openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Voters didn’t believe a better world was possible. So what now?

Rather than blaming Corbyn/Brexit and retreating into nativist neoliberalism, Labour must ally itself more deeply with those already fighting – and winning – that better world.

Jack Shenker
19 December 2019
UVW-organised workers outside the Ministry of Justice

There was something gut-punching about the election results on Thursday night that went deeper than mere disappointment; something to do with a sense of having lived through years of political shape-shifting, as tiring as they were thrilling, only to see institutional power crystallise for the final time into its worst iteration yet. All that is nonsense, of course. A great many things have churned up the political landscape over the past decade, and none of them have disappeared. Our current era of instability will continue and intensify, with all the hope and horror that entails. It’s true that the scale of this defeat lent it an amorphous quality, capable of seeping forward and pervading all thoughts of the future. In its immediate aftermath, the outcome felt like forever. But it’s not forever, and the future is still up for grabs. This is an early, messy attempt to work out how, and why.

What follows is ridiculously incomplete. Scrawling it down has been more about personal catharsis than anything else — a way of sorting through all the noise of the past few days, and navigating the pain that’s accompanied it. But I also wanted to collect in one place some of the smarter contributions I’ve come across regarding where Labour and the left goes from here, especially when they complement stuff I’ve been working on myself in recent years, stuff which has been on my mind a lot since the exit poll was first announced. I’m hoping that it will help me maintain some perspective and clarity in the hard weeks, months and years to come. If it’s vaguely useful to anyone else, then all the better.

Is it too late now to say sorry?

In the past, I’ve written much about those who got their election predictions wrong and displayed little intellectual curiosity as to the causes. Well, I got this one wrong, and the least I can do is to hold my hand up in apology and try to avoid the latter fate. For various reasons, some to do with polling methodology and parliamentary arithmetic, others long-term and structural, I thought that there was a real, plausible possibility of this election producing a hung parliament, and that the difference between the Labour and Conservative vote share would be smaller than the polls suggested. In the end, much of that analysis proved correct: the trend of younger people, regardless of profession, responding to the growing normalisation of precarity in their lives by shifting towards Labour persisted, as did the associated remaking of political geography in major urban and suburban areas, particularly in outer London, due to those same younger people being priced out of rapidly-gentrifying inner-cities. The polls did narrow in the last few days as support for smaller parties drained away, and sure enough Labour took Putney, cut Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Woodford Green majority in half, and cemented their hold in erstwhile Tory strongholds like Enfield Southgate, Battersea and Canterbury.

But what I didn’t anticipate was the degree to which wavering former Labour voters in smaller towns and post-industrial areas of England and Wales would not return to the fold come election day. Talking to constituency organisers and watching campaigning unfold in seats like Crewe and Nantwich — one of the top Tory targets in the country — it was clear that a great many one-time Labour supporters were disaffected with the party, and flirting with alternatives. Yet by and large they also had a strong aversion to Boris Johnson, and appeared receptive to Labour’s messaging on public services and the NHS. I thought there would be some losses, but that they would be limited in number — particularly by the strength of some exceptional local campaigns — and compensated for by gains elsewhere. In the end, what happened in much of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ was that although many of those voters (not all) did baulk at actually going Tory, they turned to other parties (including pro-remain ones) or stayed at home instead. Great Grimsby, Leigh, Ashfield, Bolsover and many other places tell a similar tale: of the Conservative vote climbing a few percentage points, but Labour’s plummeting by a considerably bigger margin, and turnout dropping overall. All these dynamics combined to produce an outsized impact on the electoral map. Across the whole of England, Labour’s vote share was on a par with what it achieved in 2005, when it won 286 seats as part of a comfortable national majority; this time around it secured only 180 seats, as part of a calamitous national wipe-out.

