In ‘After the Landslide’, a newsletter written shortly after Labour’s defeat in the 1983 general election, the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, a faction within the party, argued that any conversation about the future must acknowledge two things: ‘the sheer depth of our defeat, and the shallowness of much party reaction to it’. The defeats of 1983 and 2019 diverge in several ways: in 1983 Labour was still dominant in Scotland, and the SDP-Liberal Alliance was a far more significant force than the Liberal Democrats or the Brexit Party were in December; Labour remained strong in its northern heartlands, while many of the cities that are now coloured red then returned Tories. But in the two respects identified in ‘After the Landslide’, the position in 1983 was remarkably similar to the one today. This is unsurprising: in such situations defeat is painful, and consolation hard to find. The temptations to jettison everything you ever believed or to refuse the possibility you were wrong about anything are equally strong; some people shuttle between the two several times a day. When Jeremy Corbyn announced his resignation he also called for a ‘period of reflection’, but there has been little evidence of one. Labour has now lost four elections in a row and nobody is without blame. The left should admit to its mismanagement of the party, but explanations of the 2019 defeat that seem to have been held over from 2017 – such as Alan Johnson’s comment, within moments of the exit poll, that Momentum should be purged – are inadequate. At the very least, any inquiry should account for the drop-off from Labour’s performance in 2017; it should also try to explain the Tories’ success.
The stereotype of the Labour Party is that it is wracked by factional and ideological warfare, whereas the Conservatives go through bloody and brutal succession struggles but then quickly pull together in pursuit of their true goal, the exercise and maintenance of power. The Tories aren’t averse to ideology – that is a cliché learned from Burke and rarely questioned – but it is certainly less important to them than it is to Labour, an uneasy coalition of organised workers, socialists, social democrats and the progressive middle class. What the party says it believes matters to its members because these beliefs will profoundly shape its actions if and when it forms a government.
It is worth emphasising early on that Corbynism brought intellectual and political life – as well as a mass membership – back to the Labour Party. In 2015 Labour didn’t appear ideologically split so much as intellectually exhausted. Its response to the financial crisis had been first to promise to cut ‘tougher and deeper’ than Thatcher, then, under Ed Miliband, to commit to a milder form of austerity. Its whipped abstention on the Tories’ welfare bill shortly after its election defeat was emblematic of its lost bearings. In a field of leadership candidates remarkable only for its lack of distinction, Corbyn’s candidacy reminded the party what it had been missing: socialist principle. Since Corbyn’s election the membership has learned difficult and frustrating lessons about the autonomy of the parliamentary party – many Labour MPs never hid their conviction that Corbyn and the politics he represented were illegitimate. The tension between party members and elected representatives, however, is congenital in Labour: Richard Crossman observed in 1968 that the nominal sovereignty given to the party conference was vitiated in practice by the freedom given to MPs in matters of political judgment. Perversely, the unremitting attacks from his own MPs made it more difficult, not less, for Corbyn to resign even after the weaknesses of his leadership became apparent; the membership backed him again in the leadership challenge of 2016 in part because they feared the political direction the party would take without him.
Despite MPs’ fears that Corbyn would democratise the party in the manner once envisioned by Tony Benn – compulsory reselection of MPs and so on – the leadership’s embrace of the new members was lukewarm. Little effort was made to convert members on paper into active participants, and party headquarters didn’t try very hard to find out who they were, why they had joined, or what they wanted. Doubtless most of them supported Corbyn’s anti-austerity message, and they were certainly sufficiently politically engaged to use their veto to prevent his removal. But beyond that, they – and their broader preferences – remained obscure. This will be worth remembering at the end of this latest leadership contest, when pundits declare that members have moved dramatically in one direction or another.
