Labour Saves Itself, and Restores Hope

Jun 11th, 2017 | By willb | Category: Articles, Features, Frontpage, Lead

Labour’s unexpected ‘success’ in last week’s general election has been greeted with relief and joy across the left. But we need words of caution as well as cheers, says WILL BROWN, for there is still much to do to turn this opportunity into a real transformative victory.

Given what seemed possible a few weeks ago, and even as voting closed on Thursday, this was a good result for Labour: a large increase in its share of the vote, an energetic and mostly effective campaign, and no huge loss of parliamentary seats that some, including myself, had feared. All this is very welcome, and the party now has a chance to renew itself, to carry the hopes of many and provide opposition to the Tory hard Brexiteers.

Corbyn election17

But should we be as cock-a-hoop as some Labourites clearly are?

Certainly, we can take many positives from the past few weeks. First, Corbyn has been much more effective than many (including myself and his more strident critics) thought possible. His ‘monsieur zen’ approach to live TV came across as more calm, considered and ‘human’ than his opponent. His campaign developed from a focus on safe Labour areas, which generated positive TV images of him addressing large, enthusiastic crowds, as he acknowledged the need to visit some Tory marginals.

Labour’s campaign more widely was effective and focussed – features painfully absent from the preceding 18 months of Corbyn’s leadership – and, as with his leadership campaigns, had an effective online strategy.

Although we don’t know yet any accurate figures on youth turnout (despite some erroneous reporting to the contrary), it’s clear Labour generated enthusiasm and support among the young, and young people and students have been an energetic and vital component of many local campaigns.

Moreover, despite some noises off at the start of the campaign, for the most part, in response to effective leadership, there hasn’t been the divisive bickering that we have become accustomed to recently in Labour ranks. Although some MPs have fought their campaigns as if Corbyn didn’t exist, most at least refrained from openly hostile criticism.

Perhaps most remarkable, Labour managed to change the political conversation and did so on terms that were most unpromising. Not only did it face massive media opposition, but it confounded conventional wisdom about what kind of political programme could attract mass support. Corbyn’s Labour seems to have begun to change people’s minds, to challenge the electorate’s existing views, rather than simply pander to them.

All of this made Labour seem relatively united and purposeful in contrast to a Tory campaign that must go down as one of the most inept in recent history. In place of May’s robotic mantras and distance from the public, Corbyn was engaged and enthusiastic. In place of Tory policy incoherence, Labour set out a very wide-ranging set of commitments. The hubris of the Tory leadership forgetting that ‘elections come with opponents’ has left them looking weak and May’s personal authority is in shreds.

Add to all that the elation that local election victories bring to those members who have been tramping the streets for their candidate for six weeks (my own included, with Sheffield Hallam going Labour for the first time ever) and it’s perhaps understandable that many are celebrating a successful result.

No success like failure

So why do we need to introduce words of caution?

First, the result. After all, Labour did not win. May is still in government. Labour is still 50 seats adrift of the Tories. Despite their chaotic and inept leadership up to and after the referendum, the Tories are still in power. Brexit will still go ahead as May panders ever more to the ‘ultras’ on the Tory backbenches and in the DUP.

Some on the left are perhaps guilty of getting carried away, equating the avoidance of catastrophe with victory. The left has a bad habit of mistaking glorious defeat for victory – think, for example, of Tony Benn talking about ‘millions of votes for socialism’ in 1983, or the ‘heroic’ miners’ strike. But, as Dylan once said: “There’s no success like failure / And failure ain’t no success at all.”

Granted, failure is perhaps the wrong word here, given the circumstances. Winning was almost certainly never on the cards and Labour has made some big strides forward. But that means there is still a lot of work to do before we can realise the changes that Corbyn has given voice to.

We can’t pretend we are there yet; we can’t pretend, as Corbyn did in one interview, that Labour has ‘won’ the election. We have repulsed an attack designed to consign us to history and should be relieved and delighted at that. But we haven’t won anything yet.

So, what are the dangers and opportunities we need to address now?

First, although we don’t have detailed data yet, it seems that Labour’s gains were mostly not at Tory expense. This isn’t the whole picture as Labour did won some Tory marginals – Kensington, Canterbury, Bedford, and so on.

But the one thing all the polls mostly agreed on, and which turned out to be near the mark, was the Tory share of the vote: it never went below 40% and was always ahead of Labour’s. Labour’s advances are also fragile – many of the seats saved and won were on wafer thin margins. The newly won-over can quickly be lost.

