I have wanted to write something about Labour’s defeat at the election late last year and have not been short of ideas. The issue is how to put them together to convey the interwoven, complex causes of this extremely dismaying outcome. I’m not a statistician, nor a policy wonk, so what follows is personal, political and at times unashamedly anecdotal but, I would assert, no less relevant and accurate. For if we only understand at a distance, we will miss vital clues and these make all the difference. So this is a long and sober reflection. Because as much as I know that we cannot give up, there are things about Britain (especially England), as well as the Labour party, that will make this a harder struggle than we have realised thus far.
It’s not long after midnight in a bar in Berlin and even at this early stage, it is clear that Labour will lose. Newsflashes in the rolling coverage blurt that seat after seat has gone blue. Seats presumed to be Labour’s forever have fallen to the Tories. “Where’s Workington?” my co-commiserator asks me.
But for some, these times were just fine and dandy which goes some way to explaining why they see it still as a golden age. Just as if the world you inhabit is a Richard Curtis film, it’s hard to fathom Ken Loach.
At the tail end, the opportunity, described by Labour MP Jon Trickett, then working as Prime Minister Brown’s assistant, to expose the catastrophic nature of the neo-liberal, free-market scam via the 2008 global banking debacle and break with it for good, was sidestepped and everything shored up in a way that made austerity all the easier to implement because, you know, someone has to pay.
In Labour’s ensuing opposition period (pre Corbyn’s election/s as leader) we had the combination of the rather timid Harman and Milliband who seemed unable to offer any real challenge to the ramping up of an increasingly turbo-charged austerity which saw the roll-out of food banks the length and breadth of the land, a viciously punitive ‘welfare’ system that denied support to the unemployed for the flimsiest of reasons or forced them into ‘jobs’ with derisory pay, no rights and precarious conditions, denying the sick, old, disabled and mentally ill support to the extent that by last year reportedly up to 130,000 of them had died due to something Engels called social murder. In the midst of all of this there seemed nowhere to turn and no-one with passion fighting the corner of those at the sharp end. If it wasn’t there already, the rift set in hard.
Around 2013, people angry enough to want change began gathering in community halls. Soon a campaigning initiative was founded that sprouted branches throughout the UK, and is still running. This is The People’s Assembly. Other campaigns such as UK Uncut and localised fights such as that of the residents on the New Era estate, against social cleansing and championed by Russell Brand made headlines in at least some papers. The same Russell Brand, a rare left of centre celebrity, argued that it was probably pointless to vote, saying a revolution was needed. Tellingly perhaps, he modulated this view after he was persuaded to lend the supposedly “red” Ed Milliband an electoral hand in a cosy, kitchen, televised chat. Ed was also one of the leaders who rushed up to Scotland to promise better things were Scotland to say No to independence and, fatally for him, illustrating to left-oriented SNP voters whose side he was on.
Milliband lost his election, by almost one million fewer votes than Corbyn in 2019 (and over 3 million fewer than 2017). His defeat was largely due to his seeming unwillingness to coherently fight back against austerity and offer any real alternative but also to the fact that as an election promise, David Cameron vowed to put membership of the European Union to the vote in the form of a referendum. For amidst all the brewing discontent, a certain Nigel Farage had been appearing with notable regularity on BBC’s Question Time, declaiming against not only the EU but any other party than his own, the UK Independence Party. In a sea of bland, technocratic conformity, he seemed (to some people) to be the rage against the machine they’d been waiting for, the same people who perhaps were absorbing daily headlines on the apparently endlessly threatening presence of migrants in the UK. In almost every newspaper printed in Britain the word migrant accrued increasing toxicity alongside those of benefit cheat and scrounger. Morning television, watched primarily by the retired, featured programmes which tracked and shamed fraudulent welfare claimants, in between those about how to make a buck via junk shops or doing up and renting a house. The only good people were cheery, obedient capitalists ran the not so subliminal message. The poor were scum, or so Jeremy Kyle kept telling us. The other favourite monster of the media was of course the Muslim, with tropes of terrorism or oppressive laws having been in full flow since the onset of the Blair-Bush war-on-terror.
Mainstream-media-reading Britons were urged to believe they were under attack from a number of quarters, both within and without. To rub in the contrast between their beleaguered present and the halcyon past there were cosy, soft-power confections like Downton Abbey in which the ruling class aristocracy were presented as benign, glamorous and wise. Still running, it is apparently the most successful British costume drama series since the 1981 television serial Brideshead Revisited, which itself graced the onset of Thatcherism. And from 2014 – 18, viewers (and listeners) also had innumerable tributes to two World Wars to get through. And while all our yesterdays were presented in increasingly airbrushed tones, the present got all the grimmer. Certainly for people in places like Consett in north west Durham where no hope had been on the horizon since the closure of the steelworks, one of the many places which watched while the same stuff made elsewhere with cheaper labour was shipped into the country. Anti-foreign sentiment found fertile ground here, not because of migration of people but for the effects of globalisation. And no politician seemed to oppose globalisation except a certain Mr Farage.
