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The Left

Lessons from Labour’s 2021 Election Defeat

(AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

It is a crushing defeat that signals that Labour’s loss of several of its Northern constituencies under former Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the 2019 general election was not a one-off occurrence that could be fixed with a new leader.”

On Friday morning, we awoke to find that Labour had been defeated in the Hartlepool by-election by an astounding 51.9% to 28.7%, with the Tories taking a seat Labour had held since its creation in 1974. As we enter the weekend, it is becoming clear that this was just the first of many poor results for Labour following voting on “Super Thursday,” which saw local and mayoral elections take place across the United Kingdom. It is a crushing defeat that signals that Labour’s loss of several of its Northern constituencies under former Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the 2019 general election was not a one-off occurrence that could be fixed with a new leader. It seems that the working classes are—just as in the late 1970s through to the 1990s—intent on voting for the Tories, when all indications show that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government (just like Prime Ministers David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s) holds them in contempt.

The real shame here is not only that the working class has been significantly brainwashed into voting against its interests. It is not just a Tory party that brazenly flaunts its greed because journalists no longer hold them to account. The real shame is that Labour has stopped supporting the working class because it is too scared to point to the clear bogeyman in the era of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) (just as before): capitalism.

The Corbyn era was exceptional in this respect, which is why the mainstream media led non-stop personal attacks against a man who has fought for justice and equality as a member of Parliament since 1983 (the year former Prime Minister Tony Blair entered parliament). The press was terrified of a man who pointed to the mechanisms of capitalism as the cause of poverty and suffering across Britain at a time when Prime Minister Cameron’s Tories seized upon the economic fallout of the 2007 financial crisis to implement swinging cuts to welfare. When Mr. Corbyn’s Labour Party called out this cynical move, fighting the 2017 general election with a pledge to end seven years of austerity and promising investment in the National Health Service, schools, and social security, Labour slashed the Tories’ lead. This led Prime Minister May to depart and then-Member of Parliament Johnson to take over a party that ended up with no working parliamentary majority. 

As such, in late 2019, with the Tories in disarray and many of its stalwarts having been expelled from the party for rebellion (including Winston Churchill’s grandson), many fancied Mr. Corbyn’s chances in the general election. However, Labour would have to contend with two massive obstacles: Mr. Johnson’s popularity with voters and the media’s desire to crucify Mr. Corbyn out of a genuine fear of his increasingly socialist-leaning rhetoric.

The Boris factor clearly weighed heavily on Mr. Corbyn, who was regularly goaded by Mr. Johnson in parliament in 2019 for his reticence to agree to a general election despite the lack of a working majority in parliament. (This would normally precipitate an election.) Mr. Corbyn’s fears were understandable; Mr. Johnson was, after all, a hugely popular personality, known for being a political gameshow panellist on BBC’s Have I Got News for You since 1998 and as a newspaper columnist since 1987. His multiple affairs, sacking from The Times for fabricating a quotation, involvement in a plot to beat up a journalist, and racist columns have, however, failed to dent his image as an affably bumbling rogue. Given this popularity, the British establishment, including the woefully biased BBC, only had to ramp up the anti-Corbyn rhetoric—including baseless accusations of anti-Semitism and terrorist sympathizing—in order to deliver a humiliation for Labour in the 2019 general election.

What has been missed in the postmortem following the eventual 2019 general election that Labour lost was Mr. Corbyn’s open embrace of socialism during his campaign. This was not the hysterical socialism that his detractors accused him of but, rather, a socialism of the many, by the many, and for the many that seeks to replace a capitalist society run by and for the few. It is a position he was pushed towards not only by a media that was bent on preventing him from becoming Prime Minister but, as it has emerged since, the right-wing of his own party that acted against him during the electionThe irony was that by the end of the 2019 campaign, Mr. Corbyn had openly denounced capitalism in television debates, with Mr. Johnson promoting what he referred to as a socialist manifesto, perhaps accurately given its promise of broadband for all and the re-nationalization of key sectors. What this means is that tens of millions of Labour voters voted for a socialist leader against a capitalist establishment. This feat was ultimately made both necessary and possible precisely because Mr. Corbyn was given no choice but to go all in with a socialist agenda, given the odds stacked against him by the capitalist establishment and the right-wing component of Labour.

So what now for Labour?