It’s the economy, and culture, stupid

In the post-Thursday hot-take tsunami, two explanatory factors have been pitched against each other: Brexit, and Jeremy Corbyn. To frame these as rival, ‘either/or’ causes seems inadequate to me, because they are entwined in several ways. For one thing Labour’s position on the first became emblematic of many voters’ problems with the second. More importantly, both are the product of a more profound, long-term political mutation to which three generations of Labour leadership from different wings of the party have now failed to provide an electorally successful answer. The story of Labour’s predicament in December 2019 is half a century old. It includes an economic restructuring of social formations and communal solidarities that stretches back decades, as well as the abrupt end the 2008 crash brought to the Third Way model of papering over the consequences of this transformation through the means of debt-fuelled consumption and some redistributive skimming off the top. Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party arose in large part from the unresolved aftermath of the financial crisis, and so did Britain’s vote to leave the European Union. Neither can be merely wished away; both have helped scythe through the left’s traditional electoral coalition.

In my own travels around the country in recent years, I’ve seen what this restructuring looks like up close: the privatisation, fragmentation and shutting down of spaces that once drew people together, and the emergence in their place of vast, windowless boxes — identikit nodes on a global distribution chain, the sort of unplaces that, as James Meek puts it, will never be landmarks even though they mark the land. My most recent book has a chapter on Tilbury, Essex — in which the docks employ far fewer people than they used to, and the power station, shoe factory, fire station, railway club, and every pub in town have all shut down. Another chapter is set north-east of Newcastle, where the waggon-ways that once bore coal loads to the keelmen have been steadily reclaimed by nettles, weed and gorse. There was nothing romantic about much of what disappeared; the work was hard and sometimes dangerous, the cultural institutions often socially-bordered. But they were places that, for the most part, were moulded by their occupants and surroundings, and capable of generating a shared notion of political belonging, an identity rooted in tangible geography, in class.

The decline of all these institutions, as well as the hollowing out of the state’s capacity to intervene at either a national or local level, has left millions far more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of global markets. Recognising this does not equate to an indulgence in nostalgia. As I wrote some time ago about Tilbury, “We are all losing the past, all the time, but the losses involved have not been distributed equitably, and our ability to absorb them is dependent on how confident we are in our ability to shape the future to our liking. Without thinking about who has more reason to be nostalgic, and what it is those people are nostalgic for, accusations of nostalgia risk becoming little more than a ‘mute’ button on those who have lost the most. Alongside jobs and social capital, one of the most abject losses experienced by the residents of Tilbury has been the erosion of a sense of influence over their lives, just as those lives have grown harder — not a theoretical loss, but a concrete and institutionalised one that has accompanied a generation-long, top-down dismantling of municipal governance, long pre-dating post-2008 austerity.” Today, the old railway line from Wallsend to Blyth is being dug up to make way for fibre-optic cables running from a new data centre to the North Sea; Tilbury is home to the biggest Amazon warehouse in the region. Blyth Valley was the first Conservative gain on election night; Thurrock — Tilbury’s constituency, and one of Labour’s marginal targets — delivered a vastly improved Tory majority. The infrastructure that the Labour movement once grew out of has gone, and in its place atomisation, and resentment, have thrived.

These trends, as Aditya Chakrabortty argues, were “Corbyn’s poisoned inheritance, not his creation” — but there were specific elements of Corbyn’s character, or at least the version of it that was presented to the public by large parts of the media, that exacerbated the disconnect. Moments of flux and insecurity, such as the one we’ve been living through for the past ten years, always involve the renewed mobilisation of particular cultural reference points by people anxious to reassert their place in the world, to the benefit of those seeking power who conform. Patriotism, masculinity, and national security, or at least popular (and hugely problematic) notions of what those concepts represent, are dredged to the surface, and as anyone who canvassed for Labour during this campaign knows, on the doorstep Corbyn jarred with all of them. Luke Pagarani is right to point out that the real charge against Corbyn, one that is rarely made explicit and thus has taken four years for low-engagement voters to fully absorb, is that ultimately he believes “British/white lives are of equal value with the lives of others,” against the backdrop of a society in which the “prioritisation of British lives must always be assumed, never justified, taken for granted as the ground the state is built on.” He’s right too when he observes that it’s hard to defend Corbyn against that charge, because it’s true.

