Various reasons have been put forward as to why Labour lost the recent General Election. Let’s look at some of them.
1. The Labour Party has moved too far to the left. Actually, the policies put forward in the manifesto were far from being extremist. Many of them reflect the current situation in some other European countries, and have also been shown in opinion polls to attract public support. It is a measure of how far the country has moved to the right that such a manifesto could be labelled as extremist. The problem was that the Labour Party never succeeded in shifting the debate onto such policies.
2. The Labour Party has been taken over by metropolitan elites and has lost touch with its core voters. Ever since I’ve been involved in politics (dating back to the 1960s) the Party has been a coalition of people with different backgrounds, and different perspectives – and it remains so. I doubt if an analysis of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would show a significant difference in class background from those of Attlee, Wilson or Blair. But there is some truth in the second part of the above statement. It was apparent in 2017, and even more so in 2019, that the Party has lost a considerable amount of previously automatic support in a number of constituencies. Despite what many pundits are saying, this is not a recent phenomenon. Taking one constituency, Hartlepool, the Labour vote varied between 22,000 and 27,000 in every election from 1974 to 2001. Then it went down to 18,251 in 2001 (Tony Blair’s 3rd victory) and again to 16,267 in 2010 and to 14,076 in 2015 Then it bucked the trend, going up to 21,969 in 2017 (under Jeremy Corbyn). In 2019 it was back down, to 15,464, but this was still higher than achieved in 2015. Nevertheless, it is still far behind the vote achieved in the elections from 1974 to 2001, lending some support to the concept of ‘losing touch with the core voters’, even if that dates back to 2001 rather than recently. In my opinion, this is largely a consequence of the Thatcherite policies of dismantling heavy industry (shipbuilding, steel, coal etc) coupled with the emasculation of the Trade Unions. This has destroyed the social cohesion of these areas. This matters because previously, through those links, the workers in those areas were exposed to a variety of opinions, and discussions, that helped to counter the right-wing propaganda they were fed through the media. So Labour has lost touch with those communities, not through any actions by the Party, but through other factors that the Labour Party has failed to counter. In this context, it can be said that a major failure of the Blair administration was that they did nothing to reverse Thatcher’s anti-Trade Union legislation. In addition, I remember, when I first joined the Party, back in the 1960s, that there were a number of very able people who had missed out on formal education for various reasons, and had worked their way up through the Trades Unions, coupled often with self-education. I suspect that this is less common now, partly because of better educational opportunities (including the expansion of the Universities) – which is obviously a good thing – but also because there are fewer opportunities for ‘working-class’ people to rise through involvement through the Trade Union movement.
3. Brexit. It is undeniable that a large slice of the population was (is) completely fed up with the Brexit issue and wanted it to go away. Hence the success of the ‘Get Brexit done’ slogan. Labour thought that the debate could be shifted onto other issues, but this proved to be impossible. The policy that they (eventually) went into the election with made sense, theoretically, but was open to the criticism that it would prolong the acrimonious debate – which proved crucial. Labour was too ‘nice’ to point out that it was Johnson and his cronies who were responsible for dragging it out so long.
4. Corbyn. JC was subjected to a continuous barrage of abuse and misinformation, which undoubtedly struck home with some electors. Unfortunately, some of this came from Labour MPs and others who claim to be on the same side. It is very difficult to fight an effective campaign when you are repeatedly stabbed in the back by your own side. This factor was present in 2017 as well, but was to some extent countered by the excitement of having someone new who, when they saw him on the television, came over as fresh and different, and not the ogre he was painted out to be. In 2019. JC’s TV performance seemed, to me, to lack that degree of freshness and excitement; he seemed much too cautious. However, it has to be said that he leaves the Party in a much better shape than it was. In this constituency (High Peak) membership has soared, and very many of the new members were out on the streets campaigning – which has helped a lot in sealing any initial differences between the new members and the ‘old guard’ – one of whom commented to me that it was great to have a team of people to help him when he previously had to do it all on his own.
5. Where do we go from here? It would be a serious mistake to shift away from a radical agenda to something more ‘centrist’. Although it is of course important to gain power, it is essential to do something with that power, otherwise it is pointless. And the aim should be to achieve changes that are essentially irreversible. The Attlee administration achieved this with the establishment of the NHS (the Tories are still only nibbling at the edges), although many of their other changes were subsequently reversed., as were most of the radical measures of the Wilson years. The Blair governments (for all their faults) did achieve that with the Nation Minimum wage. But for an extensive and long-lasting shift in the power balance in the UK we have to look at the Thatcher years – de-industrialisation, sale of Council houses, anti-Trade Union legislation – all of these changed the nature of British society in a way that we are still struggling to cope with. So I hope that Jeremy Corbyn’s successor will be elected in a comradely manner, and that s/he will carry on the good work of developing a radical, socialist agenda – and that the Parliamentary Labour Party (and other major figures in the Labour movement) will pull together to re-establish Labour as a dominant force in the country.