Taking stock – a further compilation

JVL Introduction

Another selection of articles with interesting and different emphases and perspectives on the causes of our catastrophic defeat.

Mary Kaldor provides a wide-ranging analysis of where we are as a society after four decades of neo-liberalism; grim reading but Kaldor urges Social Democrats in the rest of Europe not to conclude that “Labour lost because it was too left-wing. Labour lost because it was not internationalist and pro-EU enough.”

Graig Gent unpicks the notion of Labour losing its “heartlands” in ”the north”: “The bulk of these towns constitute what should be more appropriately termed England’s mining belt.” Taken for granted by Labour strategists for decades since the defeat of the miners, Brexit rightly or wrongly “offered enough people an antidote to years of feeling defeated and defeatist.”

Dan Jarvis MP’s account of campaigning – successfully – to hold his Barnsley seat shows how “pride in Labour has now in many cases been replaced with apathy and antipathy” – and a visceral anger that could sometimes be barely contained. The account is non-recriminatory; the lesson, hard to implement, is to “rebuild our party, regain trust and ensure it is grounded in communities around the country

John Graham Davies, writing from Liverpool Riverside says “The effect of the media lies and smears has been for a thin layer of disapproving dust, disapproving of Corbyn in person, to settle on a lot of people.” But he doesn’t blame the media so much as those in the party who revelled in the demonisation of Corbyn and those on Corbyn’s side who didn’t take the fight to them. Instead, he argues, the repeated attempts to apologise came over as puzzling and demoralising.

This article was originally published by openDemocracy, Novara Media, Labour List, People and Nature on Thu 19 Dec 2019. Read the original here.

Taking stock – a further compilation

 

Labour and the 2019 Brexit Election

A failure to come to terms with the changing structure of society under the impact of globalisation holds lessons for Social Democrats in other parts of Europe.

Mary Kaldor, openDemocracy, 16 December 2019

How did it happen that the United Kingdom has elected as Prime Minister a proven liar, someone who does not know how many children he has, and someone who uses facetiously racist and misogynist language? How did it happen that he achieved a Conservative majority for a monumental act of self-harm to the United Kingdom, namely Brexit?

The Conservative Party had hardly any activists; they have less than 70,000 members, mostly elderly (by contrast Labour has half a million members). Those of us out on the doorstep never saw a single Tory campaigner and very few posters. The Conservative manifesto was sketchy, prone to vagueness and double counting, as in the number of hospitals to be built or the nurses to be recruited. By contrast, Labour had an exciting and ambitious manifesto, representing the outcome of years of hard work, especially by the shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. It included a green new deal, big commitments to public services and utilities, and innovative proposals like public service broadband.

Boris Johnson made gaffe after gaffe – stealing a reporter’s phone after he took a picture of a sick boy on the floor of a hospital, hiding in a fridge to escape the media, not turning up to hustings on climate change or in his own constituency, refusing to be grilled by Andrew Neil of the BBC even though the other party leaders had done so on the clear understanding that the Tory leader would also be interviewed, to name but a few of these incidents.

And yet the relentless message of ‘Get Brexit Done’ combined with the vilification of Jeremy Corbyn put out by a centralised well-funded Tory HQ through social media and the tabloid press seems to have hit home at least in England and Wales. As a whisky exporter from East Dumbartonshire, where the Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson lost her seat, put it: ‘I don’t think it would have mattered if Koko the silverback gorilla was the leader of the Tories; they had a message wrapped in the Union Jack and voters in England bought it.’

This was a Brexit election. Those in favour of Brexit united behind the Conservative Party and obtained 47% of the vote. Those who were against Brexit, the majority of the population, were divided among Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, and the Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalist parties. In the British first past the post system, only the dominant parties matter. Labour had a Brexit policy that satisfied no one. Its commitment to a public vote was opposed by those who want to leave but its refusal to commit to a remain position lost it remain voters. The Conservatives only increased their vote by 1.5% compared with 2017, Labour’s share fell by 8%, mainly to other remain parties. This allowed a string of Conservative victories in what is known as the ‘red wall’ – the traditional English labour heartlands across the middle and North of England from the Irish Sea to the North Sea.

Getting Brexit done

I did a lot of canvassing in the working class estates in Brighton, where I live, and what was striking was that those who wanted to ‘get Brexit done’ were uniformly elderly white working class people, mainly male, while those who said they would vote Labour were of all classes, all ages and all colours. While there is a lot to be said about the shortcomings of the Labour campaign, I would argue that the fundamental problem has been the failure of influential parts of the party on both right and left sides, to come to terms with the changing structure of society under the impact of globalisation. The election, therefore, holds lessons for Social Democrats in other parts of Europe.

Four decades of neo-liberalism has skewed the British economy in favour of finance rather than manufacturing, mining or agriculture and this was further accentuated after the 2008 financial crisis. First of all, this skewing of the economy has dramatically increased social inequalities and has changed the class composition of society. On the one hand, skilled manual jobs in manufacturing and mining have declined. On the other hand, both skilled white collar jobs (in the public sector or the new tech industries) as well as underpaid uskilled service jobs including the notorious ‘zero hour’ contract jobs, have increased. Whereas skilled manual workers tended, in the past, to be predominantly white and male, the new professional and unskilled workers are heavily dependent on immigration and involve many more women.

