Obviously, Brexit and the relentless anti-Corbyn smear campaign were major factors. But I think the issues run deeper. I’m reflecting on some things that, for me, explain why Labour lost (and I emphasise the latter – it seems the Tory vote didn’t rise significantly, Labour’s fell dramatically). Admittedly, these thoughts are a bit personal, but it’s my blog!
An over-arching point is that personality politics doesn’t serve us well. Of course, people’s perceptions of a politician are relevant. But the left needs to avoid compounding that dynamic by elevating individuals to cult status. I’m sure it’s not what the man himself wanted, but allowing Jeremy Corbyn to personify Labour’s appeal drew attention to the weaknesses that he, like everyone, has.
I recall my experiences of The World Transformed (TWT), the parallel event at Labour Party conference that’s been held for the last few years. Undoubtedly, it captured some of the youthful energy that significantly shifted Labour to the left. But I also found it cliquey and typical of the “tyranny of structurelessness” I’ve seen in other new social movements. This played out in a self-selecting control mechanism that marginalised or excluded certain campaigns, like Defend Council Housing, that weren’t in with the in crowd. That mattered, because it ignored vital policy issues championed by what gets referred to as “traditional” working class communities, of the type that have abandoned Labour in droves.
On a similar point, between 2017 and 2019, the Labour Party and Momentum seemed increasingly reluctant to appeal to people outside their political tent – literally in the case of this example. Two years ago, following the very encouraging general election result, there was a rally to mark the start of the party’s conference in Brighton. It was held in a big public space and anyone could go. Thousands did, not just Labour Party members. This year, the equivalent event took place in a marquee, within a cordon, access to which was controlled by having a wristband. It was a stark contrast.
My next salutary memory is closer to home, or in fact, work. Earlier this week we had our Christmas “do” and inevitably, there was a big row about the election. The people I work for and with are mostly middle aged, working class women. They should be the bedrock of Labour’s support. But most of them were extremely disillusioned and several were planning to vote for other parties. They live in a ward with three Labour councillors, each of whom have a more direct impact on their experience of the party and its politics than national issues. One of those councillors has barely been seen in the area lately, at a time when there’s been several significant local issues. We then discovered, unsurprisingly, that she’d been selected for a safe parliamentary seat. She, like others, left a legacy of frustration. The message from our Christmas party to the Labour Party was “What have you done for us lately?”.
This small example of careerist politics was replicated at large with the embarrassing behaviour of Jonathan Ashworth two days before polling. Leaving aside his disloyalty, the main point was that he chose to share it with his Tory “friend”. That wasn’t just appalling judgment. It reflected membership of the political club that’s palpable to anyone who’s spent any time in the Palace or Westminster. But it’s this fraternity that people like our former local councillor are desperate to join, thereby becoming detached from the lives of the people who put them there.
This self-serving coterie has revealed itself, with a vengeance, in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) since 2015. Beyond the plotting is a fundamental pessimism on the part of too many Labour politicians. Perhaps they don’t really want change, but they also don’t believe it’s possible. My mind goes back to a chat I had with a Labour MP earlier this year, at a time when the Tory government was in disarray and Labour was agreeing its most exciting, progressive manifesto in a generation. This should have been an inspirational moment. Instead, the MPs gloomy reaction was “I don’t want to promise what we can’t deliver”. Such defeatism communicates itself to voters (his own vote fell by 25% yesterday).
For me, these issues coalesce around housing (you knew it was coming!). Notwithstanding the difficulties and contradictions (particularly bearing in mind the role of Labour councils), Labour’s housing manifesto offered real hope. It had the potential to cut across the divisions of Brexit and highlight the difference between the two parties like few other issues. The Tories could falsely mimic Labour on the NHS and education. They couldn’t on housing. But despite being a massive concern for millions, as David Madden has argued, housing was the political dog that didn’t bark and that was a huge failure on Labour’s part. Repeatedly, opportunities to promote alternatives to the failed policies of Tory and previous Labour governments were missed. I’ve seen no serious campaigning on housing by the national Labour Party, not just in the last six weeks, but for years. As a result, the housing misery of the many – and the grassroots struggle against it – will continue.
So far, so politically understandable. But finally, there’s one aspect to the election result I can’t quite fathom. How is it that, given a straight choice between an honest and a dishonest person, so many people choose the latter? To slightly contradict myself on the importance of the individual, from my limited experience, Jeremy Corbyn is a decent, caring, principled man – and emphatically NOT A RACIST! – who deserves much better than this outcome.