“Intelligence enough to conceive, courage enough to will, power enough to compel. If our ideas of a new society are anything more than a dream, these three qualities must animate the majority of the working-people; and then, I say, the thing will be done”. – William Morris
Why Labour has lost the election despite the immense efforts of thousands of committed activists and the most progressive manifesto in years is a crucial question to orientate the next phase of socialist politics and class struggle in Britain. Indeed, the battle of interpretation over the result will be a determining factor in the ongoing internal fights within the labour movement, the strategy and tactics moving forward for the radical left and for the lessons drawn by the wider working class.
One interpretation which is already being pushed by the liberal left is that Labour (read Corbyn) were too slow to articulate the politics of Remain. As such, the argument goes, Labour ended up electorally betwixt and between, when it should have embraced the virtues of Remain, while bringing recalcitrant Leave-voting working class voters with it. This argument is being pushed by groups like Another Europe is Possible and the usual coterie of liberal commentators in the Guardian and elsewhere. But this analysis draws all the wrong conclusions from the last five years and would set the left up for further failure if it gained traction. Another view, pushed by elements on the right of the Labour Party, is that Labour lost touch with the “socially conservative” or “traditional” working class – this is as mistaken and detrimental an approach as that advanced by the liberals, and both should be rejected by the socialist left going forward.
In truth, the decisive reason Labour lost the election is that over the last three years it shifted from being a party committed to respecting the result of the Brexit referendum, to being a party of Remain in all but name. There were, of course, a number of other important reasons, ranging from the undisguised bias of the mainstream media, the pessimism ingrained by more than thirty years of neoliberalism, and a concerted campaign of character assassination against Corbyn, carried out over the last four years, often with the support of many Labour MPs and disgruntled Blairites in the media.
But Labour’s changed stance on Brexit proved decisive as this was the key issue for many voters in the election, formed the core of the Tory election message (dutifully parroted by the media) and is reflected in the Leave voting constituencies which Labour lost to the Tories. Indeed, partway through the election campaign it’s clear the Labour leadership recognised that this issue was hurting the campaign and pivoted to Leave voting constituencies in the North and Midlands, while keeping arch-Remainers like Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer out of the media spotlight. This, unfortunately, proved too little, too late.
The shift in Labour’s position was brought about by a concerted campaign led by the worst remnants of the Blair years (Mandelson, Campbell, Blair, Watson and co.), with the support of most in the media and the wider political class. Once Labour was successfully manoeuvred into backing a second referendum, the electoral logic of this position was to try to capture the disgruntled middle classes, who form the social base of the second vote/Remain block, and to hope that working class communities that had voted Leave in the referendum could be won over with promises of a brighter material future under a Labour government. In order to pursue this strategy, Labour had to try to make the election about everything but Brexit, but this was a naïve strategy, that never stood a chance.
While working class people’s lives are blighted by austerity, the effects of public sector cuts, job insecurity and falling wages, and the spectre of climate catastrophe has increasingly come to the fore in recent years, politics (in the narrow sense the frames the terrain of electoralism) in Britain has been dominated by Brexit for almost four years. It has become the terrain on which a bizarre, but entrenched, culture war is fought out, and in the weeks before the election was called Labour had twice refused to vote for a General Election, on the basis of wanting to secure guarantees about a “no deal” Brexit.
In the end, this remained, as it was always likely to be, the “Brexit election” and large numbers of working class Leave voters (as well as many working class Remain voters) bought into the empty rhetoric and promises of Johnson and co, and voted for what they hope will be an end to the Brexit uncertainty (it won’t be), but they have also voted against the perceived contempt in Labour’s disingenuous offer to Leave voters. The election, then, was lost because Labour chose to privilege the politics of the middle class, over that of large sections of the working class on the defining issue of Brexit.
This was also crucial because of the core issue of trust and integrity. While the Brexit vote is complex, the majority of working-class people that voted for it (which was a majority of the working class that voted) are from areas that have witnessed industrial decline, poverty and marginalisation for decades. These are areas were people have been told for years, explicitly and implicitly, that there was nothing they could do to change their lot. With the Brexit vote, they got a say on a crucial issue of national policy, a once in a lifetime say. But when they voted for Brexit, the established reacted immediately with efforts to delegitimate and overturn the result.
In the 2017 General Election, Labour promised to respect the Brexit vote, and fight for the best possible Brexit – married to its radical manifesto, this allowed Labour to present itself as a genuine insurgent force. In this election, having capitulated to the demands of reactionary liberalism and committed itself to a second referendum, Labour could not consistently present itself as a party of insurgent change and transformation, while playing the part of restoring the status quo ante on the Brexit issue. Labour could not be partly radical, partly on the side of the working class in Leave voting areas, it had to be wholehearted, and it wasn’t.