However effective Labour was, it still wasn’t convincing great numbers of Tory voters to switch to Labour. However bad Theresa May’s campaign was – and it was awful – she increased the Tory share of the vote from David Cameron’s efforts two years before. The collapse of UKIP and the Liberals meant Labour scored highly, in a renewed two-party competition, and yet was still a long way from power.

Secondly, part of the reason for that relates to doubts about Corbyn himself. Although he did himself no end of good in this campaign, it was never likely to be enough to overturn the lorry-loads of criticism that had been dumped on him. Much of that was pure right-wing bilge pouring out of the Daily Mail and Michael Farron. But some of it was effective because it got at something more substantive.

Doubts around foreign and defence policy, terrorism and security had traction because they are – in my view – Corbyn’s weakest areas. This came through clearly in the TV Q and A sessions and in his foreign policy set-piece at Chatham House when his studied calm morphed into something much less convincing, a less straight-talking, less honest politics.

Some of this relates to Corbyn’s past positions on Ireland and the Middle East, some of it to the party’s tortuous relationship with nuclear weapons. As Paul Mason is arguing, there is a need to neutralise these issues. Mason suggests putting ‘safe’, competent people in charge of these policy areas, but it may take a bolder and more convincing move from Corbyn to alter many people’s perception of him.

Thirdly, although the manifesto clearly ‘worked’ in the sense that it enthused Corbyn’s supporters and galvanised young voters, the party needs to do a lot more policy work on a host of issues. While the pledge on tuition fees attracted students, the cost of this commitment is huge when set against what is needed in early years’ provision and primary and secondary education, or on benefits.

There was almost no sense of priorities in the manifesto, no sense of trade offs that are necessary in government and considerable doubt as to whether it would all be achievable. While this kind of thing doesn’t matter to the true believers, it does matter if you want to fashion the even broader coalition of voters you need actually to win power.

Granted, this was a rushed manifesto. The commitments on nationalisation, social care, education, investment and many, many more areas have been made on the hoof by small numbers of people when the national policy forum process had barely begun its work.

The manifesto itself bears the heavy imprint of the trade unions and the members need to have more of a say in how these manifesto commitments are developed into a programme that can not only hold together the fragile coalition which has now been attracted to Labour – some former UKIP, the young and the public sector middle class – but to reach out further.

Policy also needs to become more imaginative, less tied to the comfortable solutions that the old left hankers for, less 20th and more 21st century. A policy programme which is narrower but more solid, with more depth and a greater sense of direction, has more chance of doing this than the 120 pages of pledges we fought on this time.

Opportunities and openness

Finally, and crucially, the way the party now conducts itself is vital in realising the opportunities the election result has presented us with. It will determine both how effective it can be as an opposition to hard Brexit and how far it can start to look like a plausible alternative party of government. It will determine whether the grounds for common collective effort that have opened up are seized or squandered. This will require commitment on both sides.

On the one hand, if Corbyn’s critics do not acknowledge the advances he has made in this election, and react constructively, it will be highly damaging. They have to buy-in to the policy programme, the one that just helped them to win their seats. After all, as acknowledged by Jeremy Paxman’s bizarre line of TV questioning, the manifesto was clearly a compromise between Corbyn and other elements in the party.

But there is also a huge onus now on Corbyn to prove he can also do the ‘parliamentary politics’ bit, not just the campaigning. He has begun – but only just begun – to address some of the criticisms of his previously ineffective leadership. More needs to be done and more effort put into building a more effective parliamentary team.

There is a real opportunity now, if he and his team are smart enough. With a bit of clever Commons coalition building, they could not only put a spoke in the wheel of hard Brexit, but end any prospect of grammar schools and further cuts to the NHS and schools. To do that, he must be magnanimous to those in Labour who opposed him and reach beyond Labour’s ranks to those in other parties who can help to hedge-in May’s faltering government.

Internally, Corbyn’s supporters also need to avoid acting as if this election result justifies everything that has gone before, and that further policy change and critical discussion is not warranted. As with the aftermath of the recent leadership elections, the party needs both sides to show some magnanimity, tolerance and comradeship so that the gains of 8 June are not squandered.

It is doubtful there are many voters to the left of Labour still to be attracted to the party; it is a certainty there are many millions to the right who still need winning over. With the prospect of yet another election this year or next, time may be short.

There are colossal choices facing us about the nation’s future, the kind of society we want to become and our place in the world. This is a time for big visions and bold moves.

