Permission to Believe Again

Nine weeks on from December's election defeat, Ali Milani argues that it's time for Labour members to emerge from its shadow – and renew the commitment to radical change that Britain so desperately needs.

The night of December 12th 2019 was devastating. Not only was it a gut-wrenching defeat for the Labour Party across the country, but a heartbreaking loss for me personally. 

As Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, I was tasked with being the first person in British democracy history to unseat a sitting Prime Minister. The story was poetic; it was perfectly poised, and it was to deliver a seismic political message to Westminster and beyond. We were going to prove that our democracy had the capacity for a young, working-class, Muslim immigrant to defeat the most dangerous Prime Minister of our time: Boris Johnson.

And while our campaign mobilised thousands and created an energy unlike any I have experienced; on that cold Friday morning we were met with disappointment. 

As the exit poll was released and the inevitability of a Labour defeat became increasingly clear, I felt the hope drain around me. Many supporters switched off the TV, some went to bed and others fell into the comfort of friends and family. But I had the unenviable responsibility of standing next to Boris Johnson as he delivered his victory speech. 

So more than most, I know the pain hundreds of thousands of Labour members and millions of our voters have felt since December. The despair, desolation and pessimism that has taken hold of our movement. Many I have spoken to have chosen to actively disengage with politics and have lost the hope they once held for a transformation of our country, society and world.

But 9 weeks have passed. We have all had our time to mourn. And now, I believe, it is time for us to hope once again.

Personally, this hope first re-emerged in the US Democratic primary campaign. Watching Bernie Sanders capture the spirit and imagination of the young, disenfranchised and working-class – I knew from my time on the campaign trail that we could do it here as well.

If we take inspiration from our colleagues across the Atlantic, we can learn that with every defeat comes opportunity. Opportunity to learn, to develop and to ensure our movement is better prepared for the fight next time. But in the midst of our own leadership election, the answer cannot lie in abandoning our vision for the world.

After 2016’s defeat, it will have been undeniably tempting for Bernie Sanders and his team to abandon their vision and compromise. To think smaller and shrink their ambition. To believe that the only way to success is to succumb to mainstream narrative of what is ‘acceptable’ in politics.

But they understood, as we should, that the greatest defeat would be for us to limit our own ambition. To accept the right-wing media celebration and analysis as truth.

Predictably, the media and political establishment has been out in force since the general election defeat – convincing anyone who will listen that the result was a singular rejection of our policy platform. Their claim – which has largely gone unchallenged – is that the only path to victory is for the next Labour leader to return to the politics of the past. 

Many have reluctantly accepted that narrative as truth. After the trauma we all experienced on December 12th, there are those who (understandably) just don’t want to be on the losing team anymore. If anyone feels that pain, it’s me. 

But I also know that this path not only leads to more defeat, but fails to deal with the scale of the many crises ahead. Yes, we must seriously reflect and learn the many lessons of our defeat. But what I saw in our campaign, in the face of every activist and every volunteer, was an unmatched commitment to change the world and take charge of our future.

To take on the climate catastrophe we face, the scale of inequality, the explosion of racism into the mainstream and to lead a new political generation. We know the Tories do not have the ideas or willingness to tackle the issues of our time, so we simply do not have the time or privilege for a Labour Party that is sat licking its wounds.

With Bernie Sanders’ victory in New Hampshire, we can see that progress is rarely easy or quick. The Sanders team has spent the last 4 years reorganising, with millions of volunteers and supporters, coming back stronger in the interest of working people.

In that same spirit, we need not look back at the last four years with only regret. The radical political change that we believed in was never going to come altogether, or all at once. It would take time, and it would take determination, but it can still come.

In short: it’s time for us to give ourselves permission to believe again. 

It’s time for Labour members and supporters to reemerge from our collective misery. To stop feeling sorry for ourselves and to renew our fighting spirit. Our communities demand it from us to fight on. Our planet demands of us to fight on.

I am proud that our Labour movement selected me, a young, Muslim, working-class member, who grew up on a council estate, to take on the Prime Minister. Only our movement, our party and our members have the capacity to make that story come true. But to do it, we must be prepared to believe again.