The Battle to Frame the Defeat

The Battle to Frame the Defeat

Four responses to the UK’s general election.

Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn arrive for the state opening of parliament, December 19, 2019 (Hannah McKay - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Katrina Forrester

Over the last weeks and months, much has been said on the British left about the importance of optimism of the will. I was born in Thatcher’s Britain, grew up in Blair’s, and when I first used my vote after the Iraq War it was inconceivable that it would go to the Labour Party or that electoral politics offered any grounds for hope (I voted Green). Corbynism lit up a generation who had never let itself hope for anything. The shock of its failure is profound.

And failure it is. There were failures of tactics, skill, and style. The leadership lacked credibility, charisma, fight. It couldn’t cope with the press onslaught. The challenges of the Brexit predicament and its split constituency proved too great. On the doorstep, Corbyn was unpopular. Much of this had long been anticipated, yet it seemed there was only one way for the left to hold: Corbynism without Corbyn appeared unfeasible. It turned out that the political vision and the magnificent ground game were insufficient, despite both promising and delivering more than 2017, when a left government became imaginable, if not possible.

Corbynism’s manifesto—all we had ever longed for!—itself became a credibility issue. In British politics, manifestos exist to be implemented within a single term; as the love affair with its pledges drowned out priorities, Labour’s looked more like a wish list than a plan for government. Though the policies were popular, the campaign was limited, and the inspirational canvassing struggled to cut through. A few weeks is not long enough to turn critics into comrades. Corbynism may ultimately be focused on a long march through the institutions (what’s left of them), but it also derives its model of change from a utopian horizon of transformation that endows events like campaigns with spectacular potential and ideological force. That model proved ineffective. A frustrated British public that knows full well that Brexit is the immediate transformation on our horizons remained unconvinced by the others Labour promised. Labour’s NHS campaign polled well, but for some who find hope in Brexit, it may well also have looked like another Project Fear. For the liberal Europhile center (whose representation has now collapsed) the promises were the wrong ones. In the face of getting on with things, the best hopes of the left acquired an air of desperation—and when things look desperate, undecideds stay home.

Now the battle to frame the defeat and to control the Labour Party rages. The diagnosis matters—for how the opposition will be led, for how the Brexit narrative will be defined, and for the funding of the Party’s organization and its strategy for rebuilding. With centrism also in disarray (though not, apparently, humbled), the risk is not only a return to the center but a ceding of ground to nationalism and an Americanization of British politics via a culture war. How is the tumbling of the “red wall,” the loss of the regions known as Labour’s “heartlands,” to be understood? Though we know where Labour lost votes, we don’t really know whose votes they lost or where they went. In Leave constituencies, Labour was abandoned by both Remainers and Leavers. Information about the social bases of political parties is hard to gather, and adequate answers require understanding how class is changing and how the recomposition of classes relates to their political representation. The explanations of the toxic Blue Labour wing of the Party, which frame Corbynism as a metropolitan liberal elite phenomenon that lost its Northern English and Welsh working-class base (coding the working classes as white and the black, brown, immigrant, urban, precarious poor as non-existent), must be resisted not only as racist but outdated.

Suburbanization and urbanization have transformed the heartlands; new forms of precarity have recast the electoral map. The monsters of deindustrialization are more complex than the old pictures suggest. The cities are cauldrons of visible, drastic inequality and acute deprivation, which make social change seem necessary but also possible. Outside them, in towns largely deserted by the young, both ageing poor and affluent, home-owning, pensioners experience crumbling infrastructure, invisible or dysfunctional local government, and decay. Somehow the Labour Party has to represent many of these constituencies, to earn their trust, at a time when its continued losses in Scotland make victory seem far off. There will be choices to be made about how and where to rebuild. Nostalgia does not help us make out a path forward.

What will happen to the left? Amid the admissions of guilt and the recognition that 2017 may have been an outlier, it is vital to insist that a good deal of what made the leadership unpopular is tied to a politics worth defending. What that defense will look like is up for grabs. Many will insist on a Continuity Corbynist candidate. Others will break rank. Corbynism draws much of its strength from an anti-capitalist left with little experience of party discipline and less loyalty to a leadership that they defended ferociously, despite qualms, and that has now let them down. But whoever leads, there are battles ahead—over the Party, the Union, and to hold the government to account for the consequences of the neoliberal Brexit that will consume British political life and state capacity. We’ll need optimism of the will more than ever.

Keith Kahn-Harris

In offline and online conversations with fellow UK residents, what has struck me most is how this election felt different to previous ones. That is partly because the stakes were so high; depending where you stood, December 12 seemed to be the last chance to stop Brexit or to make it happen, to prevent an antisemitic IRA sympathizer or a pathological liar from taking power, to save the National Health Service, and so on.

Yet it wasn’t just the high stakes that made this election feel different. It was also that it took place after months and years of relentless political turmoil, which has rumbled on and flared up repeatedly since the Brexit referendum in 2016. Both early spring and early autumn of this year were dominated by political brinkmanship in parliament as we approached deadlines—subsequently extended—to leave the European Union. These periods were dominated by endemic uncertainty. It was unclear when any of this turbulence would come to an end.

