Why Labour Lost

In a guest post, Jenny Muir looks at some of the reasons Labour lost on 12 December, and asks: what happens next?

What next?

We knew it was going to be bad, but not that bad. The stats are easy to remember: 365 Tory MPs, one for each day of the year; 80 majority, a not at all nice round number. Labour lost badly: to the Tories in England and Wales, and to the SNP in Scotland. Labour didn’t lose in Northern Ireland because they give zero fucks about the place: they don’t stand candidates and their manifesto content was anodyne.

After some reflection I think there are three reasons why Labour lost: the current state of the Labour Party; the Tories ran a well organised campaign; and some voters, particularly in England, were gullible (which is not the same as stupid).

The state of the Labour Party

It’s important to remember that the Labour Party is always in a state. It’s a mass party, a broad church, a party that aspires to real power in which people have jobs and political careers as well as giving up their time voluntarily. There are always ideological struggles going on, and many of them get into the media so those of us who are not involved can keep up.

The past week has involved a great deal of heart-searching amongst Labour members and supporters. For example:  the position on Brexit was wrong (I don’t believe the policy itself was unclear); Corbyn failed to gain the trust of the public; the Manifesto wasn’t credible; antisemitism continued to be an issue; there was media bias; and Labour candidates could have stood aside in some seats to support a Remain candidate from another party.

As yet, however, the conclusions from this outpouring remain polarised, more so than it seemed from the first couple of days after the election result. For every one on one side, there’s someone else with a different opinion. A week after the result I detect an inclination not to ditch the best of Corbyn’s policies under the new leader, for example this early contribution from Keir Starmer.

The Tory campaign

Not enough consideration has been given to the fact that the Tories ran a well organised campaign – which doesn’t mean it was a principled one. They knew just how much they could get away with. The Irish Times explored the mechanics: recruiting experts from Australia and New Zealand; a strategy meeting at 5.40am every day; the identification of 50 marginal seats to capture and 50 others to defend; and perhaps most crucially “intensive polling and focus groups in these seats”. The slogan “Get Brexit Done” came from focus groups. Although the Irish Times don’t mention this, I assume the campaign team knew Johnson’s absence from TV interviews and panels wouldn’t impact on votes.

Contrast this with the Labour campaign, as analysed in the Guardian: confused messaging, poor organisation and an unclear chain of command:

An exasperated party veteran said that while watching a Conservative press conference from Labour’s Southside HQ, a young press officer was heard to remark: “These Tories are so boring: they say the same thing over and over again.”  

And:

…. intense frustration, even among diehard Corbyn loyalists, about the lack of organisation that left them unable to answer the most straightforward questions about Labour’s plans for the days ahead, or what its key messages would be.

Gullible voters

The general public has got off very lightly in election analysis and I don’t really understand why. Yes, it’s not a good look for politicians to claim their electorate is stupid – in fact, nowadays it’s a matter for m’learned friends. Journalists may be wary of the charge in case it prejudices future interviews.

However it seems legitimate to me to question whether some voters, particularly in England, were gullible, which is not the same as stupid. We are gullible when we are tricked into taking action that is not in our interest; perhaps not questioning the premise sufficiently because  we want to believe in it. “Get Brexit Done” falls into this category. Brexit doesn’t as yet impact on everyday life for most people, unlike delayed trains, overcrowded schools, expensive utilities and long hospital waiting lists. It was easy to convince voters that all these could be tackled after 31 January 2020, which of course is nonsense because trade deals will take a long time to negotiate and the process will be complex and expensive. But I would have lost most of them about halfway through that sentence.

The reason the ability to be taken in was more prevalent in England and Wales was because other parties and agendas were not evident as they were in Scotland and Northern Ireland (Welsh nationalism has very little influence). In England it was all about Brexit:

[Guardian interview in Southampton] “I want Brexit. I want that done,” says a woman who goes on to talk at length about her problems accessing benefits and mental health services.

Jesus wept. Someone on benefits and dependent on mental health care is voting Tory. That can’t be allowed to pass without comment. (The series of Guardian reports Anywhere But Westminster includes more gobsmacking exchanges.)

What next?

What Labour does next matters to all of us, whether or not we voted for them and wherever we live in the UK. We need an effective opposition at Westminster as well as a political party that really does speak for the many and not for the profiteering few.

