From left policy to left strategy

Tom Miller asks: can the Labour left fix its mistakes and find a coherent direction?

We are all familiar with the goals of Corbynism: a fairer economy with investment not austerity, a peace-based foreign policy, and a democratised Labour Party. These goals are laudable and should be core to Labour’s mission in the future. However, the Labour left has never really developed a clear idea of how we get there or a concise theme, despite a large suite of excellent policies.

Despite the aims and the policies being in place, a core failure of the Corbyn years and the project they rested upon is that of strategy.

Strategy means having a clear idea of your aims and the outcomes brought together being able to plot the path towards them. The 2019 manifesto embodied our shortcomings in this challenge. It was a long document, absolutely packed with good socialist ideas, that had no idea why it existed, why those policies fit together, which parts of the public they were meant to be speaking to, or how.

The biggest policy debate over free, state-guaranteed and universal high speed broadband was a clear example of this. The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us all just how essential the internet has now become as a basic utility. My grandfather, at 92, is now regularly doing his shopping online and using online apps to speak to other older people who are fellow members of the various local clubs that keep him active and happy. People in rural areas are finding that their lives are now just as connected to everyone else as is the case for teenagers in cities. Workplaces where remote working was ‘impossible’ now find that it is not only possible, but mandatory. Yet many find it hard to access or afford high speed broadband, and those who can access it pay through the nose for a patchwork system. So on the face of it, this is an excellent policy.

But how did it arise? If we can assume that Labour had a strategic plan to win the next election, which voters was this policy targeted towards, and how was it supposed to persuade them to vote Labour? Though an excellent policy with a clear need, was it even salient whilst the debate raged over Brexit?

In the face of an opposition united over Brexit, and the miring scandal of antisemitism within our own party, the truth is that in 2019 Labour sketched out a fantastic platform for a better country – but this was not enough. We had to be able to concentrate our message enough to not allow our opponents to invade the conversation with their issues – namely ‘getting Brexit done’, a clear and concise slogan – and antisemitism. We were not clear or concise enough to get our manifesto the time it deserved, but we also failed to pitch it correctly despite having excellent policies.

Radical political strategy is about gaining and using power to force change and win consent from your opponents, but these are long term disciplines. Short term political strategy for electoralist parties can broadly be seen as an attempt to square four priorities. Loosely, these are: 1) coherence and clarity in our own vision; 2) what different voters want and how their numbers add up; 3) what actually gets through to them; and, 4) dominating the terms of conversation.

It is arguable that Labour’s 2019 manifesto scores as well as 2017 on point 1, but does worse to meet any of the tests of points 2-4, whilst at the same time facing much more difficult opponents on worse ground.

These things notwithstanding, we should ask ourselves how much issues 2-4 ever really figured in the Corbyn project. We knew it meant a rejection of the strategy of New Labour and its replacement with a left alternative. In both the 2017 and 2019 General Elections, the party did a professional job of producing a radical manifesto, so we also had an idea what that left alternative was. But debate among the orthodox left paid practically zero attention to how many people wanted this, how many were persuadable, how they could be brought together and kept on board. At times, the left actively deceived itself over how much public confidence it could bank. Ultimately the politics of social alliances was pushed aside; a fatal and fundamental mistake.

Faced with an opposition cooperating across political parties with one single strategy, Labour as a party with policies but without strategy naturally floundered, and could only compete on the terms offered by its opponents.

Reduced from power to mere influence, the Labour left now faces its greatest challenge: admitting to its mistakes and fixing them. This is a task that the right of our party has fundamentally failed at over the last five years, and the left must avoid following their lead.

Where is power, and how can it be attained by the workers? Can we build something which can successfully frame radical ideas as common sense, rather than taking common sense ideas and framing them as radical? Can we build a consensus for socialist leadership that can also stretch across cultural and class boundaries? Can we recast Labour as a movement which seems united in purpose?

If the answer to any of these is ever to be yes, it starts by having the debate. Policy based on what is right or eye-catching has characterised the last five years; to bounce back, we should see this as the start rather than the end. To move forward, the left must learn to build policy on a plan, and to build that plan around the social alliances we wish to build.

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