporting the party.

What’s more, Labour’s most innovative policies – the areas where it has been at the cutting edge of reinventing socialism for the 21st century, such as local democratic ownership and community wealth building – barely got a hearing, partly because Labour did not choose to profile them in the campaign. Even conservative commentators such as The Economist have begun to recognise that these policies – what they call ‘structural reforms’ and Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill have dubbed the ‘institutional turn’ – are the crux of Labour’s transformative agenda. But they were simply not part of the debate during this election.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the public is crying out for these policies and that focussing on them would have won the election: actually, I think there is a lot of groundwork to be done to build understanding of this agenda and find a way of talking about it that actually resonates with people (which the language of ‘democracy’, in my experience, increasingly does not). We also need to do much better at identifying flagship policies that communicate its vision with the same punch that Right to Buy achieved for Thatcher: it now seems that Inclusive Ownership Funds aren’t going to cut the mustard. But it is simply not credible to claim that Labour lost because these policies were too radical. To throw all this work under the bus would therefore be a grave, perhaps a historic, mistake.

Even when I try to play devil’s advocate to myself on this, the best I can come up with is that Labour may have over-reached itself with policies like nationalising OpenReach, playing into a narrative that “you lot just want to nationalise everything”. But in my experience, this came up much, much less on the doorstep than that old chestnut, “they will spend too much and bankrupt the country”. Ultimately, insofar as we can point the finger at policies at all, it was Labour’s spending plans and not its structural reform agenda that people did not buy.

At this point, I think it’s vitally important to remember one thing. In 2015, under Ed Miliband’s Labour party, which went into the election promising to continue with austerity, one of the number one reasons people gave for not voting Labour was that, erm, “they will spend too much and bankrupt the country”. So this has less to do with the actual contents of Labour’s manifesto – which, let’s face it, most people don’t read anyway – and more to do with the Tories’ success at deeply embedding the idea that you can’t trust Labour with the economy and that excessive public spending is a major economic risk. In other words, the left has yet to hegemonise the public debate on the economy to the degree that would be required for a radical Labour government to get elected with a mandate for economic transformation.

Interestingly, Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll found that for both Labour and Tory voters, one of the top reasons they chose the party was that “they would do a better job of running the economy” (39% of Labour voters and 64% of Tory voters). This supports the idea that Labour has made headway since 2015 in offering a competing narrative about how to run the economy well. But both these numbers and anecdotal experience from the doorstep suggest that the old stories linger. If Labour thought it had decisively won the argument against austerity, it has been proved sadly wrong.

Of course, that doesn’t mean Labour didn’t make mistakes that exacerbated this problem. Rather than attempting to tell a story that communicated its plans to reshape the economy, it led the campaign with a shopping list of spending promises – free broadband, free childcare, compensating WASPI women. And rather than consolidate its achievement in 2017 – when it began to win the argument against austerity, with mainstream commentators accepting that its investment plans were actually pretty sensible and the Tories feeling the need to compete by promising more public investment – it doubled down, leaving voters with a general sense that the party was spraying money around like confetti. It now seems that this was a grave strategic mistake.

Ultimately, though, I find myself unconvinced by arguments – like James Meadway’s for Novara – that tweaking the economic offer would have made a decisive difference (for example to emphasise tax rises over spending pledges, or by beefing up Inclusive Ownership Funds). I think that this offer would still have been overwhelmed by other factors and would have struggled to cut through the media attacks and the relentless focus on Brexit. The bigger problem was the context into which these arguments were being made – a context that we had not managed to shape successfully enough to win.

4. The hollowing out of democracy

This brings us to another factor, one less within the Labour leadership’s control, that I think is key but under-discussed (perhaps because it does not serve inter-factional agendas): the loss of trust in democracy. Many people simply do not believe that politicians will deliver on their promises. While the campaign strategy of splashing around big spending pledges leaned into this tendency in a disastrous way, it did not create it.

