I’m a socialist but I’m sick of losing. A call for introspection in the Labour party is inevitably viewed as a euphemism for a return to the politics of New Labour, but it has been 45 years since a Labour leader who wasn’t Tony Blair won an election. The most recent defeat necessitates an inquest that isn’t over-shadowed by a pointless tribal battle between Corbynism and Blairism. In their own ways, both have now been rejected. The party is shell-shocked. The only meaningful vehicle of British progressive politics has been left a sad drunk, cowering in the remaining small and dark corner of the House of Commons, murmuring incoherently about Brexit policy and Laura Kuenssberg. So caught in our own flawed and tired narratives and the search for excuses we again risk failing to identify the real causes behind our worst defeat since 1935.
The choice to make now is whether we preserve our moral sanctity in exchange for actually assisting people in the daily grind of life. Child poverty, homelessness, illiteracy fell dramatically under the last Labour government. All are now on the rise. We can listen and analyse or stand firm, but with our heads buried deep in the sand. The latter approach feels symptomatic of an attitude that treats politics like a game, that must maintain its grip on self-righteous principle instead of ceding ground in appreciation of the impact this government will have on real people for the next five years. Not for one moment should we submit to racism, xenophobia or some misguided law and order agenda. But we have to look at ourselves first.
The British media is right-wing. That is the case and has always been the case. It is unfair, undemocratic and a severe hindrance to the progressive cause. Obviously this needs acknowledgment, but doing so is not a policy in itself and can no longer be an excuse. It can be overcome by effective and disciplined messaging. Rupert Murdoch’s monopoly over the media is not impenetrable. Two-time Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, an arch-critic of Murdoch, achieved a majority government despite Murdoch owning 80% of the print media in his home country. Social media presents Labour with an opportunity to circumvent the stranglehold the corrosive influence that oligarchs and billionaires hold, as more and more people get their news solely via this medium. Instead it is another death-pit of damaging in-fighting.
If necessary it is worth remembering that in 1997 New Labour had the support of the Murdoch-backed press, something they worked hard for. Of course this makes us uncomfortable. But what difference does that make to single mothers to whom Sure Start was a lifeline, or to the those enjoying peace in Northern Ireland. Was this compromise worth it for the same-sex couples who for the first time had adoption rights extended to them and were allowed to express their love for each other via civil partnerships? This is the same administration that took £5 Billion from private utility firms to pay for a new state welfare system and the same government that openly supported free movement and multiculturalism – yet retained the support of much of the mainstream media. Leadership and presentation make a difference.
Left-wing attacks on the BBC are damaging in the long-term. The only purpose they serve is to evidence the increasingly-hysterical confirmation bias that comes with greater polarisation. The BBC manages to be simultaneously too Leave, too Remain, too right-wing and too left-wing. Progressives sulk on twitter while Johnson plans to revoke the license fee. To see what happens to political discourse without an institution committed to equal coverage, have a glance across the Atlantic. The obsession with Kuenssberg, whilst for some simply a vehicle for thinly-veiled misogyny, is a red herring that distracts from the serious presentational problems that the Corbyn leadership developed.
The most serious of these problems, but crucially not the only, was the strategy on Brexit. Corbyn’s position of neutrality was weak and reinforced perceptions of him as untrustworthy. But the failure on Brexit was part of a wider problem in the left’s diagnosis and messaging since the referendum result. The vote has been viewed exclusively in the context of the global wave of right-wing populism that has been such a scourge on this decade. To an extent this is accurate, and the Leave campaign certainly tapped into frustrations about falling living standards, rising immigration, and the perpetual fear of Britain’s declining place on the world stage.
But the agenda that these anxieties were exploited to serve has not received nearly enough attention. The Conservative desire to leave the European Union is a simple ode to Thatcherism; to a deregulated, low-tax, low-wage economy – ‘Singapore on Thames’. This is the angle Remain and the left should have taken against Johnson’s Brexit deal. Whatever you think of the strategy, it is important to note how the analysis and messaging on the biggest issue of our generation was flawed to begin with.
This failure to articulate a response to match the populist right is indicative of a broader problem with the left in this country and abroad. Progressive analysis of recent defeats and right-wing success focuses too extensively on the crash of 2008 and the nationalist waves which followed. The realignment of British politics that occurred last week has been long in the making. Brexit was a catalyst but the structural shifts have been underway for generations. A decline in trade union membership has coincided with a shift in the old allegiance between the Labour party and the traditional manual working class. Deindustrialisation has led to a loss in high-status, well paid jobs; jobs that the Labour party was established to protect. A decisive shift to a service-sector economy, held afloat by a rise in insecure and badly-paid jobs has raised difficult questions about working-class identity. Whilst wages and living conditions have stagnated in post-crash, austerity Britain, the Labour Party has been unable to articulate a response to the cultural impacts of globalization, as much as the economic. The inequality between the north and the south continues to be an issue, but has been overtaken in magnitude by the inequalities between cities and rural areas.
The next leader of the Labour Party has to be able to identify and begin to solve these problems. Wider and deeper analysis and more compromise has to be at the centre of the project. But more importantly the left needs to escape the damaging tribalism that has allowed the Conservative Party to become the most successful political machine in the western world. For the sake of the country, the stubbornness and lack of introspection that has followed this defeat cannot continue.
By Abe Armstrong