Secondly this shift in social structure is associated with dramatically increased geographical inequalities. The big cities where the decline of the Labour vote was less marked included all these groups but especially professionals and the ‘new’ multicultural precariat; while there is steep inequality within the cities, it is these places that have benefited from finance fuelled growth. The so-called left-behind areas are the areas where mining and manufacturing had declined, where both skills and skilled jobs are scarce, where immigration tends to be low, and where bright young people leave for the big cities. These areas have been described as ‘geographies of discontent’ similar to the situation in East Germany, where the AfD was so successful.

Political disempowerment

The problem in these areas is political as well as economic. My research on the impact on Brexit at local levels indicates that it is the sense of political disempowerment that is as important as the economic factors. These are regions that Labour has taken for granted. Members of Parliament were often absent, many of the community building political activities of the last century have been abandoned. People in these areas felt let down by the continued neo-liberalism of the Blair and Brown years and unable to find a vehicle through which to express their opinions.

The shift from manufacturing to finance has also affected the nature of the state. The British state has become heavily dependent on finance as a source of revenue, turning it in to a sort of rentier state, prone to some of the same ills as, for example, oil dependent states. The contracting out culture associated with neo-liberalism has, it can be argued, produced a new class of conservative politicians more interested in power for its own sake, and in access to the sources of public patronage than the public good. It has created what might be described as a new class of crony capitalists or oligarchs who fund the Tory Party and who control large parts of the media, especially the tabloid press.

It was the appeal of the oligarchs to the traditional white working class that delivered a Tory victory and that underlay the basic social arithmetic that led to the leave vote in 2016, a similar coalition to the one forged by Donald Trump in America. Indeed the combination of technology and crony capitalism is typical of contemporary right-wing populism.

Labour’s ‘compromise’ position

The Labour Party had an ambiguous, dithering position on Brexit. After the 2016 referendum, Labour promised to respect the result of the referendum and supported the triggering of Article 50. Labour argued for a ‘softer’ deal than Theresa May that would protect jobs and the economy but restrict immigration. Despite substantial grass roots pressure from pro-remain members, Labour resisted explicit calls for a public vote and this resulted in big losses in the local and European elections earlier this year, mainly to the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. Finally after local Labour parties had sent more than 60 resolutions to the Party Conference in September, the leadership adopted what was described as a ‘compromise’ position in which Labour would negotiate a ‘better’ deal and put this to a public vote. Labour refused to say whether it would support leave or remain, although Corbyn finally said, during the election, that he personally would remain ‘neutral’. In the end Labour lost at least twice as many votes to remain parties as to leave parties. In 28 of the heartland seats that were lost, votes for remain parties other than Labour were greater than the Tory majorities. The dithering over Brexit policy, the readiness to triangulate on the most important issue of our time, the willingness to accept the control of immigration, for example, may also have cost Jeremy Corbyn his reputation for being a different kind of principled politician.

In the aftermath of the election, the so-called lexiters, the left pro-Brexit wing of the party, epitomised by Len McClusky, the General Secretary of the Unite union, accused the remainers of having lost the election by pushing the Party towards support for a second referendum. The lexiters, akin perhaps to parts of Die Linke in Germany, see the working class in traditional terms and believe that to win the Labour heartlands, Labour needs to be left in social policies but culturally right on nationalism and immigration. The right of the party, the inheritors of the Blair years, believed that Labour was too left-wing. They argued that the policies were too ambitious and unrealistic, an argument that resonated with those who believed the Conservative argument that it was Labour extravagance rather than the banks that led to the financial crisis and that austerity is somehow necessary. These people, who had opposed Corbyn from the beginning, were those who had taken the working class for granted and believed that Labour could only win power by appealing to the middle class – perhaps they could be likened to the Clinton wing of the Democrats.

People-based politics versus digital politics

The overwhelming majority of Labour party members do not fit either of these positions. They are both left and for remain, they are both internationalist and socialist. These are the people who surged into the Labour Party when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader. They tend to be young and multi-cultural. They include skilled workers in the public sector and the tech industries as well as unskilled workers from a wide range of different backgrounds. The Labour vote in the South and indeed parts of the North was not just a middle class vote; students and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) voters largely supported Labour, as did many white working class people.

It was the pro-Europe, left activists in the Labour Party, in Momentum (the social movement that mobilised support for Jeremy Corbyn), and in anti Brexit left groups like Another Europe is Possible that organised a large-scale grass roots campaign – the biggest I have ever experienced in any elections campaign. There was a surge in new registrations, mainly young people. There was a grass roots tactical voting campaign online with several different tactical voting sites and millions of visitors. Tens of thousands of activists were out campaigning in marginal seats. Momentum organised a social media campaign that reached millions of people, on a tiny fraction of the money that was spent by the Tory party. For those of us involved in this campaign, the election result came as a shock. Even though the polls had consistently shown a Tory lead, most of us believed that people based politics trumps digital politics.

