A guest post by MARTIN BEVERIDGE, who was out canvassing in Bedford, and is working on a book about the history of socialist ideas in the UK
I’m still recovering from the shock of the exit polls on Thursday night. The only good news from my end was that Labour hung on to Bedford, where I was canvassing over the previous two weeks, and retained both Luton seats with comfortable majorities.
Now, taking a breath, I think it important to think objectively about where we are now,
before we can figure out what to do next.
Let’s be clear: Johnson and the Tories did not win a resounding mandate. Their vote hardly increased overall. What happened was that Labour lost, big time, and lost most in the areas that Labour badly needed to win.
What caused the slump in Labour votes?
First: in my view, Labour was totally unprepared for the kind of election this was going to be. The journalist Patrick Cockburn wrote that, instead of looking backwards to Thatcher, British politics should be understood in the context of the international rise of right-wing authoritarian governments elected on the basis of nationalism: Modi in India, Orban in Hungary, Trump in the US.
The Tories learned from 2017, and not only carried out a vast undercover social media campaign but also didn’t allow the broadcast media to be as impartial. They carefully framed their message about the referendum: “Brexit means Brexit” became “Get Brexit done”, conveying an implicit appeal to English nationalism.
Their playing of the media convinced many voters that all politicians were the same, with the result of further suppressing the Labour vote among the undecided.
Labour did not learn from 2017, and I think they don’t really understand why their vote rose so sharply in that year. They assumed that they would benefit from a spontaneous increase in support during the campaign, as before, but the establishment took great steps to prevent that from happening this time. Complaining about the BBC coverage after the fact is beside the point.
What is more important is the intervention of a global right wing in supporting Johnson – Trump himself, and also Modi who campaigned among British Indians on the ground that Corbyn was anti-Hindu because of the Labour position on Kashmir.
This is not hindsight from the election result: I remarked to friends in September that local Constituency Labour Parties were still focused on internal procedures and not on how to prepare for an election by turning out to the community.
Besides, why did it take so long to select candidates in areas where the MP had defected – like Gavin Shuker in Luton South? This problem derived, I understand, from bureaucratic conflicts at the level of the National Executive Committee. But the culture at local level is also bureaucratic, draining the enthusiasm of new members if they ever attend meetings.
Second: the party leadership has been systematically reviled for the past four years. Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-racist, anti-imperialist politician in a country that still celebrates its colonial past. The accusations of lack of patriotism and anti-semitism, whatever their source, are code for hostility to this anti-imperialist record.
But some of the mud stuck, and it appealed to the nationalism of Labour supporters who told me they were uncomfortable with his leadership.
Third: Brexit. And again, Brexit. The party’s position in 2017 was infinitely superior to the confused muddle of a second referendum which was interpreted by voters as a push by the political establishment to overturn the original result.
On the doorstep, lifelong Labour voters who voted remain made clear that they do care about the referendum vote being worth something, about respecting those who demanded to be heard.
Fourth: the manifesto had great policies, but they were a ton of fixes for the systemic problems created by years of neoliberal governments. It was virtually impossible to generate a clear class answer from it to Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done.”
Whatever Corbyn’s faults, he has succeeded in unparalleled fashion in rebuilding the Labour party’s membership founded on a transformative agenda. The manifesto will stand as an achievement for the future.
All those with whom I campaigned last week – many, but not all, mobilised by Momentum, who went out in the cold and dark and rain to get out the vote – created a camaraderie that will not be forgotten. Right now, across social media, the election experience is being discussed and dissected. That achievement will not go away.
As Cambridge professor Priya Gopal remarked: “[Corbyn] and others in the Labour Party did put forward a viable oppositional program, a viable imaginative alternative, a viable progressive vision. And Jeremy Corbyn, the man, mistakes and warts and failures notwithstanding, I think, is owed a debt of gratitude for having put an alternative out there.” 17 December 2019