In anger as well as sadness Duncan Bowie reflects on failure and lost opportunities
Losing the election was not just a consequence of a failure of Labour strategy over the last few weeks, but the perhaps inevitable consequence of an inability to face up to the reality of the political context in which we found ourselves and to present a convincing political position. We failed to convince the electorate that we could be a party of government. We failed to demonstrate that Labour actually had the answers to the questions the electorate was asking. And the key question was from those who had suffered most from a decade of austerity: could we actually improve their quality of life? The fact that it was in those constituencies that the electorate were most disadvantaged that the swing away from Labour was greatest is an indelible stain on the record of our party and movement. The fact that people who had suffered most from a decade of austerity (and a longer period of abandonment by ‘Westminster’ politicians), and actually still had most to lose, had more confidence in a Conservative government led by a right-wing upper-class charlatan, shows the depth of our failure. Let us be clear. The Labour Party’s failure has betrayed the next generation as well as the current generation.
Those of us in London and the wider South East need to recognise how London-centric the Labour Party has become and it is the membership, not just the MPs and National Executive, who need to widen their perspective. The party may have the largest ever membership, but this does not mean we are any more representative of the wider electorate, as is demonstrated by the fact that this is the worst result for Labour since 1935 in terms of seats won. While many London constituencies might be able to send out hundreds of activists to canvass and leaflet, in many of the so-called safe Labour seats elsewhere candidates were struggling to find activists to get out on the streets. Labour does not deserve votes where it has been inactive and has no local basis.
Brexit of course gets much of the blame. Given the divisions within the electorate, as well as within the Parliamentary Labour Party and wider party membership, it was difficult for the Party to develop and maintain an approach which avoided further divisions. Labour’s failure to adopt a consistent and united position did us major damage. The position of ‘constructive ambivalence’ or ‘sitting on the fence’, while calling for a second referendum and arguing that Labour could somehow negotiate a better deal with the EU, which we would then neither advocate nor oppose, was just not credible. Labour may have hoped the Brexit Party would split the Leave vote, but in practice much of the Leave vote in Labour ‘strongholds’ went to the Conservatives, while in London and the wider South East some Remain votes went to the Lib Dems and the Greens – though not as many as we had feared, as the Lib Dem ‘Revoke Article 50’ position was seen as undemocratic and the ‘remain alliance’ with the Greens and Plaid Cymru proved largely ineffective.
Labour however should have spent the last three years not contemplating its position on Brexit but dealing with the causes of Brexit – the growing inequality between London and the wider South East and the Northern and Midlands regions. We did not understand how fed up people were with what they saw as London-centric elitist politics which had forgotten them. The rhetoric of blaming the Conservatives for austerity was not enough. The fact that so many people believed that the Tories could ‘make Britain great again’ and that Johnson was a ‘One-nation Conservative’ in the Disraelian tradition, who understood the ‘condition of England’ question, and that Labour could not and did not, represents a change in the political dynamic of the country which may be irreversible. Labour can no longer claim to be the party of the working class.
This returns us to the issue of the state of the Labour Party and the failure of leadership. I supported Corbyn’s nomination for the party leadership because I wanted Labour Party policies to shift to the left. I had hoped that a more democratic party would lead to a leadership closer to the membership and to a more collaborative way of working at all levels within the party. I was wrong. We have had increased factionalism within the party to the extent that the electorate as a whole sees us as fighting among ourselves rather than fighting for them. We have had far too little discussion of policy options (how the manifesto, which was actually far better than I expected, was written remains a mystery) and too much focus on personalities and internal power struggles. The cliquism and nepotism around the Corbyn leadership is unforgivable and resulted in us marginalising good left politicians because they happen to disagree with Corbyn or have fallen out with one of his acolytes. I do not doubt Corbyn is a very principled individual. Unfortunately, he remains a protest politician – he has after all never had to run anything (other than the Labour Party) and consequently taking difficult decisions and responsibility for them has been somewhat of a new experience. His past associations have left him open to criticism, much of it grossly unfair. Criticising the Israeli state does not make him an anti-Semite, but the impression that he is weak on controlling the behaviour of his historical associates, to whom he feels an obligation of loyalty however much they discredit his and the Labour Party’s position, has done untold damage, and he has to take some of the responsibility for this.
The antipathy to Corbyn was however not just related to this issue – he was widely seen as someone who really did not have much of a clue about the lives and aspirations of working class people. Given his relatively humble lifestyle this may seem unjust. The fact that the party leader was more unpopular than the party as a whole is an appalling basis for an election campaign, and Corbyn would have given his greatest service to the party if he had stood down some months ago, so we could have selected a leader who was a positive rather than negative factor – by the time the election was called it was far too late.
The notion of ‘Corbynism’ and the division of the party into ‘Corbynistas’ and those critical of/opposed to ‘Corbynism’ had negative consequences. The socialist case cannot be linked to a single individual, whether it be Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Castro, Chavez or Corbyn (or for that matter any potential new leader). We must move to a more collectivist leadership, using a range of experience and talents which we have within the Parliamentary Labour Party. If the left is to make a more positive contribution, and I include Momentum in that designation, let us focus on developing policies which are both socialist and potentially popular, and spend a bit more time promoting them to the wider electorate, and a bit less energy on internal power struggles, faction fights, compiling slates and slagging off and slandering fellow party members. You cannot blame the media when you supply the media with its ammunition.
Hopefully Chartist will help to contribute to an improved culture within the party and the wider movement and desist from seeking to attach the future of the British socialist movement to the promotion to leadership of one or two specific individuals. Leadership is important to the future, but so are we all.