The election was a risk, but it was also constitutionally proper. A parliament experiencing an impasse over a fundamental policy issue has two options: the removal of the government by resignation or confidence vote, or a dissolution and new elections which will change the parliamentary calculus. It is hard to argue that the electorate didn’t deserve a say, though it’s worth remembering that the move for an election came only once the impasse began to break down. Parliament had passed Johnson’s Brexit bill but rejected his timetable, demanding more time for scrutiny. Johnson saw a chance to shrug off the shackles of minority government. Both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP signalled their intention to back an election, the former driven by hubris, the latter by the realistic assessment that Johnson was widely disliked in Scotland and that it would be wiser to go to the polls before Alex Salmond’s trial for sexual assault and attempted rape begins. Had Labour been the only party to demur it would have looked odd; to refuse an election for a second time after spending a year demanding one would have been hard to justify. In hindsight, Johnson’s eye for political advantage is better than many thought. The Liberal Democrats were wrong to take the vocal enthusiasm of those who attended the marches organised by the People’s Vote as a sign of wider political realignment; Labour was wrong to assume its performance in 2017 would be easily repeated. It’s possible Labour should have supported a soft Brexit as agreed by Theresa May; but that would be to ignore May’s disinclination to compromise and her vulnerability to backbench rebellion, not to mention the likelihood that such a move on Labour’s part would have blown apart the shadow cabinet and fanned the party’s smouldering civil war. Retrospectives often assume greater latitude than really existed.
The hopes with which Labour entered the election campaign were not entirely delusional. The leadership expected Johnson’s deal to crumble under scrutiny, and tensions between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives to deepen enough to split the right-wing vote; they expected Johnson’s record of wasting public money on vanity projects, his notorious tetchiness under scrutiny and his evident contempt for the democratic process to undo him. Ascribing their unexpected success in 2017 to the combination of a bold manifesto, the energy of volunteer election workers and the restraint of a hostile media by electoral impartiality rules, they anticipated a similar reception this time round. Above all, they hoped that a general election – which necessarily touches on all aspects of political life – would allow the party to make a case about the state of the nation beyond Brexit.
But it was a Brexit election. Labour effectively began with a non-position: advocating a second referendum involving a deal yet to be negotiated, with Corbyn adopting a position of neutrality in that referendum, as an ‘honest broker’ ready to enact the popular decision – a policy of deferral, opposed to the Tories’ decisive, if vacuous, mantra ‘Get Brexit Done.’ The position was justified by invocation of Harold Wilson’s putative neutrality in the 1975 referendum on continuing UK membership of the EEC. But Corbyn’s policy was motivated primarily by party management – by the success of the heavily Remain-voting membership in forcing a commitment to a second referendum, as well as by the perception that Labour’s electoral base was badly split – and it was taken as a sign of vacillation, which it was. A procedural measure, it outsourced politics to the electorate, and passed up an opportunity to shape them. This ‘flip-flopping’ was ruthlessly highlighted by Johnson in the TV debates. Labour thought the Leave-voting portion of its electorate was lashing out against a remote political establishment, angry after a decade of stagnant wages, chronic underinvestment and the privileging of the South-East. That is not the whole story of Brexit (which also relied on the support of well-heeled Southern nostalgists) but Labour read its own voters’ part in it as, in effect, a protest vote – and assumed it could redirect that protest against what it believed to be its true source.
The pitfalls of this strategy should have been obvious. It isn’t impossible to change voters’ minds, but if you interpret their anger as motivated by a sense that they are being ignored, then claiming their vote was really about something else risks repeating the original sin and deepening the suspicion that Labour’s ‘neutrality’ was merely a cynical attempt at disguising its Remainer instincts.
Labour’s Brexit quandary was a sign of a deeper difficulty. The party tends to treat constitutional questions as a distraction from its economic goals. It has favoured what is sometimes called ‘gas-and-water socialism’ and has been generally indifferent to questions of representation, legitimacy and democratic reform; insofar as these are recognised as issues that matter, they are regarded as solved by the simple fact of the Labour Party’s existence as a vehicle for working-class representation, and by its occasional attempts to rid the country of its vestiges of aristocratic government in the House of Lords.
Brexit was not solely a constitutional question. Labour was right to identify its economic aspect, and no one who remembers Farage’s smirk in front of his ‘Breaking Point’ poster, or Jo Cox’s assassin’s cry of ‘Britain First!’, could deny its racist inflection. But many of the questions it raises – Who makes our laws? What does it mean to have sovereignty? Does our vote count? – are constitutional in form. As an issue, Brexit (if not its consequences) may be in abeyance by the next election, but these questions will not be. They will matter in the UK, especially in Scotland, where Labour’s collapse was caused partly by its response to them; they will matter internationally as well, as the new right proffers its answers: nationalism, culture war and anti-migrant hysteria.