That doesn’t mean Labour should find itself a leader willing to privilege white, British lives above others (although doubtless many aspiring ones will tacitly make that pitch). It just means acknowledging that this is one of the forces that any genuinely transformational Labour project will come up against. It’s also just as important to push back against lopsided invocations of Labour ‘heartlands’ and the ‘authentic/traditional working class’, nearly always made by those who prior to 2016 did all they could to excise class from the political vocabulary. The party’s traditional working-class base encompasses both Northumberland and North London, and neither of them is monolithic. In my book, I spend a lot of time with Fatima Djalo, a migrant cleaner from Guinea-Bissau who is employed by an outsourcing giant and paid below the living wage to sweep the floors of the Ministry of Justice — she is an example of Britain’s ‘authentic’ working-class existing at the very heart of Westminster, and not only in some laughably-undifferentiated caricature of ‘the north’. Those insisting that Labour has ‘lost its base’ also need to explain why it remains overwhelmingly popular with young people across the country (who are concentrated in big cities, where Labour did relatively well), when they are the age group most likely to be working-class by any useful definition: economically insecure, lacking fixed assets, reliant on wages and social spending. As the economist James Meadway argues, in 21st century Britain age and class are thoroughly interlinked.

Gotta have faith

There’s another dimension to the long-term Thatcherite turn in our politics that New Labour helped to entrench, and which the party came up hard against at this election, and that’s a widespread loss of faith in formal politics itself to deliver anything meaningful. When technocracy and gradualism have been the norm for so long, when successive governments of different parties have promised big and — ideologically at least — delivered small, and when voters are so accustomed to seeing the boundaries of ‘legitimate’, ‘grown-up’ politics policed with such zeal and effectiveness, it’s little wonder that many looked askance at big, bold ideas designed to rebuild our economy on a radically different footing, even when the individual ideas themselves were appealing. I’ve spoken about this a fair bit in the past, and as I reported from Crewe and Nantwich, “At this election, the two major parties have very different visions of how to deal with the legacy of de-industrialisation and late capitalism’s intense regional inequalities, and the ideological gulf between them is enormous. Yet many of those same voters dismiss [Labour campaigners] with a weary refrain of ‘they’re all the same’ or ‘I want nothing to do with it’.”

The notion that policies designed to prevent the planet from burning and kickstart an urgently-required economic transformation all over Britain are somehow the luxurious preserve of metropolitan elites is patent bollocks; the challenge is to create the context in which such policies are not dismissed as just one more insincere promise from politicians who are ultimately all the same. One local councillor and election organiser in the north-west told me that Labour’s 2019 manifesto “realigned the party with the working-class” but that the problem was “getting that message across here, that your vote can actually change the direction of government.” Again, few of those now turning on the Labour left seem to have any answers to the question of how we overcome this fundamental obstacle — perhaps because for many of them, ‘proper’ politics only concerns changing the government’s personnel, and not its direction at all.

What’s more, when voters did accept that some of Labour’s more ambitious policy proposals were feasible, another challenge arose. Because of the way economic debate in Britain has been aggressively ‘depoliticised’ over a generation (a political act in itself, of course), and arbitrated by organisations like the IFS that operate almost entirely within the Thatcherite economic consensus, they were viewed as being part of a zero sum game: if someone else wins out of this, then I must end up losing. In many of the areas where the Tories made gains from Labour, long-running Labour council administrations have (admittedly under near-impossible circumstances) rarely demonstrated to residents that politicians, when given some degree of institutional power, can change the way the economy functions; in most cases, as the face of national budget cuts, they communicated the exact opposite. It’s telling that in some of the long-held seats that Labour lost, there were people who felt like the ‘change’ option on the ballot paper was best represented by the Conservatives, despite nearly a decade of Tory rule at Westminster, while in the few places in the country where Labour-run local authorities have pursued an imaginatively different economic model, even in the teeth of austerity — such as leave-voting Preston — the party maintained a healthy majority (compare that to nearby Burnley or Blackpool South, which both switched hands).

