The general election defeat was a bitter pill to swallow. I voted to trigger an election because firstly, it was the right thing to do to try and remove the Conservatives from power at the earliest opportunity, I also couldn’t see any more favourable conditions ahead for the Labour Party and, crucially, because both the snp and the Liberal Democrats had publicly stated their intention to vote for it. The government was getting a general election whether Labour wanted it or not.
I’ll be honest, too. I was excited, while also feeling a natural pressure to deliver for all of the people so desperately needing the changes that a Labour government would bring, I could not wait to start making the case for that different society, that different world. It felt like we started that general election positively, it felt like there was momentum. My immediate impression was that there was a receptiveness to our early announcements.
Of course, we now know how it ended: in terms of seats lost, our worst defeat since 1935. Even if not our worst performance in terms of vote share, we failed. Of that, there’s no doubt. I watched the exit polls in the living room of my home in County Durham, with my family. In that moment everything we worked for, all of our hopes, dreams, and hard work were snatched from us.
I knew that such a significant swing would mean that North West Durham would be lost. As I left to travel to the count, I prepared my family that they should expect the seat I represented to be lost. Some of this feeling, we had picked up while door-to-door canvassing. Lots of people who were ours in 2017 were now saying that they didn’t know who they would vote for. Many said they simply wanted Brexit done and nothing else mattered, or that they couldn’t vote for Jeremy Corbyn, or that we did nothing for their area the last time we were in power. The perfect storm.
I’m still struggling to fully comprehend the magnitude of the election loss in terms of people’s individual lives, for the state of the country, and for the future of the planet. By now, the minimum rate of pay would be well on the way to £10 an hour. We were not going to wait until the end of a parliament or an economic upturn but deliver it as soon as legislation would allow, and I and others would have insisted that it was done in our first 100 days.
Few people I spoke to on the doors in North West Durham knew that we were going to do this, or they thought it was a similar pledge to the one made by the Tories. People were sceptical it could be delivered. This wasn’t just the case in terms of the minimum wage — our whole suite of policies became unbelievable in the minds of many people that I met.
While I think our manifesto was excellent, voter scepticism was a real problem. Lots of people were prepared to believe that the Tories could ‘get Brexit done,’ but not that we could afford free bus travel for under 25s — even though the former will involve years, possibly decades, of negotiations, thousands of pieces of legislation, new border arrangements, new standards, regulations, a different immigration system and so on.
There was also a perception that some policies had come out of the blue. I must admit, I’ve never heard anyone in North West Durham demand that broadband should be free. Of course, residents talk about poor broadband coverage and the cost, but they hadn’t reached the conclusion that it should be free.
In a sense, we were ahead of where we needed to be on that announcement. This was symptomatic of our campaign. Although a very reasonable proposal, we needed a lot longer than a few days of fast-paced campaigning to develop the narrative and explain why it made sense as part of a plan to rapidly increase productivity across the UK.
I understand how hard it will be to move on from such a defeat. It is even more painful when people rewrite history and make cheap political capital out of our loss. Going straight into a leadership election is difficult. At a time when we need to work through where we went wrong and how to win in the long term, many of our political opponents — those opposed to socialism — will use this period to try to shift the pendulum towards the right and centre, abandoning the important gains we’ve made.
Those are all battles to be had, but our energy is precious. Here is what I think the Left, in and out of the Labour Party, should spend its time doing in the next few years.
1. Organising to Defend Our Communities from Tory Attacks
When I say organise, I mean it in the true sense. I don’t mean we need to get better at door knocking, which is essentially data collection. I mean mapping out who and what is under threat in our communities, and planning properly to defend the services that are left and the people who are at the sharp end. We need to articulate what has been lost, and hold those who made promises to the electorate to account.
One of the problems the movement has faced over the previous five years has been that, while there was a huge upsurge in membership in the Labour Party, the numbers at demonstrations, activity in communities and workplaces has been relatively subdued in the face of the scale of the destruction. Perhaps people believed that a Corbyn-led Labour government would rectify many of the wrongs. But that opportunity is gone — and now our activity must reflect the threat that our communities face.
