A Wonderful Thing – or a Pisser?
I knew as I drove back in the rain swept dark from Eckington in North East Derbyshire (a ‘must win’ constituency) on the evening of 12th December. Over the previous week the canvassed support for Labour had felt to be softening and then falling away. On polling day itself people who over the previous few weeks had indicated a promise for Labour were reluctant to talk on the doorstep. People I remembered speaking to personally looked embarrassed. My last knock seemed to sum it all up. Three weeks previously I had finished a round on an upbeat note after a promising discussion with a woman in a modern bungalow. This time the door was answered by a man who just shouted ‘Brexit!’ at me before slamming the door shut in my face.
I didn’t check the results until mid-day on the 13th and stayed thereafter in a state of disengaged apathy, telling myself that I had always known that reformism had its limits. At a party just before Christmas I was asked by a friendly man who had been canvassing in the Midlands for Labour what I thought had caused the defeat. The most coherent thing I managed was ‘we got it wrong’. After Christmas I remembered this conversation and thought that I have really got to do better than that!
Before I start trying to do better than that I will lay some cards on the table.
As a trades unionist and Labour Party member I twice voted for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader. The first time I was singularly unimpressed by the other candidates, feeling that they had little chance of success where Ed Miliband had failed and so decided that I might as well vote for someone whose ideas I actually agreed with. I thought he had little chance of winning a general election – and was thus surprised and encouraged by Labour’s showing in the 2017 general election (although worried at the time that that might have been his one shot). The second time I voted for him I was motivated as much by outrage at the Parliamentary Party forcing a further election as rejection of an even worse set of opponents than in the first.
I voted to remain in the referendum in 2016. I did this mainly because I couldn’t envisage how extricating ourselves from the EU could be anything other than a nightmare – and, despite barriers to progressive policies in the EU, it seemed that through the retention of Sterling the UK was to some extent having its cake and eating it. Any potential that Brexit might have to facilitate a more equitable society was, for me, lost in the knowledge that the Leave Campaign had originated in and was being led by the hard Right and as such was espousing some very unacceptable views and telling some absolute whoppers! In hindsight I have to acknowledge that voting for the status quo made perfect (if self-interested) sense for a middle class professional living comfortably on an occupational pension. My family has done well in the period of the UK’s membership of the EU.
Despite being shocked and alarmed by the referendum result I was very wary of a re-run, fearing the unleashing of much more nastiness, divisiveness and the prospect of a consolidated hard right with a growing membership and support. My experience door knocking in two general elections did little to change my mind on this – and I was going through the cogitations required to vote in a second confirmatory referendum for any reasonable leave deal negotiated by a Labour government when Boris Johnson relieved me of that particular dilemma.
So ‘trying to do better’ I set out what I felt to be pertinent factors over three time scales: long term, medium term and the period of 2019 General Election itself.
1) Long term factors:
– Loss of Labour’s organised working class base.
Post 1970s de-industrialisation undermined (and in some cases destroyed) working class communities and emasculated the power of trades unions. This allowed left leaning middle class liberals to take an increasing role in the leadership and policies developed by the party. Although the ‘broad church’ (the combination of progressive, liberal middle class plus left working class members / voters) largely held over the following 40 years, the 2019 e general election would appear to suggest that this may no longer be the case.
Margaret Thatcher’s push to increase home ownership and thus increase private debt changed the way many former labour working class voters saw themselves and placed restraints on their ability to be politically active. Taking strike action is more difficult when mortgage repayments have to be maintained whereas in previous decades striking council tenants could expect some latitude and leeway from sympathetic Labour led Local Authorities.
– Blair / Brown governments’ failure to take on economic vested interests and develop long term sustainable support for the poor / disadvantaged / low wage earners.
Such progress that was made was built on the unstable foundations of debt – and short lived. For example the ‘Sure Start’ programme is often cited as evidence of help for disadvantaged communities – but its core role swiftly changed to that of providing nursery places for working parents – a provision predictably largely taken up by the middle class.
– The post 1970s developing crisis of capitalism and the neo liberal response to it.
This involved the undermining of the concept of shared social responsibility, increasing financialisation and de regulation, culminating in the financial crisis of 2007 and the subsequent asset protection schemes for the rich (and middle class) funded through austerity introduced by Obama and Brown. In this context it has become increasingly difficult for social democratic, left of centre reformist parties to offer (or implement) credible policies that would rebuild communities and reduce inequality.
– The development of an increasingly centralised, undemocratic European Union.