All of this has to be set against the ‘offer’ made by the Conservatives, one that in its (disingenuous) simplicity and directness — ‘Get Brexit Done’ — represented a clear and powerful act of political agency: we can change things, we will change things, and this is how. My anecdotal impression from speaking to voters in leave-voting areas was that they were likely to be just as cynical about Tory promises as Labour ones, but amid a generalised weariness at least Johnson’s claim came with a pathway to fulfilment that was visible and comprehensible, and of course it too was dressed up to represent a break with the establishment. It helps Johnson, naturally, to have a dominant media class that views itself primarily as a passive megaphone for the powerful (e.g. the uncritical repetition by Laura Kuenssberg and others of the false story regarding Labour supporters punching a Matt Hancock aide) and is wedded to bland equivalence (a shout-out here to local reporters, who had a much better election than their national counterparts). As Tom Blackburn argues in the New Socialist, “The right in this country can say what it wants and get away with it, because it knows it can rely on most lobby journalists either to demur from calling their lies out for what they are or simply to ‘both sides’ everything to death.”

We have to acknowledge the role played by the media in this election result; to do otherwise, when so many voters repeated anti-Labour tabloid attack lines verbatim on the doorstep, including ones that were patently and verifiably untrue (“Corbyn wants to seize my garden,” was something that I got told repeatedly) would be absurd. But it would be absurd too if that were the end of our analysis. The frailty of many (often illusory) liberal norms has been ruthlessly exposed in recent years across mature democracies, including that of a strong, independent press holding power to account; in this brave new world of manipulation and misinformation, some leading reporters — as Peter Oborne has shown — simply don’t seem to understand how the rules of engagement have shifted. Those who want to use the end of the long twentieth century to build a renewed, nativist form of neoliberalism out of the rubble have proved adept at exploiting their institutional advantages, and persuading people that after an era of mass political spectatorship, they are the ones who will enable ordinary people to take back control — most obviously, as Adam Ramsay observes, by putting borders around the national collective and mobilising it in the service of disaster capitalism. That is the terrain on which a fight for the future is playing out, and the left needs to do more than complain about the unfair lead enjoyed by the other side.

Party time

That context was not of the Labour leadership’s making, but nor did they prove capable of overcoming it. I interviewed Corbyn on the final weekend before the election, and asked about three of the biggest weaknesses, as I saw them, of the campaign so far. The first was Corbyn’s ‘they go low, we go high’ moralism, at a time when — set against Johnson’s obfuscation, bluster and insults (to Muslims, to the gay community, to single mothers and to the working class, never mind to Labour itself) — something more unapologetically pugnacious was needed. This was connected to the second flaw, namely confusion over the party’s messaging. Was this manifesto a retail offer that sought to restore some of the lost benefits of social democracy, or a radical, new narrative of democratic empowerment fit for a changing age? At times it felt like a bit of both, and consequently neither. The third issue was antisemitism and Corbyn’s woeful response to it, which was devastating in its own right and also a window onto the worst aspects of the leadership’s political instincts: a tendency to default bunker defensiveness, which in this case vastly amplified the very real hurt felt by Jewish communities and many others beside. As I’ve written about before, the ‘Corbyn project’ has always been far more nuanced than most of its write-ups in the mainstream media have allowed for, and one of its major faultlines is between those rooted in a factional, machine brand of politics and those seeking to embed Labour in the communities it seeks to represent. Corbyn and McDonnell have both articulated lofty aspirations to the latter, but despite the welcome establishment of a community campaign unit in the party, activists have been expressing their frustration at the lack of progress on this front since long before December 12th.

