James Anderson offers the second part of his two-part analysis of Labour’s election defeat. The first can be found here.
18 March 2020.
The not-so-good news is that Labour’s much more serious problem was the division in the leadership group around Corbyn, the real cause of many of his problems, and there is a real danger it could continue to do damage.
It was on display in the post-mortem re-fighting of the election – some leadership figures still arguing that a whole-hearted Remain stance would have won it, others saying the same for Leave. Unfortunately, this division is much more than a straightforward disagreement about the difficult if not impossible problem they had of trying to keep Remain and Leave voters on board.
A section of the leadership group, most notably Ian Lavery, the Party Chairman, Len McCluskey, the head of the Unite union, Corbyn’s main financial backer, and some immediate advisers, Seamus Milne, Karie Murphy, and Andrew Murray, were themselves confirmed Leavers. They have been left-wing Brexiteers, or Lexiteers, for decades, some of them since they supported Tony Benn and Michael Foot’s Leave position in the 1983 General Election, others since the Common Market debates of the 1970s.
No doubt some of them were responsible for Labour’s cardinal error of not thoroughly attacking Johnson’s phoney promise of quickly getting Brexit ‘done’, an absolute necessity if they were to have any chance of shifting the debate on to manifesto policies (where, incidentally, the single-issue Tories were threadbare).
But, like Johnson, the Lexit leadership figures also wanted Brexit ‘done’ (though preferably not by him). Presumably they thought that attacking the slogan would sound too pro-Remain, too anti-Leave.
In fairness, they had a point. Labour in 2017 had been supported by roughly twice as many Remain as Leave voters, and in 2019 it may have lost more Remain votes to the Lib Dems and Greens (mostly wasted votes) than it lost Leave votes to the Tories. Nevertheless, the more obvious danger – and it was already clear some weeks before the election – was that Leave votes going Tory were much more likely to mean Labour losing actual seats, and so it proved.
The politics of Lexit
Lexit is widely perceived as ‘ultra-leftist’, and Lexiteers are certainly proud of their leftism, rightly so on most other issues. But just what is particularly ‘left’ about Lexit is highly debatable.
It is instructive that no less an authority than Lenin – admittedly in very different circumstances – saw ultra-leftism as ‘an infantile disorder’. In my opinion, Lexit is indeed ‘ultra-left’ and ‘infantile’, but with the extra, contradictory twist that it stems not from Marxism but from Marxism’s perversion in the Stalinist notion of ‘Socialism in One Country’ and the British Communist Party’s version, the ‘British Road to Socialism’.
It was heavily infused with earlier British nationalism, which from the 18th century onwards was formed in direct opposition to the major European powers, Spain, France, and Germany. It developed as an imperialist and also an anti-Catholic and ‘anti-Europe’ nationalism. One of its main expressions in the 19th century was opposition to Irish immigrants, which Marx and Engels saw as the Achilles Heel of the English working class. Sounds familiar, but it’s a longer story.
One thing we can say here for sure is that Brexit divides the Left like everyone else. Supporting it is no badge of leftism. The just-as-left-wing John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, and others in the leadership group around Corbyn were equally confirmed Remainers.
The vote on Brexit has of course been settled. But the type of Brexit – the terms of any new trade deal with the EU, and relations with the Irish Republic, the member state most directly involved – could take years to ‘get done’.
Here Labour’s Lexit divisions could well live on, and also in such related issues as immigration and British and Irish geopolitics, most notably Scotland’s independence and Ireland’s re-unification. And this is particularly worrying because Labour has now twice come unstuck, in different ways, through its mishandling of nationalist geopolitics, right-wing Labour at fault with Scotland, Lexiteers with Brexit.
And on immigration, some Lexiteers (e.g. Len McCluskey) have a history – and a present – of making nationalistic concessions to the right, which might adversely effect the crucial issue of Labour’s future policy direction.
The Labour leadership election
The leadership contenders might repeat the mistakes. Rebecca Long-Bailey favours ‘progressive patriotism’ – it sounds better perhaps than the other sort, but what does it mean?
