One Voice from the Labour Left: After Defeat — What Now?
“I never lose. I either win or I learn.” Nelson Mandela
The loss on Thursday 12th December was total. And it was heartbreaking. Not just for us as political partisans, but for what will happen to millions of people over the next five years — no matter who they voted for.
But Labour and the Left must learn from this defeat.
There is nothing good about defeat. But there’s a responsibility to understand the reasons for a defeat and the greater the defeat and the greater the cause, the greater is that responsibility.
Both now and later there will be a temptation for soft words to ease any pain and calm worried egos but if we truly believe in this cause, we need to be brutally honest — any temporary pain is secondary to that. We must learn the lessons that need to be learnt.
Our opponents will say publicly whatever allows them to define the last election in order to help them win the next one. We will need to find the truth as best we can.
Traditionally, I share a prediction with a friend the night before an election, but this time round, I couldn’t give anything approaching an objective assessment. I was just too close to this one. We were all too close to this one.
During the election two very different realities seemingly co-existed — a kind of Schrodinger’s election result. On election day as I tramped the rain-sodden streets of Harrow East, everything was still possible, everything was uncertain. But the result would be ruthless. It would be the lens through which everything in the preceding weeks and months would be assessed. It would strip away the mistakes, the delusion and reveal what was always there.
Defeat reveals what we never knew, what we chose to ignore and does so in such a thoroughly comprehensive manner, one hopes there is a permanent shift in how we understand things, so we never make the same, avoidable, mistakes again.
We thought victory was inevitable. It wasn’t — it never is. With the scale of the defeat in 2019, it may even be probable that it will happen again — it will be difficult for Labour to win 120 seats in just one election cycle. It could also have been worse. We could easily have lost more seats.
While time will give us much-needed perspective, time will also soften the blow and allow other distractions and distortions to build up. Let us look at what went wrong now, while the defeat is raw.
So why did we lose?
Here are my thoughts. I wrote the initial draft the weekend after the election. I’m sure I’ll come to a different conclusion about some things later but let’s not have any sacred cows for these weeks after the election and let us take a fresh look as we sit with the carnage of defeat littered around us, and consider how we can get a socialist Labour government into power in the future.
This wasn’t 2017
Despite the Tories winning in 2017 and Labour losing — it didn’t feel like that. The Tories threw away their majority and their lead and Labour defied all expectations. It felt like we won and the Tories lost. I think as a result, the Tories learned lessons from 2017 and we didn’t.
It was said how if the 2017 campaign had gone on for another week Labour would have won. We treated 2019 as an extension of the 2017 campaign, as another few weeks tacked on to the end of the 2017 campaign. We ignored our weaknesses and because the criticism was wrong in 2017, we thought it would be the same again.
Why did we think this? Because we so desperately wanted it to be true. One final push, no major changes or hard choices, and everything would be alright.
The possibility of a campaign
In 2017 we saw Labour transform itself over the course of 6 weeks. We thought this could (must?) happen again.
There’s no reason to think this. If we go into an election needing an amazing campaign to turn everything around, that is a weakness not a strength.
The Brexit referendum was lost. It has taken us three and a half years to realise this. Remainers, including those in Labour, never really held an inquest. I remember during the referendum campaign watching an event with both Sadiq Khan and David Cameron in attendance. I thought to myself, who is this convincing? What disgruntled voter is going to vote Remain because most establishment politicians are united behind Remain? It is amazing that we never looked at why Leave lost. Alan Johnson, the head of the disastrous Labour Remain campaign still lectures people about what the Labour party needs to do to succeed.
At a training event recently we were discussing how to talk to different types of voters (according to their major concerns). I said something like, ‘Let’s remember. Leavers have a point. They voted for something and it hasn’t happened. They have a right to be pissed off.’ There was a slightly funny reaction to that in the room. We listened far too much to those who effectively said that Leavers’ views were illegitimate.
Soon after the referendum, I thought the idea of a second referendum was ridiculous. At some point I forget how I used to think that the referendum result had to be enacted — how democracy demanded it. That not only was this the right thing to do, it was crazy to think Leavers and even some Remainers would ever allow the referendum result to be ignored. That they would not be furious and remember that at the ballot box.
Here’s the kicker. It’s the Tories that enacted austerity (which put Brexit over the top), it was the Tories that had no plan for what would happen if Leave won and it’s the Tories that screwed it up in Parliament — they didn’t vote together for something nor did they reach out to other MPs to get a majority in Parliament for Britain’s actual exit.