Johnson’s shameless lying, rather than damaging him in relation to Corbyn as many might have expected, actually seemed to have a sort of reverse halo effect whereby voters became less likely to trust anything that any politician said. Knowing they could not win on policy, the Tories’ entire election strategy focused on kicking up enough dust that people either did not see Labour’s policies or did not believe them – an insidious and sinister form of voter suppression. 50,000 nurses! 2 billion trees! The NHS will be sold off! No it won’t! Yes it will! The campaign descended into a bewildering storm of lies and half-truths, with the parties not simply arguing about values and policies but offering different versions of reality. As Adam Ramsay has argued, the relentless campaign of misinformation waged by the Tories has contributed to a hollowing out of democracy, where anyone can say anything and nobody knows what to believe.

Of course, Johnson did not create these conditions single handedly. He was tapping into a deep pre-existing cynicism about politicians and the political process, one that stretches back at least as far as the expenses scandal and which the recent parliamentary deadlock over Brexit only seems to have heightened. Indeed, as Aditya Chakrabortty has argued, the roots of this disaffection can be traced back even further, to the failure of successive governments to empower or improve the lives of people outside London.

In 2017, Corbyn still had a sort of outsider status that seemingly allowed him to transcend some of these issues. He was widely seen as a person of conviction, different from the usual career politicians who would say anything to get into power. This appeared to give him a certain degree of protection from the relentless media onslaught on his character. And the policies themselves, after decades of suffocating neoliberal consensus, were such a breath of fresh air that they generated a buzz and energy that seemed to cut through the apathy. Two years of triangulation and dither over Brexit seems to have torpedoed this, tainting Corbyn with the same associations people have with the rest of the political class.

On the doorstep, those who didn’t actively dislike Corbyn would often lump him in with Johnson and other politicians with the familiar mantra “they’re all the same”. I remember a conversation with our builder, who doesn’t vote, in which this came up and I tried to persuade him that Corbyn and Johnson were in fact pretty different. I asked what it was about Corbyn that he didn’t like, and he couldn’t pinpoint anything specific: instead he said, “He just chats shit, doesn’t he? Like all of them, they all just chat a lot of shit.” Although he hadn’t voted in the 2016 referendum, he was tired of what he saw as endless parliamentary bickering and delay: “We voted to leave, so I think we should have left.”

This last comment, I think, points to something incredibly important which the People’s Vote crowd must own and take responsibility for. From day one, it was obvious that certain sections of the political establishment did not accept the referendum result and were bent on overturning it. My personal experience of interacting with some of these people was that they didn’t even bother to try and understand the result before jumping to this knee jerk reaction. The resulting impression was that they thought people who had voted leave were credulous, ignorant and ultimately wrong – that they knew better and deserved to be back in charge.

Not coincidentally, it is the same arrogance that characterised this faction’s ill-fated attempts to unseat Corbyn from the Labour leadership, and from the same people. Given that many of these people are now urging Corbynites to reflect and take responsibility for their mistakes, I would gently suggest that perhaps they might feel moved to do the same. If Brexit was in part a reaction to feeling disempowered and ignored, a gigantic “fuck you” to the political establishment, then the People’s Vote campaign could scarcely have been better calculated to rub salt into these wounds. The Lib Dems’ irresponsible ‘revoke article 50’ stance, a move transparently intended to outflank Labour’s second referendum policy rather than to offer a serious route out of the UK’s deep political crisis, was the logical conclusion of this tendency.

On the other side of the debate, Corbynites who simply put the result down to Brexit and say that we don’t need to learn lessons from a situation that will not be repeated (a response I have had almost verbatim on Twitter), are missing the point in exactly the same way. Brexit is not only about Brexit: it is the latest in a long series of blows to people’s trust in the political system. It has allowed a power-grabbing Tory demogogue to pose as a defender of democracy while other elected parliamentarians are seen as an unaccountable elite. It has contributed to a pervading cynicism that has made it almost impossible for bold and radical policies to cut through and be believed. I suspect that we will be living with the consequences of this for a long time, and that the left will not win unless and until we find a way to restore people’s faith in politics itself.

