The Labour Left Isn’t Going Anywhere
Labour’s election debacle had multiple causes: a monolithically hostile media, the Brexit imbroglio, and unfocused messaging in the campaign’s final stretch. But for the hundreds of thousands of left-wing dues-payers who have joined the party — now the biggest in Europe — the mood is one of determination, not despair.
The fact the United Kingdom general election was the first December election since 1923 makes the result feel all the more bleak: campaigning in darkness and bitter cold made a difficult job harder, and the minimal hours of daylight diminish the ability to glean any upbeat thoughts from a catastrophic defeat. The Conservatives now have a strong majority for the next half-decade, and are buoyed by winning in many previously strong Labour areas, particularly in the north of England.
The reasons Labour amassed such crippling losses are myriad. Throughout the campaign, it became almost impossible to counter the heavy anti-left bias, not only in right-wing newspapers bankrolled by wealthy Conservatives, but also in the purportedly impartial British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). Boris Johnson, for example, deliberately dodged a combative one-on-one interview after every other party leader submitted themselves to questioning, and the fact that the prime minister wasn’t pinned down before other pre-recorded interviews were broadcast easily enabled him to do so.
Labour announcements were diminished, such as the leaked National Health Service (NHS) documents that proved Johnson and the Conservatives were lying about the NHS being “off the table” and not at risk of at least part-privatization in trade talks with Donald Trump.
The BBC’s political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, tweeted that a Labour protestor had punched a Tory aide, a complete falsehood sent to her by two Conservative sources which she dutifully repeated without checking. The BBC’s senior staff refused to accept the obvious fact the organization was institutionally biased against the Left, treating the huge number of troubling errors in coverage with none of the gravity they deserved. The election also showed how after four years of constant negative coverage, many more voters were aware of the constant smears against the Labour leadership, whereas many had either dismissed them in 2017, or were unaware of them when the country last went to the polls.
Brexit in particular hobbled Labour more than other parties: its internal hard-line Remain campaigners, in multiple well-funded campaigns, forced Labour into a fudge of a position. Rather than agreeing to respect the result of the 2016 referendum but push for an exit from the European Union that respected workers’ rights, the party promised a second referendum.
This let the Conservatives accuse Labour of disrespecting the democratic wishes of Labour’s own Leave voters, while leaving the media free to attack Labour for not being as hard-line as desired by the single-issue Europhiles who dominated the media coverage of Brexit. At the beginning of the election, this stance looked set to leech Labour votes to the Liberal Democrats: after the results were announced, it became clear the bizarre limbo had lost the party many seats to the Conservatives.
For the Conservatives, with a pliant media, the message of “Get Brexit Done” was far easier to sell, in headlines and on the doorstep, and the party was barely even asked precisely how Johnson envisaged Brexit panning out, or whether he had secured any assurances on trade deals after the UK left.
The Labour manifesto was also attacked heavily. In 2017, an anti-Corbyn Labour MP leaked the party’s manifesto before it was finalized and agreed by Labour’s internal democratic structures, hoping the backlash against strong left policies would panic the leadership into lurching to the right. Instead, it proved hugely popular, a self-defeating exercise for the Labour right that helped Corbyn and the party as a whole.
The 2019 manifesto built on those policies, but added a number of additional measures. These were stronger and more innovative policies that promised a genuine increase in the quality of life for everyone, but the resulting manifesto was criticized after the election for being too diffuse and complex, depicted as wildly out of touch and promising too much.
This is the preferred attack line for the Labour right: taking the typical centrist approach that ambition is to be derided, and that the scope of policies should be limited and not too dissimilar from those of your main opponent. This belief hobbled Labour for years: the belief that the Overton Window cannot be shifted, and that parties can’t change public opinion through political argument.
Both polling and campaigners proved the policies in the manifesto were popular — messaging could have been improved, with a few of the central policies focused on heavily, but in contrast to the Conservatives, Labour’s policies and manifestos are always scrutinized more heavily and treated with more scorn by the media. Without as dense a manifesto as the party put forward, alongside full costing documents, they would simply have been attacked for not providing enough detail or accused of hubris and being ill-prepared.
Amid the despair, there is hope, however. First, the party now needs to elect a new leader. The contest will be long, and the attacks on the Left have already begun, with ludicrous claims that Rebecca Long-Bailey (who has yet to formally declare) has been backed by staff that constitute a “Salford Mafia.” The right of the party and broadsheet columnists are already itching to replace Corbyn with a Blairite candidate, with the hope of undoing the past four years of ideological realignment in the Labour party.
The hundreds of thousands of people who became re-involved in the party after being alienated by a decade of Tony Blair aren’t going away, and will cast votes in the leadership election. The attempt in 2016, led by Tom Watson, to eject huge numbers of Corbyn supporters failed abysmally and ought to serve as a lesson for the Labour right. Momentum members also made up a huge proportion of the most committed and ardent campaigners for the party during the election: the disappointment that followed hasn’t led them to abandon hope for electoral politics.
Campaigning experience has also reinvigorated a lot of the grassroots activism in many areas: young campaigners reported they felt their confidence boost as they spent more time learning how to talk to strangers, met huge numbers of new local activists, and wanted to continue volunteering and campaigning with the party. Losing seats hurt, but also made activists all the more determined to win them back in the next election, by getting involved in the burgeoning community activist bases enabled by Labour by the Many.
The first seat the group targeted, Putney, was the only seat won by Labour from the Conservatives that night. Many Left campaigners also plan to get involved in local politics, working to get elected to local councils, hoping they can effect change locally even if their MP is a Conservative. Emma Dent-Coad, the Kensington MP who lost her seat by 150 to the Conservatives, after a former Tory-turned-Lib-Dem smeared her in the press, tweeted on the night that she “wasn’t going away” — she would continue to fight for local residents on the council alongside her Labour colleagues.
What feels like a victory for the Conservatives may now quickly sour. Corbyn and Labour were mocked in the press for stating that they had “won the argument” during the election. But on a huge number of issues, they have: the Conservatives were forced to backtrack on austerity and promise to increase public spending. Johnson and his team were made to admit there is a health crisis in the NHS, with a shortage of both staff and funding. The public and the Conservatives fully accept there is a mass homelessness crisis, after street homelessness was almost eradicated by 2010, increasing by 165 percent since.
Johnson even appeared in a photo op with oligarch Evgeny Lebedev in the newspaper the Russian owns, the Evening Standard — edited by former Tory chancellor and austerity architect George Osborne — stating that the trio were fundraising to combat the street homelessness crisis. The near universal response was that the move was a sick joke that took the public for idiots, given that the crisis was avoidable yet created by the Conservatives.
Boris Johnson now has to get on with the hard work of government, with a majority depriving him of excuses for any problems or crises that now occur for the next five years. Austerity has hollowed out public services to the brink of collapse, so flooding, homelessness, and health crises are very obviously problems that will be pinned to the Conservatives. By the next election, the debate around Brexit and the culture war it has provoked will largely have passed.
Labour can elect a new leader, keep pushing against austerity, highlight attacks on the NHS, and continue to campaign locally with a young, motivated activist base. The current morose mood will lift. The Labour left aren’t going anywhere and are all the more motivated to make Boris Johnson’s life as miserable as possible, through protest, activism, and long-term campaigning.