And perhaps that would have been true had the official campaign been in line with the grass roots campaign. Although the Brexit position was the main failure of the official campaign, there were other shortcomings as well. First, the anti-semitism charge stuck to Labour much more than racism and Islamophobia stuck to the Tories. The paradox was that it was the Conservatives who had to sack a candidate for anti-semitism and no less than five Tory candidates were accused of Islamophobia; it was after all Boris Johnson who described the burqa as a letter box, prompting extremists to try and put letters through the eye slit, and it was Boris Johnson who referred to black people as picaninnies. This is not to excuse Labour’s anti-semitism, which was, in my view, more about left sectarianism (no less reprehensible) than anti-semitism. Likewise, the charge that Corbyn was a security risk because he had spoken to the IRA and Hamas also stuck, even though the Tory alliance with a similarly extreme and violent organisation, the DUP, was never questioned.

Love Socialism Hate Brexit

Secondly, the official campaign was somewhat lack lustre perhaps because Corbyn had lost his magic. Labour had not managed to set up its phone banking system for the first two weeks of the campaign. Corbyn himself looked tired and irritable for much of the campaign. Loyalty evidently came before winning elections as solid loyalists, like Richard Burgon or Rebecca Long-Bailey, were given prominent roles rather than the pro-remain stars of Labour such as Keir Starmer or Emily Thornberry. The campaign team reportedly refused to believe polls and allocated resources to marginal seats they hoped to win rather than defending Labour seats.

And thirdly, the ambition and scale of the manifesto may have undermined the strength of a simple slogan or narrative that could have competed with ‘Get Brexit Done’, even though the ‘real change’ slogan does seem to have gone down well. So many voters had become naturalised to austerity that they were not ready to embrace the kind of hope offered by Labour.

It is worth noting that the group of pro-remain left MPs, with a high proportion of women and BAME MPs, known as Love Socialism Hate Brexit did rather well. Only two members of the group lost their seats and one was in Scotland to the SNP. My own constituency Brighton Kemptown had been Conservative in 2010 and 2015. It was won by Lloyd Russell-Moyle in 2017 with a 10,000 majority although the green candidate had stepped down. Lloyd Russell-Moyle took a clear and committed remain position and really worked to build up local support in the period since 2017. Every time, I went canvassing, I came across someone who knew Lloyd or who had been helped by Lloyd. The campaign was supported by several hundred local activists, who held some 20,000 conversations with electors, stuffed and hand delivered tens of thousands of leaflets, undertook phone banking or set up street stalls. This time there was a green candidate who won 3000 votes. Nevertheless, Lloyd managed to retain a majority of 9000. And similar successes were recorded in both North and South – Rosie Duffield in Canterbury, for example, Chi Onwurah in Newcastle, or Alex Sobel in Leeds.

Grim prognosis

The results in Scotland and Northern Ireland were quite different from England and Wales. In both places, pro-EU nationalist parties won. In Scotland, the SNP gained 14 seats with the Tories losing seven seats, Labour six and the Lib Dems one. In Northern Ireland, the DUP lost two seats , and there is now a nationalist majority. In both places there will be demands for referenda on independence for Scotland and unification of Ireland that are likely to be resisted by the Conservative government.

The prognosis for Britain is grim. This is a government that will do anything to retain power; they will introduce boundary changes and new techniques like voter IDs that will make it even more difficult for Labour to win power in the future. They are likely to apply the hostile environment for immigrants to Europeans with dire consequences for the economy and a likely rise in hate crime. They will negotiate trade deals that lower environmental, health and safety standards. They will come into conflict with Scotland and Northern Ireland. And the Brexit drama will continue as the relationship with the EU is negotiated. Above all, the confidence of people like me who felt that we lived in a fundamentally decent society has been lost.

Social Democrats in the rest of Europe should not draw the conclusion that Labour lost because it was too left-wing. Labour lost because it was not internationalist and pro-EU enough. Social Democrats need to develop radical policies that address both climate change and social justice and that appeal both to traditional voters and to what might be described as the ‘new’ working class – multi-cultural, skilled and unskilled, young, and female as well as male.

The Labour manifesto was probably difficult to implement without changes in the rest of Europe, without controlling financial speculation, global carbon emissions, and transnational corporate tax evasion. The social movement that came into being as a consequence of the election of Jeremy Corbyn will not go away. It will resist the Conservative government and it will work with local communities across the country. Britain is still part of Europe, even if it leaves the European Union, and the left still needs international solidarity.

 


Learning the Lessons of Labour’s Northern Nightmare Will Take Longer Than a Weekend

Craig Gent, Novara Media, 17 Dec

Of course, people are more than entitled to air their reflections and opinions about what went wrong, how we got here, and how the disparity between hope and reality got so wide. But it is galling to see people who were sideswiped by the result – who had largely written off the crumbling of Labour’s ‘red wall’ as a myth – now speaking in authoritative tones about how shit really went down, as explained by this one handy graph.

The bare facts are these: Labour’s election campaign did not look the same across northern towns as it did on left Twitter. Swathes of towns that said they wanted Brexit in 2016 still want Brexit. Those towns by and large felt patronised by the offer of a second referendum, a policy whose public support has always been inflated by the gaseous outpourings of its most ardent supporters. And two years on from 2017, the novelty of Corbynmania had thoroughly worn off, with his increasingly stage-managed media appearances beginning to rub people up the wrong way.

