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Assessing Defeat

To understand December’s loss, socialists should look beyond the ‘Brexit or Corbyn’ binary to deeper problems facing the labour movement which can’t be solved by charting a course towards the centre, argues Andrew Murray.

As the results rolled in through the small hours of 13 December, any number of Labour politicians observed, accurately, that they felt accountable for the failure of the party’s election campaign to the millions of people who will certainly suffer under another five years of Conservative government.

That is not, however, the limit of accountability. For the last four years, and particularly since the June 2017 general election, it has seemed possible that the British Labour Party could succeed in taking power on the basis of a radical social democratic programme and thereby offer the world an alternative to the choice between the Davos centrism and national-authoritarian populism which has dominated global politics since the 2008 crash.

Those who wish to keep political options within that framework will seize on December’s result to advance their case. The scale of the defeat has therefore been escalated from bad to historically disastrous by self-interested commentators and politicians. In fact, there are four post-war occasions when Labour has polled a lower share of the vote since the Second World War: 1983 (under Michael Foot), 1987 (Neil Kinnock), 2010 (Gordon Brown), and 2015 (Ed Miliband).

Moreover, Labour lost in 2019 while polling nearly 700,000 more votes than it did in 2005, Blair’s third victory. Then, Labour’s 35 per cent share of the poll secured 355 parliamentary seats, while 2019’s 32 per cent won just 202. These are the vagaries of the electoral system — vital for forming a government based on a Commons majority, but of less utility in judging the actual movement of political opinion. These facts do not obscure the fact that the Tories secured a very large majority, but they need to be borne in mind by those who would use the outcome to write off ‘Corbynism’ as an aberration now to be cast aside forever.

Corbyn’s own much-ridiculed post-election statement that Labour had ‘won the argument’ has more than a germ of truth in reality. Brexit aside, Boris Johnson embraced the thrust of Labour’s anti-austerity arguments — his only intelligible policies outside rushing out of the European Union involved big increases in public spending on the NHS, the infrastructure, northern regions and so on. The sincerest form of flattery.

And the election of Corbyn’s successor seems to have a centre of political gravity well to the left of the 2015 post-Miliband race. New Labour is bereft of champions, and even the most right-wing of the candidates, Jess Phillips, has been keen to remind party members that she marched against the Iraq War, Tony Blair’s signature contribution.

So the bourgeoisie may be haunted by this spectre a little longer. Certainly, it threw all its considerable resources, from the mass media to nominally retired security officials to religious leaders, into securing the defeat of the Corbyn project which, since the 2017 election, had posed a realistic threat to their power and at least some of their property. 

Brexit or Corbyn

It is remarkable how much of the commentary from the left treats the election campaign as a thing-in-itself, which can be made sense of without reference to the broader class struggle, the crisis of neoliberal governance, and broader questions of political strategy.

Of course, psephology, parliamentary intrigue, and media polemics are endlessly fascinating, but we shall not tarry long on them here. They only explain so much. And they leave the ‘period of reflection’ mired in an arid binary — was it all down to Brexit, or is Jeremy to blame?

Everyone answers according to taste, or more precisely in order to find in the election outcome a justification for the positions they advocated in advance. So no pro-Remain pundit, who sedulously and successfully urged a second referendum on the Labour front bench, dare acknowledge that this advice produced exactly the outcome which its critics (present author included) predicted, for fear of announcing their own redundancy as a political seer.

The right-wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party find tagging the result ‘made by Corbyn’ convenient. In fact, many of the statements by the honourables and right honourables issued after 12 December smelled very much as if they had been ready to be issued on 8 June 2017, when the unexpected surge in the Labour vote forced them to lift their finger from the send button. Their statements attacking Jeremy Corbyn have been marinating in their own malice for two-and-a-half years, and are all the more bilious for the delay.

For what it is worth, my three-point analysis is this:

  1. Labour lost a lot of votes to pro-Brexit parties (the Tories and the Farageists)
  2. Labour also lost a lot of votes to pro-Remain parties (the Liberal Democrats and to a lesser degree the Greens)
  3. The distribution of the losses between the two camps is less important than the (entirely foreseeable) fact that it was the former defections, to the “get Brexit done” camp, which impacted in terms of parliamentary seats.