Why did we listen to those ultra-Remainers who gave no thought nor did a thing to go out and change Leaver’s minds? We listened far too much to people who wanted to invalidate the last referendum because we so desperately wanted it to be true — if we went along with a second vote, we could win a general election, and we could even stay in the EU, which many of us did and still do want.
There was far too much positioning by Labour on Brexit and it was far too late. We should have put an offer on the table for what exactly it would take for Labour to vote for a Brexit deal and said it over and over again. In the end, perhaps we had an okay position but it was just too late, people didn’t see it as a real offer to break the deadlock. Just as the people’s vote campaign wasn’t really neutral on how people should vote in a second referendum, we looked the same to too many. And the ‘We already had a people’s vote’ argument was impossible to overcome. Because it was true.
Perhaps whatever we did, Remain or Leave, we just needed to go for it 100%. Whatever we did, it needed to be full blast for the last two years. What the hell was happening for Corbyn’s neutrality in a second referendum to be decided on during an election campaign?
I would happily listen to centrists if they had anything worth saying. The problem is they don’t. I often think how if I was a centrist how I could come up with better, more persuasive arguments than they do.
Because they have nothing to say, they just say it all over and over again… and amplified by the media, it kind of works — it creates a new reality. On Brexit we wanted to believe them. We wanted to stay in the EU. We wanted to keep both Labour Remainers and Labour Leavers. We wanted to win the election — so unlike on almost everything else, we listened to them on the need for a second referendum.
An unpopular leader and a left that failed to criticise and demand change
There were serious problems with Corbyn and the Labour leadership and we blinded ourselves to them.
I greatly admire Jeremy Corbyn and what he stood for, he’s the reason I joined the party and I am proud to have voted for him twice to be Prime Minister. There will be a sustained effort to rewrite history and permanently entrench the smears and outright lies that were used to attack him.
But that admiration and the battle to defend him against such poor, contrived arguments blinded us to a real problem. We were so used to defending him against unfair criticism, we ignored the valid criticism and we failed to be healthy critics ourselves.
We ignored the fact that he was, with too many people, very unpopular. We thought the attacks were unfair and we were in the minority of people who passionately supported him — but so what? Of course I defended Corbyn as much as anyone. We were so used to defending Corbyn against people outside the Left, about keeping our hold on the leadership and the Labour party, we failed to put the Left ahead of Corbyn. Corbyn and the Left became one thing.
The Tories get rid of unpopular leaders and we should too. Whoever we elect as leader next time, if they aren’t popular, if they aren’t getting the job done, we will need to replace them. If that’s a few months before an election — so be it. The Tories did this and it worked for them. Boris Johnson somehow could say he had only been prime minister for a few months — that he couldn’t be held accountable for what had taken place in the previous 9 years of Tory rule, and get away with it.
As well as not looking at Corbyn’s unpopularity, we failed to look at the serious weaknesses of the leadership. They weren’t tough enough or ruthless enough.
Why didn’t we enact democratic reforms when we had the chance? Not only would it mean that MPs had some accountability to the Labour membership — what if we lost in 2019? What would happen, if unthinkably, Corbyn was to lose the election and step down and get replaced by a right-winger?
I was always waiting for the big speech on the anti-semitism issueand it just never came. I was waiting for the moment in the debates where Corbyn would say to Johnson, “I won’t take any lessons in fighting racism from you, you bigot.”
The Tories are ruthless, Labour needs to be
They threw out 21 MPs, they made it clear to the advisors to get on board or get out. It worked.
Corbyn and the leadership spent 3 years placating the unplacatable. MPs who got elected because they were Labour candidates, because activists went out campaigning for them, spent years undermining Corbyn and our election campaign. They refused to accept the will of the membership, they launched the chicken coup with what? Owen Smith and a poverty of ideas.
The whip should have been removed from continually disloyal MPs.
A democratic party
Not only is it just right to have a democratic party, the Labour party can’t win a general election without becoming one. There were and are too many Labour MPs who either snipe at the leadership and undermine the party as a whole or (and?) who have no link to the constituencies they represent — local voters have had to like it or lump it for years — and in 2019 many voters decided they had had enough.
Too much of the left has a tepid, lukewarm commitment to a fully democratic Labour party. Too many embrace it when it is convenient to do so.
A fully democratic Labour party is more important than anything else, including who the leader is and what policies we get passed at conference. Trigger ballots or other halfway houses are a waste of time, we need to live and breathe this stuff.
