Where Did Labour Go Wrong?

Photograph Source: Garry Knight – CC BY 2.0

The scale of the Tory victory in the UK general election last week is known to all who read a half-decent newspaper or news site—the biggest Tory win since Mrs Thatcher’s success in 1987, and the biggest Labour loss since 1935.

As a member of the Labour party I of course found the loss shattering. It is no consolation that although Corbyn’s Labour obtained 2 million fewer votes than in 2017, he still gained more votes than the 3 previous Labour leaders in their elections: Ed Miliband (2015), Gordon Brown (2010), and Tony Blair (2005, but not 1997 and 2002).

Although Labour lost in 2017, it reduced the Tories to a minority government, and with Jeremy Corbyn entrenched as leader, with a mandate that was popular within the party (except for its Blairite remnant), there seemed to be a springboard for future electoral success.

So where did it go wrong? The possible answers are to be found in two areas: the campaign itself, and structural considerations that are longer-term in nature and predate the emergence of Corbyn and his allies (the so-called Corbynistas). To deal with the latter first.

Labour’s traditional base—the so-called Red Wall extending from Wales to the Midlands and much of the north—has been afflicted with postindustrial blight since the time of Thatcher, when the breakdown of the postwar social-democratic concordat between capital and labour occurred.

The Tories were quite content to do nothing about this, since votes in these areas went to Labour and not the Conservatives.

In fact there is a letter, dated 11th August 1981 and marked “Secret”, written by Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister, to Mrs Thatcher, warning her not “to over-commit scarce resources to Liverpool…. We must not expend all our resources in trying to make water flow uphill”. Howe recommended instead a policy of “managed decline” for Liverpool.

(In last week’s election, while Labour was being trounced in its traditional areas of strength, all 5 MPs in Liverpool and Merseyside belonged to Labour. But hatred for the Conservatives runs deep and long in Liverpool.)

Nonetheless, blame for this postindustrial ruination must also be attached to Labour. Tony Blair whizzed around the country talking about a new skills-based economy, but never really followed up with any substantial investment.

Accompanying such industrial decline in Labour’s heartlands was the decline of working-class institutions (unions, workingmen’s clubs with their cultural activities such as choirs and reading groups, thrift societies, worker education associations, and so on).

Nothing significant took their place. Decently-waged industrial labour was replaced by precarious jobs in the new gig economy— insecure, flexible contracts in warehouses and the service sector were now the norm in communities that hitherto had enjoyed secure employment and respectable wages.

This erosion was a decades-long process, but New Labour did nothing to reverse it.

Even Corbyn’s team misread the situation this time round.

They failed to appreciate the extent to which the “left behinds” in Labour’s heartlands were drifting away from their customary political allegiances, and that Labour would need to establish something like a new compact with its traditional base.

Instead Corbyn’s strategists decided to focus on supposedly vulnerable “target seats” held by the Tories, and campaigned there instead of mustering support in traditional working-class areas.

Thinking that a “youthquake” could substitute for more traditional forms of support, they also concentrated on the big cities and university towns. The “youthquake” failed to materialize. Although more 18-24-year-olds were registered to vote than in 2017, fewer actually voted in 2019.

Corbyn’s close ally, John McDonnell the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, acknowledged this when he said in a post-election interview that “There’s a long history of maybe 40 years of neglect” in his party’s approach to its traditional base.

In the campaign itself, Labour’s strategy was undone by Brexit.

Labour supporters who voted Leave in the EU referendum abandoned their party, while Tory Remainers held their collective nose and stuck with Boris Johnson.

The British Right, which had been in a steady decline since Thatcher’s time, was reanimated by the issues surrounding Brexit, and used them to expand its popular base.

As several writers, most notably Richard Seymour, pointed out, there was no “good” Brexit position for Labour to hold.

It gained time by securing parliamentary victories against Theresa May and BoJo, but this backfired with Leave voters, who merely perceived these parliamentary “successes” to be an obstruction of “the will of the people” (despite the fact that the actual Leave vote in the 2016 referendum of 17,410,742 was a fraction of those entitled to vote in it (47,350,700)).

Knowing that going all-out for the Remain or the Leave position would divide the party and the electorate, Corbyn and his team opted for a position of “constructive ambiguity”.

Labour, when in government, would strike an exit deal with the EU, and hold a binding second referendum in which this deal would be voted on, alongside an option for Remain.

Labour was thus impaled on the horns of a dilemma: faced with an unconvinced base, it had to decide whether “Stop Brexit” or “Stop the Tories” was to be its emphasis with regard to this base. “Stopping Brexit” meant opening the door for the Eurosceptic Tories, while “Stopping the Tories” meant supporting Brexit.

Another dilemma faced Corbyn: he had colleagues and members who insisted on posing the issue in terms of “loyalty to Labour” or “loyalty to the EU”, or at any rate they viewed the two loyalties as non-negotiably coextensive, when they clearly aren’t.

The second referendum was a fudge to deal with these intractable issues.

