No war but the culture war
At the general election, the Labour party attempted to fight a deeply ingrained narrative about Brexit with appeals to economic interest. It offered “money in your pocket” in opposition to deeper values. It didn’t work. Thursday's defeat raises serious questions about the party's strategy and direction.
The disorienting reality that Labour Party activists now face is that the people-powered movement that Corbyn inspired was not only record breaking, it also failed. Backed by Momentum, Labour fought an offensive battle sending an unprecedented number of activists to Tory-held marginals. 170,000 people used Momentum’s canvassing app and 8,600 people pledged to take the day off work on polling day, with many more mobilised by the party.
Online, Labour and Momentum surpassed their previous performance, with content from the latter reaching a third of all adult Facebook users in the UK within the first three weeks. When the figures eventually appear showing the enormity of the online campaign they are likely to throw cold water on the idea that voters can simply be bought by dark ads, Russian bots or indeed, Labour and Momentum’s people power alone. The result puts the left’s heady commitment to volunteerism – “one big push” – in doubt.
So what went wrong? At the start of the campaign a senior figure in the Labour Party explained in a speech to party staff that 2017 had changed everything. The electoral map was up for grabs and a Labour majority was possible. It seems the party was caught fighting the previous war.
That much became apparent in the days after the manifesto was released and campaigners had the sense that it hadn’t made the same impact as 2017. Expectations had changed, but so had something else. Mid-way through the campaign, internal polling showed that Labour had underestimated the problem it had with winning back Labour Leave voters, a concern borne out by the result. Labour went onto the offensive in the only way it could and knew how: by pumping up the radical economic offer in the manifesto.
In week three of the campaign the party announced a £58 billion spending pledge to compensate the WASPI women. This was more than half of Labour’s £82 billion in other spending commitments, matched by tax raises. The WASPI policy was a disaster waiting to happen, and happen it did when Corbyn crumbled while interviewed by Andrew Neil in which he failed to clearly explain how the party would pay for it (the answer was long term borrowing – by no means a bad thing, but Corbyn was unable to clarify).
Worse still, in the final weeks the party amplified its message of “putting money in your pocket” combined with a left version of “project fear”. True as Labour’s warnings about the NHS are, and fearful as I very much am, in 2016 Corbyn supporters were right to point out to so called centrists that this strategy doesn’t work. It is in fact a symptom of our inability to define the political terrain, allowing our enemy define it for us. Corbyn supporters who said this were right then, but failed to learn their own lesson.
The election of 2017 was also an historical anomaly. After Thatcher’s first victory some on the left prophesied that it wouldn’t be long before voters realised the nature of their real interests; what with rocketing unemployment, destruction of the unions, privatisation, council house sell off and all the rest – they’d come around. They never did.
Backed by the press of course, the Tories successfully won the war by which a large enough number of working-class voters came to understand the crisis of the post-war period. As Stuart Hall pointed out at the time, Thatcherism amounted to the interpretation of that crisis in terms of complaints about the “nanny state”, the apparent lack of individual freedoms and the supposed perils of trade union power – which the left, focused on material interests, insufficiently grasped.
In this election, the party attempted to fight a deeply ingrained narrative about Brexit with appeals to economic interest. It offered “money in your pocket” in opposition to deeper values. It didn’t work. There was no war but the culture war.
Brexit, as we know, has a long prehistory. It was in New Labour that former blue-collar voters found no renewal of the hard fought for, and relatively privileged, status as unionised workers within post-War Britain. Leaving the EU has become for many of these voters the chief rebellion to Thatcherism, as well as its Blairite cosmopolitan variant. Today it remains the glue that binds the post-industrial experience to that of South England’s rentier classes. This coalition is so deeply contradictory and irrational that socialists struggle to understand it. Yet understand it we must.
During the campaign I and a friend visited North East Derbyshire and spoke to a couple, the man a former miner, who had lived through the catastrophic events of Thatcherism. The couple told us they were voting “Boris” – not Conservative or Tory. In this election, Eton-educated Boris was the outsider, the tribune of the people, the man who would get Brexit done. Erratic and impossible to pin down – as Andrew Marr found out – and like Trump, “Boris” would “build a wall”. Those who didn’t believe in the message could go to hell, but you bet they heard him say it.
The contradiction, of course, is that Labour’s plan had been to give economic life to the rustbelt and political power to those who live there. Thus, the broad thrust of Corbyn’s policies, which alone are overwhelmingly popular, should be defended. However, one lesson from this failure is that elections cannot be bought. We cannot beat voters’ political commitments with a programme based on economic rationality alone.
If Brexit was one major issue that Labour lacked an answer for, Corbyn was another. Negative opinion polling of Corbyn confirms what most activists experienced on the doorstep. These two issues, of course, are not unconnected. Blocking Brexit killed Corbyn’s status as the outsider and the underdog. Two years of parliamentary theatre transformed the Labour leader from a tribune of “the people” to just another parliamentarian who couldn’t be trusted.
But his own performance was lacking as well. The problem for the left, and one we should not look for easy answers to, is that if you’re a republican, if you oppose the existing principles of British foreign policy and if you want to challenge the suffocating grip of shareholder capitalism, then you should expect a battle with the billionaire backed press along with broadcast media and a deep well of establishment figures, both “centrist” and further to the right.
In this regard, Corbyn’s only defence was always some variant of left-wing populism. The Labour leader was at his best when he took the spurious attacks thrown at him and held them up as a mirror to establishment. On foreign policy too, failed wars in the Middle East and growing protectionist attitudes offered Corbyn a wedge to advance an alternative. Yet beyond scripted performances, Corbyn’s style of leadership showed an aversion to conflict, borne out both by his style of party management and in his unfortunately meek performance in leadership debates. This issue must be central to the debate about who takes his place.
In dissecting the result, however, and even with the benefit of hindsight, this election may well have been ours to lose. The political terrain was defined for us, not by us, and foremost by Brexit. With its roots among working class voters in the vacuum created by Thatcherism and New Labour, and into which stepped Nigel Farage, the left and Corbyn was simply too late to the scene. We remain right to be concerned about the cultural meanings of Brexit, the nature of the Leave campaign and the consequences of leaving the EU. However ultimately the party found itself caught between abandoning former blue-collar Leave voters by blocking May’s deal and backing a second referendum, and Labour’s contemporary base of cosmopolitan support. Swing voters on each side were unconvinced, and the result has delivered all that we feared.
Lewis Bassett worked for Momentum during the general election, however the views in this article are his alone.