The Labour party has the responsibility to put up the best possible candidate in each election. Otherwise, people in safe Labour seats have to vote for another party if they are unhappy with a dud Labour MP.
We need automatic open selection. The SNP have it, the Liberal Democrats have it. In safe Labour seats, candidates can go twenty or thirty years without facing any kind of a challenge.
If Labour MPs are not accountable to the membership, they will snipe, and drag down any leftwing leader of the Labour party.
‘Automatic reselections’ or ‘elections’, as I like to call them, are desperately needed. We saw in the last parliament how poor so many Labour party MPs were. They got elected as the candidate 20, 30 or 40 years ago by the membership (some don’t even face this, they bypassed any candidate election) and have never had to face election to be the candidate again. They get elected in safe Labour seats because people want any Labour MP rather than a Tory or Lib Dem.
Those MPs crow about their huge mandates when any Labour candidate would have won. In 2019 not one Labour MP who stood down and campaigned as an independent came anywhere near winning. You have to be damn good to win as an independent — and they aren’t.
We have a responsibility to select the best possible candidate in each election. Why should voters have to face a choice between having a poor Labour MP, because they want a Labour government, or voting for someone who represents a party they don’t want in government? If those MPs want to stand as independents they are free to do so and to lose very badly.
But here’s the thing — those MPs would be better candidates and better MPs having to engage with the local membership rather than never campaigning at all because they are in a safe Labour seat.
Local Labour party members do not have the power to ensure that they can get someone on the ballot to be their parliamentary candidate — the NEC decides.
The NEC, the leadership and the Trade Unions have had a cosy monopoly on who can be a candidate for too long. I can’t overstate this too much. Unless it changes — it will bring down the party.
For too long, safe Labour seats have been divvied up between the unions and whoever controlled the NEC, and this sadly didn’t change under Corbyn. At the moment the NEC decides who gets on the candidate list. Someone overwhelmingly popular with the membership can be prevented from even standing.
The NEC and the unions need to give up complete control of the candidate list. Local members need to be able to nominate and elect anyone they chose.
So many Labour constituencies have seen stitch-ups which result in there being a parliamentary candidate who has no link to that constituency. They are not from there and they don’t live there. They don’t understand the concerns of local voters and those voters know it.
Many Labour candidates in 2019 complained about not getting enough volunteers. If you’re the candidate and you can’t get 50 people out — not just at election time but all year long — what the hell are you doing as the candidate?
Now we have to win back many former safe Labour seats — it’s never been as important that we have local candidates. We need local people selected as parliamentary candidates to build a relationship with those places.
Poorly performing and unaccountable Labour councils have damaged the reputation of the Labour party in too many places. This is why we need a fully democratic party that breathes and lives accountability. This stuff has to be who are from the top to the bottom of the party. We need automatic elections to decide our councillor candidates and we needed council leaders chosen by the membership.
Anti-semitism and anti-racism
Jeremy Corbyn was one of the most passionate, hard- working, anti-racist MPs and he was somehow defined as a racist against Boris Johnson of all people.
Like so many things, we just wanted this to go away. We were, and are, afraid of saying something wrong and we wouldn’t confront the idea that people would seriously see the Labour party — a movement of anti-racists — an anti-racist party — the anti-racist party — as racist.
Too many of us were afraid to take this on. We should have been faster, more ruthless dealing with the small number of genuine incidents and more combative when we thought an allegation about the Labour Party was disingenuous and unfair.
We were and still are afraid of charges of anti-semitism and racism. We need to steel up, because this argument is not going anywhere.
Why didn’t we talk about Windrush more? Why didn’t we hammer this government with the disgrace that was Caribbean child immigrants who were legally allowed to live here, being illegally deported to countries where they knew no-one and where some of them died alone? Corbyn was one of 6 MPs — 6! — to vote against the legislation that allowed the Windrush scandal.
The media have never been so hostile to left-of-centre politics. That the right claims the inverse doesn’t mean the truth is somewhere in between those two positions.
We have seen in the days following the election, the media and journalists are still giving greater focus on ensuring the ideological adherence of the Labour party to the centre, than they do over the plans of a new government with a majority of 80 planning radical change.
In the past some of the media would be on our side or at least give us a fair hearing. Those days are gone. Conservatives claims are given face value, Labour claims are treated with scorn. Reports on conservative press releases have headlines from the press release, reports on Labour press releases feature headlines from Labours’ critics.
