Why did we lose?
The statistics presented by Paul Mason have to be accepted as given. Labour lost 2.5 million votes while the Tories and Brexit Party combined picked up just 335,000 votes. He quotes a Datapraxis analysis suggesting a maximum of 800,000 Labour votes switched to the Tories but 1.1 million went to the Liberals, 339,000 to the Greens, and 250,000 to the SNP .
In arguing that we lost more votes to progressive, anti-Brexit forces than we did to the Tories and the Brexit Party, Paul assumes our loss was due more to the rejection by the Remain voters than it was to the disaffection of the leavers concentrated beyond Labour’s red wall. But that is a huge jump not necessarily supported by the initial statistics. To justify that conclusion we would need to unpack the figures rather more. How did those losses to remain and leave alike translate into lost seats? Were the 800,000 losses to the Tories by themselves responsible for the losses we suffered in our heartlands? Or do we have to add votes lost to the Tories an unknown number of the 1.5m (?) votes lost to the English based liberals and greens? Even then we still have to ask how much of the loss to Liberals and Greens impacted on our performance in the rest of England and Wales – the loss of Stroud and Kensington, and our failure to win seats like Chingford, Chipping Barnet, Hastings and other targets in the South. It is only after this unpacking that we should move to assume our failure to support remain rather than our rejection of the leave voters cost us the election and the chunks of his paper which are based on that conclusion. I am ot arguing that he is wrong, merely suggesting that the position might not be as clear cut as he suggests.
The Path to Defeat
The muddling of Labour Policy around Brexit described so well by Paul was patently a factor in losing us votes irrespective of the direct effect it had on the seats we lost. So too was the tendency for the leadership to reject out of hand any indicators it did not like.
Essentially, however, Paul contends large numbers of Labour voters did not vote Labour and the reasons they gave were: a dislike of Jeremy, the desire to get Brexit over with, and a lack of trust that Labour could deliver its radical spending plan.
I think those arguments have weight, but I would have liked to see more of an analysis of the reasons for the first element. Without wishing to be complacent, escapist or paranoid I would like to know just how much the savagery of the press and the dark arts the Tory strategists conjured on social media contributed to that dislike. We can then start to see how much of the dislike was down to Jeremy, for which he must accept responsibility, and how much was due to a persistent and widespread media campaign over which he had little influence.
The impact of the second point was not a major factor. Paul doesn’t believe the voters who deserted Labour would have been won over if Labour had overtly supported Brexit. On this his arguments are very compelling.
Part of the loss is longer term – “we lost because part of the former industrial working class in the Midlands and the North has detached itself from the values that are now core to our party. That is the result of a decades long process which began under Tony Blair….”
Moreover, “a minority of the working class abandoned Labour for authoritarian conservatism and nativism…..a phenomenon being experienced by social democratic parties all over the world.”
In this context, “the main reason people want Brexit has always been to stem economic migration…..We can go a long way to addressing the cultural insecurity of people whose lifestyles and industries have been destroyed. But when they complain there are ‘too many foreigners’ in the queue at their GP surgery, we cannot meet the implicit demand behind it, which is for two queues.” In other words we should not countenance the racism implicit in the demand for Brexit from many voters.
But there were also many Lexiters in our own ranks who demanded that we should support the Tory Brexit in the Commons. Some of those were on the left of the Party. But there were also many on the right – Caroline Flint,
Stephen Kinnock, Ruth Smeeth and Gareth Snell. But as Paul points out our shift towards a Labour Brexit had already led to a huge slump in our polling status in June through to October. To go into the election supporting Brexit would have collapsed our support in our core vote – the skilled and educated workforce, the BAME communities and the youth.
On the other hand he insists we could have accepted the second referendum position earlier, and more enthusiastically selected candidates prepared to promote that position and spend the summer campaigning for it in the North and Midlands. We could argue that the failure repeats our anaemic performance in the Referendum itself where our Remain spokespersons – Alan Johnson and Will Straw failed dismally to convince a significant number of Labour voters in the North and the Midlands and then had the temerity to lay the blame on Jeremy Corbyn’s supposed indifference.
In a final barb to the right wing of the Party who never accepted Corbyn’s leadership and sought to undermine it at every opportunity, including the issue of Brexit, Mason muses: “If the neoliberal right of the party had been kicked out years ago, not allowed to depart spitting hatred and sowing confusion, that too might have helped.”
That said, Paul Mason feels Corbynism cannot be entirely absolved – “the real deficit of Corbynism was its refusal to listen to, and provide answers to, the cultural insecurity being expressed by people in ex-industrial towns.”
Justifying this view he repeats the points he made in a Guardian article in May 2019:
“To win back the ex-industrial towns….Labour needs to talk about more than economics. It needs to fight personal insecurity, crime, drugs, anti-social behaviour and organised crime as enthusiastically as it fights racism.
It needs to sideline all voices who believe having a strong national security policy is somehow “imperialist”. It needs to forget scrapping Trident.
The reluctance to speak this language is, I believe, what left Labour over-reliant on triangulating to accommodate the pro-Brexit views of some voters in these towns.”
These views were strongly attacked by the left at the time and I still find the second point totally unacceptable. Paul is rightly unwilling to pander the racism which features prominently among Brexit leaning voters but he cannot bring himself to reject their support of the military-economic complex and ideology, our willingness over many years to use the youth of the North and Midlands as cannon fodder in wars we fought only at the behest of neo-liberal politicians and their financial backers in the arms and fuel corporations. Why is he so supine when confronted by their false sentimentalism over our military past or their attachment to a military policy based on an expensive deterrent such as Trident which drains money from much more justified applications, not just social services such as health, education and housing, but also an adequate conventional military capacity to counter any real terrorist threat. A nuclear weaponry too greatly dependent on the good-will of the USA, and of questionable use in offering this country any real protection in the threat of a nuclear war.
So there is a strong distinction to be made between national security and the retention of nuclear weapons. A truly progressive Labour Party cannot blur that distinction. Certainly we should be willing to offer support for those towns whose industries are dependent on arms manufacture. The Green Initiative Paul applauds elsewhere in his document offers a progressive means of developing new industries to replace weapons manufacture, in much the same way at the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards pioneered in the 1980s in their efforts to exchange the production of weapons for socially-useful products.
Finally, we have to reject Paul’s arguments in this context because they undermine his espousal of the Progressive unity he argues we must forge with Liberals, Greens, SNP and currently non-aligned political communities if we are to build a political force which can counter the Tories at any point in the near future. That is one of the most compelling elements of Paul Mason’s final section of his paper. And sadly it is a non-starter if our attempts to woo these other parties begins with a request that they come to love our nuclear deterrent. It is not even a position which I would want sell in Labour Party circles. Yes we do have to win back voters in these ex-industrial towns. But in the same way that we should not do that by espousing racism I do not feel we
should do it by renewing any hopes they might have of Britannia once again ruling the waves.
With those reservations in mind I do commend the bulk of what Paul Mason has to say in attempting to answer “Where Next for Labour?” He just has to beware leading Labour down some obvious cul de sacs.