Connected to this was Labour’s failure to respond to Johnson as prime minister and Brexiteer-in-chief. At times the strategy seemed to be to paint him as just another Tory; at others to foreground his unsuitability for office, his record of serial deception and failures as London mayor and foreign secretary; at others still to point to his long record of racist and sexist remarks, evidence of a man attuned to Trumpism and at peace with the hard right, who purged his party of its liberal wing. That all of these charges were true did not seem to matter, or not to enough voters. Despite abundant evidence from around the world, many people still find it hard to accept that flagrant lying is no longer a disqualification in public life, and that it might in fact be an attraction.
One false consolation which has circulated on the left since the election is that the press was to blame for Labour’s defeat: that the party’s ideas were sound, but didn’t get a fair hearing. Until the campaign began, there was a naive faith that Ofcom’s electoral regulations would enable another Corbyn surge. There is ample reason to criticise the British press. Labour’s Brexit policy may have been inadequate, but it wasn’t difficult to grasp, even if the nation’s journalists professed bafflement. Entirely fictitious assaults by ‘Momentum thugs’ featured in the tabloids and on Twitter; real assaults on elderly Labour canvassers, if they merited press attention at all, fell rapidly from view. The coverage reached its nadir when the political editor of the Sun, Tom Newton Dunn, published a map of ‘Corbyn’s hard-left extremist network’, linking the IRA, Channel 4 journalists, radicalised junior doctors and Jacques Derrida. The piece was silently disappeared shortly after it emerged that it had been sourced from white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites. No senior journalist condemned it; Newton Dunn remains welcome on TV sofas.
Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture, which tracked the press coverage, showed how intense the press hostility was: their figures show that negative coverage of the Labour Party in the campaign period had more than doubled since 2017; negative coverage of the Conservatives had halved. But press hostility doesn’t explain Corbyn’s brittle and at times otherworldly demeanour in debates and interviews, or Labour’s scattershot policy announcements. If the hostility was predictable – and it was – there was little sign of a strategy to deal with it. The same media, after all, made short work of Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Whatever its shortcomings, for the vast majority of the electorate the media is where politics happens, and where political judgments are made; headlines, real and fake, circulate at light-speed through social media, detached from context and story. The decline of the associational bodies where political beliefs were once formed and acted on – for the Labour Party, trade unions especially – has left great voids in British civic life.
There isn’t much Labour can learn from the Tory approach to the press, beyond the usefulness of being the Conservative Party: Johnson’s contempt for the media – ducking interrogation by Andrew Neil, hiding in a fridge from Piers Morgan of Good Morning Britain and issuing threats about cutting the BBC’s funding – did not injure him. CCHQ pumped out risible, fictitious statistics (Priti Patel at one point claimed a Labour government would mean an extra murder every week) that were dutifully reproduced. Scrutiny of the thin Tory manifesto was thinner still. On social media, pop-up organisations run by people connected to the Conservative Party – ‘Capitalist Worker’, for instance – pushed out targeted attack ads. Such actions would be read differently if carried out by the Labour Party: what is seen as raffish confidence in an Etonian prime minister would be interpreted as the left’s sinister evasion of a free press. Recognising that this is unfair does not solve the problem.
Labour made further misjudgments. Opposition to austerity was central to Corbyn’s accession to the leadership in 2015 and to the success of the 2017 manifesto. But austerity’s architects are long departed from Parliament, and in two successive elections the Conservatives have claimed it is over – indeed Johnson put spending pledges at the centre of his campaign. Labour often complained that Tory spending figures were inflated or misleading, and they were right; outside education and health, Johnson’s manifesto barely returned funding to 2010 levels. This has been a lost decade. But when both parties are promising spending increases, the dynamic isn’t the same as when one party promises cuts and the other investment. Labour spoke of its mission as akin to rebuilding after a disaster, but the disaster was unevenly distributed; to much of the country it was invisible. The aspects of austerity with the most acutely personal implications – the failed Universal Credit system, or sharp cuts to disability payments – affect only a minority of voters; stagnation in real wages is less easily tied to it. Austerity’s more universal consequences are another matter: Ipsos MORI’s political monitor suggests that a majority of supporters of both main parties have agreed for the past two years that public services affected by cuts – above all, the NHS – require funding boosts. Conservative spending pledges effectively choked this off as a wedge issue. In many of the seats lost by Labour, economic destruction has been the story for a lot longer than the last ten years: Bolsover, for instance, sits in the bottom quintile of Indices of Deprivation. Anti-austerity politics alone could not dislodge Brexit here.