“Constructive ambiguity” did not work with Leavers, who saw it as an “anti-democratic” fix intended to thwart Brexit. Nearly all the Labour losses in the North and Midlands were in areas that voted Leave in the EU referendum. These Leave voters believed, rightly or wrongly, that Labour, in wanting a second referendum on leaving the EU, was selling-out on the Leave result of the 2016 Referendum.

BoJo played on this Leaver dissatisfaction in a relentless pitch to voters, casting the vote as a “people vs. parliament” election. This, together with his mendacious soundbite “Get Brexit done”, resonated with a large part of the electorate.

Labour by contrast sought to playdown Brexit and focus instead on the impact of Tory austerity and the cannibalization of the welfare state. It did not succeed, as Labour Leave voters forgave, or turned a blind eye to, the depredations of austerity, and voted for the Tories.

The Blyth Valley constituency is a case in point. Held by Labour since its creation in 1950, its voters administered a kicking to Labour by voting in the Tories, overlooking what austerity had done to Blyth Valley:

+ Blyth Valley has 18,947 (24.18%) children living in poverty.

+ 26.7% of its households are classified as fuel poor.

+ Blyth Valley’s unemployment rate is 31%.

These “Left Behinds” had voted-in a party that never had their interests at heart. The Tories have never been friends of these blue-collar voters.

Symptomatic of this anti-working-class attitude was what BoJo had written about working-class people like the voters in Blyth Valley, when he claimed that they were “likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless, and perhaps claiming to suffer from low self-esteem brought on by unemployment”.

With hindsight, Labour got its message wrong where these voters were concerned. It should not have ceded Brexit to the Tories as a primary campaign issue. It could have pushed relentlessly on the difference between “Brexit” (as an aim, however nebulous) and the con that is BoJo’s “Bullshit Brexit”.

BoJo was a Remainer until 2016, when he realized this put him out of step with his party’s entrenched Europhobia, and that he would never become its leader (and thus prime minister) until he equipped himself with a completely new set of principles on this issue.

Labour could have pounded him on this and other issues which showed BoJo’s rampant opportunism, hypocrisy, and duplicity, but it did not. Part of this had to do with Corbyn’s personality.

Corbyn, admirably, has always made a point of eschewing personal attacks. It is reported that when asked, rhetorically, when he would “land a punch” on BoJo, Corbyn replied: “I am not a boxer”.

BoJo and his acolytes had no such scruples, whereas Corbyn was constrained by them.

Many of us would say that harping on BoJo’s cavalier erotic life, his proven and repeated lying, his racism, homophobia, and bigotry, are all fair game in an election campaign.

After all, these are BoJo’s real credentials, which Labour never really attacked.

With the overwhelming connivance of the rightwing trash-rags and the BBC, this allowed Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, the old Etonian posho who’s never done a day’s real work in his life, to masquerade as a man of the people.

By contrast, Corbyn was framed by the same media outlets as a typical “London” politician, a metropolitan type who could never be “one of us”.

The outcome was an unprecedented demonization of Corbyn, involving the pumping-up of the faux antisemitism “crisis”, Corbyn’s alleged links with terrorists, his suspect patriotism, and so on.

The anomaly is that voters liked the policies set out in the Labour manifesto, but on the doorstep, said that Corbyn was their stumbling block to voting for Labour, despite the fact that Corbyn was the architect of these policies!

Something of a cognitive override was happening here, which cannot be explained simply in terms of brainwashing by the media, lack of education, “turkeys voting for Christmas”, and so forth.

We are in the realm of a deep and multi-layered orchestration of affect, of subliminal sentiment, a story that must be saved for another place.

So while BoJo hammered away at his simplistic and dishonest “Get Brexit done” theme, Labour presented voters with a plethora of policy options (“policy incontinence” in the words of one Labour insider) that after a while left John and Jane Bull of Nottingham somewhat bemused.

Labour’s proposals had been costed, so the typical rightwing charge that this was just Labour throwing money around did not stick. In any event, the 2008 bankers’ bailout had cost more than Labour what was proposing to spend in government, and of course the rightwing media did not squeal about that particular act of generosity.

But Labour should have announced to voters a clear prioritization of these policies, and since they couldn’t all be implemented at one go, given a rough-and-ready sense of the implementation-mechanisms for as many of them as possible (admittedly it did do this with some of its proposals). For instance, it is clear that the NHS needs to be a top priority, but how would its needs be balanced against those of the Green New Deal Labour proposed?

Labour committed to phasing out dormitory wards in hospitals, but how quickly would this be done, as against its commitment to deliver nearly 90% of electricity and 50% of heat from renewable and low-carbon sources by 2030?

Fewer policy pledges with more detail attached to each of them might have served Labour better in its election “ground game”.

But all this is mere hindsight.

More important is the massive task of institution-building and cultural transformation facing Labour in its former heartlands.

Despite these electoral setbacks, Corbyn’s achievement has been massive. He tore Labour away from its Blairite fetters, and although some are saying Labour will only win elections when it opts once again for centrism and triangulation, this Blairite recapture of the party won’t happen.

Kenneth Surin is emeritus at Duke University, North Carolina. He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.