The reason why the Labour Party cannot come to terms with its catastrophic election loss is the reason why it happened. They continue to believe their own propaganda – a narrative that exists not for the electorate but for its own membership, from cadre to foot-soldier.
‘It was the media’. The media cut the Labour Party a lot of slack, particularly over its NHS claims and the majority of complaints to the BBC have been about bias against the Tories. Since the 2016 referendum campaign BBC Brexit coverage has consistently been framed through a Remain lens and they have shown themselves to be wholly hostile to Boris Johnson, a mouthpiece for Tony Blair, and Andrew Neil apart, tolerant of Corbyn and over indulgent of the Lib Dems and the Greens. But the underlying assumption of the accusation is that the plebs can’t think for themselves – that voters are a suggestable mob prey to slogans on the side of a bus or a Russian bot. The respectable well-worn term here is ‘populism’ but if you look through it at the 2019 election, the more populist party was Labour with trillion pound promises the electorate wasn’t buying. Furthermore, despite or rather because of the relentless pro-Remain media campaign for the last three and a half years, in 2019 just as in 2016 the electorate made up their own minds. In the UK it is not so much the voters who are volatile as the political class.
At the end of it all Labour tried to wash their hands of any Brexit policy. John McDonnell appeared at the end of his drive in the early hours of the morning inside a luxurious cardigan to regret that ‘we just couldn’t get past Brexit’, as if someone else had parked a second referendum in his manifesto. He reasoned that Labour had tried to respect both leave and remain voters, a position which Blair described as ‘comic indecision.’ Except it wasn’t. Rhetorically Corbyn pretended to be neutral this time, in reality everyone knew Labour was for Remain and their duplicity, their political cowardice was a major cause of their defeat.
The party is now undertaking ‘a period of reflection.’ From The Guardian manifestos we’ve seen up until now the most far-reaching conclusion likely to emerge will be ‘if it hadn’t had been for Brexit….and if it hadn’t been for Corbyn, we would have won.’ But the decision to support a second referendum (according to Steven Kinnock MP ‘the worst policy decision in the history of the Labour Party’) and the huge support for Corbyn inside the party were not aberrations, they were historical outcomes decades in the making and very in much in keeping with the Labour Party that emerged post Blair. Corbyn was elected leader twice; on the second occasion by a greater margin. The party wanted him, many adored him and significantly many still do. His support from those in the party is only matched by the antipathy from large swathes of the electorate, particularly working-class voters. Likewise, the decision to support a second referendum was in keeping with its largely millennial, metropolitan, graduate membership – folk who see any alternative to open borders as racist – who’s politics are more utopian than pragmatic, who are uncomfortable with the notion of national identity let alone sovereignty. The support for globalist politics in the supposedly left membership is matched by the right in the PLP in the shape of Hilary Benn and others. Labour is increasingly estranged, not just from its former heartlands but from much of the electorate; it has a one member one vote system and an activist membership. The next leader will have to appeal to that constituency – and consequently it is unlikely that they will be electable to the wider public, more crucially – the new leader will be unable to undertake measures to make the party electable, for Labour have made for themselves a social and intellectual base that effectively imprisons the party in opposition.
The end of the miner’s strike in 1985 effectively meant the end of the labour movement as a national force in British politics. It took a decade for the penny to drop and there were further skirmishes but most knew it was all over. Blair’s Labour came to terms with it enthusiastically whilst Corbyn’s Labour runs on rage and pity about long ago lost battles that never were. It’s not an attractive look unless you are embittered which shows in the temperament of many of Labour’s new recruits. In the wake of the election Kier Starmer and others have made public statements about how desperately sad they feel for working class people who will now have to endure a Tory government – one that many of them in previously rock-solid Labour seats, former mining seats even, voted for. Starmer is oblivious at how insulting his patronage is indeed there is a wider routine lack of sensibility or dignity even amongst current Labour politicians. Another leadership contender Jess Phillips recently tweeted a photograph of her child nephew dispensing alms to a homeless man in Birmingham.
Feeling sorry for people as a political drive leads to virtue signalling as a political strategy resulting in the crass exploitation of those at the bottom of the pile. My guess is, many people find this repellent and one cannot imagine Johnson or May, Cameron or Miliband behaving like this – it came with Corbyn and should leave with him. It has to be said that bestowing victimhood on the working class is decidedly un-Marxist; they are the agent of change in the supposed march of history and Engels famously said The emancipation of the working class is an act of the working class itself, not … an act of bleeding hearts. Labour’s silence on the year long protests and now general strike in France is telling. Likewise, Labour’s appeal to people as members of ‘oppressed groups’ with unique grievances fosters social division when the abiding hunger is for social solidarity. The labour movement once called itself ‘the hope of the world,’ now it’s an ever growing sub divided list of separate identities.
In the meantime Corbyn has announced that Labour will act as the ‘resistance’ to the Tory government. On election night he defiantly announced to the cameras ‘our time will come’, a republican slogan usually asserted in the Gaelic ‘Tiocfaidh ár lá.’ Corbyn’s Labour is keen on the toy soldier vernacular and they are not shy on the language of physical force either. It accompanies their fantasy that we are now living under a far-right regime, that Brexiteers are racists if not fascists and it is only they – the thin red/rainbow line – that can save the planet. They are not about persuading they are about combating, so banning speakers, verbally and otherwise attacking opponents fits the bill. Many in the Corbyn camp do not expect electoral success – are reluctant for office. They see the system as too rigged and it’s not the point of their involvement anyway. It’s this logic that enables Jezza to declare ‘we won the argument’ even though we are back to the 1930’s in terms of seats. Whilst they persist in appealing largely to students, ethnic minorities and the metropolitan middle class they are likely to remain in this territory.
What is to be Done?
Stephen Kinnock has suggested that Labour admit the second referendum policy was a mistake and apologise to Leave voters. They won’t. And Leave voters won’t forget and forgive the calumny as easily as Labour imagine. The next leader of the party should not be from Corbyn’s inner circle; again this is unlikely and the reason why Corbyn is delaying his departure. The internal organisation Momentum needs to be removed from the party. However, if anything Momentum will be instrumental in choosing the next leader. It is more nebulous than Militant was in the eighties and I think will have more longevity. I left the party four years ago and I’m still getting texts from them. It has support on the NEC and among some MPs.
Rather than embracing woke politics Labour should begin to distance themselves from this tribe who are not as large as they seem to be. Class is no longer an indication of how people vote, culture is and Labour need to pick up the flag they planted in the camp of those who are between unpatriotic and hostile towards Britain and plant it among those who have affection for the country and its traditions. They must seize the national narrative. They should hang on to their ambitions regarding taking into public ownership transport and utilities.
We shall see how one nation Boris Johnson’s government turns out to be. What the UK doesn’t need is to be a one party state, it needs a competent opposition. I spent New Year’s Eve round a table chatting to a former printer – one time the youngest SOGAT father of the chapel on Fleet Street who went through Murdoch at Wapping – or maybe it was the other way round. He said he thought that the Labour Party was an institution that had outlived its purpose. At the time I thought that was true for his generation but not otherwise. The response of the party to its electoral defeat thus far has made me wonder.
The Labour Party is in trouble because it’s relationship with the people who it was created to represent is broken. Despite or rather because of its mass membership it will find it difficult to rebuild trust in many communities or even convince sufficient numbers of voters that it values democracy. It is an institution that has existed since 1905 and it has been a vital part of British history. Although twice as many men have walked on the moon than have been Labour prime ministers, people not just in Britain are indebted to its past achievements. It is not excessive to suggest that its achievements of office might henceforth remain in the past.