Quite against expectations, Labour has won some credibility to offer a choice on that future and hope for real change. But we need to recognise there is still a lot of work to do to turn that opportunity into a real transformative victory.

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  1. Not much to disagree with here accept that against the background of years of Labour’s civil war, MP’s plotting against the leader and joining forces with the right-wing press to bad mouth Jeremy Corbyn, expectations were low. But for all sorts of reasons the party polled relatively well.

    But despite Will Brown’s headline, “Labour Saves Itself, and Restores Hope” it’s important to remember that this wasn’t a collective endeavour by the whole of broad church Labour. Quite the reverse, insofar as in the heat of a general election and anticipating disaster, a substantial number of Labour MP’s and luminaries, were plotting (with big money and the right-wing press) to dump the leader and his supporters and, if that didn’t work, to resign the Labour whip and form their own group. A prelude to rebranding themselves Real Labour and joining another political party. A progressive alliance, if you like.

    In this context, it’s a bit rich to say Labour saves itself when it was a few Parliamentarians (John McDonald, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Emily Thornton, John Trickett, et. al.) and above all Jeremy Corbyn and the membership, despite shameful abuse, spin and lies, who really saved the day for Labour.

    So, if Labour is to build on the election platform, there should be recognition that the party needs to change and modernise. Personally, I would favour compulsory and electronic voting. But having said that, I’m at a loss to know what Will Brown means when he says: “Policy also needs to become more imaginative, less tied to the comfortable solutions that the old left hankers for, less 20th and more 21st century.”

    As a supporter of the ILP’s One-Member-One-Vote democracy the answer to Will Brown’s conundrum, is not difficult. Place your faith and policy making powers in the hands of the membership, with all contentious issue like spending billions on Trident, nuclear weapons and key infrastructure and spending priorities ultimately decided by the membership. And when I say one-member-one vote I don’t mean some members two or multiple votes and special treatment for trade unions and other organisations. One member one vote should mean exactly that, that it could and should be done cheaply, efficiently and safely via the internet. And if the members choose to waste billions on Trident and vanity projects, well tough, that’s democracy and we live to fight another day.

    So, William (and the ILP), if we want real change, modern politics and some hope, let’s put our faith in the membership. They won’t always get it right, but they are unlikely to be derailed by narrow self-interest, egotism, big money bribery, the Westminster gravy train and gongs.

    .

  2. I agree with every word Will wrote. In response to Ernie, I think what Will meant by ” more 21st century solutions” is an effective industrial and fiscal policy ( note like the Land Vale Tax, which won support from the Adam Smith Institute). Having said that, I wouldn’t willingly abandon the nationalisation proposals now they’re on the table…just so long as they’re there because the left sees them as a way of discouraging rent seeking rather than moving to a planned economy because that way of thinking is out of date and sounds silly these days. In a previous article about Corbyn’s failings that I wrote, I said that McDonnell might be able to dig him out of the hole he was in if he developed a focused manifesto with radical policies. That’s exactly what he did even if there’s some over promising and an electorally successful but economically questionable commitment to end student loans.

    One thing’s for certain though: next time Labour won’t be facing an uncosted Tory manifesto, alluding to possible tax rises with a dementia tax sting in its tail.

    It will find it much harder going next time.

    And btw the FT has a demographic analysis of the votes. Basically skilled working class people mainly voted Tory, unskilled voted Labour but nowhere near as strongly as previous elections. Basically, Labour won the middle classes and students. Regionally, it won in the North and Wales but nowhere else. These trends should be a cause for concern.

  3. Anyone who predicted the outcome of the General Election is either a psychic or a genius or works for YouGov. After everything the Party has been through over the past couple of years to now see the Tories in deep crisis is a special moment, though no one can have any illusions about the challenges ahead.

    The Tory campaign was a shocker but the decisive turning point was the Labour manifesto. The right wing member of the National Executive Committee who thought that they could sink it by leaking it to the press actually did the Party a big favour.

    The manifesto was good old fashioned state-led social democracy, the first left of centre party in Western Europe to make a decisive break with neo-liberalism. Those ultra-Blairites who complain that Corbyn should have won a majority and that he ‘missed an open goal’ obviously don’t realise how ridiculous they sound.

    One hesitates to say it but there is now an opportunity for a fresh start within the Party and I do hope the leadership will offer a hand of reconciliation to its internal opponents provided, and this is crucial, that they accept the manifesto sets the direction for future travel.