All these limitations can be partly explained by the legacy of Blairism on Labour, which made it difficult for prominent leftists to emerge at the top and blitzed them with internal hostility when they did. There are real debates to be had and criticisms to be made, not just about the campaign itself but the deeper dynamics that produced it, yet the vacuous backlash against ‘Corbynism’ and ‘Momentum thugs’ currently underway is generally shorn of them. Any meaningful attempt to analyse what went wrong for Labour in 2019 and how it might recover would have to reckon with the fact that the liberal centre also imploded at this election, that the neoliberal soft left has been devastated at the ballot box across Europe over the past decade, and that on policy platforms situated various degrees to the right of Corbyn’s, both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband also failed to win office.

Complaining that Labour lost ‘northern’/‘working-class’ voters by breaking too extensively with an economic status quo that immiserates them is not a sufficient answer in itself to the question of how that immiseration can be resisted; as Ramsay quips, it amounts to saying “If Labour hadn’t run against the institutions of power in the country, they might have allowed the party into government.” This is just the latest expression of a worldview that runs through large swathes of the pro-market liberal centre, including the disastrously-run ‘People’s Vote’ campaign: one that sees the political dislocations of the past few years as a giant, inexplicable administrative error, rather than as a direct response to shifting material circumstances and a new economic reality. Even as their flaws are rightly dissected, Corbyn, McDonnell and those around them must be praised for wriggling Labour free from an ‘end of history’ ideological straitjacket, and for having rescued the party from the unambitious morass of aspirational platitudes into which it was otherwise tumbling; their success in this regard is evident in the fact that even leadership candidates from the Labour right are now forced to embrace baseline economic arguments made by the left.

“This might be a moment of political desolation for the socialist left in Britain, but those revelling in their apparent triumph — right and centre alike — still have no answers to any of the problems we face, or even a willingness to face up to their severity,” notes Blackburn. “The struggle for social transformation in this country must continue, and those serious about it must pick themselves up and fight on, because the alternative — a washed-up liberal centre lining up against an emboldened far right with climate breakdown looming large on the horizon — hardly bears thinking about.” All that being said, the socialist left will not join that struggle effectively without confronting its own mistakes head on, including its inability during Corbyn’s tenure to gear the party towards the lived experiences of communities at the sharp end of late capitalism, and away from Westminster, machine politics and Labourism. As Ronan Burtenshaw argues, the “When the tide came back in, this left had been beached for a long time. Its contact with mass politics was minimal. It had to learn fast. It didn’t learn fast enough.”

Momentum, despite filling the role of cartoon villain for those determined to misunderstand it, really did grasp the urgency of this challenge: from the beginning, it has put political education, alternative forms of media, and attempts to entwine Labour’s institutional infrastructure with social movements and grassroots campaigning outside of the party at the core of its work. Without its canvassing efforts across dozens of key marginals this election result would have been considerably worse, and by bringing many thousands of people into the streets — many of whom were not party members, many of whom had never door-knocked before, some of whom had never even voted before — it helped to reimagine the staid domain of electoral politics as something vibrant, vital and participatory. “A lacklustre, ill-tempered, unenlightening campaign,” was how Emily Maitlis summed things up for Newsnight on the eve of the vote, and if you only saw the election through the media’s lens then it was indeed a dismal and dispiriting affair. But if you joined the ranks of canvassers, that’s not how things felt on the ground, and that matters — not as a be-all and end-all, but as a reminder of the sort of politics we need to overcome despair.