Corbyn himself was cited most often as the main reason not to vote Labour. It is not inaccurate to understand his name partly as a symbol for particular values and positions held – or perceived to be held – by the party under his leadership: its Brexit stance, sympathy for migrants, rejection of British foreign policy, dislike of nationalist pomp and chauvinism, multiculturalism. Few members would want all of these to disappear along with him. But attitudes to him had hardened considerably since 2017, not least because of his failure to end the antisemitism crisis. There, as so often in difficult moments, Corbyn offered a bureaucratic solution – a promised improvement in processes – rather than a political one. It was a failure of leadership, especially because it allowed suspicions about his real motivations to persist. For many, his reluctance to repeat his apology in his election interview with Andrew Neil confirmed those suspicions.
Corbyn is a consensual politician: he dislikes conflict, and the theatrical version of it staged in the Commons. However frequent and fiery his conflicts with Labour MPs, as with the party leadership in his years as a backbencher, within his own section of the party he has always preferred to try to reach agreement. As a result, he was too diffident a manager of a team riddled with factions, increasingly bunkerish. The intermittently poisonous culture in the leader’s office became an open secret during the past year, becoming public when Andrew Fisher, who had advised Corbyn since his first leadership campaign and wrote the 2017 manifesto, resigned in protest at the ‘lack of professionalism, competence and human decency’ in the office. In light of this dysfunction, many of the campaign’s mistakes – its scattershot strategy, its failure to spot what was happening in Leave-voting seats, its heedlessness of the polls – are more easily understood. By the end of the campaign, Corbyn looked exhausted; many of his supporters will have felt the same. But there is one quality he possessed that his successor will need to emulate: resilience. He withstood a level of opprobrium almost unprecedented in public life.
Gleeful dismembering of the Labour manifesto after an election defeat is something of a party tradition. Gerald Kaufman’s verdict on the 1983 programme – ‘the longest suicide note in history’ – is merely the best known. More perceptive was R.H. Tawney’s verdict on Labour’s post-1928 programme: ‘a glittering forest of Christmas trees, with presents for all’. This was all the more withering because Tawney himself had been its chief author. His wide-ranging diagnosis of Labour’s failings – the ‘radiant ambiguity’ of its goals, the fact that it ‘frets out of office and fumbles in it’, its tacit acceptance of the established political order – all remain relevant. That the party’s manifestos resembled miscellanies not programmes, Tawney claimed, reflected the absence of any ‘ordered conception of its task’, and thus its inability to prioritise or subordinate any of its demands.
In making its manifesto a credo for the new left, Labour in 2019 was indulging an old vice: vision unmodified by strategy. Adopting the view that the 2017 manifesto had been effective because of its forceful rejection of austerity, the 2019 document seemed to think the same trick would work with other policies, that they would become popular merely through their inclusion in the manifesto. It outlined a major transformation of the British economy, and of British society, in bewildering and mind-numbing detail – a programme more suited to ten or 15 years than a single parliamentary cycle. Drip-fed in daily press releases, the new policies began to resemble a series of increasingly desperate bribes. The starkest victim of this approach was Labour’s Green New Deal. The most ambitious programme to address climate change adopted by a major political party anywhere in the world, it attempted to weld Labour’s historic commitments to social justice to a decarbonisation strategy adequate to the scale of the crisis. It was, and remains, popular with Labour activists. Perhaps wary of the lessons of other elections – including in Australia, where the left banked on climate policy and lost – the party’s communications apparatus collapsed it into a series of retail offers, each to be funded by an apparently bottomless Green Transformation Fund.
