TL:DR The lessons from #GE19 are that progressive parties need to build a coherent story about fairness: about share of the planet, share of the money, and share of voice.
Ballot boxes waiting to be distributed. Photo by Hull CC News.
1. It was catastrophic.
The consequences for the people who’ve already suffered from a decade of austerity and five years of English nationalism are not likely to be good. The war on the disabled will likely continue; homelessness will continue to rise; the number of racist attacks will likely increase; what little is left of the safety net will be further cut away. Stormzy isn’t the only person in the country who thinks the result is like “a dark cloud”. I could be wrong about some of this, of course, but that’s what the probabilities are. Unlike football, politics is a matter of life and death.
2. Unpacking the reasons for this are more complicated than the commentariat would have you believe.
Especially: they can’t be condensed into a tweet. (I’m looking at you, David Miliband, Fiona Millar, and Philip Collins, to name three that randomly popped up in my Twitter feed on Friday morning).
3. The left and the Remain movement got played on the election timing.
At least part of this election was a “Brexit election,” as Sky News has insisted for the past five weeks. Lots of people have offered advice on how Labour should have played this differently, but given their base they always had to find a way to speak to both Remain and Leave voters.
My personal view is that the position where they ended up was the right position, but they took far too long to get there. In other words, a Second Referendum in which Corbyn would remain neutral (as Harold Wilson did) was not a foolish position, given the base. I’m not sure they needed to complicate it by promising to renegotiate the Brexit deal first–after all, a British government had spent three years getting to that Withdrawal Agreement.
But the critical problem was timing. There was a period around late 2018 to early 2019 (I haven’t gone back to check the dates) where the whole political position around Brexit crystallised, and Labour didn’t respond, and as Paul Mason observed, that allowed other parties to misrepresent Labour’s views, with damaging effects to its voter base.
4. The sequencing mattered.
The SNP and the LibDems have to take some responsibility here. Instead of agreeing an election in which Brexit was always going to be a fault line, the Opposition should have left Johnson twisting in the wind until he agreed to separate out the decision on Brexit from the election. Tony Blair was right about this.
5. Jo Swinson does not have a single strategic bone in her body.
Yes, it made sense for the LibDems to chase the socially progressive, fiscally conservative voters who had been left stranded by the Conservatives’ rightward lurch. But her naked hostility towards Corbyn was foolish. History is full of moments when allies who detest each other collaborate on shared interests (Churchill and Stalin, for example). There were points during the autumn where she could likely have got Labour to support issues that matter to thee LibDems (such as democratic reform). But she played this hand badly by drawing all sorts of red lines early and publicly.
6. Labour’s anti-semitism “scandal” or “issue” or “problem” was always clearly also about something else.
On the actual issue, the free Verso ebook is worth reading. But the anomalies are more striking. A poll where respondents thought that 30% of Labour party members were anti-semitic, when the actual number is 1-3%, lower than the other main parties; when people prefer an actual published racist in office, rather than a life-long anti-racist campaigner; where Jewish religious leaders construct a fear of Labour activists as against the objectively more dangerous members of the far right who are also emboldened in their racism by Brexit-related rhetoric. When all these things are true, there is something more going on.
In this case, given that the anti-semitism line of attack stated at scale in 2017, it seems likely that it was part of a process of “othering,” documented by Simon Wren-Lewis, to deal with a radical Labour politician who couldn’t be attacked for reasons of greed, hypocrisy, etc. The interests of Israel, faced with a pro-Palestinian leader, and the British right and its newspapers, coincided. In Haaretz, Gideon Levy says a “it was clear that the closer Corbyn came to being elected prime minister, the harsher the conflict would get.” One effect was to drive down his approval ratings, a critical factor in electability.
7. The media that cared didn’t know how to handle the Conservatives’ ‘post-truth’ strategy.
Obviously those newspapers such as the Telegraph that have become part of the far-right propaganda project didn’t care. They have abandoned any tenuous hold on the idea that journalism is part of a public sphere that informs and scrutinises to become full-time cheerleaders for the project. That’s a problem, but a declining one: the sector is in decline, and newspapers are mostly read by the old (see 8, below).
One bigger problem is that broadcasters do not treat the papers as if they are propaganda organisations. They do round-ups of “what the papers say,” because they always have, without the briefest moment of self-reflection, and they continue to follow the agenda of set by these papers, again without taking a good long hard look at themselves.
A second bigger problem is that broadcasting in the UK was set up in thee spirit of the Enlightenment. It believes that politics is constructed as a space where arguments are made and tested, and the better argument wins. Faced with a political party that lies repeatedly, even after these lies are called out, or choose not to appear at potentially difficult events, they have no strategy. They need to fix this quickly.