Naturally, people are now rushing to say why the result confirms their long-held suspicions that X needs to happen. Chief among delusionists within this deluge are the centrists whose core contribution over the last two years was the very policy that proved Labour’s undoing. I am not a habitual lexiter, but the idea that the second referendum offer had nothing to do with the result is completely detached from reality. More still is the idea that Labour could have won by backing an outright remain position sooner. To understand this election, context is everything, and I’m afraid those who conveniently point to data sets comparing 2017 and 2019 as proof that they were right all along are lacking it in spades.

The decisive blow for Labour in this election was dealt in constituencies across the north of England which in many cases had reliably returned Labour MPs for decades. But let’s stop calling them ‘traditional working class’ towns, as if other more multi-ethnic towns and cities don’t rely on heavy industry or manufacturing jobs. And let’s also stop calling them Labour’s ‘heartlands’ – a term, like ‘the north’, which is relied on by people who could not point to a northern town smaller than Newcastle on a map, and which imagines a level of reciprocity which has not been present for years.

The bulk of these towns constitute what should be more appropriately termed England’s mining belt. They lived and breathed both the miners’ strike in the 1980s and its long defeat through the 1990s, during which New Labour built an electoral strategy upon the assumption that voters there, as in other former industrial hubs across the UK, had “nowhere else to go”. This strategy was, of course, temporarily successful, but it stitched into the fabric of New Labour’s approach the logic that the mining belt would no longer be an actual organising base, but instead kept sweet by the drip of trickle-down social democracy.

That might work in power, but since the global financial crisis and following a decade of austerity, Labour’s foothold in the mining belt has only become weaker. Over time, northern Labour councils have come to be viewed as the establishment, their attempts to stave off the worst effects of austerity communicated poorly to the electorate, while strategists in London no doubt mistook a splash of red on a map for enthusiasm instead of waning support for a long-established default. Yet since Brexit, the writing has been on the wall – if only London-centrists had looked up. Rightly or wrongly, Brexit offered enough people an antidote to years of feeling defeated and defeatist – the experience of finally winning something. Labour’s prevarication since the 2017 election left many people feeling ‘let down by Labour’ – a sentiment which propelled a number of independents and right-wingers into local councils, and which propelled the Brexit party to first place in the European elections.

Let’s be real – these signals were written off as a protest vote, or likely to be statistically insignificant come a general election. Doing so was a failure to recognise the political journey many former Labour voters were on. While the Conservatives and Brexit party fanned the confidence delivered by winning the referendum for their own cynical purposes, Labour became the party of ‘steady on’, asking leave voters to gamble their sacred victory in order to appease a bunch of hard remainers who never accepted that they lost, and worse yet, appeared to think their votes ought to have been worth more than the votes of leavers.

One reason the situation now feels so horrible to Labour supporters is that in entertaining the entirely patronising prospect of a ‘route to remain’, the party has ceded the entire project of Brexit in all its possible forms to the right. While at the time of the referendum there was at least a recognition that people voted to leave for a range of different reasons, the continual preference for “clever wheezes to prevent Britain from leaving the European Union”, as Barnsley MP Dan Jarvis put it to me, fanned mistrust and disillusionment in the Labour party and its leader, whose eventual decision to remain neutral was, rightly or wrongly, read as an insincere calculation rather than a genuine gesture towards national unity.

One does not have to go full lexit to see what the alternative could have looked like. Leave the European Union, while making a practical case for membership of the customs union and at long last stepping up to an ideological battle on immigration to either win the argument to stay in the single market or strive for a similar arrangement afterwards. It would not have been easy or straightforward, but with the Brexit vote itself ambiguous, no one could have accused Labour of not ‘respecting the referendum’ had it at least committed properly to leaving the political union.

There was also an argument to be won with remainers, as evidenced by the now-familiar cry that backing Brexit would have just lost votes to the Liberal Democrats. Remain lost the referendum. Remainers – they, we – lost. Most people who voted as such accept this, and it was a mistake to imagine that the need to keep remainers onside was the same as keeping remain itself alive as an option. The pressure to do so came not from the actual threat of remainers deserting the party in any serious way – as the 2017 election showed – but from the sections of Labour that are either ideologically not so distant from the Lib Dems or possess such a paternalistic attitude to voters that they were simply unwilling to accept that people knew what they wanted.

Worse still, Labour did possess the tools to carve out a position for itself within the Brexit context. It briefly looked possible that it would dovetail with Labour’s promise to ‘rebuild Britain’ following years of austerity, playing to the party’s own strong claim to historical credibility in that area. The party political broadcast ‘Our Town’ (below) suggested as much, trumping nativism with localism as part of a broader programme of rebuilding confidence and civic pride. The World Transformed was also ahead of the curve in this area, with its early attempt to wrestle back the meaning of ‘take back control’ for the left. Such visions were absent from the most recent election campaign.

