Men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name. (William Morris - A Dream of John Ball)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Why did we lose? Let's not listen to the Rip Van Winkle's of the so-called "centre-left".


I still think it’s a bit early to offer a full account of what happened last Thursday. Ballot papers don’t generally offer us more than a cross in a box from which to determine the reasons why a voter cast their vote as they did – and the small minority who adorn their ballot papers with more detailed expressions of opinion, some of whom share their vocabulary of obscenities with the Council staff counting the votes, generally add very little to the sum total of human knowledge.

Understanding the reasons behind an election result therefore requires further research. Exit polls can tell us a fair bit about why people tell us they voted as they did, and I intend to study those further – but I don’t think that we can be guided only by what people say about why they do what they do in any case. In a sense that simply pushes the question back to another question – why do people feel as they do?

I will spend a bit more time thinking about this generally, but there are some things that can be said specifically.

I am fairly certain that some of the explanations being offered for Labour’s very poor performance last Thursday can safely be discounted. These are all those explanations for our 2019 defeat which plainly cannot also account for the result of the 2017 General Election.

A very fine example of such a failed attempt to explain our election defeat is available from Labourlist, and is offered by veteran Labour right-winger Luke Akehurst. Luke thinks it is “obvious” why we lost, he quotes his own (as he thinks) wise words from 2015 and says that our Party has been “indulging in a dangerous delusion for four years”. Basically, Luke (whilst expressing his horror and anger at a Tory victory) seems almost relieved that his understanding of the world has been confirmed by a defeat at the polls for a socialist programme.

I tried a little experiment with Luke’s article online. I searched for “2017” in his article. It wasn’t there.

Now that’s very odd, because, during the four years of our “dangerous delusion” (in his words) Labour had lost another General Election, whilst scoring our highest vote share since 2001 and our highest number of votes since 1997.

In 2017 we had the same Leader whose unpopularity is being blamed for the result in 2019.

In 2017 we had the same socialist policies which centrists are now decrying as responsible for our failure. 

We cannot simply attribute the result in 2019 (which was still better, in terms of vote share, than in 2015 or 2010) to the identity of the Leader or the socialist politics of our manifesto unless we can also explain why these factors did not apply in 2017.

I can only conclude that comrade Akehurst has been asleep since 2015 and therefore missed what happened two years ago (perhaps he ran away and hid, blaming himself for having argued that Corbyn should be on the ballot paper in the first leadership election?) He is auditioning, perhaps, for the role of Rip Van Winkle of the self-proclaimed “centre-left” (who generally come across as a bit more centre than left…)

For those who were here two years ago, whether from the right or left, we need to avoid attributing the 2019 result to factors which, whilst present two years ago, did not produce the same effect.

The Blairites screeching their hatred for Corbyn and socialism at every opportunity (of which the media gives them quite a few) are not doing a good job of understanding or explaining what happened last week.

Neither, however, are those good comrades on the left who want to blame the media’s hostility to Jeremy Corbyn for our defeat. That same hostility was expressed, with the same force, in 2017 as 2019. If we could get 40% of the popular vote in the teeth of such media vilification, we cannot use that same media vilification to explain why we got 32.1% in 2019.

As I said a little while ago, any explanation of our 2019 election result which is persuasive needs also to be capable of explaining the 2017 result. Mr Akehurst, and all those rightwing Labour MPs on the telly, must try harder to understand what has happened.

And so must we all.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

A historical perspective on Labour's electoral performance


Having looked at the electoral experience of some of our near neighbours in order to begin to think about the reasons for our election defeat last Thursday, I also thought I should try to get a bit of recent historical perspective.

The evidence is easy to access from an authoritative source.

Our vote share fell very sharply, from 40% in 2017 to just over 32.1% in 2019 (and that comparison causes me to reflect that any explanation of the latter result which is to be persuasive needs also to be able to explain the former).

This was the largest fall in our share of the vote since 1983 (when we gained just 27.6% of the vote, compared to 36.9% in 1979). The factors accounting for the recent decline in our support are of similar magnitude (in terms of their impact) to the factors which produced that historic decline – but of course that does not mean that they are the same factors, or even that they have any great similarity.

Our 2019 result gave us our least number of MPs since 1935, but the vagaries of the electoral system means that yardstick somewhat exaggerates the scale of our defeat, since our vote share held up better not only than in our defeat of 1983 under Michael Foot (27.6%) but also than in 2010 under Gordon Brown (29.0%) or in 2015 under Ed Miliband (30.4%).

The 2019 result was bad, it was a defeat – and we face up to five years of a horrendously reactionary Tory Government because of it. However, the scale of our defeat in 2019 is marked very much by the contrast with the comparatively good result of 2017. If that had never happened, we would now be remarking that, under Corbyn’s leadership we had added 1.7% to our 2015 vote share, just as in 2015, under Ed Miliband, we had added 1.4% to our 2010 vote share.

Looking back at a number of election results in this way it becomes clear that any useful explanation of the 2019 election result needs also to explain other recent results – and also that we need to account for the performance of other parties as well as Labour. Under Boris Johnson, and pressing for the hardest of hard Brexits, the Tory Party gained their biggest share of the vote (43.6%) since 1979.