The election result leaves us facing up to five more years of Tory rule, and we can be under no illusions that in this time they will go on the attack against workers’ rights, migrants, public services and the environment. Given that we have likely already entered the early stages of the next recession, the austerity and inhumanity of the last decade of Tory-Lib Dem rule will be redoubled and the working class will, as ever, be at the sharp end of this class warfare. As such, we have to reject the entirely understandable impulse to mourn this loss, and instead move swiftly to organising ourselves for the fights ahead.
But in moving forward we have to take stock of the experiences of the last few years, to understand how we have gotten to where we are now, and to orientate ourselves for our next steps. To do this we must refocus on the central principles of socialism. Socialist politics is grounded on the central divisions in society between the tiny minority that owns the wealth of society, and the rest of us who have to work for the scraps off their table. Socialism is about class, class interests, class struggle, and understanding the dizzying, confusing mess of modern society through the lens of class analysis, so as to make sense of it, and work to transform society.
In this election, and over the last four years marked by the Brexit conjuncture, Labour and many on the left have lost sight of the centrality of class when it comes to Brexit. As such, it has been possible to dismiss Brexit as a mere racist endeavour, to imagine that the vote to leave could be dismissed, and the mob who voted for it could be won around with the promise of what’s better for them – this is the politics of arrogant Fabianism, and is not the basis for building a radical alternative.
At the General Election in 2017, a Corbyn-led Labour Party secured the biggest increase in the party’s vote since World War II by accepting the result of the referendum and connecting the ruptural energy of the Brexit vote to a manifesto that promised radical change for working class communities. In this election, Labour advanced even more radical policies, but was not able to convincingly present itself as the party of radical transformation, while at the same time being committed, in effect, to disregarding and overturning the Brexit vote.
While the Brexit conjuncture is complex, it is in the first instance a rejection of the status quo. In this way it overlapped with the growing support for Corbyn, this is why it is no mere coincidence that those most fervently opposed to Brexit are also those most hostile to Corbyn and the Corbyn project in Labour. In this election Labour sided, on a crucially defining issue, with its opponents, and as such was rejected by many of those who should be its natural base.
The great shame of it is that the policies on almost everything else in the Labour manifesto are in line with the interests of working class people, but the fundamental problem is that because of how it approached the issue of Brexit, Labour ended up, in many working class communities, appearing as an outsider, offering to advance socialism for the working class, but not with it. This stems from the fact that while the Corbyn moment reflected a reinvigoration of loosely socialist ideas, it was not grounded in working class communities and workplaces. The recently formed community organising unit presages some of what can and should be done on this front, but this sort of work has been a peripheral element of the Corbyn moment, and the broader movement around it, to date.
In the weeks, months and years ahead, we have to expand our efforts to build a serious, socialist movement grounded in, led by and responsive to working class communities. We have to make clear, as the Tories unleash even more savage class warfare, that only the working class itself can resist austerity, defend workers and migrants’ rights, lead the fight back against the bourgeoning far right and confront the threat of climate catastrophe.
This will mean many different things:
- we will need to develop organised networks of activists and trade unionists both within and outside the Labour Party to advance a genuine, socialist analysis of the problems that confront our communities (in an otherwise barren landscape, some local Momentum groups, Helping Hands in Edinburgh, and ACORN provide some templates to build on);
- political education has to be a priority within the movement, far more so than it has been to date – notable celebrity commentators imparting bland slogans are no substitute for organised, educated cadres of committed socialists in our communities and workplaces;
- in doing this, we will need to develop media platforms that break with the individualism and narcissism of the current sea of podcasts, Patreons and niche publications.
Recent years, marked both by Brexit and the Corbyn moment, show that in these turbulent times there is appetite for serious change, and this election does not change that. The Tory Party may now, at least, deliver on the UK formally leaving the EU (this won’t be “Brexit sorted”, as Brexit is a complex process and not a formal event), and that opens the space for the socialist left to re-focus all our efforts on fighting to fundamentally transform and shape post-Brexit Britain. For while the Tories have held together around Brexit for this election, they are a party riven with division, reflecting the crisis of the British state and ruling class, and their apparent strength at present is an illusion.
As we face up to these new challenges, we must learn from the mistakes of recent years: too much time has been spent on the minutiae of Labour Party proceduralism, and not enough on building in communities and workplaces. Going forward, we need to take the inspirational energy demonstrated during the election and carry it over into organising and mobilising to transform our trade unions, to build alternative models of democracy and community empowerment on issues from public transport, to schools, health care and the environment. Crucially, we need to reorientate our politics to the centrality of class (of the working class in its entirety, not some mythical traditional or white working class).
This has to be the focus, because without the working class there is no socialism: in the absence of empowered, protagonistic working class communities and organisations there is no rupture with the status quo. We have to take the best that has emerged from the Corbyn moment but break with the errors that have brought us to where we are now. We have suffered a defeat, but the battle of our lives begins now.
Paul O’Connell is a member of the LeFT Campaign Working Group.