There’s only so far social media will help with this. It may well be that social media doesn’t help at all and just reinforces lies and smears. Social media may just radicalise people's views. Research has shown posting mild right-wing stories acts as kind of a gateway drug. Overtime people post increasingly reactionary and racist material.
We can’t trust the media. It’s owned by billionaires, it’s run by conservatives. We need our own media. The Sun newspaper used to be the Daily Herald — it was owned by the Trade Unions. I can’t even begin to think what a socialist media will look like today but it will have to be a mass media that welcomes non-conformity rather than a socialist discussion circle or some kind of Woke Times.
There will be far better analysis out there of the media than I can give, but the media will always be tougher on the left. We also need to confront the fact that the media will never call out lying. Not really — simplistically, if Mr. Truth and Mr. Lie debate something, too often the media will present them as both equally valid outlooks.
Why didn’t Labour run against the media? This needs to be a key test for the Labour leader.
Just say a lie over and over again
“A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
The Leave campaign realised that if you repeat a lie over and over again — it doesn’t matter if it’s true. ‘£350 million a week for the NHS’ worked because people heard it over and over again — people heard the claim not the scepticism. It reinforced people's views.
“We’ll get Brexit done by November 1st!” Remember that? It didn’t matter that it didn’t happen. Simple messages cut through. “Get Brexit Done” worked. Some people want the sentiment and their values reaffirmed, they don’t care what’s true.
Over the next few years, we will hear about funding for northern England over and over again — there will be announcements and commitments. It will be the same with the NHS and everything else. None of it will amount to anything — but that isn’t the point.
We were too ambitious
We unleashed an avalanche of policies in the 2019 manifesto. The 2017 manifesto was so successful we just needed to do that again, to make it even bigger!
The slew of policies just confused people. They were good ideas that would benefit our country but they needed to be introduced years ago, to settle with people. Many voters see policies that will personally benefit them with suspicion.
Perhaps we just needed fewer policies that we repeated over and over again.
We also need to think about the fact that a socialist Labour government would be a major shift in the political direction of travel from the last 50 or more years. Some voters will be nervous or uncomfortable about what that will look like. Our plans for the first term of a Labour government should be restrained. We should pointedly say we want to earn people’s trust with a restrained program for government.
Perhaps we should limit nationalisation to transport and infrastructure (the national grid and air safety)? Thatcher did most of her privatisation in her second and third terms. Let’s get one major nationalisation right first.
There’s a lot going for nationalising the broadband network and making it faster. But making it free? Perhaps we could leave that for the second term of a labour government.
Homes, Jobs, Trains and Buses
I thought we had two fundamentals going for us in this election. We were the only party with a plan or the will to make sure significantly more people could rent or own their own home. I also thought that the Tories had created an economy that they wouldn’t alter enough to really make a difference to most people. I still think these things are true.
We talked about the NHS but we needed to talk about what we are going to change, not about what we were going to keep the same.
Here’s a slogan for you — ‘Better Jobs and Better Homes’. Add in trains and buses and I’m not sure what else we need to talk about. I’m simplifying the point in order but on jobs and homes — only Labour has anything to offer.
Does the Labour party understand the Britain of today? In some ways yes, but in other ways, we don’t.
This Britain was created by (and in resistance to) the Thatcherite annihilation of industry, the wasted opportunities of the Blair years and the fierce austerity of the Tories and Lib Dems. The factories, the trade unions and shop steward culture are gone but we still talk in that language.
The low-paid, precarious nature of employment, the fact that many don’t see themselves being able to own or even rent their own homes, only some of these people think Labour has anything to offer them.
We need to listen to these people a bit more and talk to them a bit less.
The power of the ground campaign
There’s a big difference between local campaigners knocking on doors week in, week out as opposed to a bunch of activists with little experience knocking on people’s doors during an election.
‘How much can a good ground campaign make a difference’ we all asked? Well we found out — it can’t make up for a fundamentally flawed campaign.
I heard many times, how it is said that a good ground campaign can make a 5% difference in a seat and many of the same people said that there is no actual evidence for this.
Maybe we would have lost even more seats without so many activists but I’m sceptical of the usefulness of hundreds of volunteers descending on a target seat. There are two issues.
1. You need to campaign all year round. Every Labour marginal and target seat should have local activists campaigning week in and week out — listening to people, establishing genuine relationships and gaining experience in how to communicate, because…
2. Is there any point in some activists knocking on doors if they are not any good at it? Some non-political friends told me about their experience with Labour activists on their doorstep. They weren’t great.
