Quo vadis, Labour Party, Quo vadis?

I am so angry about the Labour Party’s monumental failure in the 2019 General Election: their worst performance since the 1930s.  And, as a life-long leftist, I’m angry about the many millions who will now bear the brunt of what follows, with an un-restrained Conservative Party in power.  Many commentators have said “we didn’t see that coming”?  Really?  That just shows what a ‘bubble’ they inhabit.  And so I am incandescent that the defeat, if not the scale of it, was actually completely predictable, and that it was therefore avoidable.

I predicted the 2016 Brexit Referendum result; I predicted the 2016 election of Donald Trump; I predicted the 2017 Election result, and the ‘demise’ of Theresa May before the Brexit negotiations concluded, and the likelihood of another election soon afterwards.  Now I’ve predicted the 2019 General Election result.  To be honest my predictions haven’t been 100% accurate in their detail, particularly in the scale of the result this time, but in the broad outline they were right.

I joined the Labour Party to enable Jeremy Corbyn to get elected as leader.  I thought then the Labour Party needed to shift its policies to the left, partly because I had seen how the New Labour project had lost ground, especially in Scotland to a more socially radical SNP.  Then I attended a couple of local branch meetings, and it became clear that dissent and debate was not encouraged there: a distinct “you’re either with us or against us, Corbyn right or wrong” atmosphere prevailed.  I left the party, but not before sending an unanswered message to party HQ explaining why.

For more than 2 years I have been saying that Jeremy Corbyn was unelectable, not for his policies but because of his personality and presentation.  I’ve been saying that the Labour Party had 18 months to get themselves into order to fight another election.  When he won the leadership Jeremy Corbyn promised a different approach to Parliamentary business: calmer, kinder, less confrontational.  These were worthy ambitions, but Corbyn repeatedly showed an inability to go for the jugular, to score in an open goal, to show anything approaching street fighting skill.  He was not fleet of foot, and seemed incapable of seeing that a long, detached, closely argued reply to a question left him looking evasive and untrustworthy.  I found myself shouting at him on the TV as often as at some Conservative politician.  He appeared more comfortable in public meetings, but it’s easier to be inspirational with an adoring public.

During the election Jeremy Corbyn said he wasn’t going to join the Conservatives “in the gutter”, but that’s where the fight was won.  When the narrative was about Labour Antisemitism, where was the counter attack on Conservative Islamophobia?  Nowhere.  Of course the Conservative party machine, and its almost exclusively supportive media, was always going to smear him in any way they could.  That’s the real-politik territory: look at what happened to Harold Wilson, Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Tony Benn (though Benn never even got to be leader).  If you are going to rock the establishment that’s what they do.  It’s too simplistic to lay all this at the door of Jeremy Corbyn but he gave them a big fat target which they couldn’t miss, and his detractors inside the Labour Party were happy to allow it to happen.  While Conservative messages about him (and John Macdonald his close ally) filled the media space there was no room for an alternative (or supporting) perspective, there was not enough time or column inches. People apparently need information presented in simplistic form (i.e. so many swimming pools for volume, so many football pitches for area) so it was a mistake to deploy long-winded argument.  The Conservative strategy was to repeatedly use short, punchy, alliteration: “Deadlock, Dither, Delay” while Labour spoke about degraded workers rights and chlorinated chicken. It is no use wishing politics, and the electorate, was different. It just isn’t, and Labour failed to recognise that most people form political opinions from what they see in the tabloids, not the multiple pages of essays in the broadsheets. I’ve said this over and over again: politics is visceral not cerebral. For the majority of the voting public, who don’t study history or politics, and who receive their political information in bullet points and slogans, the Labour campaign required you to think and analyse.  Labour even seemed to abandon their 2017 election slogan “For the many not the few” which had traction then. 

The Labour election manifesto was a disaster partly because it was more than a hundred pages long.  Held aloft in public, and unintentionally redolent of Mao’s little red book, it was easily derided and undermined as an unaffordable wish-list.  It was never presented, in the manifesto, as a framework for a 20 year shift in economic planning with a clear and costed plan for the first 5 year term.  It was, in effect, a manifesto for a movement, not for a parliamentary term.  It seemed the ageing part of the electorate which had, by and large, accepted the rationale of “austerity” and getting the public finances under control, sensed it was unaffordable.  The odd thing about this is that, at the same time as parts of the electorate appeared nervous about public financial thrift, other parts were building record levels of personal debt. Some voters were not able to see the sense in government borrowing (and debt) while they were prepared to fund their private lives that way. Older voters are most likely to fund their ‘lifestyle’ from borrowing against their property – through equity release schemes – but don’t see that form of credit as ‘debt’ either.

In an election where the background was of eviscerated public services, a collapsing NHS, underfunded schools, disintegrating social care, increasing crime and failure to detect, increasing homelessness, increasing use of food banks, and economic stagnation Labour should have been a ‘shoo-in’ and yet, in great swathes of the country, in their hundreds of thousands life-long Labour supporters voted Conservative.  People who would never have given a thought where their cross would go didn’t just stay at home, that’s clear from the turnout figures, they didn’t spoil their papers, they actually voted Conservative.  What does that say about the disconnect between the Labour movement (as in activists and leadership) and the voters? Our house received one small leaflet from Labour, shoved unannounced through the letterbox: we heard and saw nothing else from the campaign locally.

Brexit was a factor, yes, but the Labour party failed to see that sitting on the fence would not do:  it simply persuaded neither side of the argument that the party, if elected, would deliver what they wanted. 

  Now the blame game has started, with Labour supporters and MPs (or ex-MPs) sniping at each other.  As soon as the election was called,  ‘soft left’ Labour MPs jumped ship completely to other parties, some decided to leave politics entirely, but it was noticeable that other more centrist Labour figures, like Keir Starmer, Steven Kinnock, and others who decided to stay, were absent from the national campaign but are now magically reappearing in the media as possible new leaders!  I’m not convinced by any of them.

Boris Johnson, the Conservative leader and now secure Prime Minister, has already acknowledged that these Labour voters may have only lent their votes, because of Brexit.  In the vacuum of a leaderless opposition he is already touring the country to make sure the loan is a long term one, and he may succeed.  At my age, I may now never live to see another Labour Government.  “It’s a shame” doesn’t come close.  I feel betrayed; my collective ancestors must be spinning in their graves.  Shame on you Labour, shame on you.  SHAME ON YOU!!

And, finally, for those who don’t know the opening Latin quotation it translates as “Where are you marching to”.