Lisa Nandy, in discussing how Labour might defeat Scotland’s ‘narrow divisive’ nationalism, quite incredibly suggested looking to the Madrid government’s ruthless treatment of Catalonia for lessons. Unaware its crisis was ‘made in Madrid’ by the right-wing, Francoist, and counter-productive nationalism of the Spanish state, she was not surprisingly seen in Scotland as ‘clueless’.
Keir Starmer is clever enough not to say anything quite so stupid, but where Scotlandis concerned his federal solution for the UK is a smoother expression of the same imperial British nationalism spouting its stuff after the horse has bolted.
And Starmer-supporting journalist Paul Mason – who should have known better – could not resist a nationalistic slur when attacking the Catholic Long-Bailey’s personal and unexceptional views on abortion. ‘I don’t want Labour’s policy on reproductive rights dictated by the Vaticanthanks,’ he declared – despite her agreeing with Labour’s policy and not calling for changes.
Spanish riot police attack Catalan demonstrators. Nandy's model for Scotland?
Questions for Labour
Labour went into the Referendum in 2016 in favour of Remain, the position of the majority of members. Its minority Lexit faction, however, was at best lukewarm where not openly favouring Leave, something of which Corbyn himself was accused, though in fact he voted Remain. Certainly, Labour could and should have argued the Remain case more convincingly.
What Corbyn actually wanted, with John McDonnell and others, was ‘Remain and Reform’ – to remain in the EU but combining with continental colleagues to force it to shed its neoliberalism, similar to what they wanted for the UK
But this was seen as ambivalence and not good enough for enthusiastic Europhiles with their idiotic ‘I love the EU’ approach (‘loveable’ is especially inappropriate for an EU that had recently shafted Greece and allowed refugees to drown in the Mediterranean). The ambivalence convinced some that Labour could be blamed for the Leave victory.
In reality, the Referendum was a Tory answer to a Tory problem – a botched ‘solution’ to that party’s own poisonous internal divisions on Europe, and it then spread the poison to the whole country. Ever since John Major had his problems with his Euro-sceptic ‘bastards’ in the 1990s, it has been clear that Brexit was first and foremost a right-wing Tory project.
This, it is important to note, is very different from the situation in 1975, or even 1983, when there was a distinct and significant left-Labour and Communist Party Lexit initiative around an ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ for Britain – whatever you may think of its nationalistic politics. In contrast, the Lexiteers of 2016 were little more than piggy-backing on a concerted right-wing Brexit campaign which had been rumbling on in the Tory Party for a quarter of a century. What were they thinking?
The answer is probably ‘not much’. They – and indeed the British Left in general – gave every impression of not having thought about the EU at all for two decades or more. Membership was settled, the EU barely surfaced.
And when it came to the Referendum, most people expected that Remain would win, so it was possible to make the gesture of voting Leave for whatever reason without expecting to have to live with the consequences (something which also applied on the right, arguably to the DUP for instance, which stupidly voted against its own unionist interests).
Why did Labour agree to the Referendum when it was first mooted by the Tories? After all, a clear majority in the party favoured Remain, and Labour had nothing to gain from a referendum. Was Labour under the influence of Lexit?
Then, when it was held, Labour had no option but to ‘respect the result’. Or did it? Perhaps holding to its position of Remain and Reform was the only way it could, just conceivably, have achieved the near-impossibility of winning the election, or at least avoiding giving Johnson an 80-seat majority?
Lexiteers were quick in arguing the Leave result had to be respected, though this was a widely held view, including by many Labour Remainers and others, like Vince Cable of the Lib-Dems.
In part, it was a valid assessment – especially in the wake of Clinton’s remark about ‘deplorables’ – that anything seen as dismissive of Leave voters would be counter-productive. But there was actually a lot to dis-respect about the Referendum itself, as distinct from the voters (though the distinction was perhaps too subtle for an election campaign).
Labour could in theory have come out quickly with a full-frontal assault on the whole process as mis-managed by David Cameron and George Osborne, particularly attacking the systematic deceits and blatant lies of the Leave campaign run by Dominic Cummings (the £350 million a week that would instead go to the NHS on leaving the EU, the millions of Turks about to arrive if we did not leave, the Goebbels strategy of ‘the big lie’ much in evidence), plus the antics of Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks.