    There is plenty of room for constructive debate about priorities and tactics, and Corbyn and his critics won’t ever be best friends – I’d just settle for comrades working together for a majority at the next election, whenever it comes.

  4. I agree with David that it really is time for an armistice on the internal disputes within the party – and we should concentrate on embracing those who are prepared to observe it rather than shouting at those who aren’t.

    A year ago, it looked as though the Labour party was going the way of the Spanish and French left, likely to fracture into so-called populist and establishment groups like Podemos and PSOE. That hasn’t happened and Labour’s performance was built on a sort of grudging unity in the face of adversity.

    There are lessons to be learned. Was it really sensible for some to ridicule Corbyn just at the point that he was showing signs of compromising in the interest of unity and good presentation? Was it sensible to be trying to deselect MPs who have just turned marginals into impressive majorities?. And we were lucky that Theresa May finally got found out. Next time, the Tories may have learned from their stupid mistakes, and Labour needs to do so too.

  5. Mark and David are correct, insofar as it must be sensible to unite as widely as possible and for the leadership to be magnanimous to their Parliamentary colleagues who have sinned, seen the error of their ways and are truly repentant.

    That includes respecting those who have differing perspectives on the way forward, but on the proviso, we are on the same journey and are able to accept democratic decision making and the will of the membership.

    One further and puzzling observation on William Brown’s third way focus, which seems to me to be a rewrite of history if he thinks the membership and Corbynistas, and the Parliamentary critics and plotters, are equally to blame for the civil war that has blighted the Labour Party since Jeremy Corbyn’s first leadership election.

    Also, what does Will mean by saying “… more effort (must be) put into building a more effective parliamentary team”? We can all be critical of some individuals – Diane Abbott was not great – but by inferring the Corbyn team is a load of rubbish and should be replaced by his critics and those who have gone before and been found wanting, is highly questionable and a funny way to reward loyalty and those who have kept the ship afloat.

    In the last few days Corbyn has even given leadership rival Owen Smith a senior role in his shadow cabinet, hardly a sign of a narrow sectarianism. Who would Will Brown like to sack?

    Has Will forgotten so soon that Corbyn had a cross-party shadow cabinet until the great and the good (Blairites, neoliberal apologists and bombers) resigned following Corbyn’s two membership elections? Unity is strength, but not at any cost.

    Will Brown got some things right, some wrong, but overall it fails because it is an unbalanced and flawed evaluation.

  6. Ernie talked about an unbalanced and flawed analysis.

    Whilst I might nitpick over a couple of things, with the benefit of hindsight and new disaggregated data on how people voted, I think the analysis is very balanced.

    Firstly, does anyone really think that a Corbyn led government could actually pay for all things it promises. Whilst I welcome nationalisations and higher corporate taxes, I doubt it.

  7. Secondly, whilst the manifesto included some really good things like the Robin Hood tax and the land value tax, it was desperately short of ideas on how to increase private investment. At the end of the day that will be the difference between ending austerity or continuing it.

  8. Thirdly, whilst it was strong on micromanaging individual industries, it did not set out how it would redesign our unfair and lopsided markets. At best, the promise to nationalise student debt may be an example of that: a way of freeing up our most productive workers; at worst, it was a bold but desperate pitch to firm up Labour’s middle class core vote – a distinctly post class Blairite strategy for the many, not the few.

  9. The best election result I had anticipated emerged for me towards election day. It was that we might get a result similar to that of the 2015 result. So that people would then have criticised Teresa May for wasting our time. And that was me at my most optimistic. I had earlier agreed with Dennis Skinner and a handful of other MPs who has voted against the election ever taking place.

    If we had not even reached the level of the 2015 result, then I feared a subsequent division in the Parliamentary Labour Party. With perhaps a right wing group setting up the equivalent to the efforts of the Gang of Four in the past. Such people now judging that since they had (only just) failed in 1983, that it would be wiser to split after a General Election this time. But the ground now seems to have been taken away from such a move. For one thing, we may again soon be into a fresh General Election.

    Labour’s 40% vote this time was astonishing. It is a higher percentage figure than any but two out of the last 12 general elections, going back to 1974. These better results came under Tony Blair. Yet the 2001 result (which by then saw much disillusion and a low tunrout) was only 0.7% better than this time. And even in his landslide victory of 1997, Blair only achieved 43.2% of the vote. If Labour had never recently lost out from its traditional high standing in Scotland, then Corbyn would have approached to near this share – although not to the equivalent number of seats. At least Corbyn would have then topped the 2001 percentage.