We can have a million people canvassing but unless they are good listeners and able persuaders — what’s the point?
I felt the pressure to knock on doors this election. I am not sure how much of a difference it made — I had maybe five good solid conversations with people over days and days of knocking on doors. Perhaps my talents lie elsewhere or perhaps not — but then I need to be doing it all year round.
Activists in safe Labour wards and seats could be twinned with wards in marginals and target seats.
Electoral Reform and we have a Green problem
The Labour party’s stance on electoral reform and not doing any kind of electoral deal with the Green party is more linked than is first obvious.
The Labour party has opposed any kind of deal with the Greens for the same reason we’ve opposed a move to PR. And we badly need to rethink both approaches.
It’s simply never been in Labour’s interest before to do a deal with the Greens. What has Labour stood to gain? I think that equation has now changed. There are now several seats where the Greens have thousands of votes, sometimes greater than the Tory majority over Labour. If Labour were to stand down in two or three seats, and the Greens were to stand down in a greater number we may have to go for this kind of deal. Labour had a clear, green manifesto and people still voted Green. I don’t think that’s going to change, it may even accelerate.
The perennial obstacle with electoral reform is that the only people in a position to deliver it have benefited from a system distinctly absent of electoral reform. You can promise PR but if you win under FPTP all of a sudden you may suddenly start to see the advantages of the current system.
Labour has either been in power or on the verge of power looking for a FPTP majority not a messy PR coalition. Or have we? In the last fifty years Labour has won 4 elections. FPTP isn’t really delivering Labour governments.
We also, more importantly, have a responsibility to the country. Tory governments are regularly given unfettered power to dramatically alter society with a little over 40% of the vote.
A genuine Labour commitment to PR could allow a pact with the Greens to take place and even a wider progressive coalition.
Electoral Reform and we have a Lib Dem problem
The problem with the Lib Dems is very different to that of the Greens (though PR still has a role to play). Labour want Green votes but can’t necessarily expect the same of Lib Dem voters and we don’t, even can’t, do a deal with the Lib Dems. But we have to face the fact that between 1997 and 2015 the Lib Dems held around 50 seats or more, which largely, would otherwise have been Tory seats. I don’t think we can ignore the parliamentary maths on this. If the Lib Dems had 50 seats now — the Tories would not have a majority — unless the Lib Dems went into coalition with them of course!
In 1997 it is said, an unofficial, perhaps unspoken, truce was agreed between Labour and the Lib Dems — they didn’t attack each other. There are significant problems to this taking place again, chiefly the ideological chasm that now exists between the two parties. The Labour party is a left, socialist party and the Lib Dems enacted austerity — if we significantly disagree, (if the Lib Dems genuinely see a left-wing Labour government as undesirable as a Tory one), why have any kind of pact, however unspoken?
Perhaps there shouldn’t be one. The Liberal Democrats and the Labour party represent two distinct and opposed political traditions as different between themselves as they are with the Tories. The idea that Lib Dems are a different kind of left-winger is a pretty flawed one (even if it was true for some Lib Dems before 2010).
There may be no point anyway. There’s no certainty it would help either party. But it won’t hurt and both the Labour party and the Lib Dems may be desperate enough to give it a go and worry about their future battles for another day. By 2024 Labour will have been out of power for 14 years and the Lib Dems won’t have had more than 12 seats for 9 years.
My main concern if I was a Lib Dem would be why is no-one in that party asking how they failed so badly in 2019? Uncomfortably for Labour, we may need some kind of Lib Dem revival in Tory seats, that they are incapable of producing.
A Labour commitment on PR could well help a truce take place (and help the country as well).
We now have one Labour MP in Scotland again. If Scotland stays in the UK more Labour MPs would be bloody handy. As to how we do that I simply don’t know enough about Scottish politics but it’s a problem that has to be addressed and solved.
They were going to be right at some point. They were wrong in 2015, 2017 and for the referendum. They were wrong in the US in 2016.
We paid far too much attention to that quote about opinion polls shaping public opinion not reflecting it. We should have been asking what if the opinion polls are right?
I don’t have one — this is the start, not the end of something.
But that Tony Benn quote about there being no final defeat. It’s true. But let’s think, just a little, how we get our first victory for quite some time.
Four useful reads about the 2019 general election are…
Richard Seymour: https://www.patreon.com/posts/making-most-of-32389603 (paywall — £3 a month and worth it)