Simon Hannah picks apart the torrent of misdirected recrimination following Labour’s electoral meltdown.
18 December 2019.
Immediately the exit poll came in on Thursday 12 December, Labour hearts sank. After a better than expected result in 2017, a Tory landslide was the last thing people expected.
The sense of shock triggered that most common of Labour Party pursuits, a hunt for someone to blame. After every election defeat, Labour members get the pitchforks and burning torches out and prepare to make sacrifices. Blame someone, anyone, to dull the sense of pain.
Inevitably, Remainers were targeted. The script goes like this. ‘You fucked it up by pushing Labour to support a second referendum!’ People compared the better result in 2017 when Labour was committed to Brexit to the disaster in 2019 when Labour seemed more ambiguous on it.
Easy answers for complex issues. Let’s dig a little deeper to see what really happened.
The Brexit question
The first point to bear in mind is that Labour was pretty unique in the unhappy situation that its voters straddled the Brexit divide. Arguably, Labour was sunk from 2016 onwards – it was impossible to square the circle of pleasing its Remain voters and Leave voters, and that task became ever more impossible the closer we got to Brexit.
And let’s not forget that Labour and every union – with the exception of the Bakers and the RMT – backed Remain in 2016. Then, straight after the referendum, Corbyn called for the immediate invoking of Article 50. There was talk of a ‘Left Brexit’ or a ‘workers’ Brexit’. But Labour was not in power to make those slogans a reality (whatever a ‘Left Brexit’ meant).
Labour went into the 2017 election promising Brexit and ending free movement, but lost. Then Theresa May proposed a Brexit deal that Labour voted down – repeatedly. Labour’s position was still to ‘respect the referendum’, but to many Leave voters its actions looked like an attempt to prevent Brexit.
The only way for Labour to have looked pro-Brexit would have been for the party to have voted for May’s deal when it was first presented. But doing so would have left Labour as handmaiden to a Tory Brexit: a Gordian Knot that couldn’t be cut.
Then the Euro elections happened and Labour got hammered by the Brexit Party on one side and the Lib Dems and Greens on the other. That was even though we went into those elections pledging to ‘respect the referendum’.
The sense that Brexit was going badly was growing. Voices in Labour argued that the party had to shore up the Remain part of its vote. At the September 2019 conference, the leadership proposed a motion for a second referendum as a compromise measure to try and please both party activists and Leave voters. The motion was backed overwhelmingly, to cheers and applause from the assembled delegates, the pro-Remain motion having been defeated.
At no point at the conference did anyone propose sticking to the 2017 position. Not a single union or CLP put in a motion or amendment to that effect. In fact, delegates applauded Corbyn for his apparent masterstroke in shifting to a compromise position.
‘Communities’ can be a reactionary concept
Clearly Labour wanted the election to be about something other than Brexit. Ending homelessness, fighting climate change, re-nationalisation, all these things were floated in the election, but none gained sufficient traction in a swathe of key seats where Brexit dominated the agenda.
Why did it dominate the minds and votes of those people? Because those communities felt abandoned, ignored, and, with the long-term decline of industry and trade unions, people looked to nationalism as an answer to their problems. Britain was in decline, immigrants were coming in, something had to be done. Why should Britain take orders from Brussels or Berlin?
Many commentators have pointed to the compact working-class nature of communities like Bolsover to argue that their anti-Brexit instincts are sound. But the working class was split on Brexit. For every white working-class person in the North who wanted Brexit, you could find a working-class person in Scotland or South London who didn’t want it. How do you decide who is right?
Furthermore, communities made up of people whose industries have been shut down and whose unions have been smashed are not necessarily going to be part of the most radical wing of the working class. That might sound brutal, but it is a simple truth.
Working-class communities can be open and welcoming and militant, or they can be inward-looking, parochial, and discriminatory. That does not mean that people should be ignored by the Left. It means you need a concerted campaign against racism and nationalism as an answer to social problems. Nationalism binds you to your own native bosses – even if it is dressed up in pseudo left rhetoric.
By the time the election came round, a six-week campaign led by someone with chronically low approval ratings couldn’t reverse the last year of Brexit manoeuvres, let alone the 40 years of decline.
Would Labour have won more seats if it had stuck to its 2017 position? Possibly, but it still wouldn’t have won. It might have taken a few more seats with a stronger Remain position. But my guess is that it still wouldn’t have won. Labour went into the election with the position that it had, and it got the result that it got.
Promoting a fantasy: 'Left' Exit.
Lexit was only ever a fantasy
Lexit comrades never really explained what that meant or how it might be achieved. Lexit went from being a slogan, to maybe something like the Norway model, to whatever Brexit we got under Corbyn, to some people advocating a Hard No Deal Brexit even though that would have been an absolutely scandalous act of economic and social self-harm to inflict on working-class communities.
Those advocating Lexit ended up simply demanding that Labour respect the referendum. And Labour did try to do this: the party put forward a Brexit policy of staying in the Customs Union, but this was voted down in Parliament.
What more could we do? We didn’t win the 2017 election, so Labour didn’t have the power to make it happen in government. Labour went into the 2019 Euro elections with a ‘respect the referendum’ position and people still voted in their millions for the Brexit Party.
