A three-parter: 1. The December Election; 2. Where we are Now; 3. What Next.
A Fate Worse than Brexit – The December Election
Everyone – nearly everyone – got it wrong.
The opinion polls got it wrong. Their much-publicised glee at getting the exit poll right – not the most difficult exercise, papered over the lies and fraud of the whole election. They had told us it was increasingly a close-run thing, probably a Tory win but perhaps a hung parliament. Much of the left, including myself and Rebecca Long-Bailey tended towards this outcome.
The right of the LP got it more wrong and now disguise their own role by further denunciation of Corbyn. The Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and their allies in the media were the worst offenders. They hounded Corbyn; they force-fed the anti-Semitism filth; they called for a second referendum; they assumed that ‘Remain’ would be the winner; some of the worst of them resigned. They remain horribly wrong on all counts.
The ‘leftist’ post-election pundits are getting it wrong, mostly baying for some movement towards the mythical centre, despite that that centre also got wiped out or barely registered in the election. Paul Mason and Owen Jones, who both swung like a pendulum over the Corbyn years, now construct rightward critiques: Mason completely loses the plot with some fanciful call for a new centrist unity; Jones claims that we should have campaigned on a Norway-style Brexit and that we don’t have enough bureaucrats and organisers, negating the fantastic shift that young activists have brought towards social media and new campaigning. ‘Few experienced bureaucrats and organisers’ indeed! Jones should look again to Wales where the same bureaucrats have maintained a strangle-hold over the party, distanced themselves from Corbyn with their ‘Welsh Labour’ wrappings and are likely, as a result, to lead us to losing the leadership of the Welsh Assembly. John Harris was never on the side of the left despite the language he uses.
The leave side was dismayed with the conference’s change of position on the second referendum – we should have accepted the result. They were right but, unfortunately, not in such simple terms. Nothing has been simple about the EU.
A Brexit Election
Starmer’s six tests had provided a framework to manage the post-referendum rift: an ongoing relationship with the EU; the ‘exact same benefits’ from the Single Market and Customs Union as now; fair management of migration; defend rights and protections; protect national security; deliver for a regions and nations of the UK.
These conditions could never be met. The rabid Brexiteers leading negotiations on behalf of the May government got nowhere near, hardly leaving the starting line. They achieved virtually nothing in three years and, one after the other, resigned from their task.
Corbyn was more sceptical. He branded the EU as worth 7/10. Starmer’s six tests provided a useful foundation; Corbyn was more explicit – workers’ rights, protection of the NHS, defence of the public sector against EU privatisation options, the addition of the green agenda. This was a sound basis for the resistance to Brexit or, alternatively, to set an agenda for a leave deal.
From day one after the referendum, whilst respecting the result, it was the deal, the shocking implications of Leave, that both sides (of Labour) should have concentrated on. That was the mistake. The pro-EUer’s made it during the referendum and since, including in the December election. First there was complacency, led by Tory Cameron’s call for the referendum on the assumption that he would sort out his anti-EU right wing. Then a total lack of effort (on all sides) to counter the years of media propaganda – the square tomatoes and straight bananas, the ‘political correctness’, the bureaucrats, the ‘frogs’, the Germans and the war. It had been relentless.
The referendum campaign itself was vile, not least with Farage being forced on us from all directions. Yet it was assumed ‘remain’ would win. The shock was that towns like Ebbw Vale voted Leave, despite that their precarious survival before and after steel had been solely down to huge EU financial support. That’s alienation for you.
No-one saw it coming; not Cameron, not Labour (torn both ways already), not British capitalism, and certainly not the Remainers; all were devastated by the result. Many were devastated, disbelieving even more, by the December election result. How could it happen? How could working people, low income families, disabled, the working class of the mining communities, of the north, of north Wales; how could they desert Labour and vote Tory?