Whoever is in charge, the main challenge is going to be keeping the best of the Corbyn policy agenda rather than veering back towards being a cover for neoliberalism. Labour needs to get better at following the money. Who benefits from privatisation of public services, paid for by poverty wages and zero hours contracts? Who makes money from fossil fuels? Who doesn’t pay tax? Labour needs to make a solid case for a more equal and sustainable economic system including maintaining employment rights that stand to be eroded under Brexit. The party needs to stand up for a decent and dignified social security (not “welfare”) system and face off allegations about scroungers. Likewise with immigration and asylum, health services, housing and education.

But being an effective champion of a fairer economy requires a fundamental change in approach. Corbyn’s leadership has been based on vanguardism: a secretive small group with high turnover and a lack of involvement of others. This led to the chaos of the election campaign. It is an inappropriate way of running a mass party and it is certainly not the way to win public confidence. The Labour Left should ditch vanguardism in favour of working on what Gramsci calls the war of position: essentially, gaining popular support for a particular world view. This requires working more collaboratively within Labour and also with a broad civil society coalition of other parties and organisations who share these values, as Maurice has suggested. Many of us are up for that.

Jenny Muir

26 December 2019

Shopping around

Sunset or dawn over Northern Ireland?

In the second of a double bill on the election, Tanya Jones argues we have to overcome an engrained consumer-culture and TV-ratings approach to politics if we are to rise to the challenges we face.

There is no single explanation for the Conservative’s electoral success in England and Wales last week.  The narrative of Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘unelectibility’ presented, with indecent haste, by centrists both inside and outside the Labour Party, is almost certainly wrong, and equally likely to become the commonsense, canonical version.  Unlike Johnson’s Brexit deal, this takeaway really was oven-ready: bland, packed with preservatives, easily digestible and available to reheat at a moment’s notice.

The reality is much chewier and more interesting.  As interesting, in fact, as Amitav Ghosh’s book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable[1] which I have been reading over the election week.  It isn’t about UK politics or elections or Brexit, but its thoughtful, wide-ranging and beautifully written analysis provides an oblique way to sidle up to what has been going on.

Ghosh’s book is divided into three parts: Stories, History and Politics.  In the first he writes that the climate crisis is also a crisis of culture ‘and thus of the imagination’.  He identifies the increasing self-reflexivity of art, and in particular the so-called ‘realist’ novel, which largely ignores the communal events of history, politics and nature, until the ‘very gestures with which it conjures up reality are actually a concealment of the real’. Such narratives are, with honourable exceptions, entirely incapable of equipping us with the imaginative resources which we need to face the climate crisis. 

Similarly, our contemporary culture gives us little or nothing with which to grasp or interrogate alternative futures.  Much has been written, rightly, about the effects of social media bubbles, of ‘fake news’ and the uncritical relaying of anonymously sourced claims.  But perhaps equally pernicious is the low-key, apparently non-political background of ‘reality’ TV, costume drama, documentary, advertisement and all their unaccountable hybrid forms.  When voting is something you do to keep the ratings-friendly narcissists in for the next episode, when aristocrats are eccentric but ultimately wise and superior, when environmental crisis can be overcome by avoiding plastic straws, is it any wonder that Johnson and Rees-Mogg are awarded another series?  When actual politics is absorbed into the flow, it is even worse: the most momentous achievement of the cosy ‘they’re all a joke’ satire of Have I Got News for You is perhaps the embedding of the comic Boris persona in the national psyche. 

I went to the cinema twice last week, escape to a darkened room feeling like a therapeutic option (Knives Out and The Biggest Little Farm, both hitting the precise spot) and the biggest adverts were for the supermarkets.  The Tesco epic pushed every national (English) button.  A company delivery driver finds himself travelling through time, treating Dickensian orphans (poverty + over a century = smugly picturesque), undermining wartime rationing with a hamper for the benevolent ‘Winston’ (as self-identified by Johnson) and – oops – almost interrupting the young Queen’s Christmas broadcast. If the Tory Central Office had put it out, it couldn’t have done better. Politics is a consumer choice as much as deciding where to buy the turkey, and warm fuzzy feelings are the most trustworthy indicators. 

The major argument of Ghosh’s History section is that empire and imperialism have been as important as capitalism in driving both fossil fuel exploitation and contemporary climate discourse.  Insofar as the newly purged Conservative Party is, as has been suggested, an English nationalist enterprise, it is an imperialist past from which it draws its emotive force.  England as a self-sufficient entity, without piracy, conquest, a subjugated empire or US charity has not been tried within the past millennium.  It is unlikely that our new government has any intention of attempting it, but for electoral purposes that hasn’t mattered.  Brexit looms so large as a supposedly (in Johnson’s narrative, malevolently) jammed door, the possibility that it might not be a portal to the glorious past can easily be dismissed. 