5. Organising – wide but not deep

How we do this, of course, is a big question. But it surely has to start with rebuilding the Labour Party as a party that is present on the ground in deprived communities, offering practical solidarity and real solutions, and combining this with political education that encourages people to see their individual problems as part of bigger systemic forces that we can tackle together. Of course, this is easy to say and hard to do. One lesson for me from this election result is that we need to get much more rigorous and honest with ourselves about whether we are doing it well enough. We might have convinced ourselves that Labour’s organised grassroots were its secret weapon, that person-to-person conversations would allow us to cut through the media lies and Tory spin. We were catastrophically wrong.

The work of Momentum in Manchester, where I live, is a perfect case in point both of the vibrancy and potential of the grassroots movement and of its current limitations. In this election, volunteer-led efforts mobilised hundreds of people every weekend to go doorknocking in marginal seats in the north west. It was unprecedented. As Isaac Rose and Beth Redmond wrote for Tribune, it was possible because of years of groundwork building up a presence in Manchester through cultural activities and popular education programmes. From inside this movement, it felt exciting, hopeful, maybe even unstoppable. It’s hardly surprising that many people involved distrusted polls predicting a Labour wipeout.

And yet. Every one of Manchester Momentum’s six target marginals was lost – albeit in some cases with smaller swings to the Tories than the national average. We could tell ourselves that our efforts were simply overwhelmed by the national picture, but we also need some honest reflection about the limits of this organising model. As it turns out, doorstep conversations are not a magic bullet. On the (frustratingly few) occasions I made it out doorknocking, my overwhelming feeling was that many voters had made up their minds about Corbyn’s Labour long ago, and a five minute chat with a stranger was never going to change that. In hindsight, perhaps this should have been obvious. The problem is compounded when the conversation is with somebody who has been bussed in from Manchester and does not live locally. For me, the experience that epitomised this was phone banking for Bolton North East with a first-time canvasser armed with nothing but a brief set of talking points. “Your local MP is really popular, he’s done a lot for your area”, he offered vaguely. It was truly cringeworthy.

And that distrust of polls also led to a misallocation of resources. The memory of 2017 loomed large, when activists were poured into Labour-held seats that ended up with huge majorities while many Tory-held seats were retained by just a few hundred votes. Certainly, there was a definite sense that activists on the ground were determined to pursue a more offensive strategy, and reluctant to adjust this as the campaign went on. On polling day, we were sent to get the vote out in Bolton West, which my gut told me Labour did not have a cat in hell’s chance of winning. The sitting Tory MP increased his majority by almost 8,000 votes. Meanwhile, neighbouring Bolton North East went Tory by 378 votes. Of course, it’s easy to be wise after the event, and perhaps the old cliché is inevitable that we are always fighting the previous battle. But with hindsight, perhaps a more sober assessment of Labour’s prospects and a willingness to adjust the strategy in the course of the campaign could have made a difference to this result.

None of this is to point the finger at the organisers of Momentum Manchester, who I have huge respect for and who have built something remarkable here. It is offered in a spirit of helping each other to reflect and improve: if we are serious about creating change from the ground up, we need to be ruthless with ourselves about where we must do better. And part of that is rigorously questioning the comfortable stories we might be tempted to tell ourselves. From the top to the bottom of the party, 2017’s unexpected result bred a certain hubris, swagger and willingness to ignore bad polling that didn’t always serve us well.

The challenge, then, is for Labour to find ways to move beyond an activist base concentrated in Labour-held cities like Manchester, and to be more present in places like Bolton all year round – not just at election time. Maybe those of us in Manchester who are casting around for ways to feel useful could work with local parties to organise a listening campaign in these areas, where doorknocking is not just about persuading people to vote Labour but about identifying what the local area needs and how we can help build it. Maybe we should be organising local assemblies and acting on the priorities, setting up food banks, advice clinics or co-operative childcare solutions, training up tenants, debtors and precarious workers to organise and win on things they care about. Of course, these ideas are not new: Labour’s Community Organising Unit was set up precisely to spearhead this kind of activity; people like Ash Sarkar have been arguing for it for years. But it is clearly not happening on anything like the scale needed to make a decisive difference. We need to change that.

