Clearly the election result was very disappointing. Emotionally I’m taking it much better than the referendum. Possibly because it wasn’t as much of a surprise (I hoped it could be better and came up with a number of reasons why it might and the polls turn out wrong but they were broadly right).
Possibly the other reason why I’m taking it better is that I did what I could, unlike in the referendum I got out and campaigned and did my best. Mostly in the target marginal of Reading West (which we didn’t gain but got closer against national trends). We also held Reading East so my decision to work for a gain rather than defend didn’t come at a cost. I decided to go for the gain as it was clear from the start that southern gains would probably be necessary to stop a Tory majority, just holding what we had would mean defeat anyway so I worked for the gain that could have been crucial (although it didn’t happen and it wouldn’t have been crucial in the end).
Where we Failed
Brexit and Corbyn were the biggest issues. On Brexit I'm not certain we could have done MUCH better, we needed both sides but the leadership was probably slower than ideal accepting the confirmatory referendum in all circumstances. It should probably have happened after the extension to Article 50 for the European Elections and maybe there were marginally better nuanced positions to take but the Labour party really had little choice. As the YouGov poll shows much of the dissatisfaction with Corbyn was related to Brexit.
Corbyn was definitely an issue on the doorstep though much of that opposition was vague and unfocused or is some case plainly wrong. The disinformation cut through in a way that it didn’t in 2017, possibly because we got lucky then and the polling led to complacency from the Tories who maybe didn’t ramp up the disinformation early enough. I voted for Corbyn, no other Labour leadership candidate was promising anything that would have looked like the 2017 manifesto and shifted the narrative as Corbyn did. However it is clear that his baggage, particularly associations with anti-semites but also associations with the IRA were sticking this year. Many people think that Corbyn himself is anti-semitic which I would dispute but even to engage on the issue keeps people talking about it. “If you are explaining you are losing” has a fair amount of truth to it. We must be ready to replace a leader who doesn’t deserve it if that is what the cause needs. However those calling for that from the very start made that much harder.
No Clear Message
The manifesto had many good policies but we lacked a clear simple narrative. It didn’t need to be as short and deceptive as “Get Brexit Done” but we needed a message that the policies could tie into. We also should have slimmed down the manifesto or at least indicated more parts to be carried out in 2nd and 3rd terms. Setting a clear direction but being realistic in terms of government capacity. Particularly with the nationalisations my worries weren’t so much about the money but about the actual management capacity. Even the house building is likely to be limited more by building industry capacity than ability to finance it.
Policy Concerns I sat on before the election
I liked much of the manifesto, the Green New Deal commitments and the house building and social housing commitments in particular. Some other policies were less comfortable but I kept largely quiet as opposing at that point
- Employee shareholding. The principle is fine but I have real concerns about the implementation as described and the amount of assets being taken was quite large for a fairly short term step. I was also concerned about which companies would be included. Does it include privately held companies? Does it include small businesses? How does it work with multinationals? How are non-UK based employees treated. Does it discourage being registered in the UK?
- Salary cap (to 20x minimum employee salary). Again the idea itself is not the problem but the practicalities. In particular I fear that it is a massive incentive for managers to outsource the lowest paid workers (instead of paying them more or the bosses less). Again questions about how it effects non-UK companies and whether it incentivises moving senior management out of the country.
- Nationalisation. While I broadly support this I think more targeted would have been better. Maybe the trains, BT OpenReach and the National Grid with a clear message that national infrastructure should be nationally owned and developed but that it would still support private businesses on top of it while also opening the window to supporting community groups and co-ops to provide alternatives too.
- WASPI - The payment was too much. £58 Billion even as a one off is too much given current needs. I think maybe a billion or two allocated to a hardship fund that people could apply to would have been better bet. I like universalism but this would have be massive drop of helicopter money to people largely not in the greatest need. It may have been an approach to take as an alternative to Quantitative Easing in a financial crisis but 2019 isn’t the right moment for it or at least the macro-economic case wasn’t made.
Remain Campaign and Liberal Democrats
Most parts of the Remain Campaigns (exceptions include Led by Donkeys and Femi) put far too much effort into attacking and shifting the Labour Party and insufficient to actually win more public support to remain. The most effective way to shift the Labour party would anyway have been to move the voters in the Labour held leave seats, unfortunately too many were patronising and arrogant with insufficient outreach in the key places.
Most polls had remain at only around 52% which wasn't enough, I'm not sure if they imagined that Labour coming across would bring more support to remain but that never seemed likely to me. Labour were never the blockers on a referendum with a few particular exceptions and Corbyn was trapped by the party (if you take the view he was a leaver which I don't really accept). A 52% remain vote in an environment where Labour and particularly its leader has been demonised by many remainers was never going to be enough against an unsplit leave vote. Forcing Labour into performing for remainers without doing much to persuade the leavers while demonising the Labour leader as "worse than Brexit" or "as bad as brexit" was a catastrophic strategy reducing tactical voting, making brexit seem less bad or permanent than it is and making the Tory case that their brexit is better the Corbyn. I don't even really see what the upside was for the Lib Dems, they were clearly trying to win remain Tories but the cost in potential support from Labour voters was likely to be high.
