Recovering from Labour’s Election Trauma

Labour’s general election defeat was worse than anyone expected. ILP chair DAVID CONNOLLY considers some of the reasons and restates four principles for the Party’s conduct as it seeks renewal.

The catastrophic nature of Labour’s general election defeat on 12 December cannot be understated. We should not try to clutch at straws nor pretend this was anything other than a massive setback.

That Labour lost was not a surprise, but the scale of our defeat was. Forty-two seats and 2.58 million votes went to other parties, while Labour’s vote share was down to 32.2 per cent. Some 800,000 Labour voters switched to the Tories, with 1.1 million going to the Lib Dems, 339,000 to the Greens and a quarter of a million to the SNP.

As a result, Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’ across the midlands, north and north-east collapsed as Tory MPs were elected in seats they never thought they could win – ever. Many of the remaining Labour seats are now highly marginal while in some areas the situation would have been worse if the Brexit Party had not been standing.

This outcome was more or less what was originally expected two and a half years ago, but the 2017 result – described by some as ‘a social democratic moment’ – turned out to be a false dawn.

The causes of this dreadful situation were many. Four years of relentless attacks on Jeremy Corbyn from within and beyond the Party were central to his low credibility with voters. Yet his severe limitations as a political leader can’t be ignored. These were exemplified by the division, confusion and prevarication over Labour’s Brexit policy and Corbyn’s own inability to respond effectively to accusations of anti-Semitism.

The manifesto itself offered a feast of laudable policy commitments but these were ill-served by a deeply flawed electoral strategy that did little to prepare a population long fed on the thin gruel of austerity and neoliberalism. What’s more, the campaign itself was dysfunctional – no one seemed to be in charge and almost no attempt was made to define and communicate a limited number of political priorities.

As in the Blair years, there was an underlying tendency to take voters in Labour’s so-called heartlands for granted as concerns about the decades-long erosion of traditional support were ignored. Indeed, the fragile gains of 2017 were taken as indication that voters could be easily won to a radical policy programme without first doing the hard and long-term political groundwork.

As a result, campaigners faced a mass of incredulity with some traditional Labour supporters as hostile on the doorstep as any Tory – and sometimes less polite.

Leadership contest

So what next? The factional promotion of single explanations for Labour’s defeat, which began almost as soon as the exit poll was announced, is deeply regrettable. Labour now faces the prospect of a very damaging civil war if the forthcoming leadership contest is not conducted in a more open and comradely manner by all sides. We need reasoned debate, not partisan warfare.

John McDonnell has called for “comradely debate” with “no rancour” and, as hard as that may be to achieve, this is something the ILP strongly supports. The coming leadership campaign needs to be open and honest while addressing the full range of challenges Labour faces. No one in the coming weeks and months has the right to wreck the Party in its own partisan interests.

Members must be offered a real choice of leaders and of ideas about our future direction. Attempts to restrict these – whether through backroom deals or the nomination process – should be resisted. The more the leadership campaign is dominated by a sectional struggle to secure the victory of one or other individual, the more it will become a dialogue of the deaf.

With that in mind, we are re-stating four principles for the conduct of the leadership campaign, and its aftermath, which we first set out in 2015. We believe they are as vital today as they were then.

1. Accept the result
Whatever the outcome, the result must be accepted as legitimate and there should be no attempt to undermine or destabilise the new leadership. We have learned to our cost in recent years how damaging that can be and it should be rejected by all who have the interests of the Party at heart.

The new leader must be given time to prove themselves. Whoever becomes leader will face great challenges in rebuilding and expanding the Party’s electoral support, and in facing the inevitable onslaught from the Tory-supporting media. She or he will also face a dominant, reinvigorated and more united Conservative Party determined to reshape our country and the political system.

Not everyone will agree with everything the new leaders do or say and in a democratic party such differences can and should be voiced. Again, we have learned to our cost the consequences of not embracing this principle. But backroom plots, threats to split, or plans to depose a newly and democratically elected leader are not acceptable.

2. Co-exist within Labour’s broad church
It has become a cliché but is no less true for being repeated: Labour is and always has been a broad church encompassing a range of different political traditions and groups. Indeed, the Party was founded by bringing together socialist organisations, such as the ILP and Fabians, with trade unions and union-backed MPs. In its recent past and in much as its history, the Party has featured a range of political traditions.

It is vital that the Labour Party continues to be a broad church embracing a wide range of social democratic and socialist viewpoints. Indeed, it is precisely this that creates its potential to have broad popularity and electoral appeal, and to serve as a vehicle for social justice and social change. Periods when this diversity is threatened, when one faction seeks to become all-dominant, have not been good for the internal life of the Party.

3. Value pluralism, mutual respect and comradeship
Given this diversity, there can never be a total unity of views within the Party nor, in the interests of democracy, should there be. Internal debate and discussion are essential to its political vibrancy, and no section of the Party has a monopoly on truth and wisdom. There must be a genuine commitment to co-existence, to allowing different traditions and groupings to continue to live side by side.

A commitment to co-existence and internal party democracy means that all members and supporters should actively support principles of pluralism, mutual respect and comradeship:

  • pluralism in recognising that all of us have the right to argue our politics within the Party
  • mutual respect in accepting that other people and groups have the right to hold and voice different opinions to your own
  • comradeship in committing to the Party’s common goals despite our differences.

For each of these to mean anything, the conduct of debates becomes very important. The inflammatory language we have seen too often in recent years, denouncing opponents as ‘red Tories’ or ‘deluded Trots’, will do nothing to foster a climate in which open, tolerant and democratic debate can flourish.

4. Support democratic participation and openness
The Party faces enormous challenges in recovering from this crushing defeat. A rampant and extreme Tory government, a hostile and toxic media that delights in nothing more than Labour chaos and division, and an electorate that is more diverse, volatile and sceptical than for many decades, all pose fundamental questions about Labour’s future. It’s going to be tough for the Party in these unstable times.

Labour will need to draw on and draw in members and supporters if it is to find a way forward, to rebuild, reconnect and again seize the political agenda. It will need the active participation of its members and supporters to renew the internal life of the Party.

It will also need to be more open to people outside it, whether they are disconnected from the political process or involved in other campaigns and movements – this is especially true in the once Labour-supporting communities it now needs to win back.

We believe these four principles should provide the context for rebuilding Labour as it seeks to renew itself and find a way forward.

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1 Comment

  1. john stephen enderby
    21 December 2019

    I think David Connolly has essentially nailed the issues which face the Labour Party.

    It is important that Labour maintains its pluralist traditions within an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect. The party has always been an uneasy coalition of liberals, radicals, Marxists and social democrats, together with those who simply dislike the privileged ‘right to rule’ attitude of the Tory party. Our greatest leaders were able to keep this broad alliance together without favouring one faction over the other. This explains the success of Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson as Labour leaders – socialists who were able to appeal to a wider and non-partisan voting public.

    Despite his unquestioned electoral success, Tony Blair broke this golden rule, moving the party decidedly over to the right. It was this which provoked the left-wing reaction of Jeremy Corbyn, who attempted to remould Labour as a purely socialist party – which is something it never was.

    Labour also broke with its radical traditions in the Brexit debacle. Frustrating the democratic will of northern working class voters who expected the party to honour their democratic wishes. This allowed the Tories the opportunity to steal the radical mantle once proudly owned by the Labour Party and portray themselves as defenders of the democratic ‘will of the people’ – an opportunity not lost on Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

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