Labour Together: Election Review - A Response by the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University. Rohan McWilliam, Professor Of Modern British History.
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Must Labour lose? Why is the party unable to build a winning coalition for progressive policies? Why does a large part of the electorate consider Labour to be not just wrong but actually toxic? These are recurring questions in the party's history and they confront us in the most brutal way today. Labour supporters need to wake up - power is very far way. Unless something is done now, Labour may never win again. Britain could easily become a one-party state.
The Labour Together review of the December 2019 election constitutes the party's official response to one of the worst defeats in its history. It has been assembled by figures from across the party, including the former leader Ed Miliband, as well as trade unionists, councillors and defeated parliamentary candidates. Behind it are 11,000 survey responses from Labour supporters and the polling of 240,000 people during the election. This is only the first of what will be many accounts of what happened in December 2019 but the 154 page report will stand as a major statement of the problems that Labour ran into. Although it does not pull its punches at points, it is remarkably non-judgemental about many of the key players - perhaps too much so given that Labour needs yet another far-reaching discussion of its purpose and relationship to the electorate. The report does not attempt to answer the big question which is: what should be Labour's strategy and philosophy in the 2020s? Work on that question begins now. The report states that to get a majority of one, the party will need to gain 124 new seats. It follows that the party needs to target at least 150 news seats to get a proper working majority.
In this short paper, I seek to explore the report in the light of the Labour History Research Unit's (LHRU) Labour Renewal Project, issued in March 2020. This considers ways in which Labour has renewed itself in the past as a guide to how it might renew itself in the present. We find a lot of common ground with the Election Review but also note that it raises more questions than it answers. We identify important issues in the report and also register issues that will need to be part of further discussion in the party. The report is focused on the November - December 2019 period. It lacks a strong sense of where this fits into Labour history. In itself this is not surprising but it also lacks a strong sense of politics: possibly the result of being written by a committee.
The issue of anti-semitism is noted at points (eg. p. 102) but it is never deeply addressed (a real failing in this document). Thus the report never quite engages with the reason why some progressive-minded people came to feel that the party was toxic in a way that would have been unlikely under any previous leader. Otherwise, the report echoes political discussion over the six months after December 2019. It argues that Labour lost because of Brexit, a widespread rejection of Jeremy Corbyn and a manifesto that was overloaded. More deeply, it establishes that 'Age, education and place are the new electoral divides even more than traditional conceptions of class' (p. 10). The party's fate also mirrored that of social democratic parties around the globe and hence needs to be seen in a wider context (p. 54).
Whilst those are convincing explanations, the report also shows how ramshackle and amateurish Labour's campaign was. The latter was surprising given that Labour's electoral machine performed very well in the 2017 election. In particular, the report argues that the Tories overwhelmingly won the digital war. Even when it came to the ground war (where the party could count on thousands of volunteers, including from Momentum), the approach was uncoordinated with supporters focusing on constituencies that could not be won (notoriously Boris Johnson's Uxbridge constituency) and ignoring Labour MPs whose seats badly needed defending and which were lost (p. 86). Volunteers quite simply did not live in the constituencies that needed helping or indeed did not live close to them. This reflected an enduring problem with the Corbyn project: it was geared up to increasing votes in seats Labour already held (and in 2019 failed to even do that). 'Labour' the report argues convincingly 'went into the 2019 election without a clear strategy of which voters we needed to persuade or how' (p. 13). In particular, Labour did not know how to speak to the self-employed or to workers in the private sector. This needs to change. Too often Labour was identified simply with the public sector unions. This is part of the larger problem: Labour never likes to admit that its central purpose is to run capitalism better than the Conservatives.
The report also fails to deal with Labour's fiscal plans. Labour in 2017 and 2019 said to the electorate they could have top class, fully funded public services and would not have to pay any extra. The idea that the top 5% of the electorate could foot the bill was problematic as it was not believed. It left Labour lacking the language of sacrifice (people on above average incomes paying more) that had been an integral part of twentieth century social democracy.
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Labour's continued failure to revive in Scotland is also a major problem that the Labour Together committee feels has to be addressed. Something needs to be done to get Scotland back. It might, however, be as productive to argue that Labour has a problem in England. Labour has not win a majority in England since 2001. Labour is strong in English cities but is in steep decline in small towns and has always had a problem in rural areas. It has been recognised for a while that England lacks a national identity in the way that Scotland and Wales do because it has been the dominant part of the United Kingdom. Labour' strength used to be that it was the only genuinely British party (with wide representation in England, Scotland and Wales). This is now less true than it was.