In an article published on Novara Media a few days before the election, I said that disillusionment is Labour’s biggest enemy in the north’s leave-voting seats. That still holds, and Labour should not be comforted by the seats it has managed to retain, which have generally suffered enormous swings towards the pro-Brexit parties (Barnsley Central, a fortunate Labour hold, suffered a -23.8% swing to the benefit of the Brexit party, which came second with 30.4% of the vote). Labour’s task will now be to rebuild broken trust and raise the confidence of towns where Labour voters either swung blue for the first time, or simply weren’t convinced enough to go and vote.

We all know this government is not about to lift a decade of austerity and 40 years of neoliberalism off the mining belt. As he has promised, Boris Johnson will no doubt throw in some bonuses for those who have lent him their vote. If we’re serious about rebuilding Britain then we know the general direction of Labour’s economic policies since 2017 are the right ones, but both Labour and groups like Momentum are going to need to think very hard about how and where they organise if they are going to win the argument at the ballot box.

This election is surely the definitive confirmation that having a giant membership does not automatically make a party more grassroots. Momentum has shown itself to be very effective at mobilising members to campaign in key marginals on the outskirts of the largest cities – indeed far more effective than Labour HQ itself – but roots have to be grown in a place, and place matters. No, the working class is not confined to predominantly white northern towns, as some commentators would have it, but equally there must be some recognition that towns are not cities, and the grassroots cannot be coordinated from London.

It is an unfortunate fact that Corbynism never overcame the principle of electoral triangulation most commonly associated with Blairism. While fighting a ground-game which focuses on marginals makes sense in terms of sheer logistical pragmatism, it treats ‘safe’ seats as monoliths which can quickly be counted and banked before moving on to more lucrative pastures. There needs to be a recognition that this is not politically sound beyond the short-term, not least because it means the places marked ‘safe’ – and the people who live there – go unattended for decades at a time. Like the unexamined CDOs that led to the financial crisis, Labour has for too long gestured towards its ‘red wall’ somewhere up the motorway without ever really checking on the bricks.

Most crucial in the coming period will be the resources and guidance given to both constituency parties and the community organising team. The two need to be working in tandem across the country, each willing to eat their share of humble pie, though leaving most to the party’s central strategists. At a local level, the party should first make sure that it is undertaking community work for no calculated gain – a sign that Labour is not going anywhere and cares about the community whether it is representing the constituency in parliament or not. Soon after, Labour activists should be trusted and supported to build institutions that materially support people where they are, over a period of time which is about to get much harder for many in society – breakfast clubs for kids, activity groups for disabled people, family days for single parents, advice surgeries for benefits claimants. Every member should be involved in this work in some way; community organising is not a spectator sport and there can be no shortcuts.

All wings of Labour need to recognise that the ground has shifted beneath its feet, and the old calculations do not hold. Centrists will no doubt point to their run of good fortune two decades ago, yet their strategic gambles gave rise to the mistrust that is now laid bare and their most unifying idea of the last two years was the final straw. Likewise those around Corbyn will have to admit that they tried to be too clever on Brexit and squandered the trajectory of 2017 rather than building on it. Now it is time to focus on what the labour movement is supposed to do best – organising to improve the lives of ordinary people all over the country, not out of calculation but because it’s the right thing to do. Only then will people start ‘coming home’ to Labour, and both Labour and the communities it wants to represent will be all the stronger for it.

Craig Gent is head of articles at Novara Media and lives in West Yorkshire.


Lessons from campaigning in the Labour heartland seat of Barnsley

Dan Jarvis, Labour List, 18 Dec

Barnsley is often used as an example of a ‘Labour heartland’ seat. Our party was once woven into the social fabric of our community, but pride in Labour has now in many cases been replaced with apathy and antipathy.

The truth is that the origin of this bruising general election defeat wasn’t just Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership or the UK voting to leave the European Union. However, a combination of the two meant the slow decline of support in our traditional base was accelerated and produced Labour’s worst election performance in more than 80 years.

In my constituency of Barnsley Central, the Brexit Party came a worryingly close second. They threw the kitchen sink at us – visits from Nigel Farage with national media entourage in tow, a full wraparound our local paper, a plane flying a party banner, a dozen mailings to households, publicity across the borough and countless targeted Facebook ads.

All of which carried the same message: Labour doesn’t care about you. And it worked. The result was a humbling night for Labour in Barnsley. I received 10,000 fewer votes and saw my majority reduced to 3,571. Nearly one in three people – in the town still home to the National Union of Mineworkers – supported a political outfit headed by a man who once said he “supported Thatcher’s reforms of the economy”.

Our victory in Barnsley was ultimately down to all of those who knocked on door after door in the bitter cold and never-ending rain. I will forever be in their debt. They rolled up their sleeves and eked out the votes, house by house.

On four occasions, I was confronted by constituents displaying such visceral anger that I was prepared for a physical altercation. I count myself fortunate that it never quite reached that point. They included an ex-miner who said Labour was no longer for the working class and a veteran who said our party’s frontbench supported terrorists.

Local activists were regularly verbally abused for having the temerity to speak with residents about the election or simply deliver campaign literature. I have a duty of care for them and wrestled with whether it was fair to ask them to go out and knock on doors.

