Tom Miller reflects on the reasons for defeat and identifies seeds for renewal
It is difficult to imagine more painful circumstances in which to be writing. Labour under a socialist leadership has suffered a defeat so fundamental that even many areas which are core to our Party’s sense of self are lost to us. Boris Johnson has secured a hegemony for a substantial bloc of nationalist voters, ranging from right to left on the economy, who had previously voted for Labour, the Tories, and UKIP. It may endure for a decade.
Labour has been unable to rally a rival alliance around a social-democratic internationalism, trapped by party rivalries, a hostile media, a fragmenting electoral system, internal strife, and declining historic base. Left struggling with these obstacles, our leadership team has looked out of touch, poorly managed and organised, ignorant or hostile to outside critics, and supportive of bureaucratic centralism inside the party. The 2019 election is a coffin with a hundred nails.
Despite popular policies, we have proven ourselves to be fundamentally not up to the task of keeping existing support, winning new people over, or introducing a real strategy for either.
It is true that the Party’s Brexit position has cost it much support with ‘Labour leave’ voters. But we also lost more ‘Labour remainers’ to the Lib Dems and Greens than the Labour/Tory gap in many of these seats. We lost a large number of seats to the remain-friendly SNP.
It now matters little, but the fact is that there was never an adequate Brexit position for Labour to take, and it was always at a disadvantage following the seamless alliance between the Brexit Party and the Tories.
Labour’s Brexit position developed so slowly that it left us mere weeks to persuade people of the policy we settled on. It represented a concession to the People’s Vote campaign which would have never come about if Labour had worked earlier to counter Theresa May’s framing of what Brexit meant, and had instead advocated early for a model like Norway+. A commitment to fighting (often Corbynite) activists on conference floor, dithering and splitting in media appearances once it was done, only added to this.
We can change what brought us here.
These failures are a symptom of the deeper cause for Labour’s defeat, which is that it is far too slow to listen and change, and far too quick to applaud itself for wherever it currently is.
The years that have followed Corbyn’s election to office have been marked by central control of campaigns and policy. A single loyalist slate dominates the NEC, all of our policy making structures, and has been free to select candidates itself and impose them over the will of local parties. A structure of social media outriders and trench mentality rhetoric in local parties both invoke the leadership to stifle debate and diversity.
Since the election, those who benefit by preserving this setup have tried to exclusively blame Labour’s Brexit position for losing. This does nothing to interrogate the statistics or to explain the scale of the defeat. It is undeniable that low public trust in the leadership overall, some of Jeremy’s past, anti-Semitism, the large volume of policies requiring big spends and our image as a party filled with sectarians all played a role.
Both Brexit and discontent with Corbyn pose the same question: when stuck, why couldn’t we adapt?
Perhaps the most over-used quotation in politics is from Antonio Gramsci, namely that “The old is dying, but the new cannot be born”. But our job is precisely to make sure that the new is born; as such, we need to make maximum use of the opportunity in defeat. We cannot simply repeat the experience – we must make deep reaching changes.
We hold a unique opportunity to preserve Corbynism’s best aspects (democracy, popular and transformative policy), and cast aside the contradictory urges that hold the left back (top-down sectarianism, unwillingness to listen or adapt, refusal to put strategy first).
By embracing a more open and flexible model of politics, Corbynism has the chance to evolve into a broader left, capable of being more responsive to criticism, promoting party unity, and generating much wider appeal. This requires both the defensive trench mentality held on part of the Momentum left and the prospect of a return to liberal centrism to be decisively rejected, and quickly. Now is the time for open minds, open political culture, and the return of socialists to a politics of hope.