Even more deeply, the Conservatives can now claim to be the party of the working class whilst Labour is now the party of middle-class graduates. This is one of the most dramatic realignments in post-war history. People on low incomes now prefer to vote Conservative. There is also a rift over cultural and identity issues which the report does not explore sufficiently in detail. We should note that, if this report is anything to go by, politics is no longer animated by the pursuit of 'Middle England'. Sure, that was a construction of the 1990s but it was not completely unrealistic as a description of the kind of aspirational voters who dominated seats that Labour needs to take if it is to form a government.
The report commendably does not see the election as an accident or as a series of political mis-calculations. Instead, it sees it as a historical process going back to the New Labour years: 'Labour lost millions of voters before it lost office in 2010 partly as a result of political alienation from politics more generally' (p.3). De-industrialisation and the decline of manufacturing from the 1980s shattered the particular working-class identity (male, union-based) on which Labour had depended (p.44).
The report, however, lacks any real discussion of New Labour. Remarkably, the entire document never mentions Tony Blair. This may have reflected the divisive nature of Blair on the left and a desire not to have those battles again. The LHRU is arguing, however, for a deeper discussion of the New Labour years (for example, in Richard Carr's March of the Moderates). This conversation needs to be had within the party. We need to move away from sycophancy or knee-jerk abuse. A proper reckoning with New Labour (its strengths and weaknesses) is essential for renewal. The fact that none of the Labour leadership candidates in 2020 could name Blair as an inspiration shows that the party has not yet reached that stage. Turning one's back on the most successful leader in the party's history is unlikely to create renewal.
At the same time the Labour Renewal Project argues that another precondition for renewal is for the party to recognise that a Blair or a Corbyn approach are not the only alternatives. Keir Starmer needs to distinguish himself by his political creativity. In many ways, New Labour was part of a particular historical moment: the mid-1990s. With the Cold War over and with the privatisations of the 1980s in place, the electorate was not in the mood to revive the world of the 1970s. In 2020, we are in a very different historical moment. Even the Conservatives have (perhaps temporarily) conceded a role for Big Government. In 2020, state intervention on a massive scale has been the only thing that prevented Britain from descending into anarchy. Much-derided public sector workers (careworkers, NHS nurses) have been the figures literally keeping people alive in partnership with underpaid supermarket workers in the private sector. The Labour Together report calls for a major economic offer rather than an attempt to be Tory-lite (p.4). This is absolutely correct. Labour needs to be the force that develops a blue-print for a post-pandemic planet.
In some respects, what is needed is not an analysis of the 2019 election. Rather, further discussion needs to be devoted to why Labour did so well in 2017. Some of the feedback we have received for the Labour Renewal Project criticises it for under-estimating the achievement of Corbyn in the 2017 election. He did after all do better in electoral terms than Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband. This definitely needs more thought. It is clear, however, that the 2017 result is taking on mythological status for some activists suggesting that the party managed to uncover a strong socialist or at least militantly social democratic constituency in Britain. There is also the allegation (currently being investigated) that the election may have been 'thrown' by some disgruntled Labour staffers who were hold-overs from the Gordon Brown years.
There clearly needs to be more serious analysis of what happened in 2017 but let's note the peculiar situation that year. Len McCluskey of Unite is quoted uncritically in his analysis of 2019:
What McCluskey does not say is that the bulk of Labour members supported Remain. Moreover, Remain-minded voters appeared to feel that Labour was their best bet if Brexit was to be avoided. Labour clearly profited from this constructive ambiguity in 2017 which, we argue, was a major factor in the result. In 2019, its policy was too much of a fudge and was clearly a way of disguising the fact that Corbyn has been a lifelong Euro-sceptic (something rarely acknowledged by supporters). The Labour Together report is remarkably uninformative on the issue of Brexit. It notes there were no good options for the party (true) but offers little attempt to really pursue this or go into detailed discussion of the ways things might have been different (p. 77). We are told the committee considered alternative approaches but are not given a detailed account of the discussions.
There is clearly some truth in the argument that Labour in 2017 fought a positive campaign on social democratic lines and many voters liked what they saw. The problem with this argument is that it then cannot explain why Labour's electoral numbers declined so markedly just two years later. Any analysis of the 2017 result also needs to register that the Conservatives fought the worst ever campaign in its history. The 2017 result was at least as much down to Theresa May and her platform of scorched-earth austerity.