I had countless conversations with people who expressed deep concern at a Labour Party that they thought no longer spoke for them. They felt we were out of step with the values of community, patriotism and respect for our armed forces that run deep throughout our town.

The biggest obstacle faced on the doorstep was undoubtedly our party’s leadership. The disdain voters held was for a plethora of reasons, with virtually nobody believing Jeremy could be trusted to lead our country.

The second most prominent reason for our collapse was our Brexit stance. We were perceived as a party of Remainers, intent on disrespecting the democratic decision made in 2016. Nearly everyone was exhausted by the delay, uncertainty and debate around a second referendum.

Thirdly, our manifesto – while full of ambitious individual offers – was viewed by most as unrealistic. That is not to say the level and scale of change on offer is not deliverable but the groundwork preparing people for it was not laid. In the end, it cut through, but in a negative rather than positive way.

The outcome: Labour is now further away from power than at any time in living memory. Moreover, this regression has occurred nine years into one of the most incompetent and destructive governments in British political history. But this is not the time for bloodletting, ‘I told you so’ or goading.

Nothing I’ve written is intended to antagonise members who supported our party’s leader – as many did in good faith – whose solidarity and determination I relied on during this election. However, without an honest analysis of what happened and the requisite change, we risk the bond between heartland seats across the Midlands and North of England and Labour being irrevocably broken.

Our activists are knackered and worn down, but it is imperative that we now rebuild our party, regain trust and ensure it is grounded in communities around the country. The task is mammoth, yet we owe it to those towns and regions devastated by a decade of austerity who sadly felt they couldn’t support us this time.

Herein lies the tragedy. Our country has been crying out for a Labour government but we keep giving people reasons not to vote for us. With strong leadership and a credible policy offer that addresses the huge challenges we face, I am certain that we can win them back.

We need to act fast, before it’s too late. This election represented the last chance Barnsley is willing to give Labour. If we don’t listen – and change – the final bricks of what’s left of the ‘Red Wall’ will be bulldozed away next time.

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and Mayor of Sheffield City Region.


Confronting the agents of capital: a Corbynista’s dilemma

Some thoughts on the election from Liverpool Riverside.

A guest post by John Graham Davies, People and Nature, 19 December 2019

Listening to Radio 4 on Tuesday morning was a lesson in the gloating ruthlessness of our ruling class. We had just heard a clip of Jeremy Corbyn giving a dignified, measured assessment of his, and our, calamitous loss in the election. Corbyn explained why it was necessary for him to stay on for a short transitional period.

Cut to the studio: a cackling young BBC journalist, with an accent which sounded like it came out of one our more expensive public schools, armed with the obligatory fragment of Latin.

“What’s the opposite of mea culpa? Ha ha ha! Not much self-criticism there, is there? Bit of a non mea culpa if you ask me.”

This braying buffoon, like so many of the other highly paid liars at the BBC, lives in so much of a bubble that he seems unaware of how much in contempt most of the British public now hold him. Him and his beloved BBC, that pompous foghorn of the state.

A right-wing Labour member of parliament was sharing the studio and made no attempt to silence the attack, or challenge it.

We all know that the knives are out for Jeremy Corbyn, but they are also aimed at our movement as a whole, and her silence was a reminder of that.

This election result, according to those who hold the wellbeing of our class most dearly to heart – well paid journos; former Labour politicians now earning nice salaries fronting radio shows; Tory politicians who sportingly feel it is “so vital” for our “democracy” to have a “proper opposition”; Labour MPs who have spent the past three years slandering the party that generates their generous salary and pension arrangements – all demand (for the good health of the Labour Party of course!) that this result must mark the definitive defeat of Corbynism as a movement.

If we mean by Corbynism something that was attempting to build a broad socialist coalition going beyond Westminster elections, then I don’t think it has necessarily failed – yet.

But I think we have to be honest. Last Thursday was a catastrophic defeat and we know what will follow in its wake: spiralling worries about money, how to feed our children, mental health problems.

All these – bad already – will get worse. We will see more homeless people on the streets, and some of us, particularly elderly and disabled people, will die younger as a result of cuts and our health service being given away to the sniggering spivs of the City and Wall Street.

It will be harder for our unions to rebuild and fight back. Racism, violence and the far right will grow.

There are things that we can do to try and counter all this, but this is what the victory of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) over Corbyn last Thursday means.

For that is what the election was.

The victory was not only Johnson’s. It also belongs to those on the right of the party (i.e. most of the PLP) who have worked night and day for the past three years to undermine Corbyn and the ideas of the movement which made Corbyn’s leadership possible.

We don’t forget the shocked and disappointed face of Stephen Kinnock at the exit poll announcement in 2017. He was smiling smugly on Question Time the day after this election. A defeat for Corbyn was vital for these careerist leeches, and they worked might and main for it. The bulk of them remain.

Before I move on to Brexit, it’s important to briefly mention the context, the Labour Party context, which has fuelled much of the scatter gun anger felt by many working class communities.

Others have written about the effect that Labour cuts have had. The fact that these originated in Tory government funding cuts to Labour councils was of no comfort to those seeing their services shredded. For many, Labour’s claim to be “for the many” must have rung hollow.