Finally, I think this result has to mark the end of ‘Labourism’: the belief that Labour is the only and the sufficient vehicle for progressive change in this country. Again, re-reading my post-election blog from 2017, I’m reminded of the extent to which Labour’s victory back then was driven by a rising tide of enthusiasm for ‘progressive alliances’:

“Significantly, many of those who showed up to help were members of other political parties … The Tories’ and Labour’s high combined vote share shouldn’t deceive us into thinking this election simply represents the return of the same old two-party politics. Labour’s high vote share was in part made possible by the champions of progressive alliances, by supporters of other parties who were willing to put aside tribal allegiances to fight a common battle. And Labour may yet need those other parties if it wants to form a majority government at the next election… I think it’s vital that the team around Corbyn reaches out rather than bunkering down, outside the party as much if not more so than within it. The continued support of those who backed a progressive alliance at this election can’t be taken for granted if Labour fails to acknowledge it or respond in kind.”

After 2017, as Labour consolidated its newfound position as the home of bright young left-wing activists, it was easy to forget all this. But actually, I think this analysis has weathered rather well – almost depressingly so. Certainly, 2019’s Remain Alliance was a counter-productive shower. But there was real anger from progressive individuals in the parties involved about Labour’s perceived arrogance in refusing to engage in any such discussions, or to countenance electoral reform. And in many constituencies, the Greens and Lib Dems’ combined increase in votes was more than the margin Labour lost by. Disillusionment and reluctance to vote tactically may have contributed to some of these losses. Surely, we now finally need to face up to a bunch of hard facts. The path to a Labour majority is very difficult to see. Our electoral system systematically fucks the left and this will only get worse as Johnson gerrymanders the system. Hegemony is never achieved by a single political party but only by building a new political consensus that transcends party allegiances. What this means in practice I’m not yet sure. But it’s a deep-rooted cast of mind that needs to change within Labour before we can even start talking about the practical implications.

TL;DRthe key take-aways

I’m aware that this may seem like a rambling and disparate bunch of thoughts. In some ways, I don’t apologise for that: I think the reasons for this result are deep and complex and that we are not well served by simplistic hot takes. But for those looking for a single take-home message, I think it’s the same one as the message of People Get Ready. Transformative change on the scale Labour wants to achieve demands a lot of groundwork. It demands that we dominate the narrative about the problems facing the country and how we fix them. It demands that we put down deep roots in the communities affected by these problems and demonstrate to people in those communities how our politics can help them. It demands that we reach out and build alliances. More than anything, it demands that we take ourselves seriously, that we up our game at every level and are honest with ourselves about whether we are doing well enough. As I’ve argued for Tribune, in some ways we have made remarkable progress in a short space of time, and we mustn’t lose sight of that in this December gloom. But at this election, we didn’t do any of these things well enough. Ultimately, the problem was not Labour’s politics or its policies, but that it has not yet managed to create the conditions where that politics can be made a reality. That is the task we now face

Comments (15)

  • Jaye says:

    Wow, great read – long but really thorough and incisive. My own view is that the leader is always the main factor, and less so his/her policies or politics which of course also feed into the final outcome for better or worse, particularly if they are bold policies. Leadership, likeability and looking like a winner is the critical factor and changes over time. Boris comes across today as a winner and has a record to back that up so that screw ups are forgiven/forgotten, similarly Blair in his time, and Bill Clinton. Corbyn and May both come across as losers which made it a more even match. Unscientific yes, but empirically backed up.