“As more and more of us take to the streets to try and interrupt, even slightly, the nihilistic teleology of the ruling regime, there’s a sense of miracle, of magic, ordinary and beautiful,” wrote Josie Sparrow before election day. “I have begun to see sparks of this world-to-come as I have moved through the winter streets.” For all the lazy slurs hurled at Momentum for being supposedly too middle-class, too student-y, too concentrated in Hackney and Islington, the organisation can take comfort in the fact that unlike its centrist detractors it is built upon a real social base that is not fading away: the young, pissed-off, and economically precarious. In common with all of the wider institutions in the Labour left’s orbit, its task now must be to address the ways in which it is geographically, generationally and socioeconomically unbalanced, and to prove it has a durable role to play in politics beyond its own heartlands — and beyond election time.

Bottom-up

Given all of the above, what is to be done? This is only the beginning and not the end of an answer, but for me the way forward must involve Labour embedding itself at the very heart of communities — including learning from, and not dictating to, those self-organised movements that have already found ways to overcome the long-term, structural processes of social and economic atomisation discussed earlier, and are forging new collective political identities as a result. Since the financial crisis, those on the wrong side of an economic faultline that, loosely-speaking, divides the rentiers from the renters, have not just been passive victims — right across the country, many have been fighting back and resisting. Insurgent trade unions representing and led by those that traditional unions gave up on. Renters’ collectives that bring together private tenants as well as those in social housing to take on landlords and the state alike where needed. Migrant rights organisations who have long been resisting the violence of the hostile environment regime even as some of those now jockeying for supremacy in the Labour party were apologising for it. Every local foodbank, every informal welfare advice office, every campaign against rip-off loans and exploitative financial giants, every boarded-up high street shop that’s being repurposed for the community as something new. All of these spaces should see Labour as a natural ally; a political glue that binds their fragmented energies together, and magnifies it on the national stage.

These communities have been my own obsession as a journalist, and with another five years of deregulation, culture war, and ethnocultural borders coming down the line, their political significance is only going to soar. Labour should not try to co-opt grassroots initiatives, but it must show a genuine interest in connecting with them and prove — by listening instead of talking — that it is a social institution as much as an electoral one, ingrained in the realities of a fractured country, capable of practically supporting people today as well as articulating a different, radical vision of tomorrow. Only then will something like the 2019 manifesto really resonate convincingly: not as a laundry list of promises from politicians looking down from on high, but as the central component of a democratic renewal in our politics that is being battled for from below.

“I’m furious at the stagnation, lack of strategy, and poor messaging of Labour Party leadership, of their dithering on Brexit and triangulation on migration,” said Eleanor Penny in the aftermath of Thursday’s defeat. “But I won’t apologise for being inspired by a manifesto offering (popular, necessary) economic and social justice.” None of us should. And with more than a quarter of a million people on course to be homeless come Christmas Day, one in three children set to be living in poverty by the end of this parliament, and a new lease of life for the right’s exclusionary culture wars unleashed, nor can we afford to succumb to despondency. This government may now enjoy a strong electoral mandate, but it is still riddled with internal contradictions, propped up by a fluid, flighty and contingent support base, and devoid of any intellectual vision equal to the challenges urgently facing people in Britain and beyond. It can, and will, be beaten.

On the day that Boris Johnson made his victory speech, just a stone’s throw away a small group of workers was celebrating a little-reported victory of their own: the cleaners of our Royal Parks, who are ultimately employed by the Queen. Off the radar of most of the mainstream media, these men and women have been facing down both Vinci — an outsourcing construction and facilities company operating in more than a hundred countries worldwide that has been accused of multiple labour and human rights abuses — and the Royal Parks management body, responsible for some of the capital’s most iconic green spaces. They were told that their demand to be paid a living wage was impossible, but after joining the United Voices of the World union and taking strike action, it turned out to be very possible after all.

The night before, in a final, futile effort to persuade any still-undecided voters, I urged people to simply look through the window and — if they thought a better world than the one they saw outside was possible — to back Labour. At this election, too many didn’t believe that a better world was possible. In response, we can start by rooting our politics in the lives of those who are already demonstrating that it is.

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