Polling conducted by BMG suggested that most of the policies included in the manifesto are popular: 70 per cent support decarbonisation by 2030; 60 per cent support income tax hikes on those earning more than £80,000. Labour’s proposed nationalisations (rail, water, energy), sometimes seen as backward-looking fantasy, each muster more than 50 per cent support, with opposition hovering around 20 per cent. Before the election YouGov reported that 60 per cent of voters supported substantial change to the economy; just 2 per cent thought it was working fine.
No doubt Corbyn’s personal unpopularity made it hard for these pledges to get support. It is also the case that support for individual measures doesn’t guarantee enthusiasm for them in the mass. However many parallels can be drawn with social democratic practice elsewhere, such policies haven’t been put forward in Britain for decades: consent, enthusiasm and understanding would be difficult for even the most united party to build in a six-week campaign. The few remaining optimists on the Labour left still hope that without the millstone of Brexit, with a slicker and more adept leader, the party could stand on this same manifesto – with policies appropriately prioritised – and win. Others suspect much of its content will be sacrificed in pursuit of victory.
Supported by its vastly increased membership, and the digital campaigning infrastructure of Momentum, Labour attempted to mount a people-powered campaign, hoping that thousands of door-knockers would engage with voters and dispel their fears. It was a romantic vision of campaigning. Momentum’s campaign map, designed to direct activists to their nearest marginal, was used by 170,000 people; 1800 signed up to campaign full-time, giving up an average of 2.6 weeks each. In some knife-edge seats – Bedford, for instance – mobilisation staved off disaster. But it wasn’t enough: Labour’s defeat could have been anticipated in the repeated pleas for activists to leave the cities (where they were concentrated) to help in towns. Doorstep anecdotes match national polling: the two issues that came up most often were Brexit and Corbyn. Many also reported a wider and less easily defined distrust: the sense that politicians are all the same, and all liars (just look at how they tried to cancel Brexit); that it all sounds nice, but it can’t be done, we don’t have the money (and I don’t trust Corbyn either). In some constituencies, the performance of Labour councils was adduced in evidence: if you can’t collect my bins on time, why should I trust you to build a hundred thousand council houses a year?
It is a commonplace that trust in politics is a rare commodity, and that it has been declining for decades. The causes of the decline are fretted over: the drop in party engagement and loyalty is commonly cited, as are the remoteness of the political caste and the fragmentation of the class identities on which mass parties were built. Westminster’s periodic scandals (Iraq, expenses, Brexit) haven’t helped. Unfortunately, trust is a precondition for transformative politics. Corbynism set itself against the political establishment. However, it needed not only to demonstrate its difference from that establishment – a taxing feat for a century-old political party – but also to show that it had the capacity and competence to change politics, and in turn to change people’s lives for the better. At the very least, it needed to appear plausible enough to be worth gambling on. But rebuilding the capacity for politics cannot be the job of a few thousand bussed-in activists; it’s the work of the next five years.
How to define ‘Johnsonism’? Even old colleagues don’t seem able to predict what he will do with his new majority: some prophesy the re-emergence of the liberal London mayor, free to sideline the once convenient atavism of the ERG and DUP; others hope for Maggie on steroids, building a Brexit bonfire of red tape and regulation. The few Tory MPs obsessed with ‘blue-collar conservatism’ see an opportunity in the new electoral geography. As Stuart Hall observed when analysing the rise of Thatcherism, a powerful political force can weld together seeming contradictions, just as what he called Thatcher’s regressive modernisation yoked nostalgic moralism together with a renovated British capitalism.
Johnsonism might just take an anti-political direction. If Labour’s manifesto was premised on the scope and possibility of politics, Johnson’s campaign, from manifesto to slogan, was about ending politics. ‘Get Brexit Done’ recast the process of exiting the EU as a single event, soon to happen; his major spending pledges are intended to remove his predecessors’ most controversial cuts from political contention; even his promised review of the constitution, in particular the Supreme Court, can be understood as an appeal to the simplicity of firm decisions over the complexities of review and scrutiny. It was no accident that Johnson’s major attack on Corbyn in the election was that a Labour government would deliver not one but two new referendums: in other words, more politics. Aren’t you sick of it?