  • “Instead, people turned out to vote for Johnson in droves. ”
    This is simply incorrect.
    The Tory vote share increased by a mere one percent whereas Labour’s vote share dropped by eight percent. The Tories did not win convincingly, it was Labour that lost decisively. Johnson failed to convince half the country to support him. If we had a fair electoral system we would have had a hung parliament with the Tories as the largest party. We have an electoral system that doesn’t tell the truth and that is a fundamental flaw in our politics. Apparently the electoral system has even deceived the author about the true nature of the result. Anglo Saxon politics is a very strange beast: Trump “decisively won” the Presidential Election when his opponent got more votes !

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    This is the single best reflection on the reasons for the disastrous election result that I have read. It is terrifically honest, thoughtful, wide-ranging and multifaceted. I have but two comments.

    The first relates to Brexit itself, where I think the author has missed a major trick. She writes about the way Labour’s ‘focusing on material economic conditions was ultimately not enough to neutralise the other meanings of Brexit, namely post-imperialist English nationalism and rage at the political class’. She is absolutely right that the feelings of many Leavers went far deeper than even the best economic programme could assuage. But instead of just sweeping them aside with the description ‘post imperialist English nationalism’, I want to suggest that we take a good hard look at this nationalism, especially the fact that it is ‘English’.

    At the some time, we should introduce some humility into the way the the English left runs a mile from issues around national identity – from what Dan Jarvis MP and former soldier, whose lesser but similarly thoughtful and restrained reflection JVL has also printed, calls ‘patriotism’. Alone perhaps in the ENTIRE WORLD the English left sneers at and disregards the desire for ordinary people to want to feel positive about their national identity. It never even things about the subject. If issues around such identity surface in our politics, they are inevitably designated ‘irrational’ (thus ignoring and evading the importance of irrationality in our everyday lives – and not that different from calling Leave voters stupid, ignorant and brainwashed), ‘right wing’, usually ‘racist’ and often a ‘post imperialist relic’. None of which are surprising, since the left has nothing positive to say on the subject and so makes no contribution to constructing a positive and progressive role within our politics for a sense of who and what our nation is.

    Perhaps, along with all its rethinking arising from this election, the left needs to ruminate on how it rejects, avoids and despises the ordinary desires of ordinary people in England to feel both proud about who they are, and in control of their own destiny – which desires we never deny the people of South Africa, Algeria, India, Jamaica, indeed any post-colonial state, but of which we are deeply ashamed when it comes to England. Those of us who are Jewish and on the left should maybe also remember how moving it was when French Jews, meeting Netanyahu after the murders in the kosher supermarket in Paris, greeted his injunction that they should emigrate to Israel: they told him who they were – French Jews – by standing up and singing the Marseillaise. Leaving said the fact that we don’t have a suitable national anthem to match the Marseillaise (and why is that a matter of joking, rather than political concern?), would we have had a comparable statement of who we were, had those murders taken place in London?

    My second comment concerns the need to build alliances, which I have rarely seen put better. I just want to add that it should include enthusiastically and selflessly campaigning for electoral reform. Not just because ‘our electoral system systematically fucks the left’ – a description that I could not better – but it is right, democratic and in the interests of the people of this country that we have an electoral system which meets their democratic needs.

  • Joyce Bullivant says:

    I think the key is that while Labour MPs were infighting and arguing about brexit and Remain they lost sight of why so many people from the most deprived areas voted Leave in first place. There has been for some time a complacency about safe seats and safe Councils while within those areas frustrations have built up and a huge disconnect between the middle aged to elderly voter who wishes for past times when there wasn’t so many homeless on the street and people had jobs that had 40 hours a week paid work. Milliband talking about immigration rather than cuts just helped fuel the right wing narrative that it was the “influx of EU migrants” that caused the problems, not the international banking crisis and the austerity cuts. The arguments going on in the Labour Party today show they still haven’t got it. The problem is that most of the narrative is owned by rightwing press. It is going to need some bold publicity to overcome that. It is also going to need a return to basics and some of the good parts of old Labour, support for communities by helping them not patting them on the head. Bringing back the previously outsourced services back in house or at least with local providers. Labour Councils can do a lot if they help communities take the initiative. Hard for the rightwing to hold the narrative if on the ground the local person sees it is the Labour Party that is helping them survive. We need Labour to once again be community based and responsive to local needs. Waiting for Labour to win a General Election and get funding back is not an option as it leaves the poor and vulnerable with nothing.