But the Remain side was itself already compromised by some very exaggerated and ill-advised predictions, if not outright untruths, about Brexit effects on the economy from Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Cummings had already proved a referendum winner in opposing a regional assembly for his own area, North-East England; and he was an expert in keeping it simple and going for the jugular (in this and other respects the opposite of Corbyn).
But Labour should and could have demolished his phoney ‘Take Back Control’ slogan, pointing out that Britain’s lack of democracy is almost entirely home-grown, its first-past-the-post ‘winner takes all’ system in a multi-party situation making it Western Europe’s most undemocratic system. (Ironically, UKIP was the most spectacular victim, gaining over 3 million votes and not a single extra MP.)
Perhaps with a concerted and early campaign after the Referendum, Labour might have persuaded many of its Leave voters that a second referendum really was needed, and at the same time gained Remain voters from the Lib-Dems and the Greens? Perhaps it could have become an unambiguously Remain party and avoided Corbyn having to ride two horses at once?
But with Corbyn pre-occupied fighting off the Labour right and reliant on support from Lexiteers, such a hypothetical outcome was never remotely possible. The Lexiteers would have blocked it and the party would have been torn asunder. Instead, it held together but still with its right/left divisions, and with some on the left thinking others on the left have ‘infantile’ politics.
Future policy direction?
It is too soon to say what will happen – it depends on who becomes leader. It is easier to say what should and should not happen. Whether or not Corbyn’s greatest achievement will prove to have been shifting the political centre-ground decisively leftwards will depend on what Labour does next.
Politics are now especially unpredictable and Johnson may come unstuck. But at the moment all the signs are that his majority makes him safe in Parliament and Downing Street for the time being – provided he retains the ‘backbone’ Cummings seems to have given him, to avoid flip-flopping, and keep his mouth more or less under control.
Obviously, Labour has to respond in Parliament to what he says and does, but it would be a waste of time to try and second-guess him or build a strategy around what he might or might not do.
Instead, Labour can and should plan a long-haul assault on the main problems facing the country (many already identified in its manifestos). It needs to re-focus its activities more outside Parliament than inside. Climate change, for example, cannot wait another four years. It needs to be seriously re-thinking its political programme and approach for a very fast-changing world. Facile personal sound-bites from leader and deputy contenders are mostly just that – facile.
Here the strategy of the Tories out-of-office in the 1970s is instructive: they (in the shape of Sir Keith Joseph and others) concentrated on demolishing the foundations of the Keynesian post-war consensus and constructing their own alternative neoliberal vision of the future.
Similarly, Labour needs to dismantle the still prevailing but shaky structures of neoliberalism (something not done by Corbyn despite his ‘anti-austerity’ emphasis), and to strengthen its own alternative vision across the whole field of government policies, domestic and international.
Developing, explaining, and popularising a coherent set of policies takes time and resources, neither of which were adequate when Labour launched its two election manifestos. They need to organise serious policy groups, for instance, to analyse different options, and to hold conferences across the country (some organised by The World Transformed) to publicise and educate – Labour’s own leading figures included.
Rather than assuming they already have all the answers and it is just a case of becoming better messengers, Labour leaders need to become much more creative and open to cooperating with people outside the party, drawing on their skills and enthusiasm, involving people in joint enterprises, doing things with people rather than always for them.
The crucial task of holding the centre-ground to at least its present position will only be done by continuing to steer leftwards, not merely ‘avoiding a right steer’ as Starmer suggested, for inevitably Johnson will push hard to the right (while also stealing some Labour policies).
The centre-ground is rarely stationary or stable, as Blairites seemed to imagine – Thatcherites knew better, often giving free rein to more extreme positions in order to shift the centre further right. But does Starmer understand this process, and would he act accordingly in the other direction? ‘Centrist’ seems the best description for him in his present guise as leadership contender – Paul Mason describing him as ‘left-wing’ seems wishful thinking, if not infantile.
