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Why Labour Lost — And Why We Must Press On

Leading up to last week’s election, Jeremy Corbyn came to be seen as “just another politician,” not an outsider. Despite its ambitious program, our campaign lost its insurgent feel and got drowned out in the Brexit culture war. But we can’t retreat from our goal of creating a Britain for the many, not the few.

Leon Neal / Getty Images

“Defeat,” I wrote in Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics, “is an underrated experience in political life.”

We’ve just had a horrific experience. The last few days have felt like a death in the family. Exploding, with little decorum, into bitter family feuding, as such deaths often do. We’re all aghast and ashamed, lashing out: “you did this!” It has hit all the harder because, while making mental room for the possibility of a disastrous outcome, we really didn’t see this coming. So I really don’t want to think about the “advantages of defeat,” as Charles Eliot Norton described it. It feels as awful and beside the point as pontificating about what’s in the will.

Like it or not, though, this work has to start soon. We have to find a way to relate to defeat that is neither ghoulishly upbeat nor in thrall to it. How do we not slide into denial and bullying demands that fellow activists buck up? How, on the other hand, do we not catastrophize about catastrophe?

I take Norton’s argument from the outset of the US Civil War as a starting point, though it was really intended to apply to tactical routs rather than redefining battlefield disasters. Whereas, he argued, short-term success would have rewarded complacency and bad strategy, a punctual defeat could educate and strengthen. Something of this holds for us. The point of defeat is to learn from it. The point of defeat is to let it destroy illusions.

Perhaps chief among our illusions, which can now be thrown on the pyre, has been our faith in the disruptive powers of “the campaign.” As Edmund Griffiths suggests, implicit in a lot of Corbynite practice is the strategic idea of “leaps.” Where most of us expected the Left only to gain through incremental, slow, and difficult battles, Corbyn was catapulted to the leadership of the Labour Party almost out of nowhere. The Left had not been busy in CLPs, affiliates, and unions building the case for a socialist program, winning MPs, winning conference motions. It had been absolutely nowhere. Its publications, organizations, and social depth had all been declining. The trade unions had been shrinking and becoming less capable of defending themselves.

And yet the Left’s recent experience resembles nothing so much as a Bensaïdian process of “leaps! leaps! leaps!” Its authority, despite everything thrown at it, has derived from these leaps. Clearly, though many were loathe to admit it, the Left was more correct than its opponents about the direction of British society. Somehow, these leaps were being made possible by a deeply rooted crisis of representation, which wasn’t — and isn’t — going away. The Left has thus been able to project itself into the spaces vacated by the old center. The result has been that, retroactively, after each leap we have begun to constitute some sort of culture, some sort of institutional framework — however inadequately.

This is why we practically begged the Labour leadership to vote for an early election. This is why we walked into a six-week campaign cycle, confident that however badly we were doing in the polls, however much damage the Brexit culture wars had done, however far the demonization of Corbyn had advanced, we could rebuild the 2017 coalition.

In a way, what we were thinking of was a radicalized version of Ed Miliband’s “five million conversations.” We were prepared to be an absolute whirlwind of activity for that six weeks. A good ground game, better digital reach, a popular manifesto, and a slightly fairer media terrain, would help us deliver another shock to the political system. Thus, we have our version of the Right’s aggressive voluntarism.

This winter, that basic strategic conception, more intuitive than reasoned out, crashed hard. Some of our failure can be blamed on the campaign itself. The lack of messaging focus. The too numerous policies for which groundwork had not been laid. The fumbled and hesitant unveiling of the Brexit line. Corbyn’s own nervousness and line-cleaving, in contrast to his previous “straight talking” promise — which is not unrelated to his attempts to sublate the Brexit contradiction. This campaign, despite the ambition of the manifesto, somehow just didn’t have the insurgent feel of 2017.

We can possibly also blame some of the result on the extraordinary lows to which journalism sank during this election, contributing to the whole late Weimar ambience, and tessellating nicely with Conservative disinformation campaigns. And the Tories had far more single-minded discipline than in 2017.

Yet whatever went wrong with the campaign, it now seems likely that most of the battle had been lost in advance. I realize that the causes of this are a lot more complicated than “we betrayed Brexit.” We lost many Remain voters, too. A bigger problem is that Corbyn came to be seen as “just another politician” rather than as an outsider. During a period of hung parliament, he was an active agent in thwarting May’s Brexit deal, then keeping Johnson caged and preventing him from implementing Brexit. So without power, he was as tainted as though he had been incumbent.

And as “just another politician,” he seemed very bad at it. Always vaguely “in trouble.” Always “cocking it up.” The attack lines, which mattered less before, began to have a cumulative weight. Still, it does seem reasonable to say that the Brexit culture wars exacerbated this problem and split the Labour coalition. The leadership’s attempt to keep peace within the party and placate Remainers left it with a stance that looked “weak.” More broadly, the “People’s Vote” strategy pursued by the hard center in this country has rebounded horribly, uniting and motivating the nationalist enemy without seriously undermining its predicates.

Whatever one’s individual analysis, it’s clear that the conditions for another leap weren’t there. The ground campaign was probably about as good as it could be, even if there were problems of coordination at the top.

And it seemed to be working, inasmuch as canvassing data showed undecideds coming toward Labour near the end of the campaign. The final YouGov MRP survey, modeling constituency results, corroborated this. But this effect was not enough, and it was tentative. YouGov’s internal analyses suggested that the late shift toward Labour was short-lived, spanning only a couple of news cycles. That would suggest that our efforts ought to have been focused far more on defense, with a narrower offensive operation.

I still think there was no way to avoid this election without it hurting us far worse down the road. Yet there are, though this cuts against the grain of left-wing thinking in this conjuncture, moments when a form of tactical conservatism is justified. And there are also times when the slow labor of construction, of building lasting relationships and campaigning infrastructures, is more important than leaps.

The fissile, unstable nature of our political system will endure. That’s not changing. But we have to be more patient now.