  • Labour doesn’t have to wait until the next general election there is something it can do now: move Labour’s Head Office to a Northern Town (not city) and hold NEC meetings there. Yes that might be inconvenient for the metropolitan elite but that would be a good thing as they would get to experience first hand how the other half live and things like crap public transport. One of the reasons people voted for Brexit is that they came from deprived communities and felt ignored. Moving Labour’s Head Office would provide powerful symbolism and prove that Labour is prepared to listen.
    “For the Many not the Few” should be transformed into “By the Many not the Few”. Labour needs to prove that it will stop being a Top Down organisation and become a political party that really involves local people not just decides what is best for them.

  • Richard Hayward says:

    “One of my own big mistakes going into this election was to under-estimate the influence of the media: after 2017”

    Amongst all the breast-beating and navel-gazing that has succeeded the election, this is the one aspect above all that had a massive influence.

    Had it not been there, there would have been no easy win, and other factors would have grown in salience. But any analysis has to highlight the quite unprecedented nature of the propaganda campaign that places us closer to states such as Turkey rather than advanced democracies.

    I have no doubt at all that this did indeed make the crucial difference.

    What is striking even now is that, in comparison with its obvious relevance, this is the factor that receives least attention, even from the Party that was skewered by it. There is a culture of not appearing to flinch at the most significant wound, and the one that is most infected.

  • Hazel Davies says:

    One factor left out of this excellent and honest analysis, is that Local Labour Authorities are made to do the Tories’ dirty work. The gradual withdrawal of adequate funding to fulfil the legal obligations means that many LAs have no option to pursue locally unpopular policies such as opening up green belt land for development, or selling off parks. Local people often cannot see the link with central government and blame the local party. Devolved government/management was one of the most effective policies designed by Thatcher’s think-tanks.

  • Robert Elliot says:

    Quite enjoyed reading this.
    I am not momentum – I am more of a Social Democrat, having been a communist leading up to Tianenman Square and the collapse of the Soviet Union I am no longer convinced that widespread nationalisation is a solution to everything – of natural monopolies? I can buy that.

    However one issue – Corbyn didn’t just hunker down wrt the Lib Dems – he did it with the more centrist parts of the Labour Party as well.

    We need to compromise – and take some of Momentum’s more radical ideas and temper them.

    We also need to be focused and utterly ruthless over the next 5 years.
    Every Tory misstep brought to light and contrasted with our projected policies.

  • Matt says:

    As someone who put in an awful lot of effort over the 4 years a lot of what you said rings true for me too. I never really understood the almost bolt-on approach of community organisers that seemed to be shipped in without much thought about what local activists from the branches and CLP’s were up to…It was just a bit clumsy and often when we’d built trust up in the local community by helping their campaign around the crap bus services get bigger and bigger, along comes a dictat and suddenly we’ve gone from a grassroots things to a ‘crowbar our PPC’ in there and bring out the all singing, all dancing twitter/FB campaign filming…
    Another thing we totally cocked up with I think nationally was ignoring just how hated Labour Councils have become…
    Yes this is for various reasons and some of them fair that were very hard to disagree with (bad local decision making around road building, selling off of land, expenses, scandals ala Private Eye’s Rotton Borough’s and of course the sheer amount of deadwood we have) but also some of them unfair due to the massive cuts in central funding…Why national didn’t put forward those funny dynamic films around the utter hollowing out of Council funding I do not know but the attacks on our council came up loads on the doors step…
    We worked our arses off and had a brilliant mix of people, we did lots of the groundwork through the fantastic work of our councillor, members and our PPC but alas it wasn’t to be and though we held back a lot of the swing towards the Tories the message, and on the whole I’d say for every 10 people we got to speak to 9 were supportive and 1 was Brexit, IRA, Council we were scuppered by the Tory support in other, more affluent wards…
    My main gripe is that even on a CLP level we spent inordinate amounts of time discussing attacks from within our own party or ‘positions’ and it felt like we were always going into this with one hand behind our backs as people on the doorstep kept saying even our own MP’s can’t stand Corbyn, or ‘he’s racist etc etc’…

