This post includes a blueprint for Labour’s future. You’re probably not going to like it. If you’re on the right of the party you won’t like where we’re going. If you’re on the left of the party you might not like how we’re going to get there. Crucial to understanding the journey is understanding where we’re starting from. It’s probably not where you think it is.
First, though, it’s really important that we get things in perspective. I keep hearing from the Tories, the BBC and Labour centrists, about how this was Labour’s worst result since the 1930s. That’s all bullshit though. The fact is that this was Labour’s worst result since…2015.
That’s right. Last month Labour attracted 32.1% of the vote. In 2015, under Ed Miliband, Labour took 30.4% of the vote – in 2010 Gordon Brown managed 28.1%. So let’s not have any of this ‘worst result since the 30s’ nonsense. In terms of vote share, the 2019 General Election result was better for Labour than any of the last four elections – except for Corbyn’s performance in 2017. The reward in seats was poor, but unless someone has a plan for winning perfectly distributed votes across 326 constituencies we just have to try to win as many votes as possible and find some other way of dealing with the undemocratic nature of FPP (see below).
The Tory ‘landslide’ was an increase of 329,881 votes – equivalent to around 0.6% of the electorate. This minor adjustment in voting behaviour caused a seismic shift in parliamentary seats illustrating (yet again!) that our electoral system is not fit for purpose. For their increase in votes of 0.6%, they were rewarded with an increase of 48 seats – 7% of the 650 available. The Liberal Democrats gained 1.4 million votes – more than three times the Tory gain – and ended up with one fewer seat than they’d started with.
If this was the Brexit election, it failed to provide any kind of mandate for anything even vaguely resembling Johnson’s plan. With the Tories on 43.6% and Farage’s Brexit Company Ltd on 2% the Get Brexit Done parties managed less than 46% of the vote. The other 54% of votes went to parties supporting a third referendum or cancelling the whole thing. The largest ‘third referendum’ party was Labour whose referendum would not offer the option to leave the Single Market or the Customs Union (since there has never been a mandate for either).
What can we take from this?
Well for one thing, despite the devastating prospect of five more years of incompetent and inhuman Tory rule and the crowing from Johnson, Cummings, Kuenssberg and the rest of Conservative Central office, we can take heart that we live in a country where most people didn’t fall for the lies or vote for the liars. Most people who voted put their cross next to the name of a non-sociopath. Remember that when people say that we deserve what we’re getting ‘because we voted for it’.
What are we trying to achieve?
The aim here is not to get the Labour Party elected. The aim is to improve society. To make the lives of those whose lives are least bearable, more bearable. To lift us up out of the mire, away from the iniquitous and divisive dog-eat-dog mess that we’ve become, so that we can all look forward to a brighter future. While getting the Labour Party elected provides a means to that end, then all well and good, but winning elections is not an end in itself, and those advocating a shift away from the left would do well to remember that. There’s no point getting elected if you’re only going to do what the Tories would have done anyway, or hold the fort temporarily until they get back in and resume the destruction of the country. On the other hand, there’s no point restricting our approach in such a way as to consign us to permanent opposition, powerless to put principles into practice. What we need is a firmly left-wing programme, with a realistic long-term strategy to bring it to fruition. The question is not who is good and who is evil, but what is the most efficient way to best serve the principles of helping those most in need, and moving us all forward into a better society.
The obvious answer, the only answer, the urgent answer is that we need to get the Tories out. That is all. If we do that, we can have a sit-down and a nice cup of tea and embark on a conversation about what comes next, and while we’re doing that people’s lives won’t be made more miserable with every passing day. Tories out – then we can think about the other stuff.
But hang on, I hear you cry, we’ve been trying to get the Tories out for 9 years, it’s not as simple as that. Not true though, is it. We (the Labour Party) have been trying to win elections for nine years – for 119 years in fact. But getting the Tories out and winning elections aren’t necessarily the same thing. Remember that we’re trying to achieve a better society, not a Labour government. We might all agree that a Labour government is the best way to achieve a better society, but it’s still only a means to an end, not the end in itself. We need to think strategically rather than tactically.
Back to the Blairite Future?
The Blairites, centrists, right-wing of the party, whatever you want to call them, are keen on the idea that a left-wing manifesto is unelectable, that Blair – for all his faults – did win three elections and if we want to win elections then we have to offer a Blairite, centrist manifesto. It doesn’t take much digging to find the flaws in this approach. For one thing Labour’s 40% vote share in 2017 was considerably higher than Blair’s 35.2% for his 60 seat majority in 2005, and a fag-paper short of his 40.7% which produced a massive 176 seat majority in 2001. What we lacked in 2017 was not a sufficient share of the vote, but a geographical distribution that was optimally aligned to the undemocratic nature of the electoral system.