Another central insight of Ghosh’s is that not all fossil fuel development is the same.  

“The materiality of oil is very different from that of coal: its extraction does not require large numbers of workers, and since it can be piped over great distances, it does not need a vast workforce for its transportation and distribution.  This is probably why its effects, politically speaking, have been the opposite of those of coal.  That this might be the case was well understood by Winston Churchill and other leaders of the British and American political elites … indeed, fear of working-class militancy was one of the reasons why a large part of the Marshall Plan’s funds went toward effecting the switch from coal to oil”.

Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 7

Gas, is, of course, as fluid as oil, and as attractive to neoliberal governments in Westminster and Stormont in both production and supply.  I shall be surprised if the so-called fracking ban (in reality only a policy announcement) in England and Wales survives the new majority.  Meanwhile the favoured interviewees for vox pops on Friday were middle-aged and elderly ex-miners or their relatives confirming their ‘unprecedented’ Tory votes.  The fact that the ‘hard left’ policies which they now repudiated with horror were the centrist status quo of the 1970s did not occur either to them or their interviewers. 

In the final section of the book, Ghosh identifies contemporary politics as ‘for many, a search for personal authenticity, a journey of self-discovery’, facilitated by the ‘Protestantism without a God [which] commits its votaries to believing in perfectibility, individual redemption, and a never-ending journey to a shining city on a hill – constructed, in this instance, not by a deity but by democracy’. If he is right, this has two effects: on politicians themselves and on voters.  Politicians fail, of course, to be perfect, but the extent of their shortfall gradually ceases to be measured.  There is no such thing as political disgrace, only a brief sojourn in the well-rewarded sin bin.  Meanwhile, for voters, the search for authenticity may take them down long and tortuous paths, into activism and personal sacrifice.  But the cities which shine the brightest are built not by democracy but by commerce.  The identity which is reflected back by every one of those gleaming surfaces, and especially in December, is that of the consumer.  Any other, such as that of the former miners, is, for present purposes, irrelevant. Given the choice between the jolly Ghost of Christmas Past, laden with mince pies and bonhomie, and the accusing spectres of Present and To Come, what sensible shopper would choose the latter? 

It isn’t, of course, the full story.  Millions of people resisted the narrative, especially the young, and others for whom identification as a consumer would be a hollow joke.  And the contexts in both Northern Ireland and Scotland were completely different, with correspondingly different results.  But the current House of Commons, UK-wide and therefore dominated by the largest country, with its first-past-the-post electoral system, gives huge influence to a small number of voters.  Those voters, ‘swing’, ‘floating’, whatever we call them, are those most susceptible to media messaging, both overt slogans like ‘Get Brexit Done’ and the quiet whispers of comfort and conformity.   What the next five years will do to that comfort, we don’t know.

Meanwhile, as Maurice has written, there is much that we can do, both within and outside party politics, making the case for a fairer and better functioning electoral system, supporting regional and local initiatives for a better future and campaigning for justice, compassion and effective action in the overlapping crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, exclusion and inequality.  And, as Ghosh and others have reminded us, we need to do all this not only on a political level, but by rooting deep and branching wide, including story, art, history and every other activity by which we define and celebrate our shared identity, not as mere consumers, but as human beings.

Tanya Jones

15 December 2019


[1] University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Festina Lente: why we need to hurry slowly to learn the lessons of the election

A machine-gun nest in the town square, Newtownards, the day after the election

In the first of a double bill of posts reflecting on the general election, Maurice argues that we need to take time to think carefully about the implications of the results, but, paradoxically, that we have to do so quickly.

As I set out to the shops in Newtownards yestrday morning, I came across a machine gun nest in the town square – “Already?” I thought, before realising it was a recruitment exercise by the Royal Irish Regiment.

But make no mistake, the guns will be out, metaphorically speaking at least, and potentially even literally, here in Northern Ireland, for reasons we’ll come to.

The general election result – let’s face it, a major victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, even if won by probably the most deceitful campaign of my living memory – will inevitably call forth much soul searching and recrimination on the left. The former would be much better than the latter, but the metaphorical machine guns are already blazing, with some commentators interpreting the result as a rejection not just of Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, but of Corbynism, which they take to mean his whole suite of policy positions.

