Why Labour lost the election. Again.

Downing street from behind railings

(reading time: 6 mins)

2019 was a particularly bad election to lose.

This country has more food banks than MacDonalds (fullfact.org). The Tory majority coupled with Brexit gives them carte blanche to finally dismantle the NHS, politicise the courts and introduce voter id across the country, a Republican strategy to discourage the poor from voting. Then there’s Tory indifference to climate change and income inequality. We could be looking at a very different country in 5 years time.

There is no way losing 43% to 32%, 365 to 203 seats can in any way be considered a moral victory, or something to build upon. The Labour party needs to own this failure.

I want more public spending and more taxes on the rich. I support sensible rail nationalisation and an end to private sector involvement in the NHS. I am a long-term centre left voter. I want this country to move to a Norway or Sweden style economic model. I am not a Blairite or Red Tory, or a Woolly Centrist (Ed Milliband’s 2015 campaign was uninspiring). I voted Labour this time. But I can understand why so many did not.

Yes, Brexit and media bias played their part. But it is a loser’s mentality to pin it all on any combination of Brexit, the BBC, the pollsters or the right wing press. These cannot account for the scale of the defeat. The left have always believed there’s an untapped pool of voters who will turn out for an authentic socialist offering, if only the media was fair to them. Worst of all they believe any working class people who don’t agree with them must be being brain washed by mass media. But the media is a two way street. Right wing papers thrive in this country because enough working class people are quietly right wing.

And it’s a depressingly familiar failure. In the Thatcher days I ran into a school mate in town selling The Socialist Worker. The talk was all of brotherhood and unity and togetherness – until I disagreed with him of course. Without a trace of irony he then said “You’re either for us or against us”.

That self-defeating Peoples’ Popular Front of Judea spirit was reborn in Momentum. The hard left created an atmosphere where any criticism of the party’s direction or leader was evidence of a media conspiracy. Anyone who questioned Corbyn’s political genius could be dismissed as a Red Tory or Blairite. The difference in politics now is that thanks to social media, those ideological bubbles become absolute.

Media bias is not the real reason the Tories can get away with empty promises in their manifesto. It’s because every floating voter knows when it comes down to it, the Tories will cut public services instead of raising taxes. As a result, Labour manifestos must account for every spending promise. Tory ones don’t.

The British media has always been right leaning. Which means a Labour leader has to be a more skilled politician than a Tory one to even start on a level playing field. That’s why people like me were dismayed when Corbyn became leader.

It was obvious a party leader who isn’t prepared to use Britain’s nuclear arsenal would be considered soft on national security by many floating voters and immediately lose vital support for Labour. This was a major factor in Michael Foot’s defeat in 1983, a similarly disastrous election.

So here’s a mantra for Labour 2024….
Floating voters decide every election.
Floating voters, not party members.
Floating voters, not activists.
Floating voters, not social media bubbles.

What of the great Red Tory/Blairite plot to undermine Corbyn? For at least a year on social media the rt.com story “Jeremy Corbyn wins major peace prize, and the mainstream media completely ignores it” was reposted as evidence of a Blairite neo-Liberal conspiracy against Jeremy. For anyone who still believes that story, you have been conned. That’s not how the media works.

To protect against bias, legitimate news organisations list regular events like peace prizes to be reported on or not. The BBC and The Guardian didn’t report the annual winners because the MacBride prize itself is not considered newsworthy. To do so in 2017 purely because the Labour leader won would rightly lead to questions of bias. It’s that simple. The rt.com story was wrong. It was misleading. And it was the one Corbyn story I saw posted more than any other, because it reinforced a narrative his supporters wanted to hear.

I will say Corbyn can be an excellent speaker. He was the model of a party leader after Grenfell. He was clearly better in head to head debates with both May and Johnson, and arguably has faced more inaccurate reporting than other Labour leaders.

But he also made himself an easy target because he handles criticism poorly and is far more tetchy in interviews than he ought to be. There is no doubt his lack of political skill lost Labour crucial ground both on Brexit and anti-Semitism.

Labour MPs evidently struggled with the party’s Brexit policy because everytime one was interviewed they prefaced their answer with; “Well our position on Brexit has always been very clear…”.

I can’t say if Labour should have taken a remain or leave-with-a-better-deal position. But a clear policy starts with the leader, not a confusing iterative process of motions at a party conference which made the lifetime Euroskeptic leader look like a passenger.

I don’t for a second believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic. But he lacked crucial leadership when Labour adopted a modified IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, starting a cycle of terrible headlines through the summer of 2018. It’s hard to overstate how damaging that was – and ultimately pointless because months later Labour had to adopt the definition in full anyway.

Even then Jeremy didn’t get the scale of the problem because he wanted a ‘clarification’ added. This was the most basic political mis-management. Then in his November 2019 Andrew Neil interview he wouldn’t give a simple apology for the parties’ handling of anti-Semitism. The crazy thing is he had already apologized, so why not just do it again, without hesitation?

I will say it again. I don’t believe Corbyn is anti-Semitic. But I believe an unnecessary crisis came about because deep down Corbyn doesn’t really believe Marxists can also be racists, so he and his supporters told themselves it’s all a right wing conspiracy against them. To everyone else, to floating voters especially, a failure of leadership was the least bad explanation. And the old hard left bullying and intimidation tactics were not a media fantasy, they were real. I un-friended a former work colleague who used misogyny and anti-Semitism in a Facebook post railing against perceived BBC bias.

Maybe you’ve had enough of people attacking Jeremy, and you’ve decided I’m a Corbyn-hater who’s brimming over with centrist vitriol?

Firstly I don’t hate anyone, not even Trump. Hate is a pointless reaction. I don’t hate politicians and I don’t put them on a pedestal. But too many of Corbyn’s supporters did the latter and the cult of Corbyn most certainly existed. One friend of mine went to a Corbyn rally in 2016 with a placard bearing his image surrounded by lights, like a religious icon. If you don’t see how wrong that is, I’m sorry, but you don’t get democracy.

The left preaches about being open-minded and inclusive, yet is as vulnerable to its delusory bubbles as the MAGA crowds at Trump rallies. If your Facebook feed was filled with posts about the establishment media being unfair to Jeremy Corbyn, you too were creating that bubble and bear some responsibility for this defeat.

Loyalty is for family and friends. Loyalty to a leader is the domain of kings and dictators. The purpose of democracy is to have a clear system for removing failing or corrupt leaders before they can do any more damage to their people. Criticising the leader is not a personal thing. In our increasingly tribal and social-media dominated political landscape, any feelings of personal loyalty to a leader are a potent and dangerous force.

With authoritarianism the rise across the world, any cult of personality, left or right, is a profound danger to democracy.