What is Brussels?
Between Milliband’s demise and the portentous referendum came, of course, the Labour leadership contest. Those yearning and/or campaigning for a fairer, less militaristic world saw a sudden ray of hope in the figure of Jeremy Corbyn, who for all his mild-mannered, geography teacher appearance is what Tony Benn called a signpost politician, a true socialist, lifelong anti-racist and pro-peace fighter. To see him stand alongside the suited, booted, mediocre ‘moderates’ (all offering more of the same) was an irresistible breath of fresh air and tens of thousands flocked to the party to be supporters and members. The numbers turning out to talks and rallies held by the newly elected leader were startling in their volume. You’d have to go back to before the middle of last century, if indeed ever, to see anything like a similar turn-out for a UK politician. Hundreds of thousands were joyous and hopeful, but some brows inside and outside the party were darkening. A break with neoliberalism wasn’t what was wanted by those for whom it had been one long Richard Curtis film and they had their careers to think of.
In this atmosphere of Tory failure and disgrace, it should have been easy for Labour not only to seize the moral high ground but to soar in the polls. And of course Corbyn and others denounced these appalling failures and tragedies. Sadly, however, there were figures within and surrounding the party who seemed determined to (continue to) undermine the leadership with the eager assistance of the press. These attacks took several forms but one proved more fatal than others. To some perhaps it seemed more a lament than an attack, a lament draped in a bright blue flag with its yellow circle of stars.
Let me make a confession here. I voted Remain. As a British migrant living in Germany it seemed a no-brainer, despite the misgivings I had over the Troika’s treatment of Greece and the Fortress Europe phenomenon. To vote unequivocally Leave would, for me, have been allying with Farage, Gove and Johnson as well as sundry other racists. And let’s be clear, there were no leading left wing figures coherently arguing the case. For a time, after the result, I even wished that the vote could be kept as advisable, something we’d been told early on and after all it was so very close, almost 50/50. However, there came a point, maybe a year down the line, when it was clear that there had been no change of mind among those millions intent on Brexit and leaving aside the facts that neither EU citizens resident in the UK or UK citizens resident abroad for longer than 15 years had been permitted to vote, turnout for the referendum was far higher than most General Elections. Moreover, it had become symbolic of a deep wish for change, freedom and optimism among its supporters. To argue against it felt like one was occupying the position of those who had long ignored places decimated by Thatcherism which had never recovered. Some diehard Remainers pointed to all the good done in such communities by the EU, citing the familiar flag’s presence on billboards where funding had been given. But the counter cry was why couldn’t a rich country like the UK find the necessary funds in the first place for projects like this and if the EU was so good at protecting worker’s rights why were there zero hours contracts? In some places Remain-loyal Labour figures left such communities. In Workington and North West Durham, an MEP and MP relinquished their office and post. It’s no accident perhaps that both places voted to “Get Brexit Done” in the reductive words of the slogan, despite the stalwart socialist replacement in the latter.
Another confession, I come from a coal-mining family. My great grandfather was killed in the then privately owned Wearmouth colliery, his body brought home on a hand-cart. His son (my granda) worked at the same pit from the 1920s, saw it nationalised after the war, lost one lung and got emphysema. And his son, my dad, saw the same place demolished after working there since his teens. Wearmouth was in Sunderland, next to the river, once bristling with shipyards. It was one of the many mines dotted throughout the Durham coalfield. During the Great Strike of 84-85, many Labour members rallied round impoverished, embattled communities but Kinnock as leader condemned miners for their violence without acknowledging police brutality and the trumped-up charges which saw miners imprisoned. After its pit closed, Easington on the north-east coast went from virtual full employment to having the region’s highest youth heroin addiction. They couldn’t all be Billy Elliot. By the time Blair was elected, most north east mines were gone, but despite being a county Durham MP, Blair never attended the annual gala, still running as a testament to Durham miners and promoting union solidarity. He stayed away for his 13 years as PM. The coal industry was the first casualty of globalisation, with the work passing from unionised men in technically sophisticated conditions to countries in South America and elsewhere where child labour was still used and conditions unregulated. Britain then imported this coal. In the ensuing 35 years the once proud coal communities became shadows of their former selves, so to see first a Labour front bench nodding through austerity measures and then be told you can’t have what you’ve voted for were the last straws for many of them. Their discontent may have been exploited by countless targeted bots commanded by Dominic Cummings but the discontent was deep in the first place.