8. The long Conservative process of radicalising the young continues.
It started with the increase in student fees, continued through the Brexit negotiations, and the young people seems to have noticed. The age skew by party remains one of the strongest gradients in social research. This is a cohort effect, not a lifestage effect, and is one of the reasons why the Conservatives are in structural decline. A lot of these votes are in the wrong place, which is why it took 38,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP and 50,000 to elect a Labour MP (much more, of course, for the LibDems and the Greens).
One effect is that the political divide between the city and the country, seen across the rich world, is getting stronger. People talk nonsense about this being about “identity politics.” It is actually an economic effect. It is the outcome of a long-term economic shift towards a services economy from a manufacturing economy, and the types of labour that this economy requires, combined with a decline in the real wages of younger people, and the way they have been loaded with debt and squeezed out of housing markets. Phil Burton-Cartledge has a more sociological analysis of this.
9. All the commentary since the election has been about the “working class” vote.
They are actually talking about a specific part of the working class that is older, whiter, and lives in parts of the country that have been de-industrialised and are in decline. It says something about the desperation of places that were eviscerated socially and economically by the Conservatives in the 1980s that they should vote for a party that is even more hawkish than Thatcher’s party. New Labour’s bright and shiny excitement about ‘globalisation’ and ‘modernisation’ didn’t help, even if it was tempered with social funding on things like SureStart and the Education Maintenance Allowance.
I read this as the Brexit effect in the election–leaving aside the Brexit party’s role in offering a home to Labour voters who couldn’t bring themselves to vote Conservative. The Leave vote in these constituencies (unlike the Leave vote in the South) was a howl of pain about neglect from constituencies that haven’t been listened to in 30 years. As Ian Christie suggested to me, the efficacy of campaigning on ‘Get Brexit Done’, and not much else, is that it said to these communities, “We’re still listening to you”. It’s hard to see how a party with a majority base of Remain supporters could have matched that.
But it also implies that this coalition of voters is a temporary one that could be easily disappointed, for example by the way Brexit turns out. Unlike in 1979, when the right offered a new story about Britain that people saw as a way out of crisis, the present Conservative party is running on fumes.
10. All of this suggests that there is a way back from Labour, but it takes work.
One of the problems of having policies that go against the grain of elite thinking is that they need to be underpinned by a narrative, and narratives need to be built over time. Otherwise, as in #GE19, the policies look like sweets at a pantomime being hurled to the audience. As Ronan Burtenshaw put it in Tribune on the morning after the result:
[T]his list of policies, when combined, came across as a retail offer. Simply more and more things. Without a uniting vision that could really sell them, without telling the story of the Labour society. Not well enough. And people, fundamentally, didn’t believe us.
Britain faces several crises: at the top of the list is a climate emergency and a low wage, low investment, low productivity economy (one of the reasons for stagnating real wages for a decade). It’s not 1997 any more. As Chris Dillow has observed, Labour is the only party with an economic strategy that tries to address these deep structural problems.
There are two narratives that sat behind the Labour policies. The first is some of the building blocks of Universal Basic Service–such as free high speed broadband–to improve social cohesion and try to rebuild the safety net. The second is the Green New Deal. The Green New Deal is both a carbon strategy and an economic strategy that should also distribute jobs and investment to the declining areas that voted Conservative this time around.
The policies that sit behind this are individually popular when tested, but they haven’t been joined up as part of an overall story about rebuilding a fairer Britain. The fact that all other political discourse has been drowned out by Brexit doesn’t help. One of the strengths of the Green New Deal is that it has radical effects, and it is hard to oppose it without looking like a climate denier. This isn’t just a Labour agenda. It’s a progressive agenda. So it also requires that Labour–not before time–stops being so tribal.
Building this narrative requires engaging communities in the possibility of change. One of Labour’s strengths is the energy that Momentum has brought over the past four years. And as an aside, I’m sick of seeing Labour centrists who presided over a steep decline in membership complaining about a group that has actively attracted and energised new younger members.
11. And then there’s the democratic crisis.
This post is already too long, but if the first crisis is about share of the planet, and the second crisis is about share of the money, this crisis is about share of voice. People hate the feeling of powerlessness they get from being unheard. our broken political institutions, but that benefits the elite because people respond by tuning out of politics. The Conservatives have already followed the Republican playbook by promising, in their manifesto, to squeeze share of voice harder. Adam Ramsay has made this argument better on Open Democracy than I will:
Labour’s proposals could be summarised as a core argument: we will use politics to make your life better. But if people don’t believe in the political system, they won’t trust you. Corbyn should have raged against elite rule, and promised a new democracy, by the people, for the people. He should have tapped into the anti-systemic energy.
Share of voice taps into an idea of fairness that people understand. To get there requires, again, less tribalism. But we won’t resolve the other two crises without it.