Theses on the 2019 General Election

Here is my attempt to cast some light on the General Election defeat.  I’ve written it as a set of “theses” to try and make the fairly complex argument concise.  I haven’t covered everything and some of this has already been said (I’ve linked some of those pieces), but here I’m trying to put together a number of frameworks for understanding.  I also suggest three things that Labour will simultaneously need to do to rebuild.  Insights from community psychology, decolonial thought, and ecosocialism should be obvious enough.  It does need a more thorough Marxian grounding, and I’ve not covered the economics of Labour’s policy platform, but that’s for another day.

  1. Labour lost because of a combination of factors.

  2. The Tory victory was a resurgence of the dominant English nationalism, what Tom Nairn, in a prescient article from 1977, called “Patrician Liberalism”.

  3. That resurgence was made possible by the steady erosion of the Labour movement’s industrial base, which led to the weakening and loss of labour movement institutions, together with the ways of living that created and maintained approximations of socialist consciousness. As Paul Mason summarises it (and you don’t have to accept his entire argument,In the end, we lost because part of the former industrial working class in the Midlands and the North has detached itself from the values that are now core to our party. That is the result of a decades long process, which began under Tony Blair,and was never going to be turned around in six weeks.” Callum Cant and Aditya Chakrabortty make similar arguments.

  4. The capture of the Labour Party by the insurgent left, meant that an internationalist, metropolitan, and largely University educated movement became the dominant culture, identity and activist membership. That constituency found it difficult to communicate to the “patriotic” (English nationalist), small c conservative, working class of the de-industrial areas. Instead, the simplistic, nationalist messages of the Tory/Brexit party machine, the illiberal, Patriotic right, the patrician (economic) liberals, of whom the paradigm example is “Boris” Johnson, found an easier resonance. Corbyn himself, the accidental leader, who also represents that internationalist socialist orientation, came unstuck in just the same way; this was why there was the typically unarticulated rejection of the “unpatriotic” man as future Prime Minister – the same thing that I experienced with regard to the more emollient Michael Foot (a left liberal / moral socialist if ever there was one), canvassing in 1983, again with an impressively transformative, and largely unread, manifesto.

  5. In that competition of ideologies, the easy option of blaming the foreigner, of pulling up the drawbridge, won out over the more complex, evidence-based and nuanced internationalist socialism of the revived Labour Party. In this way, it was indeed the Brexit election, not the Climate election, nor even the economic justice election.

  6. Despite this, this election was fought less on an overt racist platform than the EU referendum. That does not make the underpinning dynamic any less racist: the racism was unspoken. To examine this a little more, the assumption that England is somehow superior, is well ingrained. It depends on a history of colonial pillage and subsidy, that from the second half of the C19 benefited even the industrial proletariat. The erosion of the UK’s industrial base was possible, in part because of the subsidy from the colonies, and via the financial transactions of the City of London. The temporary subsidy of North Sea Oil also masked the decline in the UK’s industrial base. Sad to say, the colonial imaginary is also present, in a muted form, in Corbynite economic thinking too: Tony Norfield’s concept of national welfarism is relevant here, as are recent decolonial critiques of the Green Deal, for example that from Asad Rehman.

  7. The erosion of the industrial base was also facilitated by reforms enacted by the neoliberal turn, which exacerbated the foot-looseness of capital in general and UK capital in particular.

  8. The electoral difficulties of the British Labour Party also reflect the decline in support for social democratic parties across Europe, and beyond. Those difficulties have been masked by the First Past the Post system and by the leftward turn which meant that young militants in England joined labour whereas in continental Europe they would likely have joined Die Linke, Podemos, la France Insoumise, or Syriza.

  9. The counterfactual cases of Scotland, and Merseyside, are consistent with the Nairn thesis on English nationalism and the dominance of patrician liberalism. In Scotland there is an alternative yet broadly social democratic nationalism, one that is not attached to the imperial project of the England-Britain. The Merseyside case is different, but still live traditions of working class struggle (and a rejection of the Murdoch press) combine with a distinctive not very English cultural mix, making this struggling city more similar in political consciousness to that of the metropolitan progressive cities London, Bristol and Manchester.

  10. Labour is fundamentally an electoral machine. That does not mean that there aren’t good branches doing excellent campaigning and community-strengthening work. Nor doe it mean that there aren’t excellent examples of Labour administrations with innovative approaches to building resilient communities and local economies (Preston Labour’s community wealth building is a well known example. Hackney’s ambitious and well thought out work on greening the borough is less well known). However, Labour is still overwhelmingly an electoral machine, with its activists foot soldiers for winning elections. Of course elections are vitally important but the disillusioned voters of the former “Red Wall” postindustrial towns can hardly be blamed for thinking “it’s all very well you coming and asking for our votes but where have you been in the meantime?”

  11. In order to rebuild its mass support, Labour needs to simultaneously do several things. I suggest that these can all take place together, mutually supporting one another. That is the simultaneous construction of movement and counter-hegemonic ideology: that is, an organising set of understandings and a vision that re-interprets the world, making sense to people with diverse starting points, because it builds on what they know and experience already, adding in an organising narrative that is binding and hopeful. That has a number of components.

  12. It must be rooted, or grounded, in practical solidarity, basically community work, helping people, finding solutions, fighting exploiters.

  13. It must be imaginative: the ways of doing this won’t be the same as those of yesterday. The patterns of community life, the economic, social and environmental challenges are different and so are some of the tools that are now available.

  14. It must respond to the new challenge that will become ever more dominant, that of the climate and ecological crisis. That means tackling cold houses while expending less energy, building economic alternatives close to where people live, shock-proofing provisioning, particularly food and heat, and finding ways to use less and less energy. If we stumble into a civilisational collapse, then at least make it less dire than it might be otherwise.

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