2. Building the Confidence of the Movement
In order to have a strong movement fit for the task, its members must be confident. We must not wait for politicians to provide us with that strength and confidence. We must instil it ourselves. The establishment has been at war with us for the past four years, trying to break the spirit of party members, picking us off, calling us extremists, even though it is their dogmas — the naked pursuit of profit, the drive to privatise, and climate change denial — that are the real extremism. We must stick together in the face of these attacks, which will not cease after the election.
There are issues that we will disagree on, we cannot ignore that, but they are not enough to break us and should never be allowed to stand in the way of what needs to be done. We need to make the case for socialism, practically and as one powerful movement. When we talk about immigration, we need to be clear that, as socialists and internationalists, our position is based on anti-racist principles. Prejudice will undoubtedly arise in these discussions, we understand that. When it does we must work to dismantle that prejudice.
We need to talk about Palestinian human rights and how we, as a movement, defend Palestinian people, alongside other oppressed groups worldwide. We must do this while understanding the danger of racist tropes and how they cultivate antisemitism. We need to educate each other and improve our movement, so that it can dismantle those tropes and defend Jewish communities here in the UK and worldwide.
The women’s movement needs the space to talk about sex and gender, without fear of being ‘no platformed’. We reserve that measure for fascists. We need to talk about nuclear weapons and what we think security really looks like, alongside those trade unions that are the heart of our movement.
We need to create educational spaces in order to strengthen ourselves — on the economy, on racism, on the social security system, on climate breakdown. It is never self-indulgent to spend time on political education; it is preparation for effective activism in our communities. But the spaces we create and the discourse we have should not just be about ‘calling out’ the person, to reach some sort of individual moral purity and satisfaction that we’ve made the challenge. It must offer insights to improve the movement collectively and create a better culture.
There is, of course, a moral imperative to challenge racism and other forms of oppression when they occur. My years as an anti-racist educator showed me, however, that it is the opportunity for dialogue that changes people’s minds in the long term.
3. Shifting the Narrative in Our Communities to the Left
The narrative pushed by much of the mainstream media and the political right cements a common sense in our society. To us, it often makes no sense. You end up having ridiculous conversations about, say, pushing the nuclear button, as if it were the most logical thing in the world, when it’s exactly the opposite. The slaughter of millions of innocent people can never be normalised and as socialists, as democrats, and as citizens of the world, we cannot accept it. So, we have to shift the narrative on that.
When so many people leap to the defence of billionaires, rather than seeing them as key players in a world that is desperately unequal, we have a problem. When so many people see immigration as a threat to their material conditions, rather than unfettered capitalism and austerity, we have a problem. Children, families drown is the Mediterranean, seeking safety, because no safe passage to the UK exists. Yet many people don’t see that. When so many blame immigrants for the suppression of wages, rather than exploitative practices of bosses, we have a problem. Even moreso when they don’t know about the legislative environment that crushes trade unions and undermines the fight for decent pay and conditions. Without a shift in these narratives, we’ll never turn this situation round.
We cannot, and must not, think that our defeat on 12 December, crushing though it was, is a time to retreat, a time to pack it all in. In fact, it is quite the opposite. We didn’t connect for a number of reasons: Brexit, and in particular being pushed towards a Remain position which hurt us badly in the North; the sustained barrage on the leadership over the past four years; a shopping list of excellent socialist policies which were missing an overall narrative; and not enough of a sustained analysis of our economic system and how alternatives to it are truly possible.
But all that honest and painful reflection still leaves us with an urgent need to oppose an increasingly brutal system, to oppose wars and take radical climate action to save our planet. We still have the answers. We need to organise against the damage that is to come and that has been done, not as an act of charity but solidarity. We need to unite as one movement and represent our class as ruthlessly as the opposition do theirs, while at the same time, patiently and lovingly make the Left case.
We have not lost our hunger, our passion, or our empathy. The movement has not lost its skills nor its incredible organising capacity, its boundless generosity or solidarity. What an excellent basis to begin the next chapter. This work has to start now. We still have the world to win. Keep your hope alive by joining the fight in whatever way is possible for you.
Activist, North West Durham