It’s inevitable, but it’s still a mistake. To be sure, the bold policies set out in the Labour manifesto were not universally popular, but many of them – nationalising the railways, investing in the health service – enjoyed widespread public support. So rather than use the election result as an opportunity to eject the whole lot, Labour should take some time to think carefully about what sort of policies are essential for the wellbeing of the people of the UK, and make the case for them. I’d bet quite a few of them are already pretty well worked out in the Labour manifestos of 2017 and 2019.

Constitutionally, we are in for some change. There is little to hinder a newly invigorated Boris Johnson from reversing the moves towards greater effective Parliamentary sovereignty; it won’t be long before the Scottish start to prepare for another IndyRef; and of course, there is the little matter of Brexit.

At the end of January, the UK will leave the EU on the terms set out in Boris Johnson’s deal. From a progressive perspective, this does not look good: the protections for workers and the environment we have long called for are moved out of the binding part of the agreement and into an annex; so there is every likelihood PM Johnson will be tempted to ditch them in the course of negotiating trade deals with the likes of Donald Trump.

That gives us our first post-election progressive aim: to fight to uphold those protections, to build momentum towards making it unthinkable that such protections would be ditched in favour of chlorinated chicken and higher drug prices.

But before getting into that, back to those guns, and the implications of the results for Northern Ireland. Loyalists must find themselves in a bit of a conflicted state this morning. Johnson’s victory assures them that Brexit, something they adamantly demanded, will go through. But given the deal effectively puts a border down the Irish sea, so that Northern Ireland will be in some ways more closely aligned with the Republic of Ireland than Great Britain, it is far from the form of Brexit they wanted. Indeed, on a wall near where I write this, the phrase “Smash the Bretrayal Act” is emblazoned. Incidentally, at first I thought the extra ‘r’ in ‘bretrayal’ was a mistake, but it might just be a smart double portmanteau of ‘betrayal’ and ‘Brexit’. Or perhaps not. In any case, the ‘Bretrayal Act’ in question was, of course, Johnson’s Brexit plan.

If the more militant Loyalists are angry this morning, then their political stablemates in the DUP are likely to be pretty gloomy. Perhaps it’s too much to ask that the gloom will be lightened by a little glimmer of self-awareness, as some of them realise what a monumental own-goal their stance on Europe (and indeed many other matters) has been. *

Nevertheless, in electoral terms, they have not only lost two MPs, Emma Little Pengelly in Belfast South, and Nigel Dodds in Belfast North, but they also failed to take the seat vacated by Lady Sylvia Hermon in North Down. The latter went to the Alliance Party, who had a great night, with their vote rising across the board. Indeed they pulled in over 134,000 votes in total – the lion’s share of a whopping 144,000 votes gained by avowedly non-nationalist and non-unionist parties representing what I have elsewhere called the ‘community of others’ (COO).

In contrast, both the DUP and Sinn Féin’s vote went down. Unionism as a whole is now sitting at about 43 percent of the vote, and Irish nationalism at about 39 percent, with the COO coming in at about 18 percent. We are well past the dominance of a reductive, binary-denomination model – as I have already argued here and here. Now that we roughly fall into three minorities, it could be argued that if the two traditional denominational political movements are to achieve their goals, they are going to need to win the support of the community of others. That gives the latter – not a community of identity, or denominational community, but a rainbow coalition of different people – power greater than its size might indicate. Perhaps even the DUP will realise that trying to make Northern Ireland into a place that’s good for DUP supporters is a less productive strategy than trying to make it a place that’s great for everybody. Something progressive voices have been calling for forever.

So there is room for some cautious, carefully tempered optimism in the progressive movement in Northern Ireland. Cautious and tempered, of course, because the odds are still stacked heavily against us, not least because of that thumping Conservative majority in the House of Commons.

Still, here we are. And to work out how we get from here to there, we need to sit down and think carefully about how to map out this new territory.

If it were up to me, I would therefore call everyone even vaguely progressive (and remember, this is a relative term) together into a town-hall style meeting and try to thrash out a way we could temporarily set aside some of our differences, committing to work together towards a set of agreed goals, and rising to the major challenges of our time – deepening inequality, ongoing austerity, underfunded public services and of course, the climate emergency. This is something we have argued for before – here and here.

To an extent this has already started. The Greens (and to declare an interest, I’m a member), stood aside in North Down and Belfast South with a view to maximising the chances of returning pro-EU candidates. It worked, of course (not least in North Down, where the re-directed support of almost 3,000 habitual Green voters made up the bulk of Stephen Farry’s eventual majority over the DUP). But the Brexit ship has now sailed, and we, like it or not, are among the passengers.

