Reflections on the election

Election 2019

I suspect hundreds of thousands of words of analysis have been written on what went so terribly wrong in the recent election, most of them by people better qualified than I to make sense of it all. But I guess we each have to come to terms with it in our own way, and my process inevitably involves writing about it …

There have been a lot of people arguing that we shouldn’t seek simplistic answers, and you’d expect me to agree – but at the same time we do, I think, have to face the fact that there were three simple and undeniable factors at play. We do ourselves no favours by ignoring that fact.

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour campaigners acknowledge that one of the main reasons they heard over and over again for not voting Labour was Jeremy Corbyn.

Now, let me make my own position clear. I think Corbyn is a thoroughly decent man, and a principled one. The picture painted by the right-wing media was an absurd caricature. Take the ‘IRA sympathiser’ nonsense. He recognised far earlier than most that nothing was going to change until we sat down and talked to the IRA. Peace was eventually achieved by doing exactly that. It took foresight, courage and pragmatism to do so as early as Corbyn did.

But … I also think he was a poor party leader and an obvious electoral liability, and that fact was in no doubt by 2017. Labour should have ditched him then. That it failed to do so was a huge mistake, and that mistake played a massive role in the result of the election two years later.

Brexit

The Tories had a simple message: Get Brexit Done. Yes, it was a ridiculous, stupid and completely misleading slogan. But it was a simple, appealing message.

Against that, Labour had … nothing. For most of the time leading up to The Brexit Election, the Labour Party had literally nothing to say about Brexit. By the time it did finally decide what it was going to say, it was that it wanted a second referendum but wasn’t going to campaign either for or against. That was an utterly ridiculous position to adopt.

I get it. Labour felt it was in a no-win position. With the country split down the middle, and many of its own heartlands having voted Leave, Labour was terrified to take a stand. But its failure to do so turned out to be the worst of all possible worlds. Leavers were faced with Get Brexit Done versus … nothing. Remainers were left with a party that was failing to take a stand on the most important issue to face the UK for a generation or more.

Lack of clear messages

The Labour manifesto was fantastic. (Ok, some might say that was true in a literal sense – the ‘costing’ was laughably optimistic – but the Tory manifesto economic assumptions were even more so.)

It set out a genuinely different vision for the future of our country. It recognised that there is little point in economic growth and theoretical prosperity if the ordinary people see little benefit from it. It set out a bold plan with concrete proposals to not only tackle climate change, but to exploit the economic opportunities that creates.

Labour’s manifesto was also more economically literate than the Tory one, recognising that the way to restart growth in a still-difficult economy is via government investment. It debunked the nonsensical comparison of a country to a household budget. It was, as I say, optimistic, but if Labour had been able to afford even a third of what it promised, we’d all have been living in a substantially improved country – and a massively more civilised one.

But nobody got to hear any of that. Let’s face it, the percentage of the population that reads the party manifestos is, well, you and me. And even I didn’t read all of it. What Labour needed to do was distill the headline points from 105 pages into a single page of A4. Yep, I hate soundbites too, but you can’t fight emotionally-satisfying soundbites like Get Brexit Done with thousands of words.

Freeze taxes for ordinary people; slightly increase taxes for those on over £80k. Keep NHS services run by the NHS. Fit sprinklers to all council and housing association high-rise buildings to prevent another Grenfell. Build 150,000 new social homes each year, and impose rent caps on private rentals. End rough sleeping within five years.

And so on. But not on and on. Not fucking free broadband! Stick to the essentials, and distil them into single sentences. And keep repeating them over and over again, however much that might drive me mad, because it’s what works.

That’s not the whole story, but it’s 80% of it

Yes, it’s more complex than that. But if I were putting money on it, I’d say those three factors account for at least 80% of the result.

Back to Brexit …

I repeatedly criticised Labour for its Brexit fence-sitting. It seemed to me the worst possible stance it could take: it was failing to energise the Remainer vote while still leaving Leavers feeling the party was vacillating. But I will readily admit that I had absolutely no idea just how disastrous the fence-sitting would prove to be.

Look at where Labour lost seats to the Tories: Leave constituencies. And, contrary to Johnson’s spin, this wasn’t an overwhelming shift to the Tories; it was an overwhelming abandonment of Labour.

The Tory vote only increased by 269k; the Labour vote dropped by more than 2.5 millionThe Tories didn’t win this election: Labour lost it.

Now, I fully admit I was asking Labour to take a gamble. I was asking it to have the courage of its convictions and say this:

The referendum was based on lies and deception. £350M/week to the NHS, easiest trade deal in history, remaining in the single market, and so forth. We now know none of that was true. The Johnson deal will lead to a hard Brexit a year from now – and that will be a disaster for the economy, for jobs, for the lives of ordinary people. So we think it’s a bad idea – but you should get to make that decision, now you know the facts. That’s why we’ll offer you a referendum on the deal, and why we will campaign to remain.

But it turned out that sitting on the fence was also a gamble – and one in which Labour lost everything.

What now?

I’d like to end this post with an upbeat message. A proposal about where we go from here. But I don’t have either right now.

Labour was wrong – but so was I. I was consistently optimistic about how this was going to end. After May failed to get her deal through three times, it seemed to me a second referendum was the only way out. I underestimated just how far Johnson was willing to go to pursue his own ambition and just how little he cared about fucking the country to achieve it. He truly is our very own Trump. A more articulate version for sure, but no less ruthless and unprincipled.

Right now, I can’t see any way out. Brexit will happen. The best option I see is waiting until the public sees the true extent of the disastrous mistake it has made, and is ready for a campaign to rejoin the EU. At which point we just have to hope we’re able to get anything close to the sweetheart deal we had before, and that we can repair the economic, social and human damage within a decade.

There are some reasons for optimism, in respect of both the Tories and Labour.

Johnson no longer needs either the DUP or the ERG. He can, should he wish, adopt a more sane course than we could have expected with a smaller majority. Perhaps he doesn’t want to go down in history as the man who comprehensively destroyed our economy. Maybe he’ll avoid a hard Brexit.

And on the Labour side, Corbyn may have been the wrong leader for election campaigns, but he was a huge force for good in terms of energising the party and giving it a new vision. And we now have a credible pool of alternative Labour leaders.

I’m not yet ready for more optimism than that. But give me some time.

Photo: Jeff Over/BBC

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