Concern about the impact of the EU on the ability of the UK to implement its own policies and regulatory framework has grown on both the left and right (for different reasons) and although this has been mitigated for the UK by remaining outside of the Euro (good one Gordon!) this has proved fertile ground for politicians wishing to exploit fear and insecurity amongst many on the brutal receiving end of our current iteration of capitalism.
– The rise of support for nationalism, largely in response to the failure of centrist parties to ameliorate the increasing excesses of capitalism.
This has led to:
– The rise of a left of centre SNP in Scotland (and the loss of ~ 40 previously solid Labour constituencies)
– A resurgence of the far right, with its simplistic and divisive answers.
2) Medium term factors:
– Failure to enact proportional representation (2011).
Opposed (for what seemed good reasons at the time) by Labour, this now, in hindsight, seems a mistake, allowing a right of centre / far right government elected with a sizable but still minority of overall votes cast to determine the UK’s direction of travel. This feels to have particular significance given the scale of the loss of Scottish constituencies from Labour.
– Catastrophic lack of discipline in the Labour Party.
A leader that had to be elected twice (overwhelmingly by members on both occasions) in order to establish the right to head up the party was thus fatally wounded in any attempt to push a radical / progressive agenda that sought to take on vested interests and build a more equitable society. Many in the Parliamentary Party were shocking in their lack of support for their democratically elected leader and this made him and the party easy targets for a media only too happy to highlight disunity and link this to issues of credibility and competence.
– The smearing of Jeremy Corbyn.
Right from the ‘get go’ a concerted campaign was mounted to attack and undermine Jeremy Corbyn, involving allegations of cosying up to terrorists and failing to deal adequately with an anti-Semitism that was said to be endemic within the party. Despite such allegations having a thin basis in reality the mud began to stick and this approach was developed further in the light of the public’s seemingly initially positive view of Labour’s so called extreme economic policies. This smearing was particularly damaging as it took, head on, areas which would have been viewed as his strengths; a lifelong commitment to diversity, equality and internationalism. One of the consequences of this was a dearth of discussion about the UK’s foreign policy – a matter surely requiring serious review and challenge.
– Brexit referendum 2016.
A significant proportion of Labour’s working class base seems to have voted ‘leave’ whilst its middle class base largely voted ‘remain’. The majority of party members were and still are remainers. This put the traditional ‘broad church’ under increasing strain and descended into bitter recrimination on both sides, with leavers viewing middle class remainers as arrogant and self-serving with the latter viewing the former as ignorant, racist and xenophobic.
– General Election 2017.
Despite the difficulties (above) and the pessimism in the party’s election strategy, the Corbyn led party received a very creditable 40% of the vote (10% higher than soft left, centrist Miliband) and, with a more adventurist strategy, maybe could have won – or at the very least formed a minority / coalition government.
Hindsight throws up two clear factors here, (i) Labour successfully ran on a ticket of ‘respecting the result of the referendum’ and (ii) it might have been in a position to negotiate a Brexit deal that retained membership of the customs union, regulatory controls and existing workers’ rights. This would have been a better deal than May’s and would have put us in a much, much better place than we currently find ourselves.
3) The 2019 General Election:
– Two years on from the 2017 General election the array of forces disparaging the prospect of a successful Labour Government had grown and intensified – with devastating effect.
The Labour Leadership looked (and surely must have been) exhausted, having been constantly fighting battles within the party, with the media and with the party’s principle political opponents; the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. Many voters would have felt less than confident that this team would have the energy and the unity required to deliver on their promises and this was reflected in plummeting approval ratings for Jeremy Corbyn himself.
The Conservative leadership, on the other hand, was relatively fresh and chose a light touch approach which sought to avoid dealing with any difficult issues and pushed a simplistic (and disingenuous) message that Brexit needed to be done. This message clearly appealed to many voters who said they were ‘sick and tired’ of the endless uncertainty and angry that ‘the politicians’ had not sorted the matter out. Any concerns that hard brexiteers might have split the Right’s vote disappeared with the Brexit party’s tactical withdrawal of candidates in Conservative held constituencies.
– In this context the Labour Leadership made a number of mistakes:
To agree to an election (which the fixed term parliament act allowed them to obstruct) in the weeks leading up to Christmas was not a good call.
The party election machine relies on large numbers of activists leaf-letting and knocking on doors to establish its presence and to have conversations on doorsteps that allow media led myths and misunderstandings to be challenged. Dark evenings and poor weather are not conducive to this!