The Changing Landscape
The simplistic demand for a shift to the right in pursuit of a return to Blair-era majorities also ignores the changing nature of the electorate. In the three elections under Blair the combined vote of the SNP and the Green Party never topped 2.5%, but in the last three elections has averaged over 6.5%. The SNP component of that is particularly important – its geographical concentration is such that it translates into dozens of seats for under 4% of the vote. Forty-eight seats at the 2019 election, many of which were traditionally Labour seats and whose loss predates Labour’s move back to the left under Corbyn – so a simple return to the centre isn’t going to win them back. It’s really important that we recognise the scale of this change. While it illuminates a giant hole in the Blairites’ argument for moving back to the centre, it also illustrates the size of the task in front of a left-wing approach. The next election isn’t just there for the taking. We need a different, more imaginative approach. All of this is obviously exacerbated by the split right through the party over Brexit…
The Brexit effect
For the Labour Party Brexit came at a time when the membership had just elected a leader with whom they agreed on almost every policy – except for Brexit…! This disjunction reflected the wider problem that Brexit caused for the Labour Party. With large chunks of Labour’s support threatening to jump ship one way or the other Labour – and Corbyn in particular – were stuck between a rock and a hard place. What was needed was a creative solution, followed by a clear message. (For what it’s worth my approach can be found here, but it’s obviously outdated now). Unfortunately, Corbyn – and the party – dithered and allowed the press to paint us as leavers to remainers and as remainers to leavers, costing us votes at both ends.
The Brexit divide may have been decisive in this election, but
some of the problems it revealed – in terms of Labour’s electability – had been
bubbling under for decades. The idea of northern industrial Labour heartlands
was already out of date by the time Blair handed over to Gordon Brown. Blair
had inherited a host of traditional Labour seats and managed to combine them
with a more aspirational, middle-England constituency and this unlikely
alliance lasted while neither group had reason to look elsewhere. With
Thatcherism fresh in the mind, traditional Labour voters tolerated the Blairite
obsession with focus groups and sharp suits – the Tories were not an option. On
the other hand, the smooth media machine and willingness to break with Labour
traditions brought approval from Murdoch which translated into support from
centrist and uncommitted former Tory voters sensing a competence that had
deserted the Tories – jaded and complacent after 18 years of unshakable
majorities. Many of us who don’t fit into either camp voted for nuLabour
because it was the only Labour on offer.
Following the global financial crash, Murdoch deserted Labour – if he didn’t blame Labour for the crash, he’d have to blame the banks, and we know that was never going to happen. The narrative that the party was somehow responsible for the situation that crashed economies from Iceland to Japan was allowed to take hold. Labour’s support slumped to 29% under Gordon Brown in 2010.
As well as the SNP and Green Party more than trebling their vote share between 2010 and 2015 largely at Labour’s expense, we were also haemorrhaging votes to UKIP in this period. This was largely concealed at the time as the party was simultaneously winning over swathes of Clegg’s 2010 LibDem voters, disgruntled at the Tory coalition in general and the u-turn on student finance in particular. The Brexit effect after 2017 was not only to accelerate and amplify these Labour losses to the populist anti-EU right, but to drain us of recent converts who flocked back to the LibDems and their firm anti-Brexit stance.
And now, after Thatcher, Blair and Brexit we’ve moved so far to the right that it’s a long, long way back. The 2017 election shows that there is a decent support base for a left-wing manifesto but it also shows us that given the current strength of the SNP (and the geographically concentrated nature of their support), that base is no longer enough to get the Labour Party back into power. Not only is a slide back to the right undesirable in its own terms, but it’s also a flawed approach to either of the aims of getting a Labour government or bringing about improvements in people’s lives. The political landscape has changed. As well as the rise of the SNP and the Green Party, many of those core voters in the Labour heartlands are gone for good now. They’re not going to be lured back by the party making itself into pale imitation of Cameron’s Tories or a cut-price UKIP.
What Labour needs now is to nurture the existing seeds of its transformation into a forward-looking, socialist party for the 21st Century. We need to embrace technology and the possibilities it brings for our relationships with work, leisure, education and health. And we need to invest in the future of the country.
So what do we aim for?
In the long-term, a democratic socialist model in which society is regarded as a public good and most people recognise their reliance on and obligations to each other. Sounds great, but it’s pretty vague – how do we get there? Well, we need:
In the medium term, a sustained period of freedom from Tory rule in which – as part of a broad coalition if necessary – we bring a currently sceptical public on a journey of gaining confidence in a progressively socialist approach to the economy and society. Where public spending is seen as investment, rather than interference. This also gives our MPs much needed governmental experience and lets the electorate see what they are capable of. (How many current Labour MPs have Cabinet experience?) Many on the left view any coalition as a compromise, but we should see it as an opportunity. Public understanding of what we are trying to do isn’t there yet. We need to bring people with us. A sustained period of Tory-free government could see the Overton window shifting back to somewhere reasonable. Imagine a future where discussions about Universal Basic Income or Modern Monetary Theory are not conducted in tabloid headlines about scroungers and magic money trees. In order for this to happen, we need…
In the short term – given the political realities of our current situation – an electoral front. An anti-Tory electoral pact, for one election, the last FPP election in the UK, to be shortly followed by our first democratic General Election. Again, many in the Labour movement have long viewed such an act as a compromise. It’s no such thing. It’s a pragmatic move to get the Tories out of government to stop them fucking up the lives of the people of this country, which is – or should be – item number one on our list of priorities. Following this one-off electoral pact, PR would be introduced, the Tories will then only ever be able to form a government when they get more than fifty per cent of votes, which is never and we can all breath a huge sigh of relief and get on with the future.
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