  • Rafi says:

    Does anyone know what percent of youth voted labour ?
    Some youth feel estranged from labour and groups like JVL because they see labour and JVL as middle class ivory tower verbose intellectuals far removed from reality.
    In all honesty our message was so academic our leader so uncharismatic that our red wall came tumbling down.
    Nobody it seems is listening

  • John Lyst says:

    The Party did not just dither over Brexit between 2017 and 2019 it changed it’s policy. This was a gift to the Tory’s and the right wing media. It was easy for them to portray the Party as “not respecting democracy”. I don’t believe that Corbyn ever supported this change but as the majority in the Party did he went along with it. The fact that Corbyn was forced to advocate a second referendum after saying the opposite in 2017 made it easy for the Tory’s and their media to portray him as “untrustworthy like all the rest”.
    Most people acknowledge that there was a smear campaign against Corbyn
    from the moment he became leader. What is not acknowledged often enough is that much of the campaign was orchestrated from within the PLP and by senior figures within the Party. If the majority of the PLP had been supportive of Corbyn from the start then I think Labour would have been the largest Party in 2017.
    We need to understand the roots of the anti-Corbyn agenda in the right wing of the Party and the “rest of the establishment”. Are we allowed to discuss Iraq/weapons of mass destruction? and Israel/Palestine?
    Less than 30% of registered voters voted Tory, the largest electoral constituency was the non voters. A big factor in this must be our undemocratic electoral system. Labour needs to make a much bigger issue about this than it has done in the past. In effect our system is the “parliamentary dictatorship of the largest minority”. A bit like the referendum actually. Unfortunately hardly anyone criticized the lack of criteria attached to the referendum at the time.

  • Rafi says:

    Thanks Mike for the link to voting stats by age, which makes fascinating reading.
    It seems MY source of voting patterns by age is inaccurate!!

  • Nigel James says:

    Probably the best wide ranging review so far. If I had to add anything it would be to hit home harder on the lack of clear, straightforward messages during the campaign. We need to do some things in a more professional manner (which I hasten to add does not mean diluting our message but just presenting it more cogently. Having said that our campaigning ability is not equal in every constituency and the level of the game needs to rise as it is the only advantage we have over other parties.

  • Ray McHale says:

    I can live with a lot of this analysis. However, I don’t think it delves enough into the underlying issues of Brexit and the xenophobia and racism in certain white working class areas. The Tory leaflet which focused on the impact of immigration and “health tourism” on the NHS shows they understood this was still a dog-whistle issue.
    Reading this via JVL it remarkably ignores the impact of the greatly exaggerated and weaponised claims of antisemitism – most notably in the same way as Brexit indecision – in making Corbyn look weak. He was pinned against the ropes on the issue for months and failed to come out fighting.
    The notional moving of troops around the country has never chimed with me. It is belief in enthusiasm above reality, and often ill-judged. The lack of evening canvassing made it hard to mobilise much of our membership in this campaign but we are probably still utilising less than 10%. Mobilising local members is better than transporting people in.
    The Party does have to build community involvement and organisation – but here I think Labour Councils who implement and mask Government cuts (often in the name of claiming their own success) are a real issue. They are often the hand that delivers the Tory blows and they strongly resist community campaigns that portray them as accepting of the situation and as not leading a resistance.
    Finally, I don’t accept the asserted need to build alliances. I could live with merging with the Greens, since they established firm Left economic policies, but the LibDems (and in Scotland the SNP) pose an on-going threat to our Party and must be squeezed relentlessly if they are not to be a conduit for many of our votes to flow away – especially in local elections. The product of such alliances is always unclear.

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