Lexit-supporting comrades might have wanted us to double down on a Hard Brexit, but at no point did I see a single motion going into Labour Party conference to that effect. The Lexiters should have had the courage of their convictions and actively fought for what they wanted within the party.
In the end Lexit was a stick with which to beat other socialists. It began with the insight that the EU is a bosses club (true), but that seemed to be the beginning and end of all knowledge. It was a moralistic attack on ‘Fortress Europe’, with no clear or honest accounting as to how Britain leaving the EU would in any way help refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
Opposition to Brexit on the Left was not predicated on love for the EU: it was based on an assessment of the balance of class forces and the realisation that Brexit was being pushed by the nationalist-Atlanticist wing of the British Right and disaster capitalists within the ruling class.
A genuine Lexit could only have taken place under a socialist government fighting to implement a radical programme. It could never have been based on a referendum imposed at gun-point by UKIP and where posters warning of mass immigration from Turkey helped sway millions of voters to back Brexit.
The true face of Brexit: a project of the Tory Right.
Corbynism’s weak foundations
People hating on Remainers need also to reflect upon the general collapse of post-war social democracy and some deeper problems. After all, Labour hasn’t won a general election since 1974, except under a right-wing liberal, Tony Blair. All those northern working-class towns voted Blair in 1997, but rejected Corbyn in 2019.
Corbyn got a good vote in 2017, but the Tories got a better one and won the election under a useless leader with a manifesto that attacked their own electoral base. Corbyn was the most unpopular Labour leader since Michael Foot – because, of course, so much of the electorate is persuaded against them by the relentless media offensive (here). We all heard on the doorstep about Corbyn’s alleged pro-IRA views.
Coupled with this is the chronic problem that the unions that used to deliver Labour votes in towns and small cities across the country have shrunk or disappeared. You could detect this prior to the election in media reports on the views of ex-miners in ex-mining towns. These are places where the workers’ movement was defeated in the 1980s and has never recovered.
Labour might have been proud that it had the largest membership of any party in Western Europe and had the affiliation of trade unions with six million members. But that didn't translate into deep roots in working-class communities – the kind you need to win a crucial, generation-defining election. It was a mostly paper membership, not one active in the party or campaigns. And whilst Momentum developed some brilliant apps to mobilise canvassers, these proved to be only technical solutions to political problems.
This is not a cry of despair, but a wake up call. We have to rethink strategies for mass mobilisation and radical change in Britain.
The Tories did exceptionally well by hammering home one key message: Get Brexit Done. They also had some stuff about more nurses and policemen. But they were absolutely monomaniacal about the ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan. That penetrated deeply into people’s consciousness.
In comparison, Labour had so many policies and ideas, but no overall narrative. The campaign slogan was ‘Real Change’, which meant nothing substantial. The Tories played to imperial decline, reactionary communitarianism, and a notion of putting the Great back into Great Britain. By contrast, Labour’s most talked about policy was free broadband.
Blue sirens calling
Inevitably, there is a real danger that Labour, pushed by toy-town Tankies and chronic electoral opportunists, will adopt Blue Labour ideas – a socially conservative communitarian politics with railway nationalisation thrown in.
Such people argue that the way to beat racism and nationalism is to push for a supposed left-wing nationalism and a soft racism which ‘listens to people’s concerns’. This is the view that the Left’s flag shouldn’t be red, the colour of socialism, but red, white and blue, that of a reclaimed Union Jack. The idea that the flag that flew over British soldiers in the colonies of empire can become a symbol of the Left is a profound misunderstanding of socialist politics.
Owen Jones has written powerfully about the dangerous reactionary creep of people like Paul Embery, where some of the most vile and hateful right-wing arguments are dressed up as faux leftism (here).
That is, after all, the easier thing to do. People voted against free movement and being ‘ruled by the Germans’, so give them what they want. This isn’t about people being thick or ‘gammons’, but it is about people’s heads being full of a world view which is profoundly reactionary and needs to be challenged. No good patronising people.
But the internationalist Left has a difficult task, because we understand that we must not appease and adapt to reactionary views, but challenge them and change people’s minds. The British working class desperately needs a global outlook and a socialist viewpoint – to see working-class immigrants not as enemies but as natural allies in a fight against the bosses. These are old arguments that date back decades on the socialist Left. They’ve never gone away. They are as urgent today as ever.
So the inclination to blame Remainers for the defeat on Thursday is also factionally motivated. It is designed to close down space for the internationalist Left. This would represent an echo of the wider shift to the right within our own movement.
Remainers didn’t lose the election. Nothing that happened at the September 2019 conference could have fundamentally shifted the outcome, not after years of decline.
Brexit is a right-wing project, inspired by Nigel Farage, funded by disaster capitalists and delivered by Thatcher wannabe Tories. Labour under Corbyn was simply not trusted to deliver it.
But Brexit won’t help those communities; it won’t make the lives of the people who live in them better, and Johnson won’t make their lives better. This could be the last gasp of Toryism before an economic and climate crisis the like of which we cannot even fathom hits us.
That is why we need to think hard about how to win people to an anti-racist and internationalist politics of genuine socialism. In the face of looming global climate disaster and millions of climate refugees heading our way in the next few years, we have no other choice.
Simon Hannah is a Labour and trade-union activist and author of A Party with Socialists in it: a history of the Labour Left.