We should look at our disbelief for explanations, not ‘turkeys voting for xmas’, not our class inflicting untold damage on themselves. They will need us to stand by them in the weeks, months and years to come.
In short, disbelief is rooted in the complacency of the Remainers. If we shout loud for ‘Remain’ and have a second referendum all will be resolved. History passed its verdict on that theory in December. That pressure, largely from within the PLP, did for Corbyn and for Labour’s election hopes.
Of course there were other factors – the sustained media hostility, the fraudulent anti-Semitism, weaknesses in Labour’s campaign strategy, etc., but the main factor was that Corbyn was the only one that was cautious on Europe; virtually everyone else knew better. Corbyn gave ground under that terrible pressure, and we will all pay the price.
Labour’s campaign assumed that if we presented a comprehensive socialist programme it would swamp what was and is the empty Brexit barrel – a slogan with no substantive content since day one.
This analysis is relatively easy in hindsight.
The full impact of Brexit alienation is visible: how we failed to address it back then and continued to get it wrong into the election. Labour’s ‘muddled’ position: ‘Are you Leave or Remain?’. The party, influenced largely by the PLP and the anti-Corbyn Progress faction, wanted more and more ‘Remain’, a second referendum. Only Corbyn was concerned with our Leave voters. But by then, he and we were making the best of a bad job, a lost cause. On the other hand, the new Tories, the populist nationalist Tories, played on alienation – a very dangerous rebranding indeed.
Back in 2016 and the heady days of 2017, we had a chance. Tens of thousands, inspired by Corbyn, were joining the Labour Party. The 2017 manifesto began to address the real concerns of the class. That programme was developed further, with more thought, care and underpinning, in the run-in to the December election. In amongst that were the reasons to remain in Europe, or to protect if we leave: the defence of rights and regulations, of holidays and leave, of unions, of free-movement, of the environment, of investment in our post-industrial communities, of welfare. It all got lost in the Remain muddle. The Johnson-Cummings single issue campaign rode over the disarray, a disarray that had emerged in 2016. Alienation of the class is rooted decades before.
A second referendum could even have been defended. Accept the result; now it is about the deal.
Could we accept a deal? In truth, whatever the Tories put before us, or not put before us, will be thoroughly unacceptable. Had we argued the case from 2016 we might, only might, have had a chance. But we were served by a hungry media, dining on our Remain hotpot, the side dishes being provided by our own party.
Everything should have been about the headlines and detail of the deal. That could appeal to both leave and remain and focus minds on the substance rather than the propaganda. What, in practical terms, is leaving the EU going to mean to most of us? Just to scratch that surface is a horror story.
Most of all, ‘What’s in the deal?’ could talk to the alienated class in the north and in Wales, those that have fallen victim to Labour’s woes. It may even have had some resonance in Scotland, but that is another kettle of cauliflowers.
For all the efforts to blame Corbyn and the campaign, there is no getting away from the fact that of 54 Labour seats lost, 52 were in Leave constituencies. Back in 2017, Labour had gained its biggest increase in vote share since 1945, and its biggest share since Blair in 1997. Corbyn transformed the party, its politics, its support and its active base. That didn’t just disappear in two years. Yes, it was eroded and the long-discredited ‘first past the post’ electoral system didn’t help.
Back in the Blair years, we should have ditched the Tories for good and revealed the LibDems as their clones, the combined opposition. Heaven knows Clegg and Cable gave us every chance.
Now, after the Scottish debacle, it is Labour that is in danger, having learned little. A leftish social-democratic SNP, if tinged with nationalism, has wiped Labour off the page.
The Scots are fortunate. The danger south of the border is that Tory populism, variants on ‘progressive patriotism’, English nationalism, xenophobia, racism or even fascism will do the job for capitalism. The Labour leadership contest has much responsibility if it is to serve our people.
To be continued…
Gordon Gibson is a Scot, a long-time resident in Wales. He is a Labour member and currently Chair of his local Constituency Party in South Wales.