Earlier this year I attended The World Transformed event during Labour party conference in Brighton. One of the speakers, during a session on education, a University Senior Lecturer, described himself as part of the working class struggle. I was taken aback. Lecturer salaries at his institution average at £43,520, 50% more than the national average salary. His stance seemed at odds with his position of privilege.
The day after Labour’s election defeat, I had Whatsapp conversations with colleagues in Labour who disagreed with me that the purpose of a political party is to win and exercise power. They reflect a view from the founder of Momentum that winning elections is a bourgeois concept. What matters is ideological purism, whatever the outcome.
What do these views have in common? They are a kick in the teeth to actual working class communities that will be hugely impacted by five more years of Tory rule. It also shows how far Labour has lost touch with these communities. Here’s the rub. Labour has a leadership that is most comfortable when talking about poverty and inequality in this country, and is clearly deeply committed to addressing this, rightly so. But many of the people who stand most to gain did not respond to Labour’s message.
Many working class people don’t want to intellectualise the issue – not because they can’t or don’t care – but because they want to get on with their lives, have a better future for their kids, and have politics as little in their life as possible. I should know. I grew up in a housing estate, in one of the poorest communities in Edinburgh. I spent much of my early adulthood trying to distance myself from my roots. Now I am no longer working class, I feel more comfortable with my roots, perhaps because I now enjoy the privileges of being University educated and knowing I can make a comfortable living as self-employed. I also have the hidden privileges of being a white heterosexual man. Labour’s manifesto had nothing to say about aspiration to people like me or millions of others.
My fear is that the current Labour leadership, and many in the party, have doubled down on their core beliefs, rather than reflecting that perhaps they or their messages don’t really resonate with the working class and their aspirations.
So what are people where I grew up concerned about? Yes, they worry about making ends meet (as we sometimes did). Yes, they worry about the NHS, education and crumbling public services. But they also worry about crime. They are patriotic. Like me, they want to get ahead, but don’t see that the role of government is to create jobs for everyone. The Tories were laser focused on the issues that generally concern people. Labour’s message of re-nationalisation didn’t resonate with the people I grew up with.
What do we say to the voters that just elected Boris Johnson, despite the lies, deception and skull duggery of his campaign, not to mention potential Russian support? Without trying to understand why people voted this way, we will fall into the trap (which the Tories did after Labour won in 1997) of insulting the people who have lent their vote to the Tories. I see many Labour members abusing their party colleagues because they have a different view, and telling them to get out, many of whom may do just that. If we don’t level with people, listen to them and learn from them, we may never win them back.
Where should we go from here? On Twitter, WhatsApp and among members, two different conversations are taking place, each in their own echo chamber. Those loyal to Jeremy Corbyn want to blame it on the right-wing media, which of course had a significant effect, but don’t want to consider the fact that poor leadership, concerns around economic componence, dithering on our Brexit position, antisemitism, and a 100+ page manifesto was at the heart of our problems. Whether you agree that offering a second referendum was the key issue (I don’t), we failed to have a clear position, or even to talk about, the single biggest issue of the day. As a result, Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” position was completely unchallenged.
On the other hand, the result has been used as an excuse for many from the Blairite wing to say ‘I told you so’. Their argument is that we need to learn the lessons from Blair, as the only leader to have won an election for Labour in the last 45 years. Of course, there are lessons to learn. But 2019 is not 1997. Since 1997, there has been a dramatic increase in the share of income going to the top, and a sharp decline in share going to those at the bottom. We now have zero hours contracts, a climate emergency, and have suffered 10 years of austerity. Returning to the past is not a prescription for the future.
My hope? That all wings of Labour Party, including Corbynism and Progress, can come together, honestly reflect on why we actually lost, take the cottonwool out of our ears, and build a broad coalition. Otherwise, we risk a prolonged period of bitter infighting and being out of power for a long time to come. And if we are truly about a fairer society, Labour would wholeheartedly embrace Electoral Reform, something missing from our 2019 manifesto.
Labour activist, former Councillor and Parliamentary Candidate
Co-founder, ShandClarke International Development consultancy
Written on 20th December 2019