The fact that some of this righteous anger took the form for support for Brexit, and in many cases a little Englander mentality closely related to racism, should be no surprise.

One of the first acts of the Blair government, when it first took office in 1997, was to capitulate in the face of an assault by the media on “asylum seekers” and “economic migrants”. Fifteen years down the line, some Labour MPs were still talking about creating “hostile environments”. This was all manure for the far right and racism.

Coming out of that context, Brexit was a big factor. But, for me, neither the Brexit issue nor its effect on the election result are as straightforward as some comrades claim.

It was a difficult issue to deal with, given the twin demands of on the one hand our movement’s much vaunted (though seldom realised) tradition of internationalism and anti-racism, and on the other of recognising the hatred felt towards the institutions of the EU by those working class communities decimated by Thatcher, and then left to rot, clutching their lottery tickets in hope, by Blairism and, by extension in their eyes, the EU.

So it was a difficult issue and how it played out in parliament did us no favours. But it was certainly a big factor in the election result.

But so was the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Or should I say, so was the portrayal of the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

In the canvassing that I did, it was clear that a sizeable number of voters had doubts about Corbyn. These doubts were often vague. Yes, some voiced ludicrous claims about the abolition of the army (once), allowing the rest of the world in (if only it were true!), meetings with the IRA, and, of course, antisemitism. But when asked for details about these fears, they collapsed quite quickly into an inarticulate sense of unease.

Voters were unsure or hostile, but often found it difficult to express the exact nature of their opposition to Corbyn. There was a general sense that he was dodgy, weak, and probably a racist.

The effect of the media lies and smears has been for a thin layer of disapproving dust, disapproving of Corbyn in person, to settle on a lot of people. This shouldn’t surprise us, and the media campaign should not on its own have been enough to have turned a significant section of the electorate against Corbyn.

The problem was that the campaign wasn’t properly challenged – for two reasons.

Firstly, a large and very vocal section of the PLP was noisily re-inforcing the smears, or in many instances instigating them. Our own MP in Riverside, Louise Ellman, had carte blanche to lie about Corbyn and about local pro-Corbyn members. For three years she had open access to every TV channel and newspaper column in the country to spread this filth. She was energetically supported in this, both locally by a small group of Liverpool councillors, and nationally by a network of MPs, Dame Margaret Hodge being only the most prominent amongst many.

As a sidenote, Ellman’s fantasies about antisemitism reached their comic nadir when she claimed on national radio to be able to sense that Jeremy Corbyn had antisemitic thoughts, even though Jeremy didn’t himself know he was having them. Twenty years ago there was a psychic called Doris Stokes who used to earn a good living at the London Palladium peddling this kind of thing. If Ellman can add the laying-on of hands to her repertoire, she might get a call from the late Doris’s agent.

The hostile, unremittingly false media campaign was out of our control. But right-wing Labour MPs shouldn’t have been. MPs like Ellman and Hodge should have been de-selected or expelled two years ago.

Unfortunately there was opposition to this course of action from most of the leadership around Corbyn, and by some on the left. Certainly, in our Constituency Labour Party (CLP), there was far too great an appetite from its leadership to hide behind “advice” from anti-Corbyn regional officials, and carry on a kind of “peaceful co-existence”. This “advice” was then marketed as “instructions” to the membership, preventing free discussion about the need to have Open Selection, or to discuss the slanders aimed at the most prominent and staunch pro-Corbyn members (e.g. Ken Livingstone, Jackie Walker, Marc Wadsworth, Tony Greenstein, Chris Williamson).

So the failure to deal with those in the PLP hell bent on destroying Corbyn’s leadership was a serious mistake in my view, and permitted the character assassination to continue unabated for three years. We should have protected him and our fellow comrades better.

The second factor which allowed this paper-thin veneer of disapproval to settle on Corbyn – for some of our electorate at least – was the failure to robustly challenge the various witch hunts, most centrally the fake antisemitism campaign. We should have been clearer and, in Chris Williamson’s words, less apologetic.

Antisemitism is the oldest and – for the numbers killed, and the chilling industrial efficiency of the Holocaust, among other reasons – the foulest of the various racisms in our racist country. And antisemitism still exists throughout our society.

But it is at its most ideological in our ruling class and within the far right. As recently as the noughties, a Tory front bencher characterised the problems of the Tory Party as being centred on Michael Howard, Oliver Letwin and Charles Saatchi because … “could they know how Englishmen felt?”. This isn’t a slip in language, an ambiguous mural, a re-tweet of an obscure antisemitic meme or a harmless joke about Jewishness. It’s conscious, ideological racism.

The Labour Party has no reason to be defensive about its record fighting antisemitism. Had it not been for the labour movement in general, with the Labour Party at its heart, antisemitism would not have been challenged at Cable Street. This fight against Oswald Mosley was carried out against the wishes of the Jewish Board of Deputies, but with the support of vast numbers of Labour Party members, many of them Jewish. And we have no reason to be apologetic or defensive about antisemitism now.

Allowing ourselves to be driven onto the defensive had a negative effect in two ways.