    We now, however, have a different make-up in our vote than in the past days of good Labour performances (especially 1945 to1966). When examined by class make-up and other social factors, then Labour is now similar across the boards. We can not now depend for an extra boost from today’s equivalents of the working class, including the impoverished. Our big success this time came instead in attracting votes amongst the 18-24 year olds.

    This holds hope for the future. Especially if these elements stay strongly with us as they grow older and also those who replace them are also attracted to Labour. The past low registrations by the 18-24 age groups and the low percentage turn-out by the registered, had been a long term concern of mine. But I did this on general democratic grounds and not from a pro-Labour position.

    Jeremy achieved both higher turnouts and higher Labour proportions amongst the young, via the nature of his campaigning techniques and Labour’s platform. This can be built upon by something that was needed in any case. Votes at 16. Registration via the school system. Civic Education being given a top status in schools. With candidates in General Elections appearing in hustings held in their local schools.

    But we should not miss out, however on the key need to get the deprived and other working class voters to return to the fold. For Labour should be about furthering their interests.

    There is also a need to cut the ground from under right-wing Labour rebels in the Labour Party. To me this is more likely to be achieved by drawing numbers of them into our parliamentary activities than by cutting them out almost completely. I accept that there are some, however, who are beyond the pale. But drawing in those who will stick with our Manifesto, will also isolate these potential break-away elements.

    Poitics requires skills as well as enthusiasm. But we are into a different ball game than before 8 June and we must learn from what occured – without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

    A key to the future of the Labour Party is also internal participatory democracy which in the modern world also employs the use of the social media in an intellegent and caring fashion – ILP style. For to paraphrase, John Stuart Mill we need to recognise that socialists who only understands their own side of the case understand little of that. We learn more about our own case from the dialectics of debate. And that is what we always need.

  10. What has happened to the dialectics of ILP debate? As I type this nothing has appeared on this web-site since my comment number 9 above.

  11. Here is a link to a table showing Labour’s electoral performances since 1966, which might be worth speculating about – https://threescoreyearsandten.blogspot.co.uk/2017/08/50-years-and-day.html

  12. Harry – apologies for the delay in responding to your concern. I think the reason the debate generated by Will’s article has stopped is because, although there are some differences of emphasis, the contributors are nevertheless in broad agreement with each other, which is never very good for the dialetic.

    I think we need a new article about how the Party should go forward both politically (how do we reach those over 65 traditional Labour voters who are virulently anti-Corbyn?) and organisationally (how do we get a much greater percentage of the new members to play an active role?) among many other questions and in that way we can re-focus the discussion.

  13. Hi David,

    You touch on key areas we need to discuss.

    (1) Why has Labour lost out with many older voters who came from tradtional pro-Labour backgrounds?
    There was a strong Labour vote from this category of people at the time of Blair’s large victory in 1997, when they were 30 years younger than now. But we did not protect or re-build the jobs and openings they had seen in their past. The turnout in the subsequent general election from such people collapsed.
    Many, then in worsened conditions by the time of the referendum, voted for Brexit. This was often done on anti-immigration grounds as immigrants were judged to have taken their remaining job opportunuties (or those of their children) by accepting much lower level wages.
    So how does Labour respond to their anti-immigration approach? One option would be to take some of these concerns on board for the purposes of Brexit, but to stress the need to take a fair share of refugees who have fled to southern EU territory, thus trying to deliver on the greater humanitarian needs. (The ILP ran an earlier item by Dave Berry of Sheffield which raised such considerations.)

    (2) How do we get new members to become Labour Party activists attending meetings, debating, shaping policy and being door knockers?
    Perhaps this involves us in finding a way to link what traditionally was something of a past ideal to the modern world of facebook and other computer techniques. Yet some of the debates I look into in well-used areas (such as “Labour List”) take on the form of participants often just farting at each other.
    Many of us need, of course, to join in to seek to raise the significance of the debates. But how do we then use such avenues to encourage the people involved to join in forms of serious political debate and participatory democracy?
    Like the ILP we can get involved in running relevant discussion meetings. But after more than a ten year spell in running discussion meetings for my local Labour Party (and for those in its vicinity) I am very much aware that there are many traditional, newly registered and affiated members whom we never meet and socialise with.
    Fifty years ago when the current over 65s qualified to be Young Socialists, activism was much greater inside the Labour Party. I am quite aware of this in a parliamentary area which then had a 19,600 majority and has just lost the seat to the Conservatives for the first time since 1931.

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