The election could have gone very differently if forces that united after the summer recess had agreed to bring down Johnson with a Vote of No Confidence when he first announce prorogation and then allowed Corbyn to become PM for an interim time to gain an extension, prevent no deal. Johnson would have looked like a loser, Corbyn would have spent a few weeks being Prime Minister so being seen as Prime Ministerial and the broadcast media would have shown him in a different light. There weren't enough votes for a referendum though I think so there would still have needed to be an election but it would have been a no-deal Johnson who got removed for trying to prorogue Parliament against a remain alliance opposing no deal and offering a way out with a referendum. The main error was assuming that Johnson couldn't get something he could call a deal and then try to sell it however bad it was for the union.
Even in the election the Lib Dems could have had a clear line that "Corbyn isn't as bad as brexit" damning him with faint praise but not weakening the case against brexit. They should have focused much more attack on the brexit deal as it is rather than repeating lines for people who already oppose brexit. I saw little attempt by them to actually persuade people to change to remain, they were only trying to win remain votes.
Lib Dems Going Forward
As the stand the Lib Dems are going nowhere and doing nothing very useful to UK politics. Simon Jenkins wrote a provocative article suggesting that they disband and their members enter the Tory and Labour parties to moderate them that way. I think that is a better alternative than attempting to be halfway between the two and ending up attacking Labour more than the Tories just to prove they won't form a coalition with Corbyn but I think that they have another choice if they do want to be a serious player in British politics. That option is to decide which party they want to try to replace and move explicitly to that side of the left/right divide. For me the obvious opportunity would be to attempt replacement of the Tories by being a centre right, "pro-business" fiscally conservative sensible party and attempt to squeeze the Tories into the position of the old UKIP. The policy shift to do that is relatively modest for them but they would need to be explicit about their intention and their new positioning. Claiming to be in the centre or boasting about how progressive they are would have to go, they would have to accept losing some of their activists. A similar approach might be possible on the left to replace Labour but I think would be harder, especially if the new leader is even a little to the right of Corbyn.
The Upside of the Result
Johnson and the Tories now absolutely own Brexit and all the results from it. Labour must keep our hands clean. While accepting that it will happen we must avoid becoming complicit in it because there will be a backlash. We must point out that 53% voted for parties supporting a confirmatory referendum or revocation while recognising that in our Parliamentary democracy Johnson has the majority and the right to proceed without it but we can still ask him to trust in his deal and put it to a referendum.
Johnson also has the power to prove me wrong on other issues too. It appears that the Conservatives have moved further right, become even more unpleasant. They have gained the support of Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson. So far they have also failed to tackle muslim hatred and anti-semitism within their party. There are also signs that they want to make a series of authoritarian and anti-democratic moves, threatening the BBC and Channel 4, wanting to restrict judicial review of prerogative powers, potentially weakening human rights and workers rights legislation or even withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights, making voting harder and potentially gerrymandering the electoral map. Johnson has the majority to do these things if he chooses but also the choice not to go down as a wannabe dictator. I want him to prove my fears wrong, to show the moderation that some claim is his natural instinct. What we see will be the true nature of Johnson, largely unconstrained.
I don’t know yet who I will support who win so now is the safe time to say some things without being personal to whoever wins.
- I’m not sure any leader can be viable after 4 years of disinformation both on social media and in the right wing press. Any new leader won’t be Corbyn but they will have things that can be attacked and they will suffer a drip, drip of attack that however valid or invalid, fair or unfair will have sunk in deeply. We should be ready to drop a leader, whether they deserve it or not if we see this working.
- Whoever wins should receive support from everyone and be given a real chance for at least two years. There is no way to fully prepare for the leader role and they will be learning on the job, give them time to bed in.
- If you can’t say something supportive then shut up in public at least in terms of attacks and criticism of the leader at least for the first couple of years. They will be thrown back into the disinformation machine and do more harm than intended. This doesn’t mean that specific policies can’t be argued with, especially if they throw particular groups under the bus. If the leader has been given a real chance if the time does come to replace them people will be less bunkered and dug in from defending them over the first years. The failure to remove Corbyn belongs both to those who would defend him in any situation AND to those who attacked too early and caused the bunker attitudes that made it harder for valid criticisms to penetrate.
So that is pretty much my brain dump on the national picture. I might do a follow up on the Surrey Heath result and the campaigns at some point.
Paul Mason did a good thread on his criteria for a new leader which looks pretty good to me although for me most of these are are criteria to score against rather than absolute blockers for me especially where past errors are recognised.
THREAD: Here's my checklist for judging the Labour leadership candidates. 1/ They have to be from the left - there can be no going back to free market authoritarian politics... (full list below) pic.twitter.com/rjUXRe6RNk— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) December 17, 2019
Also see his longer pamphlet that explains the background.