Any critique which confines itself to aggregate movements of party opinion without analysing the battleground seats contributes nothing to working out how to secure a parliamentary majority. The most sober reading of the outcome would indicate that an even more pro-Remain posture by the party, had that been possible, would have successfully defended around ten of the sixty seats Labour lost (and would have endangered on the other hand at least as many constituencies retained by very thin majorities in pro-Leave areas).

But still, Brexit or Corbyn? The obvious answer is ‘both’ and ‘neither.’ It was both in the sense that this was a Brexit election. Not only were the Tories determined to make the poll all about Brexit, in itself a circumstance likely to set the agenda, but Brexit had dominated political life to the exclusion of everything else in the entire period between the 2017 and 2019 election. Sometimes you really don’t need a pollster to know which way the wind blows. Pretending that this wasn’t about Brexit is as sensible as pledging to fight an exclusively sea war when your enemy is launching a land invasion.

And it was about Corbyn, too. Most of the unending venomous attacks on this decent man were of the same character as in 2017, when they made little difference. The new element was the prolonged wavering and confusion over Labour’s Brexit policy, which did nothing for the Labour leader’s reputation for straight-forward politics but did underline the old truth that the longer you vacillate the more your options narrow.

Labour’s Brexit problem was not just the policy of a second referendum with a new negotiated deal and Remain on the ballot. This might just about have worked had it not been undermined by nearly all senior shadow cabinet members (other than Corbyn himself) pledging to vote to stick with Brussels when they got the chance, no matter how good the exit deal that they themselves were supposed to negotiate.

It was as much the combination of months of a cloudy policy for the future alongside a crystal-clear practice of parliamentary obstruction in the here-and-now. In the course of 2019, Labour opposed May’s deal, Johnson’s deal, no deal, a joint deal and even, for a time, a general election. Positive votes were only cast for measures of parliamentary delay and obfuscation, right down to the end. Each of these votes could be justified in and of themselves perhaps, although it is now clear that they have led to a worse departure plan than was available a year ago. But in aggregate, they placed Labour at the heart of the stasis, devoid of any solution to the deadlock and barely committed to the promotion of its own Brexit plan, as offered in the highly popular 2017 manifesto.

And could there have been a greater absurdity than the fact that it was a Tory prime minister who (doubtless disingenuously) made the case during the election campaign for using Britain’s release from EU regulations to be more expansive in terms of state aid for industry and to pursue a domestically-focused public procurement policy. The Labour Party dared not allow itself to articulate a single positive outcome to the democratic decision of the 2016 referendum. Our best tunes were not just silenced, they were stolen.

The Long Decline

In a way, however, the defeat was about neither Brexit nor Corbyn. It has been widely remarked upon that in most of the seats Labour lost in December, the party’s electoral position had been consistently worsening since the turn of the century (six elections back). 2017 was a reversal of the trend, but even then six long-standing Labour seats were lost, a chirping canary in the coal mine which largely went unheard in North London.

Also, the first ‘red wall’ to crumble was the one which stretched eastwards from Glasgow across the central belt in Scotland. That did not so much crumble as entirely disintegrate in 2015, before Brexit and before Jeremy Corbyn. A single seat, out of more than forty, now remains of that mighty edifice.

So there are deeper forces at work, which predated the Brexit crisis and Labour’s move to the left in 2015. Class politics have been subsumed under new expressions of political identity (or very old ones recalibrated), the same phenomenon that sees bastions of French communism vote for Le Pen, left strongholds in Italy back Salvini, and areas of the industrial Midwest come out for Trump.  

Some of the blame for this in Britain can doubtless be laid at the door of the complacent indifference of New Labour’s panjandrums, but the core of the problem, politically, is that the labour movement has ceased to exist in many of these communities. They became Labour ‘heartlands’ for a reason, uniting industrial work, the community, trade unions, and Labour Party. This was the soil, fertilised by generations of struggle, that Labour loyalty grew out of.  

Close a pit on Friday, and you still have those bonds of course on the following Monday.  But decades later, years in which nothing new has replaced the old, it is a different matter. In that sense, the parameters of December 2019 were laid down in the last quarter of the last century. That period was marked by a dual crisis for socialism: a crisis of agency and of perspective. Who is now invested in creating a socialist society? And what does socialism mean now anyway?

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since, but addressing these problems must be at the heart of any ‘period of reflection’ which seeks to lift its eyes beyond swingometers and shadow cabinet ins and outs. Three interrelated questions seem to be essential, not just to winning the next general election, but to actually transforming society thereafter.  They involve neither Brexit nor Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, both of which will have receded far in the rear view mirror by then.