Perhaps more importantly though, the Conservatives were struggling with their leave deal proposals, were missing deadlines and were running into very difficult waters regarding border arrangements and the north of Ireland. In hindsight it may well have been better to let all this unravel in front of the public with the Conservatives clearly responsible for the mess. This may not have resulted in an improved Labour performance at a subsequent General Election (as this will surely have fuelled even more leavers dissatisfaction) but it might have resulted in a change of Conservative leadership and the negotiation of a better deal with the EU than the one we are facing now!
The proposal for a second confirmatory referendum following a future Labour Government’s renegotiation of a leave deal with the EU had the desired effect of reassuring many wavering remainers – but alienated many leavers through the stupidity of allowing many in the leadership team to assert that they would campaign to remain regardless of the outcome of any negotiations. This potentially successful attempt to maintain the party’s broad church was portrayed by the media as ‘fence- sitting’ but it was much, much worse than that – it was a clear telegraphed shift to a future remain position and thus widened the internal split within the party and its electoral base even further. A stronger and perhaps less exhausted leader would not have allowed this happen.
The election manifesto was full of good things and reflected the huge amount of painstaking work undertaken by the party to address what, it has to be acknowledged, is a very long list things that do need addressing. Moreover it was competently costed and largely relied on increased taxation for higher earners only. It was, inevitably, portrayed by the media as being too left wing and unaffordable, but a more telling concern was about its ‘doability.’ How was such a large programme to be undertaken in a relatively small time frame? Where were the people going to come from to design, develop and implement it and how was all this going to be organised? To many it looked like a 10 year rather than a 5 year plan and contributed to a sense that the party had unrealistic expectations of what it could achieve in government. A more politically competent leadership would have insisted that a small number of key programmes were promoted using short simple messages that would have complemented the ‘For the many not the few’ overarching strapline for the campaign.
– And finally – media coverage of the campaign itself.
The Guardian did somewhat belatedly move alongside The Mirror to being more supportive of the Labour campaign (once it was clear some might argue that they were not going to win) but the BBC was clearly exposed for the establishment supporting platform that it is – with the pretence of its much vaunted impartiality shredded in the eyes of many Labour supporters.
An overall appreciation of the scale of media bias operant during the election comes from the Loughborough University Centre for Research in Communication and Culture which analysed the impact of newspaper coverage on the presentation of the two main parties in the week leading up to polling day. Weighted to reflect circulation and readership numbers it generated the following scores:
– Conservatives +30
– Labour -96
Hindsight – a wonderful thing or a rather uncomfortable pisser?
What can we make of all this?
Despite some contra indicators at the time this election was all about Brexit and the stand-out metric for me is that whilst the Conservatives largely maintained the remainer part of their electoral base (losing only about 20%) despite the party’s clear Brexit trajectory, Labour lost much of its leaver base (nearly 50%).
The overall pro Brexit vote (Conservatives + Brexit party) at the 2019 General Election was 47% – roughly equivalent to the 46% recorded by a poll on voting intentions in any second referendum undertaken in December. The pro remain vote (Labour + Lib Dems + SNP + Green) was 52% – slightly more than the same December poll findings of 50%. Although it is problematic to compare percentage voting patterns in a plebiscite to that in a first past the post general election, these figures broadly indicate a slight inversion of the position in the 2016 Referendum which was Leave 52%, Remain 48%. What is telling is that the gap between the two positions remains small – around 4 – 5%. Regular polling in the intervening period has shown that voting intentions have fluctuated within this narrow band with advocates of remain not establishing the clear advantage that might have been expected if the lies and misrepresentations identified in the Leave Campaign had been subsequently effectively exposed and countered.
Two factors seem pertinent here; (i) it may be difficult to project the EU in a positive light to those who feel that they have been excluded from much of its material benefits (ii) it may not be surprising to this group that politicians have lied to them – that is their default experience and it is already factored in to their expectations. The Leave vote has remained remarkably firm – suggesting that a vote for the status quo was unthinkable for many in those groups whose standard and quality of living has steadily declined over the previous decades. The Leave campaign simply had to link this to issues of perceived identity, dignity and self-determination – the lack of a voice and influence.
The harsh truth is that the arguments for Remain have simply not cut it over a period of nearly four years.
Whilst the majority of remainers wanted to re-have the argument about the merits of both options, many leavers (and some remainers) in the 2019 election just seemed incensed that Parliament had appeared to do everything to thwart the ‘will of the people’ – as Nigel Farage had predicted at the beginning of the campaign. The Labour party, in attempting to hold all its constituent parts together (as it must do to gain election), had underestimated the significance for many voters of the result of a plebiscite (even one so close and contentious) – and may well have struggled to respond in an effective way even it had!