All the more reason for us to get together and start hammering out a plan for our destination. Where do we want to land? What sort of Northern Ireland, UK, Europe, world do we need to start working towards? What does our Utopia look like, and how do we take it out of the realm of unachievable fantasy, and begin to build, here and now, a place where inequality is reducing, not growing, where people are being lifted out of poverty, not cast onto the mercies of the food bank, where successful corporations can’t dodge their taxes to enrich a few wealthy shareholders, where racism is dying out rather than being fanned by the powerful, and where our ten-year plan to bring about a global green revolution in the economy gets kick-started.

All of that needs to be discussed in a level-headed way, without falling into momentum-killing recrimination and finger-pointing. In other words, let’s not jump to judge each other: we need to take our time to talk this over in a democratic way; but at the same time, we need to get our skates on. Some matters, not least the climate emergency, will not wait for us to win each and every one of our little ideological partisan battles.

So let’s take our time and talk, but let’s do it quickly.

Festina Lente, everyone (…and a happy New Year!

*Update, 17 December: not long after I posted this I noticed a Tweet featuring Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who was calling on Boris Johnson to invest in a bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland in order to ‘win back the trust’ of unionists. Not much of a glimmer there, then. Wilson does not seem to have noticed that the Tories no longer need the ‘trust’ of unionists. He would be much better advised to remind his fellow unionists that they need, at the very least, 51 percent support of people in in Northern Ireland if they are to achieve their goal of securing the union; and that won’t happen by riling up the base, all 43 percent of them. The DUP will have to shift from demanding that Northern Ireland is built in a way that best suits the unionist base to working with others to make Northern Ireland the sort of place most people want to live. In other words, the bridges they will have to build aren’t to Scotland, but are those to the rest of the people right here – bridges they have spent the last few decades burning.

Maurice Macartney

15 December 2019

Emergency treatment needed for our health care system itself

Showing support for our NHS staff in Ards

I stopped to chat with some of the strikers outside Ards hospital yesterday evening (Friday 6 December). After talking to Barry and Gillian (pictured left and right above) I am firmly convinced that they are absolutely right to raise urgent concerns over the state of our health service.

The media tend to focus on the issue of equal pay – and to be sure that is important; but it is only the start of a whole sequence of problems that tend to feed back and amplify each other.

So let’s start with pay. A qualified nurse in Northern Ireland starts on £22,795, whereas in Scotland they start on £24,670. Could that be one reason we are struggling to fill nursing vacancies?

And if you struggle to fill vacancies, then you end up turning more and more to agencies to supply temporary contractors. Now, the bill for contractors in the NHS in Northern Ireland was £76m in 2014-15. That rose to £134m by 2016-17, then £156m in 2017-18, then £200m. And this year the total is expected to reach £230m.

Does anyone notice a pattern?

Putting all that public money into agency staff is a bad investment. Only some of it goes to the nurses and other staff themselves – the rest goes to the agency, to cover costs and to generate profit. So as the bill rises, more and more of our public funds are going straight into subsidising somebody’s private business. That’s money that is no longer available for investing in recruiting and retaining full time, permanent NHS staff – another self-reinforcing, negative feedback loop: the more you put into external agencies the less you have for recruiting and retaining permanent staff; the fewer staff you recruit, the more vacancies you need to use agencies to fill.

To put figures on it, one nurse reckons we need an extra 3,000 nurses. How much would that cost? At the Scottish starting salary, something like £74m. In other words, the £230m we are going to spend this year would fill those posts three times over. But not a penny of it will go to nurses (or any of the other categories of staff) directly employed by the NHS.

And of course, it is not just about nurses. You need a whole team, from porters to maintenance staff, to cooks, the whole gamut of people into whose hands we entrust the health – the lives – of our children, our parents, and we ourselves.

As someone who went in for an operation (minor, thankfully) only a fortnight ago I cannot emphasise enough how courteous, professional and caring all of the staff were. What’s more, they would have given anyone the same first class treatment, from the poorest to the wealthiest, from the youngest to the oldest, regardless of gender, ethnic background, religion, sexual orientation and so on, for all of us, for all our diversity, free at the point of treatment.

That is a national treasure not to be squandered. And it is imperative that we invest urgently, to halt the wasteful spiral of outsourced spending we are currently witnessing. The longer we put this off the worse the situation will get – exponentially so.

So I urge you: remember this on Thursday, 12 December, in the privacy of the polling booth. Vote for a party that recognises the urgent situation our health services are in, and will invest in emergency treatment, before it is too late.

Maurice Macartney

7 December 2019