The clock struck ten and the red wall crumbled, and in came the blue tide. Labour are staring into the abyss, if not already plummeting in it. This was a demise authored by years of terrible politics, and there is no easy fix – but we can start by uncovering the deeper trends that explain why Labour lost the general election.
It was no surprise to anyone but those in a red rose that if you spend four years ignoring the rest of the country and arguing only amongst yourselves, you won’t see the enemy stealing seats traditionally always yours. Labour were asleep, lurching through a crisis of institutional failure over anti-Semitism and unnecessary internal battles that reflected the puritan and totalitarian streak of the hard left. By the time the election rolled around, the party was an intellectually – and morally – emptied cause, unable to remind the voters of its worth beyond harking back to the past.
Could Blue Labour’s analysis be useful?
Some groups such as Blue Labour warned about this but were painfully ignored for years. In his article for Political Quarterly, Jonathan Rutherford emphasised certain things such as family life and the importance of the common good. Reasserting something similar to this message would be a good start for Labour.
The sense of atomisation that pervades much of our society to some extent explains the nostalgia that somewhat drove Brexit. It is nostalgia for a time of industry, of job security and a sense of belonging.
Of course, there are some problems with Blue Labour. Within his article, Rutherford spoke about the Catholic social thought being entwined with community organising as the founding principles for Blue Labour. Never mind that this is a country with a fading Christian culture, it’s a Protestant one too. If Labour is to adopt a Blue Labour communitarian-inspired understanding of the importance of family and community, it must modernise it.
Why did Labour lose the general election?
However, Labour must first do some deep soul-searching about why it lost the 2019 general election so heavily. Clearly, Labour failed to impress the country with its message on Brexit. The ambiguity that served so well in 2017 did not hold here.
But the dismal performance of Jeremy Corbyn should not be ignored either. The skewering by Andrew Neil was the final punch in a bruising knockout. The energy that he arrived with in 2015 had long since disappeared, replaced by a gnarly cynicism and visible impatience when scrutinised closely. Jeremy Corbyn was thrust into leadership without a morsel of understanding in how to knit together different factions within the party. Put in a place where principles were no longer enough to sustain a person, he was unable to compromise where it mattered.
Labour should be free of this going forward. Corbyn was a failure, and so was his project. There is something deeply flawed about a movement that prides itself on solidarity and collectivism but is built so ardently upon the resolve and integrity of one man. What will happen now to the group Momentum, particularly if the continuity candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey doesn’t win?
Nonetheless, the temptation to lay this all at the door of Corbyn would be misguided. The loss of blue-collar support has been a steady pattern since the New Labour era, generating momentum in 2015 when UKIP ate into enough votes to take four million voters but also help Labour lose seats to the Tories.
In the most recent European parliament elections, the Brexit Party made staggering inroads, eating away into northern Labour post-industrial and small-town heartlands. Brexit impacted deeply on Labour and the party suffered on both sides. But in Leave areas there was a 10.4 per cent decline in votes. In places such as Redcar, Labour haemorrhaged votes to both the Tories and the Brexit Party, allowing the Conservatives to sneak home wins. This was more pronounced in the historic Labour seat of Blyth Valley, where the Tories won by a majority of just under 1000, inflicted by a small increase in voting share for them, but a big 8.3 per cent increase for the Brexit Party which ate into Labour’s share of the votes.
Something has to also fundamentally change within Labour. Its politics, and its version of socialism, has to change. Labour did not focus on revitalising a sense of solidarity and shared destiny, but these are the things that hold communities together. Instead, they presented an endless list of material pledges.
Towns that once existed as the proud heartbeats of the nation’s industries have been abandoned. This is a cultural problem, not just economic. If Labour is to reclaim some of its lost historic heartlands, it has to understand the politics of community, belonging and reciprocity.
Blue Labour has talked about these themes for a long time. But even now, as Lisa Nandy talks about reconnecting with forgotten communities, and Rebecca Long-Bailey talked about progressive patriotism, many Labour members react with too much suspicion. What to do with English identity has plagued the party for a long time.
Polling by the LSE found that of those who strongly identified with being English, 70 per cent voted to leave the EU. The score is only a little lower for those who identified strongly with the sense of being British. Meanwhile it found weak attachments to both Englishness and being British amongst those who voted Remain. Labour lost 47 seats in England with their vote share declining by eight per cent while every other party enjoyed bounces.
There is an instinctive reluctance within the party to acknowledge the power of St George’s flag. Now, Labour has now surrendered the flag to the far-right who claim themselves to be the defenders of Englishness – an Englishness defined by ethnicity. This has suppressed the right of ethnic minorities to define themselves as English, even as most of the country believe you don’t have to be white to be English, and has damaged Labour.
In an age characterised by the uncertainties of globalisation and threats to security, voters search for governments who can ensure the safety of their loved ones and instil pride in their towns. Yet Labour had a leadership that was uncomfortable with recognising the need for strong police and security forces.
To conclude, it is important that Labour does not return to the politics of simply managing capitalism. It must go so far as to remove the commodification out of the institutions and places people value. Some of this was recognised by Labour after 2015, but the party projected itself to too many people, rather than speaking to them and listening to them. A communitarian, politics of solidarity has to be where the party returns to.