The Election and Why it Went Wrong for the Left

Almost a month on from the election, the left is still hurting. In a familiar ritual, various political cliques are angrily claiming that everything that happened vindicates their particular perspective. Local writer and activist Simon Magorian argues that the situation is more complicated than that.

There is no avoiding the stark reality that Labour suffered its worst election result since 1935. But our winner-takes-all voting system gives the incorrect impression that public attitudes changed drastically. Although Jeremy Corbyn picked up more votes than Tony Blair did in 2005, the number of seats the Tories won in 2019 gives them a mandate to do practically anything. While Labour’s popular vote of 10.3 million may have been lower than the 12.9 million Corbyn achieved in 2017, it is the second highest Labour total since Blair’s second victory in 2001. There are numerous theories about why the Labour vote dipped by about 8% over two years. One unarguable fact is that 90% of the 60 seats they lost were constituencies that voted to leave the EU in 2016.

The notion that legions of people defected to Boris Johnson is fatuous: the Tories only managed to increase their vote by a modest 1.3%. It’s true that some traditional Labour voters were won over by the pledge to ‘get Brexit done’ while many others abstained. But the point is, compared to the last election, the increase in the Tory vote nationally was 300,000, equivalent to the population of Lewisham.

When Johnson says the people have lent him their votes he is being deceptive – and not for the first time. It is more accurate to state that the people have lent him their abstentions. Whilst many could not bring themselves to vote Conservative, they could bring themselves to vote for the Brexit Party because, after all, it was not Nigel Farage who closed the pits, steel works and dockyards which had been the centres of their communities. Farage had never used paramilitary-style policing to crush a major strike. He had never thrown millions out of work in pursuit of a fundamentalist free market project in the 1980s.

Opinion polls published since the election have had the function not so much of reflecting public opinion as trying to influence and form it. Indeed, the experience of most campaigners on the doorstep does not concur with those polls that lay the blame of the defeat solely on the personality of Jeremy Corbyn or on an ‘unrealistic’ manifesto indistinguishable from those of social democratic parties in Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Portugal. Furthermore, it is rich for the Labour right to complain about the manifesto now when they were happy to endorse it in the run-up to the election.

Between 2017 and 2019, neither Jeremy Corbyn nor his policies had changed much. The only meaningful difference between the two elections was that Labour had shifted from respecting the result of the referendum to accommodating the People’s Vote faction of the party. Many in this faction now want Keir Starmer as leader. They don’t seem to have realised that he was one of the architects of Labour’s debacle at the ballot box on December 12th.

The constituencies that abandoned Labour in the last election were ripped to pieces by Thatcher’s de-industrialisation programme in the 1980s. When Tony Blair came to power in 1997 he did absolutely nothing to help these same communities. His extension of Tory privatisation and marketisation failed to halt the decline of large parts of the north. New Labour wonks were parachuted into safe northern seats they had little knowledge of; apparently David Miliband was unable to locate his own constituency, South Shields, on a map of Britain. Northerners started to blame their economic woes on the policies of the European Union – not a wholly unreasonable position given that the EU has long been an engine of neoliberalism and globalisation.

Many on the left have dismissed Leave voters as racist ‘gammon’; bigoted, ill-informed and/or downright stupid. If nothing else, this is hardly the strategy to attract such people back to Labour. In August last year, Keir Starmer was writing in the Guardian that Labour was now a Remain party. He was instrumental in getting the People’s Vote into the manifesto – not a strategic masterstroke either, as it turned out. Starmer has, as it were, pissed in the samovar and now we on the left are all having to drink it. With amazing hypocrisy it is these pro-People’s Vote centrists who are now blaming Corbyn’s ‘radicalism’ for the election defeat!

But far from finding Labour’s policies too extreme, the general population warmed to many of them. 60% support free broadband policy, 64% want to nationalise the railways and other industries and 63% are behind the Green New Deal.

Almost as soon as the exit poll was published, the Labour right was baying for Jeremy Corbyn to resign. Tom Watson’s decision to stand down as deputy leader some weeks before had already generated feverish media speculation about who would head the party come December 13th. This was part and parcel of an election campaign defined by the parameters of the mainstream press and broadcasters: the same people who have been monstering Corbyn for the last four years.

Starmer’s leadership bid is enjoying immense support from these same mainstream outlets whose own version of the Overton window is pushing the narrative that Labour’s crazy utopian pipe dreams caused their election loss. As Noam Chomsky puts it, ‘The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.’

Other figures have exercised more overt pressure on the limits of the debate. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has waded in to the anti-Semitism controversy in the pages of the Times of Israel. But, as Jewish Voice for Labour point out, ‘Khan is weaponising anti-Semitism in the leadership election campaign even before it begins. He is saying that anyone who does not agree with him on his judgement of what is an anti-Semitic act, anyone who thinks there has been a campaign to greatly exaggerate the extent of Labour anti-Semitism, is not fit to lead the party or even be a member of it.’

Others have gone further in calling for a purge of Labour Party members. Jonathan Goldstein, Tory chair of the Jewish Leadership Council, wants all Labour leadership candidates to accede to a list of his demands. These include tearing up the Chakrabarti Report and adopting what he refers to as a ‘zero tolerance’ attitude towards what he thinks is anti-Semitism, which includes dissociating from any organisations he regards as supporting what he calls ‘left anti-Semitism’. Such a phrase is code for pro-Palestinian sentiment and would mean Labour candidates effectively having to disaffiliate from the TUC (Trade Union Congress), which supports Palestinian self-determination.

The right are flexing their muscles to dictate the terms and conditions of the leadership race and ensure that whoever wins is not just of the right, but is supportive of the most oppressive Israeli state policies.

The centrists may have been able to dominate the debate around anti-Semitism these last couple of years, but their impact as a coherent political force was destroyed in the last election. All the ‘Independent Group’ MPs who left the Conservative and Labour Parties lost their seats. The Liberal Democrats, who hoped they would be the life raft for a flood of voters alienated by the two main parties, did so abysmally that their leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat.

It would be preposterous for the Labour Party to move to the centre in the hope of rehabilitation. It was precisely a shift in this direction that sealed their electoral fate last month. Furthermore, the model of neoliberal social democracy being pushed by the centrists and by the media, that of Blairite/Clintonite triangulation, is hardly to be seen in the rest of Europe anymore. Where this option is attempted it is soundly rejected and inevitably leads to hard right governments. The same thing has just happened here in Britain. It is obvious that right-wing social democracy is not a vote-winner anywhere.

The idea that Sir Keir Starmer, a Knight of the Realm, a QC and a hardline Remainer, who was instrumental in Labour’s failure at the ballot box, is the man to win back Labour’s heartlands is risible. If he is such a wonderful choice, why is it that the bourgeois press are so assiduously promoting him? Like Blair, Chuka Umunna and others of that ilk, Starmer performs well in interviews and on TV. But that simply isn’t enough. What is required is a leader who will defend the popular left-wing policies that were adopted under Corbyn, challenge Boris and take on the right wing both outside and inside the Labour Party.

Neither Rebecca Long-Bailey, who seems to be endorsing a purge of ‘left anti-Semites’ and is talking reactionary nonsense about ‘progressive patriotism’ nor Sir Keir are capable of beating Boris. Many were hoping Ian Lavery would stand, although it appears he has now withdrawn. If Long-Bailey and Starmer are the best the Labour Party has to offer we are in deep, deep trouble.


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