Very little of the instant punditry which abounds online as well as in the “mainstream media” seems to be making any attempt at such a useful explanation.



How does Labour's electoral performance look in a European context?



It may not be true that former Chinese premier Zhou Enlai, when asked what he thought were the consequences of the French Revolution said that it was “too early to say”, but it has nevertheless passed into legend.

At any event, I am still of the opinion that it is a bit early to rush into over hasty explanations for Labour’s election defeat this week, and before I start thinking about that further I have looked across the English Channel to try to get some perspective on what happened here last week.

So how are the traditional parties of the Centre-Left faring in Western Europe?

The French Socialist Party was slaughtered in elections in 2017, its candidate for President gaining just over six per cent of the vote. This was the same year in which the German Social Democratic Party saw its worst result since the Second World War, with just over twenty per cent of the vote, and the Dutch Labour Party had their worst ever results, losing three quarters of their Parliamentary representation and gaining fewer than six percent of votes cast. The following year, the Italian Democratic Party scored its worst ever result, with less than nineteen per cent of the vote.

Things are better for social democracy in the Iberian peninsula, where the Spanish socialists emerged from an election last month as the largest party, with 120 out of 350 seats in Parliament, having won 28% of the vote, a month after the Portuguese Socialist Party also won national elections – with almost 37% of the vote. In both these countries parties to the left of mainstream social democracy are also represented in Parliament.

Labour’s 32.1% share of the vote on 12 December looks a lot less miserable in comparison with the performance of our Western European sister parties. None of this means that the result in Britain was not catastrophic, but it does mean that our analysis and understanding of our election defeat needs to take into account an international (or perhaps, more specifically, a Western European) context in which the delayed effect of the 2008 economic crash is generally benefiting the populist right and not the social democratic left.


Friday, December 13, 2019

These are the times that try men's souls


-->
As a famous son of Sussex once observed in other circumstances of defeat, “these are the times that try men’s souls”.

After a disastrous General Election result for our party it’s worth paraphrasing the further words of Thomas Paine; “The summer campaigner and the sunshine activist will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their Party; but those that stand by it now, deserve the love and thanks of man and woman.”

The working people of this country need the socialist policies of our 2019 manifesto, which many have rejected this year in favour of “getting Brexit done.” Only our Labour Party can offer the hope which has now been defeated by despair. 

If you joined Labour, full of enthusiasm, to support (or defend) Corbyn’s leadership and were enthused by our unexpectedly strong performance in 2017 it is now that your commitment to socialism will be tested.

Jeremy Corbyn was right to respond to this result by signalling that the Party needs a period of reflection and those, such as Hove MP, Peter Kyle, who are calling for an immediate change of leadership are mistaken. Labour is – and must remain – a democratic Party in which policies and political direction are determined by our mass membership through our democratic structures. This takes time.

In general we should be suspicious of all those who tell us now only what we already knew they thought beforehand, whether that is the Blairite remnants who blame Corbyn and the left, “Blue Labour” elements who think we should have tacked to Brexit and hostility to immigration, militant “remainers” who think we should have opted sooner for a “People’s Vote” or ultra-lefts who blame the leadership for not responding more robustly to exaggerated allegations of antisemitism in our ranks.

Having said that, your humble blogger does not intend to announce here and now why I think we lost across the country. Anyone who tries to say that they know the whole answer to this question in the next couple of weeks will be either a fool or a charlatan. We need to take some time to reflect and understand, to listen and consider (including considering the fairly obvious differences in results across the nations and regions of Great Britain).

What I will say is that I am very proud to have been part of Labour’s campaign in Brighton and Hove, where we held Hove (gained in 2015) and Kemptown (gained in 2017) – and held our clear second place in the unique progressive constituency of Brighton Pavilion, which has been held by the Greens since 2010.

The disappointing fall in Labour’s share of the national vote (7.9%) exceeded those in Kemptown (6.8%), Hove (5.8%) and Pavilion (4.0%) and we have kept the Tories out of our city, where the Labour administration of the local Council will need to continue to work in partnership with the Green opposition to protect local people from the attacks which we can anticipate from a majority Tory Government.

Under a Tory Government more people will need food banks, more tenants will need support and representation against rapacious landlords, more workers will need workplace organisation (as our trade unions are shackled ever more) and the victims of injustice will need a voice. Our Labour Party, locally and nationally must be central to the organisation of this resistance, and to do this we cannot go back to the past. We have to become a fighting organisation of our class, rooted in our communities.

In a generally miserable evening, hearing the election results, the high point for me was listening to the acceptance speech of Lloyd Russell-Moyle who pledged that we will fight this dangerously right-wing Government in Parliament, in the courts, in the workplaces and on the streets. Lloyd correctly identified the source of the problems facing the people we represent and set out what we need to do.

The cause for which Tom Paine was fighting in 1776 was eventually victorious, and our cause of socialism can – indeed must – also be victorious. It is in our hands, as Labour Party members, to build our Party in order to achieve that victory.


Update on 17 December.

I still think we need more time to think, but have written a bit more about;

·      How our election defeat compares with the experience of other European social democratic parties recently;
·      How our election defeat looks in the light of our vote in recent elections, and;
·      Why we should not blame our 2019 result on factors which were also present in the 2017 election.