Not towards the ‘left-behinds’
One thing Labour should not do is prioritise and bend its policies towards re-gaining the ‘left-behinds’ in smaller cities and towns – which Nandy advocates. It would mean appealing to reactionaries who switched to voting Tory. ‘Listening’ to them, as the euphemism goes, would inevitably push Labour to the right not the left. It would be a strategic mistake leading Labour towards backward-looking politics and away from its more multi-cultural and dynamic big-city heartlands.
Here it is worth noting that support in some ‘left-behind’ areas had been taken for granted by Labour for decades. As cynical activists used to say, there were seats where Labour could put up a donkey and it would win – and sometimes it did!
As two friends from manual working-class backgrounds in Labour’s ‘Red Wall’ have emphasised, militancy in trade-union terms and voting Labour often co-existed with reactionary and right-wing attitudes on wider political matters.
In Bolsover and Blyth Valley it was sad to see life-long socialists (ex-miners) Dennis Skinner and Ronnie Campbell lost their seats because of Leave votes going to the Tories. But they were classic Benn-era Lexiteers, and it is just possible that some of the elderly first-time Tory voters in such ex-mining areas learned their anti-Europe attitudes from Lexiteers in the 1970s and 80s.
Union class consciousness does not necessarily translate into socialist consciousness, especially with the weakening of the unions. We see it in Northern Ireland, where staunch trade unionists occasionally turn out to be staunch members of the reactionary DUP.
However, this is emphatically not to advocate ignoring or abandoning the ‘left-behind’ areas. It has already been suggested that for some Leave voters the switch to the Tories may not be permanent; it is very unlikely Johnson can deal with their problems or will seriously try to, though expect some grand money-splashing promises and the cheap option of ramping up the scapegoating of foreigners, including ‘Brussels’.
Most of the real problems in left-behind areas (as opposed to scapegoat ‘problems’ such as immigrants) are to a large extent the same or quite similar to those facing Remainers in the big cities, and the same Labour policies should help both.
Geography is very important, but crude or exaggerated geographical differentiation all too easily becomes puerile ideology (e.g. ‘left behinds’ blaming ‘London’). Far from being completely different, left-behind areas can be seen as a particular, sometimes heightened, case of the general phenomenon found right across society which Karl Polanyi analysed back in the inter-war period.
To simplify, market (neo-) liberalism not only produces austerity, poverty, and inequality, but more fundamentally it erodes the social fabric and institutions on which people depend; that in turn leads them to reject the ‘centre-right’ and ‘centre-left’ associated with neoliberalism; and it fosters instead the growth of right-wing populism, including fascist groups, on the one hand, and an upsurge of left-wing movements on the other (e.g. Podemos in Spain, Sanders Democrats in the US, and, of course, Corbynism).
Corbyn’s critics from the failed centre-left still have not got the message.
A far from complete list of high-profile policy areas for pushing left includes Labour’s Green New Deal (on which Shadow Business Secretary Long-Bailey has been working); and some real ‘taking back control’, developing existing ideas about replacing undemocratic first-past-the-post with PR, but going further, to unconventional forms of deliberative democracy for instance.
Another possibility is a campaign against Britain’s particularly nasty gutter press (not all tabloid) where it has ‘freedom’ to lie and distort and will no doubt continue its anti-Labour bias.
Yet another, more important task would be developing the sort of non-macho, non-aggressive, ethical foreign policy which Robin Cook bravely but unsuccessfully tried to introduce under Blair, and which Corbyn was beginning to articulate. Here, targeting excessive and mis-directed ‘security’ spending, particularly on ‘our independent nuclear deterrent’, Trident, is essential.
It is a national vanity project for the English ruling class, a prop for its assumed ‘special relationship’ with the US, and dangerously ‘nuclear’; but it is neither ‘ours’, nor ‘independent’, nor a ‘deterrent’ (though Starmer voted in 2016 for its renewal).
It is a colossal waste of cash and of skilled labour which could be much better used elsewhere – for example, on renewable energy projects as part of the Green New Deal, with a contemporary ‘Lucas Aerospace type’ conversion of the workforce to making useful products. That should appeal on at least one of three main counts – it would stop wasting lots of public money, it would help reduce global warming, and it might perhaps help to save the world from dangerous clowns.
James Anderson is Emeritus Professor of Political Geography, Queen’s University Belfast.