Regardless of the nuance of analysis and the inherent distortions of a first past the post electoral system, the Conservatives played the 2019 General Election as a second Brexit referendum and, in terms of power (if not percentage of votes cast) won – and won decisively. They will progress Brexit as they see fit – Brexit may not get ‘done’ in 2020 but surely the decision to start the process now is.
The consequences for the country are potentially dire. We are facing at best a Conservative led minimalist leave deal with the EU and at worst a ‘crashing out’ without a deal if the current one unravels through its own internal contradictions. What follows in either case is a tortuous set of negotiations with a very pissed off EU to establish a trade agreement, whilst at the same time having to ingratiate ourselves with a USA that is seeking preferential access to our markets and behaving with continuing belligerence across the world stage. We have thrown away any leverage or bargaining position we may have had and with Brexit being led by a very right of centre Conservative party any benefits for managing the country in a more fair and equitable way that might be available will not be realised in the immediate period. Indeed we are facing increased privatisation of public services, deregulation and a race to the bottom in terms of workers’ rights, benefits and pay.
In hindsight might Labour not have done better not to oppose the May withdrawal proposals? This would have forced the Conservatives to have to take responsibility for sorting out the mess that they had largely created and at the same time helping to avoid the nightmare that the election of a more right wing government has brought and a much less advantageous withdrawal deal from the EU? Yes it’s a pisser alright – and a course of action that a party whose membership is largely made of remainers would have struggled to take. But ………
So much for hindsight, what we need is foresight!
There is much talk about how the party needs to regain the leave, largely working class voters in the North East and Midlands that it has so spectacularly lost and whether, as the reality of Conservative Brexit Britain unravels before us, this group will return to supporting Labour. The fact that this group’s links to the Labour movement have been steadily degraded over the last 50 years suggests that this is very far from certain – and indeed it is surely as likely that disappointment with the un sunny uplands of Brexit may propel many further to the Right and a fascism that may grow from the next crisis of capitalism (and that may not be far away given that the last one hasn’t been sorted yet).
Subsequent polling (James Johnson, Guardian 13.08.20.) suggests that this group of ‘switchers’ are Theresa May’s ‘just about managing’ unskilled white collar / skilled blue collar workers on an average annual salary of £29K. They are working long hours, drive rather than use public transport and are above benefit thresholds. This creates a dilemma as many in this group see policies aimed to reduce inequality such as the national living wage as unfair.
That this group should be among those the Labour party should be seeking to represent and support seems incontrovertible to me – so the party is going to have to listen to them, to their issues and grievances and seek to address them in its policy proposals in the future – as it seems clear now in hindsight it should have made a better fist of after the 2016 referendum. This may prove challenging to a Labour party membership that seems to be largely in a different class bubble, but progressive, left of centre politics needs this group. Without it the slide to the Right may gather pace.
So first up – no more remaining or even re-joining talk (which would necessitate joining the Euro, defo a no no) – it’s over, we are leaving and Labour needs to re calibrate its approach accordingly. There will be opportunities for the left, there always are in times of disjunction, it would compound the defeat if they were missed because of a preoccupation with what has gone.
Labour needs to play ‘the long game’ – not that it has much choice as the next general election is probably 5 long years away! Its immediate task is to present a credible and hard hitting opposition to a Conservative government which is surely going to be beset by one or two difficulties (!)
Playing ‘the parliamentary game’, we might learn from the Conservatives; what would they do in this situation? They would oppose and expose without laying too many cards of their own on the table. They would avoid the pitfalls of developing a programme that can be steadily undermined over time and which may be less than relevant in 5 years’ time. This surely is the parliamentary party’s remit.
At the same time the Party needs to build support for a radical, left of centre approach that could begin to address the massive problems that a seemingly run-away neo liberal capitalism will surely continue to visit on ‘the many’ at the behest of ‘the few.’ Even ardent supporters of parliamentary democracy appear to acknowledge that this is work that will have to be done outside of Westminster, in the cities, towns and rural communities across the whole country. It is a huge challenge – to convince people who are increasingly the product of neo liberal ideologies of atomised individualisation that a more communal, equitable approach is not only desirable but essential if ‘the many’ are going to thrive – or even survive!
And the leader? Well that at least is straightforward! They need to project confidence and competence and be backed by a united party. They need to be media savvy, have an easy sense of humour and demonstrate empathy with ‘ordinary people’. Oh …… and they need to build support for a radical left agenda that escapes the notice of the Ruling Class.
I have read much, but I expect only a small fraction of what has been written on this matter and have chosen, with a couple of exceptions, not to reference sources. I would, however, like to thank my friend Peter Lawne for his input into the drafting process. Thank you Peter!