The first is the reconstitution of the labour movement, which is also the reconstitution of the working class-for-itself, and furthermore the creation of a Labour electoral coalition as strong outside London and the other great cities as it already is within, one which must perforce incorporate sections of the working-class of more marginal presence in London.

Stronger trade unions are essential here, and the unions do not lack the capacity to make such an advance. Unite’s community membership initiative, and Labour’s own community organisers point in the right direction but they will not cover enough territory on their own. 

The movement needs to be part of the life of post-industrial towns and villages, as well as never-heartland areas today savaged by capitalist crisis and a decade of austerity. Why, for example, does the Left merely condemn the existence of food banks and not also seek to organise those dependent on them to make demands on local and national government, making them centre of transition from charity to class solidarity?

That leads to the second consideration: the need to rebalance the Left’s perspectives between parliament and mass action. Labour did its best to offer ‘hope’ in the election, but it should not have been a surprise that hope cannot be conjured out of apathy or worse in a six-week campaign. Hope is what emerges over years of people joining together in their streets, workplaces, unions, and campaigns to fight injustice and assert their rights.

That was part of the founding wisdom of so-called Corbynism, and that is the life that Jeremy Corbyn himself has led. Yet the cruel paradox is that here Corbynism had a self-negating aspect. No sooner was the leadership of the Labour Party secured than mass action against austerity tapered off and the bulk of the Left’s efforts refocused on sustaining the new leadership in the party and in parliament. All necessary, but insufficient if the socialist object is to empower people to change their own reality. It cut the Left off from the very elements which had seeded the Corbyn insurgency.

The Future

So, walking on two legs will now be necessary. No potential outcome to the Labour leadership race — and maintaining the political gains of the last four years is crucial — will obviate the need to root ourselves again in the everyday struggles. Those may be against the consequences of austerity, which will long outlast Boris Johnson’s passing enthusiasm for mitigating them, but they may just as likely be against imperialist war in the Middle East or against populist-authoritarian racism and threats to democracy.  

That is where the Left and the labour movement needs to be. It is another reason why capitulating to chauvinism, racism, or imperialism can form no part of restoring Labour’s fortunes on the basis that some ‘lifelong Labour voters’ may be partial to such entrenched ideologies.

Recall that Margaret Thatcher secured a majority bigger than Johnson’s in 1987, yet was out of office three years later, defeated above all by an extra-parliamentary mass movement against the Poll Tax. There are parts which parliamentary procedure does not reach, but which the streets can refresh.

As Britain voted, masses in one country after another — Chile, Iraq, Lebanon, Ecuador, Iran, France — were mobilising against a broken economic and social system. The world is crying out for an alternative to neoliberalism, even as columnists like Will Hutton insist that we musn’t use the term. And on the subject of labels, Jeremy Corbyn is right — there really is no Corbynism, there is only socialism.

Perhaps the communications failure of the election campaign may at least clarify what socialism is and isn’t. It isn’t tax-and-spend, even on an imposing scale, nor is it eat-drink-and-be-merry-for-free. A transformative message, about a different kind of society, got lost beneath a clutter of gratis goodies bestowed at bewildering speed. Important policy advances such as the Green Industrial Revolution, which offers sustainable renewal and future-proofed work, were occluded by the special offer of the day. There is something to be said for the language of priorities.

Socialism is the elimination of social inequality and ultimately attaining a classless society, with gender, racial, and national differences no longer consequential. The road there leads through the progressive decommodification of the essentials of life, from housing to culture, extending the founding principles of the NHS to the other necessities of a real human existence, which can only be delivered by new forms of popular power ultimately spreading across national boundaries. 

Significant steps in that direction formed part of Labour’s programme. They need to be preserved from the bitter Blairite restorationists in the party and the self-serving analyses of the liberal commentariat, not least because they were and are popular.

To win on that basis is challenging, to say the least. Although we were not so far off winning in 2017. But the alternative is managing capitalism, if anyone prefers. So as Tony Benn urged, we must ‘toughen up, bloody toughen up.’ Last year we marked the bicentenary of the British establishment massacring those demonstrating peacefully for democracy at Peterloo. It’s never been easy, and never will be. But we are still many, and they are still few.