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Labour Together’s Election Review

Hannah O’Rourke

15.07.2020

Labour Together convened a cross party commission to analyse why Labour lost the 2019 general election. We purposefully designed our commission to be very different from those that had gone before. This wasn’t about a single author with a predetermined view, but about establishing a shared political understanding of why Labour lost and what we must do to move forward. It was a political project as much as an analytical one.

This is why we sought to engage groups from across the movement (from Momentum to Progress), why our commissioners came from all parts of the party and why we had submissions from over 11,000 members and supporters to our survey. Rather than presenting simply a single viewpoint on our election loss, our review was an attempt to stitch together views from across the movement. Many different analyses from different factional standpoints contain some elements of truth; yes, perception of Jeremy Corbyn was a major problem, but so too was Brexit. Yes, our policies were popular when considered individually, but as a complete package they failed to land. Our job with this review was to assemble a much fuller and deeper picture of our loss because, when it comes down to it, things really are more complicated. It is our failure to confront this difficult complexity and deeper problems which has arguably brought us to our current situation.

Put simply, our report found that we lost the 2019 general election in the short term because of Brexit fracturing our electoral coalition, because of negative perceptions of our leader, and because of a manifesto which, although individual policies were popular, was as a package unconvincing, as people did not believe that Labour could deliver such a sweeping set of policies.

These short term factors catalysed much deeper, long term structural shifts over the past 20 years, which have led to a decline in Labour’s support. Our communities have shifted, our connections to voters have changed. Our presence in people’s lives is diminished and, most importantly, the deeper movement and social infrastructure of our support base is dead and hollowed out. While much of this has been due to economic and social structural shifts that lie outside our control (class distributions changing, etc), it has also arisen from our inability to respond to such shifts.

As trade union membership declined as workplaces changed - what did we do? When we started to lose the social infrastructure that supported Labour in our communities, such as working men’s clubs, what did Labour do? As people’s social and political worlds started to form online, what did we do? As party loyalty declined and our core votes decreased year after year, what did we do? Did we update our campaigning methods, our structures, our thinking? Or did we just continue to operate as we’ve always done?

Instead of facing these emerging challenges our party turned inwards. We spent a significant amount of time over the last decade fighting internal factional turf wars and failing to upgrade our creaking campaigning infrastructure. Slowly but surely, our electoral machine became unconnected from the broader Labour movement, highly bureaucratic, controlling and inflexible. Our membership numbers declined in places we have now lost, and local parties increasingly have become the hollowed-out sites of internal battles, with an all consuming focus on motions and procedures, rather than centres of campaigning or movement building within our communities.

In politics it’s often very hard to look at the deeper and more difficult questions. In opposition and in government, it is very easy to get caught up in the day,to,day business. The political landscape so often feels reactive, responding to political crisis after political crisis, with no sense of a deeper direction or thinking about how our party or our politics should evolve to meet a changing world.

Our electoral coalition has been wrenched apart, split increasingly by age, education and place. New battlelines have been drawn around cultural divisions rather than on aligned economic interests. As research from Datapraxis for our review has found, across all the thirteen groups from whichLabour can draw support, there was little opposition to many of our key economic policy positions - from redistribution and greater corporate regulation to nationalisation, a higher minimum wage, and intervention in the housing market. In contrast, a key fault line runs between the most socially liberal groups and the rest of the electorate on many social and cultural issues, including immigration, differing conceptions of justice and patriotism.

This fragmentation and new orientation of politics suits the Conservatives, as they have now formed a new voting coalition founded upon cultural rather than economic differences. This is a formation crystallised by Brexit, but one that has emerged over decades. This coalition, however, is fragile. Unlike an alliance based on a shared collective experience of economic exploitation under capitalism, this coalition defines itself by division and in opposition to an imagined or exaggerated “other side”. These cultural political forces, though powerful, are far more fragile and often temporary or populist in nature. Focused around questions of identity, the lines are more vague as cultural differences are shades of grey on a spectrum, along which people can move.

The Conservatives know that the key to victory is in holding this cultural coalition together, and they will continue to activate successive culture wars focused around polarising issues to strengthen this - arguably temporary - alignment. The more they create differences and stoke the extremes, the longer the Conservative vote is consolidated. Labour must develop a response to proactively counter this strategy, which diffuses the extremes without surrendering our progressive values.

This is not impossible to achieve. Deep down it is important to recognise that there are areas of relative consensus on progressive and cultural issues - some of them hard fought for. Equal marriage is now comparatively uncontroversial and accepted, consistent with polling data that indicates that views around sexuality, gender and race equality have converged to a consensus over recent decades.

Furthermore our citizens’ panel, convened by Britain Thinks, which brought together “urban remainers” and “town leavers” in a coalition building exercise, shows that it is possible using deliberative methods to form some consensus on enough shared priorities to overcome differences. During the session we found a strong and unifying desire among all participants for economic transformation of their lives. This was particularly notable in relation to issues which affect their personal security and daily living; issues ranging from social housing and rent controls, to decent pay and living standards, as well as significant investment in places; their local high streets, town centres and employers.

Though difficult issues like Brexit and immigration needed to be navigated, there was ultimately a desire for understanding and compromise among both groups. “Urban remainers” were willing to listen to concerns of leave voters, particularly in the context of a desire for Labour to rebuild its coalition. For the “town leavers” there was an acknowledgement of the benefits of immigration, and their demands were not as far-reaching as some may think - their main concern was that there should be fair and transparent rules.

Though it was not for our Commission to resolve these very difficult questions, we could conclude that the dialogue around these issues begun in our workshop offers a strong starting point for continued work for Labour. Future deliberative workshops and practices must be embedded within our politics and our movement. This work is essential to forming our future voting coalition, as through it we can develop a shared set of economic priorities firmly rooted in people’s lives that will lead to radical change, alongside a steady diffusion of perceived extreme differences on cultural issues.

This kind of deliberative democratic practice is not the same as a simplistic, short term “focus grouping” of policies or positions and abstracting the lessons; it  is a deeper bringing together of people and a process of constructing a shared vision for the country and for our communities. As a party we need to do this at scale, building bridges between different groups and forming deeper roots within the areas we hope to represent. This is no quick fix, as to build a coalition of voters and a genuine mass movement of support for Labour requires hard political work and time.

To achieve this we need to create a party and a broader movement that is capable of doing this hard political work and this requires a deeper transformation. It means a Labour Party that is looking outwards to the public, with open local party meetings focused on building roots in our communities, and not just on internal fights and elections. It means a Labour Party that works more relationally, not transactionally, that embraces longer-term community organising, and moves to more persuasive forms of campaigning both online and offline. It means a Labour Party that is willing to embrace a new culture and way of working, rooted in a digital transformation that is more flexible, empowering and open to innovation.

The final chapter of our review proposes 43 recommendations with concrete details of how we could build this kind of party. It requires change to be implemented at all levels by people from across our movement, from local party members to our elected representatives to our Trade Unions. Mobilising our movement to achieve these goals must be our next step. Our route back to power requires us to face the difficult challenges and the deeper complexity of our changing political world. It cannot be solved with quick fixes or short cuts, but must be built over the next four years by a united party, set on getting Labour into government. It will not begin or end with this review. Our document was just the start of a much longer journey which will require all of us to play our part.

Hannah O’Rourke is Acting Director of Labour Together. Labour Together is a network for activists from all traditions of the Labour movement to explore new ideas and thinking on the future of the left.

Read the full report here.

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