Johnson knows his electoral coalition is fragile: his camp has already briefed that it understands many people’s votes were only ‘lent’ to the Tories, and that they will have to work to keep them. It is not unusual for new prime ministers to make expansive proclamations, which then evaporate on contact with Whitehall, but few have had as pressing an electoral reason as Johnson to substantiate them. The Tory majorities in most of the former ‘red wall’ seats are small and volatile, and polling shows that the party’s new voters are impatient for the campaign’s spending pledges to be fulfilled. At the same time, the traditional Tory base – including the members that elected Johnson – are mistrustful of government intervention, and keen on the tax cuts they were promised. But Conservatives are better than Labour members at reconciling themselves to the realities of power: having delivered the party’s first substantial majority since Thatcher, Johnson is secure for the foreseeable future. The real shocks are likely to be exogenous, as the reality dawns that a Tory majority has done little to bolster the country’s negotiating position with Europe.
The loss of northern seats was crushing for Labour, not only because it meant that the party returned its lowest number of MPs since the 1930s, but because the losses were in the places where the party was born. Pessimists point to a rash of similar seats where the Labour vote plunged but the MP survived – Wansbeck, Hemsworth, Warrington North – and fear things could get far worse. It is impossible to ignore the fact that 52 of these seats – all but one of those lost in England – voted Leave. For many this is the only salient fact; but others point to data showing that the party shed voters on both sides of the Brexit divide, including many to abstention; for some traditional voters the referendum was merely an accelerant, and only a fraction would have voted differently had Labour’s position on Brexit been clearer.
Few people have the patience to wait for the British Election Study to be published before pronouncing on defeat; by the time it emerges, explanations have usually calcified. It should, all the same, help answer the questions not only of where votes went but of how far the sharp age differentials in voting relate to class, education, home ownership and income. These are the kinds of question a party that seeks to be the party of labour should ask itself after every election, but especially after this one. As E.P. Thompson remarked in the preface to The Making of the English Working Class, class always arises in the same way, but never in exactly the same way: its forms, values and sites of struggle shift.
The field of candidates in Labour’s current leadership election is a vast improvement on the one in 2015. Now Jess Phillips has removed herself from the race, all three of the main candidates (the fourth, Emily Thornberry, is unlikely to win) have something useful to say about the party’s future: Keir Starmer speaks eloquently of the moral case for socialism, and appeals to his credentials as an effective former director of the Crown Prosecution Service; Lisa Nandy can claim that she has been warning of the imminent fracture of the party’s supporters for years; Rebecca Long-Bailey was the chief architect of the Green New Deal. All three are on what, in 2015, would have been considered the party’s left: where they have weaknesses in left opinion, they have sought to mitigate them – Nandy by stressing her solidarity with migrants, Starmer by emphasising his early work as a campaigning lawyer. His campaign has so far been confined to the broadly platitudinous, and many members on the left fear that its vagueness conceals an intention to junk the party’s new programme. Long-Bailey has, in some ways, the hardest task: differentiating herself from Corbyn without abandoning his principles.
So far all they’ve really done is provide paeans to unity and talk of an end to factionalism, the need to accept Brexit, and the importance of reconnecting with working-class voters, especially older ones and those who don’t live in cities. But factionalism in the Labour Party will always exist. After four years of rancour, how will a new leader manage it? All the candidates are aware of the party’s problems among socially conservative but economically left-wing voters, but they have proposed few solutions beyond the usual promises about infrastructure and transport, and none has addressed Scotland or Wales.
For the left, the legacy of the Corbyn period is mixed. The party has been reanimated, its policies and outlook now decidedly socialist; the left is a substantial force again rather than a vestige. But its embattled mentality, however justified, led to a paranoid and isolated leadership, cut off from the wider party. Its faith in the commitment of its activists was not supplemented by a proper electoral strategy. Whatever Corbyn’s policy achievements the left must concede that they did not inspire a majority of voters. The next five years will be painful for Labour; they will also be unpredictable, and not only because of Brexit and an increasingly restive Scotland. There will be appeals to the solutions of the past, but the victories of 1945, 1966 and 1997 offer only limited guidance: they cannot be repeated. But neither can the practices of the last four years; to steal a phrase from another wing of the party, that option no longer exists. Nor will it suffice to dial up the rhetoric against migration, the perennial solution of the party’s right. They are the ones who in 2015 etched in stone the party’s pledge to put ‘Controls on Immigration’. Labour lost that election as well.
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