Five arguments about why Labour lost

Submitted by AWL on 18 December, 2019 - 11:48 Author: Sacha Ismail
age of voters

“Labour has lost the working class”

Over the years, but particularly in the Brexit era, older people have swung to the right and younger people to the left.

In 1983 18-24 year olds backed Thatcher over Labour by 9 points, while over-65s backed Labour by 6. This time 18-24s backed Labour 57-19, while over-65s backed the Tories 62-18! Among women voters aged 18-24, only 15% went Tory.

Older people are more and more over-represented in areas where Labour lost the bulk of its seats, and young people more and more under-represented. And older people are much more likely to turn out and vote.

What appears as “Labour losing the working class” is at least in part a refraction of that shift. The big long-term change in the so-called “heartland” seats is the decline of old industries there, the decline in trade union presence, and the ageing of their populations as young people move away to the cities.

Neither the “working class” nor Labour’s problems are reducible to the social groups, mainly older (and white) blue-collar workers and retired people in smaller towns and deindustrialised areas, on which so much attention has focused.

The labour movement’s organic connections in the working class have become severely degraded almost everywhere. Corbyn’s victory in 2015, and the big influx then of new members into the Labour Party, opened chances for rebuilding, but they have largely not been taken.

The working class in which the labour movement must rebuild connections is big-city as well as small-town, BME as well as white, Scottish as well as English, young as well as middle-aged and old.

“Labour’s manifesto was too radical”

All or virtually all Labour’s left-wing policies polled as popular. Unlike in 2017, those popular policies do not seem to have helped Labour.

The anecdotal evidence is of a widespread feeling, in various forms, that Labour’s policies were not realistic or would not happen even if Labour won the election.

This was not a matter of radical socialists preparing for struggle to push through the policies against capitalist resistance, but more of conservative or despairing ideas, entrenched by defeats in recent decades, that little can change for the better.

Announcing lots of new left-wing policies suddenly as the election started, or in the manifesto itself, seems to have made the problem worse. Why didn’t Labour argue and campaign for left policies over months and years, using campaigning to build its support and activist base as well as changing the political atmosphere in society?

And why did it fail to develop a clear left-wing narrative to counterpose to the Tories’ empty, cynical, but carefully honed and vigorously promoted one? Answering those question will surely tell us something about the limitations of the left that has grown since 2015.

The lack of such campaigning and narrative intertwined with failings over Brexit and antisemitism to make Labour extra-vulnerable to the right-wing onslaught it faced in the election.

“Labour should not have backed a second referendum”

Look at Scotland. About the same percentage of SNP voters backed Brexit in 2016 as Labour voters in the whole UK, but the fact of many of their voters being pro-Brexit has not prevented SNP electoral success.

The main relevant difference seems to be that the SNP took a stand, argued hard, and pushed a wider message which could persuade people to back it despite clear differences on Brexit — instead of trying to dodge the issue.

A more pro-Brexit stance would certainly have prevented Labour from partially reversing the massive loss of support to pro-Remain parties which tanked it in the Euro elections. In the general election, the Lib Dems, Greens and SNP gained more in the election than the pro-Brexit parties.

Labour’s Brexit position came across to many on all sides as ambiguous and shifty. The ambiguity was unprincipled, and anyway could not “work” when society had polarised on the issue of Brexit. A repeat of the dodge pulled off in 2017 was not possible.

It is implausible that arguing for a Labour version of Brexit could have retained many more Leave voters. The bulk of Brexit sentiment is rightish and nationalistic. With the election focused on Brexit, because the issue loomed so large and because that is where the Tories wanted it, significant numbers of previously Labour Leavers were always likely to defect.

Evasion could not prevent that, but only add to the sense that Labour was shifty and manipulative.

Adopting a clear stance, and arguing and persuading, forcefully and consistently. over a longer period, might well have worked better.

“We couldn’t win with Corbyn”

Jeremy Corbyn was more popular in 2015, when he was speaking out more boldy with left-wing ideas.

Now many people turning away from Labour (or who never voted Labour anyway) cited “that Corbyn” as their reason, or excuse.

That was partly the result of a vicious and sustained barrage of attacks, including numerous out-and-out lies, from both the Tory party campaign and the mass media.

The results were strange but striking. IRA violence has not been an issue in British politics for decades, but in this election it was picked up and popularised by a combined Tory-media-far-right campaign.

Clearly the forces behind the attacks on Corbyn were not concerned about him as such. The ruling class and its political representatives are willing to support or at least tolerate all kind of people in power (Trump!) if they feel their interests will be served. What alarmed them was the – actually very moderate – threat Labour’s policies posed to their interests, in favour of workers’ interests.

An equally left-wing Labour Party with any different leader would also be subject to a big campaign of lies and slander.

What does seem true is that, since 2017, the Corbyn leadership’s evasiveness on Brexit and paralysis on antisemitism, as well as their failure to develop a strong left-wing narrative or campaign actively for Labour’s policies, has made them appear weak and shifty, and so made them easier targets for slander campaigns.

“Antisemitism was a big issue”

The media whitewashed virulent bigotry in and from the Tory party, antisemitism as well as anti-Muslim racism, while helping the Tories “weaponise” this issue to defeat Labour.

However, that gets us only so far. A left-wing movement must be prepared to confront and defeat the propaganda of the right. And a major factor preventing Labour from doing so was that its leadership and many of its activists could not seem to understand antisemitism or how to respond to it. They could not argue effectively in good faith.

Corbyn’s responses when challenged on antisemitism on TV during the campaign were astonishing in their hesitation, weakness and apparent desire to evade.

In the hyper-charged atmosphere of this election, that could not but cause damage.

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