Firstly, for those who were inclined to be taken in by the fake claims, our defensiveness and unending apologies made it look suspicious – as if we had indeed been up to something.

Secondly, for those who saw the smears for what they were, a political campaign to destabilise the Corbyn movement, our repeated apologies were a puzzle, demoralising, or worse. For these people, Corbyn’s repeated self-flagellation in the face of a fake campaign appeared strange. I have heard numerous people say so. For some, it took the shine off his well-earned reputation for plain speaking and probity. For others it appeared weak.

Since the election result, the witch-hunters have renewed their campaign with confidence. They have to be challenged robustly and directly.

The result of this prevarication and compromise was that some in the leadership ended up actually participating in the witch hunt. Much has been written about Momentum’s degeneration, both in terms of its democracy and its participation in the witch hunt. This was eventually echoed in the CLPs.

From being initially staunch opponents (at least vocally) of the witch hunt, some leading left members in our CLP ended up supporting it, or urging silence in the face of the suspensions. Solidarity with those suspended locally became weaker. And this was only an echo of what was going on in the national leadership circle.

As far as I understand, Chris Williamson’s expulsion was discussed by John McDonnell and his advisors – and McDonnell maintained a deafening silence when Williamson was suspended. At around the same time, McDonnell appeared in a cosy interview with Alistair Campbell, the snake oil salesman who sold us the mass murder in Iraq. During this chat, McDonnell chummily told Campbell that he’d happily have Campbell back in the party.

So in the same week we had two things: the strongest voice in parliament defending Corbyn being thrown to the wolves, and cosy overtures being made to a notorious Blairite liar.

I found this change in McDonnell quite shocking, and, if I’m perfectly honest, demoralising.

I felt the same shock listening to comrades locally who were quite happy to watch as a succession of innocent comrades were thrown under the bus on spurious charges, and who seemed indifferent to the fact that local right-wing councillors were behind this, routinely running to the hostile press, slandering local members, creating stress, health problems and family conflict.

Loss of solidarity at the top was followed by the same thing in our CLP.

Demoralisation and drift away from the Party has been evident on social media for two years, but has speeded up in the last nine months. Those who have left were among the most politically conscious and experienced Corbyn supporters. Momentum membership has plummeted. There has been an initiative by some ex-Momentum members, and others concerned about the absence of a democratic grass roots movement, to set up a national Left Alliance. This may still go somewhere.

But the Party was seriously weakened at the grass roots before this election was called. You could see it at the various rallies, which whilst still outshining the Tories by a country mile, did not have the size or fervour of 2017.

So, where do we go from here? Is the Labour Party the vehicle we need to bring about radical, fundamental social change? Is it up to the task? Can it even play a part in a wider movement?

I’m asking that question because this article is aimed at those party members who do not want a return to the free-market, capital-friendly Labour Party of the past, which is being presented to us as inevitable.

If you can’t face that, there are two alternatives, it seems to me:

  • We stay inside the Party, and make sure we get as good a leader as we can, continuing, as far as is possible, in the spirit of the Corbyn movement’s ideas. This will involve an urgent and determined fight to democratise the Party: open meetings, no limits on discussion, rotation of CLP officers.
  • We join with others, those socialists who remained outside, in a broad, democratic, grassroots movement.

I think we should do both. I don’t suggest this though without misgivings.

A close political friend told me four years ago that he wouldn’t be joining because the Labour Party was corrupt, pro-imperialist, and was incapable of change. Fuelling illusions in its capacity to do so would only bring about disappointment and alienation from politics for a large number of people. That comment has popped into my head a good deal recently.

I have to say that my own experience of the party is that its machinery has not changed much since a lot of us joined in 2015. The party’s bureaucracy remains out of democratic control, and its disciplinary processes are opaque and corrupt. Despite some limited improvements, attempts to change these things have essentially failed.

However, we do have some things in our favour. Half a million voices – while they remain – can make a lot of noise. Two or three hundred thousand people, a lot of them young and previously unengaged with politics, have experienced a very intense political education: the importance of trade unions, of fighting social injustice, learning about the Palestinian struggle. This knowledge and experience won’t go away.

The question is, will that knowledge now become active, part of an ongoing struggle, or will it turn to disappointment and disillusion. And if we do continue to try to change the course of this massive, undemocratic tanker that is the Labour Party, do we do it by trying to accommodate those on the right whose careers and material interests are bound up with a political ideology alien to ours?

In my view, the right wing of the Labour Party is a representative of capital within the workers’ movement. It acts as an agency of capital. Without defeating it, there can be no democratic socialist movement. It is acting now, ruthlessly, to try to extinguish our movement and our hopes. We need to confront it, without compromise, and re-build our trade unions and grass roots organisation. Our leaders can’t do this, we have to.

The Radio 4 programme I mentioned at the beginning of this article continued with the same journalists speculating on the next Labour leader. As if to reinforce how detached they are, one of these hired mouthpieces opined that the right-wing Labour MP Jess Phillips was a real, viable contender.

He continued, “those fanatical Corbynistas from 2015, they’ll all have disappeared in a week or so!”

Let’s prove them wrong.