Where the Labour Together report convinces is that the party failed to conduct a serious discussion of why it had done so well in 2017. Andrew Fisher, Labour's Director of Policy, is quoted as saying:
We would put it more strongly: the mis-reading of the 2017 result led to the disaster of 2019. The party did not heed the message of seats like Mansfield which went Conservative in 2017 (and where the Tories achieved an even higher majority in 2019). Labour did well in 2017 but that was when the Red Wall started to crumble. There are now seats such as Bolsover which one could never previously imagine being represented by a Conservative MP but, as of 2019, they are. Some of this was undeniably the result of Brexit but we need to dig deeper into what is going on and into the lives of these voters.
The report mentions that working-class conservatism is not a new phenomenon (p.25). Indeed, it is not and has roots going back to at least the nineteenth century. Part of the political genius of Benjamin Disraeli in the 1870s took the form of appealing to working-class voters in the wake of the franchise being extended in 1867. The book that the report cites on working-class toryism (Angels in Marble by Robert Mackenzie and Allan Silver) is now quite old (1968). It is, however, worth reading if, as we argue, we need to have a revived discussion of popular conservatism. The authors concluded from polling of Labour voters in the mid-1960s that their actual viewpoint was more similar to that of the Conservatives than Labour (though this was a period of consensus politics). What kept them voting Labour was the feeling that it was the party of working people. They warned that if this feeling was ever disrupted then Labour could be in real trouble and political realignment might follow. Historians such as Martin Pugh (The Tories and the People) have enhanced our knowledge of popular conservatism but clearly we need serious studies of popular conservatism in the 21st century. This would include studies of Brexit and UKIP but also the wider mental outlook of conservative voters. The good side of this report is that it acknowledges former Labour voters in the Red Wall constituencies may not have 'leant' their votes to the Conservatives: there is a real possibility this could involve a more long term realignment as there is currently no evidence that they are suffering 'buyer's remorse' (p.136). This last point needs to be a starting point for the modern left.
One of the criticisms of the party's approach in 2019 in the Labour Renewal Project is that it allowed no room for patriotism. This is rather different from the nationalism stoked by UKIP or racist jingoism with its nostalgia for the British Empire which are currently being critiqued. Labour needs to harness the kind of positive patriotism that was evident at the launch ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. This should have come naturally.
Former Labour MP John Denham puts it well: 'Labour does not need to agree with the voters on everything, just that we should not disagree with them on everything' (p. 128). In the Labour Renewal Project we argued for an end to the 'no compromise with the electorate' approach that characterised the Corbyn years where nothing was said about aspiration and the ways it could be harnessed to support progressive causes (Aspiration plus solidarity'). Labour has to look and feel like the people it represents (a problem that developed during the New Labour years).
There was also the problem that Labour's proposals for state intervention never acknowledged that running an effective social democratic state can be difficult. Too often it can produce inflexible bureaucracies which leave citizens feeling disempowered. There is a particularly astute contribution from Labour's economic advisor James Meadway:
We argued in the Labour Renewal Project that Labour failed to recognise that Boris Johnson had spiked Labour's guns by promising more spending. Failure to deal with this was a major strategic failure. But Meadway's point about 'democratic control' is also correct. Labour in the 2020s needs to find more imaginative ways of doing state intervention. This is key to doing progressive politics better.
The report also argues that Labour needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up using a community organising approach. Whilst this is convincing, it is worth saying that this is not the first time the argument has been made. For some time there has been a critique of the way Labour campaigns. Too often it is simply based on voter identification (p.110). There has to be more humility on the part of activists: a feeling that they don't have all the answers and that just possibly some voters who do not necessarily see themselves as left wing might know something. If we want to empower communities (we do), communities need to be part of the conversation. The former MP Richard Burden gets it right:
Finally, it should be noted that the most dramatic finding in the report is one that just a few years would have been seen as utterly unsurprising. The report's Figure 37 (see below) offers a chart based on voters perception of themselves. The majority of voters see themselves as in the centre (or the centre left or centre right). Labour's whole strategy since 2015 has been a denial of this elementary perspective. What follows from this, we are argue, is that Labour has to find ways of uniting the left and the centre. With some figures on the left making fun of 'centrist Dads', this may be difficult but it is the challenge that will have to be overcome. This is the biggest crisis in Labour's history - as big as 1931 and greater than 1983 (when Labour could still reply on Scotland and many of the northern industrial districts). There needs to be real intellectual honesty about what has gone wrong. Labour has to be a broad church - or it will continue to lose. It has to, in the words of the report, offers voters 'realistic hope' (p. 134).
[For comments, I am grateful to Paul Bloomfield, Kelly Boyd, Richard Carr, Jonathan Davis and Tony Taylor].
Source: British Election Study Submission to the Commission, p. 68.