To be sure, Brexit was a factor in Labour’s 2019 loss, though we can barely blame the referendum and its fallout for Labour’s latest electoral calamity. Indeed, given the scale of Labour’s electoral defeat in Hartlepool and in local elections across the United Kingdom, it now seems that Labour’s fence-sitting over Brexit was the least of its deficiencies in 2019. And the greatest of its strengths (rarely acknowledged) was its shifting of the “Overton window” to allow for the entrance of socialism into British parliamentary politics, with more voters endorsing an outright leftist manifesto than had endorsed Prime Minister Blair’s victorious Labour Party. This was even despite Brexit being almost the sole factor discussed on national television news in an attempt to drown out Mr. Corbyn’s anti-capitalism.

In this light, it is difficult to see Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer’s, disastrous rebuilding of Labour as anything other than an attempt to destroy left-Labour and halt the public’s sympathies for Mr. Corbyn’s socialism. Labour’s recent embrace of nationalistic flag-waving is as defective as its constant portrayal of Mr. Starmer with a beer in his hand. Both demonstrate that Labour prioritizes meeting the public at the point it has been pushed to by the media: that is, on nationalist and populist grounds. Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg. Constant “impromptu” photoshoots aimed at portraying Mr. Starmer as a matey, pub-going man of the people only thinly veil an opposition party that is completely compliant with the status quo. And here lies the reason why Mr. Starmer’s policy offering is practically non-existent. In a nutshell, he is not offering a policy; he is offering a policy void aimed at undoing Mr. Corbyn’s clear framing of capitalism and class-based elitism as the bogeymen.

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As the working class has borne the brunt of COVID-19 infections (in part for cramped living conditions, in part for the necessity of commuting and working in densely populated spaces), this case could have been made further in the period since the 2019 vote, particularly given the gung-ho attitude of the Tories to locking down and reopening. It seemed that the economic returns were worth more than poor people’s lives (though is this not always the case under capitalism?). This point was not even seized upon by Mr. Starmer when accusations were made by Prime Minister Johnson’s aides that he had said he would prefer to let “the bodies pile high in their thousands” than lock down a second time in November. It would actually appear now that the British establishment (including the BBC) and the Murdoch media empire are more keen to get rid of Prime Minister Johnson than Labour is, having run a smear campaign against him for much of April. At this point, Mr. Starmer, who has the mandate of crushing Corbynism, does not know where to position himself when it comes to sticking the knife in Prime Minister Johnson. Though even if he did, he would have no policies of his own to follow up with.

So what now for Labour? The answer to this question is often presented as a choice between Corbynism on steroids, as the relative popularity of Britain’s most left manifesto since Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin is seized upon by the far-left of the party and by “Blue Labour.” Either extreme, however, will likely fail at the ballot box. The latter, flag-waving variant of Labour sees the party chasing a public in part brainwashed by media rhetoric, while the former variant extrapolates a position Mr. Corbyn was pushed to by that same media framing. This may have left him with no option but to go for broke and leave as his legacy the reintroduction of socialism into the British political vocabulary. This, however, is not a strategy to build future elections upon in itself.

What both visions overlook is the genuine criticality that exists within the British working class and which needs eking out if it is to overcome a sophisticated new media onslaught aimed at stopping the masses from joining the dots. What is needed is a continuation of tactics developed by the Sanders and Labour Campaigns of 2017 to 2020, which have prominently featured community organizing. Community organizing involves the real life and online listening to communities, leading to a refinement of the hopes and grievances of working people which are, in turn, presented to these communities and further refined.

In this way, the grassroots Labour movement, which still includes a considerable number of Corbynite personnel in its ranks, might get beyond the perpetual mirroring of anxieties from the media to the people and back again. In so doing, it will be possible to present events that took place during the spread of COVID-19 in the context of the history of capitalism, while contextualizing widespread wealth inequality as inevitable outcomes of capitalism that can be overcome by solidarity. Victories on Super Thursday for the social democratic Scottish National Party in Scotland and Labour in Wales suggest that all is not lost, though serious work is needed in England to prevent a further shift to the Right.

This is Labour’s role and the legacy of Jeremy Corbyn ought to lead to an entrenchment of socialist values rather than a capitulation to conservative and nationalistic positions that have been encouraged by the capitalist media. It is this approach that needs emphasis in the three years until the next general election, building on the progress that Mr. Corbyn made in shifting terminology leftwards and introducing an important critique of capitalism into the exasperated dialogue taking place daily on the street level. In doing so, we can turn people away from right-wing populism and Internet-spun conspiracy theories and onto materialism and solidarity.

Mike Watson is a theorist and critic, who is principally focused on relationships dealing with culture, new media, and politics. 

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