Finally, at the conference in late summer of 2019, it was agreed to incorporate effectively a second referendum if a Labour/EU deal was struck. Labour’s position had gone from respecting the result to planning to somehow overturn it. Corbyn was in an impossible position. Go on defying his Remainer MPs and have them continue to undermine him, even at election time (as some had done in 2017). So it was an attempt to compromise, but in a violently binary context amelioration is seen as missing the point, or not even properly taking it seriously. You had to either love the EU with a passion or hate everything it stood for. Being in the middle on this issue was sitting on the fence, a cowardly, wishy-washy stance. But the press presented Corbyn as a far from mild-mannered compromiser but as dangerous in two extreme ways. His lifelong commitment to peace, whether through opposition to nuclear weapons and his efforts towards an end to the Troubles were portrayed as naïvely pacifistic on the one hand and terrorist on the other. It’s not surprising that some people on the doorstep said they weren’t quite sure why they didn’t like him. Given this chameleon array of personas, they could hardly be sure who he was.
Where to now?
As I write the Labour leadership contest is underway. The future is uncertain. There are rumblings in certain quarters that there is an upswell of support for Keir Starmer but this is only based on the amount of CLPs who have endorsed him so far and all the results aren’t in. In the end the membership will decide. Mark Serwotka writing in The Guardian warns that a vote for anyone other than Rebecca Long-Bailey risks taking the party back to 2015 and that the vibrant regeneration of the last 5 years will be abandoned as the regrettable mistake those always hostile to it believe it to have been. I sincerely hope that will not be the case. The Tory leadership may have conceded to renationalising one rail service and to upping the minimum wage but the deportations of men and women with Caribbean heritage notorious during the Windrush Scandal are being unapologetically continued and the inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster will give protection to firms who knowingly sold the fatal cladding. These news items come just days after a prime-ministerial aide tried to exclude left-leaning journalists from a briefing. There is more to fight for than ever and the stakes are higher still.
Apart from electing RLB, several major things need to happen for a socialist Labour government to exist: an understanding in people’s hearts and minds of what socialism actually is. This needs to happen on the ground, wherever people are up against the harshness of the current system, in solidarity with them in their struggles. This kind of grassroots activity is already happening but it needs staunch political support. The party must make it a priority to eradicate those distances if it expects representation. The party must also be united to defeat its real, external enemy. Distance between each other must be bridged if we are to do that. Broad churches are fine but not, as someone said, if the choir wants to kill the vicar. Nor should we have a situation where unity is only deemed possible if the right of centre has an iron grip. If parliamentary candidates can be nurtured and proposed from their own constituency branches and properly held to account rather than disappearing into ‘Westmonster’ and staying there, that would ensure a greater sense of connection and groundedness. A sound way forward is to implement Open Selection whereby every MP has to stand for reselection as a matter of course after a number of years, just as councillors have to. No more the assumption of a job for life.
Ben Sellers, ex-assistant to Laura Pidcock, now to Durham City MP Mary Foy, talks about the dangers of the Westminster bubble and how groupthink sets in, where professional politicos give less credence to the experiences of constituents in north east ex-mining towns than the results of polls organised and funded by Conservative peer, Lord Ashcroft. “That’s not to say every one of these findings will be wrong, but let’s do our own work in the communities we lost. The answers are there,” Ben says.
Three things matter then if the party is to build on the clear successes of the past four years and the hopes and goals of the movement: solidarity, unity and democracy. Some see these prospects as gloomy but I cannot be as damning as the late, really great, film producer Tony Garnett who claimed:
“The Labour Party’s role objectively, is not to fight for the class interests of working people, it is in the end to believe in, and defend the capitalist system, to argue for a few more crumbs from the capitalist table.”
The divides in Britain post-Brexit have also to be bridged. Too often I’m seeing bitter memes, berating northern new Tory voters as “thick”. That scorn and class-hatred again. Well perhaps it’s worth considering what desperation does to your ability to think straight. Many saw Brexit as a lifeline and Boris as the only one with it, saying you can have it now not maybe. There are clear questions as to why people saw this as such an appealing promise. I’d say it boils down to people feeling cared about. A recent derided quote was allegedly from a woman who’d feared electing Jeremy Corbyn because he’d said he’d close the food banks on which she totally relied. Now apart from the fact one has to wonder where this woman could access reliable information if her means of support were so meagre, she was essentially protecting that which sustained her against a more uncertain future. After the hollowing out of town after town, the decimation of unions, class identity has been all but obliterated. People cast around for something to belong to and while class history should have been celebrated and cherished by Labour, it has all too often been neglected or taken for granted. The only history promulgated in the mainstream media and in most schools is that of the nation. People have rushed to something they feel will protect them, because it supposedly always has and maybe they think it’s all they have left. In the 1930s, the poet WH Auden described national authority as an ogre that the people both feared and clung to. He wrote these lines in 1937:
He dreads the ogre, but he dreads yet more Those who conceivably might set him free. Without his bondage he’d be all at sea, The ogre need but shout ‘Security’ to make this man, so loveable, so mild, as madly cruel as a frightened child.