Turbulence and uncertainty has not been confined to the Brexit issue. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party has been dogged by attacks from within the party as well as outside it since his election in September 2015. Whether the issue was antisemitism, Brexit, or political differences, the conflict never seemed to resolve.

For Jews like me of course—whether the minority who defended Corbyn or the majority who opposed him—antisemitism was often the issue, the source of turbulence. 2019 saw the Labour crisis over antisemitism finally tip over into irresolvability, with Jewish MPs leaving the party and many of those who had earlier resolved to “stay and fight” essentially giving up. In 2019 antisemitism became bigger than Jews and the degree of attention paid to it was disquieting and enervating for Jews. For non-Jewish voters it is still unclear what sort of part it played in Labour’s defeat. But at the very least it added to the sense of a party in turmoil, of a leadership unable to control its followers.

So above all, wherever you were situated politically in the UK, the last few years have been exhausting. This sense of exhaustion isn’t something many pundits have highlighted, but it is the most striking commonality I have found in the many conversations I have had since the election. And attention to the political implications of this exhaustion is not only required in the UK, it is also an important takeaway for those observing from other countries.

The right has become adept at using this exhaustion for political ends. The relentless tsunami of lies told by Donald Trump led to a dilemma—either chase all of them down and risk burnout, or acquiesce into apathy and nihilism. Boris Johnson seems to have followed a similar strategy. His repetition of the slogan “Get Brexit Done” spoke to those who were tired of the issue. Johnson’s evident unfitness for leadership didn’t matter, as long as he could bring an end to uncertainty.

This feeling was never recognized by the passionate grassroots of the Corbynite movement. Going out and knocking on doors is action driven by hope—hope that you can change people’s minds, hope that the future can be better. It’s not a passive hope, but a hope that can only be enacted through continuous work. One of the reasons why this movement proved so out of tune with many voters was that this prospect of there being no end to the work of politics could never compete with the desire for peace and quiet.

We have to take exhaustion seriously as a political variable. Right now, those offering the illusory hope of escape from the work of politics are winning. Political judgements are being made by people who are stressed and tired. I doubt that the world is going to calm down any time soon. So the question becomes: how can we provide the mutual aid and self-care that will give us the stamina to engage politically with the world in all its complexity and difficulty?

Pragna Patel

This election result was the stuff of nightmares. I had dared to hope for a hung parliament. The margin by which Boris Johnson and his right-wing cohorts won shocked me, but what alarmed me the most was the extent to which cynicism and nationalist populism—which has seen a worldwide surge—has taken hold in the UK.

The night after the election, Southall Black Sisters (SBS), the London-based non-profit I work for, held a long-planned party to celebrate forty years of survival and struggle. SBS was founded to highlight and challenge all forms inequality and gender-related violence against black and minority women, empower them to gain more control over their lives, live without fear of violence, and assert their human rights to justice, equality, and freedom. I used the occasion to remind ourselves that even in darkness good things can be achieved. We can’t afford to descend into utter despair and hopelessness. We need to find ways of moving forward instead of squandering our resistance by drowning in feelings of loss, sadness, and fear.

It is not as if we have not experienced black days like this before. After all, SBS was born under the all-consuming shadow of Thatcherism. Throughout the four decades of SBS’s existence, we have achieved positive change despite often working in dire political and economic contexts.

At SBS, we are fortunate to work with women whose courageous everyday battles for freedom, justice, and rights inspire us and keep us grounded. They have jumped over a great many obstacles. We have learned so much from our users: how to call out injustice when we see it, how not to take “no” for an answer, and how not to feel beholden to power. But perhaps more than anything, they have taught us to collect the political residue that builds up from everyday acts of resistance and use it to construct a collective politics of dissent and hope. Dissent is necessary to speak truth to power, and hope is necessary to counter the dominant and pessimistic ideologies of hate and violence that are raging all around us.

At this moment in history, I find refuge and comfort in the wisdom of these words by the American historian Howard Zinn:

And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

Kojo Koram

The fall of the “red wall” has become the epitaph for this election. The success of Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in winning seats across the north of England seems to have redrawn the UK’s political map. From Lancashire to South Yorkshire to County Durham, many voters in what were once called Labour’s heartlands have now sided with a Conservative Party that they had been allergic to for generations.

Easy comparisons have been made to Trump’s 2016 victories in the American Rust Belt. The script for explaining rightward political shifts is one we are becoming familiar with across the West: post-industrial decline, opposition to immigration and globalization, abandonment by a metropolitan elite. Identikit prescriptions are also offered to leftist parties everywhere. To find electoral success today, the argument goes, the great social democratic parties of the twentieth century must shun cosmopolitan values and embrace nativism.

This is the path the Labour Party is now being pushed down. Never wanting to miss an opportunity for self-flagellation, centrist Labour politicians are arguing that the party lost these northern seats, alongside seats in Wales and the Midlands, because they lost touch with the culture of these heartland regions. Even if Labour’s economic policies offered improved lives for these voters, they forgot that this culture is, and always has been, socially conservative. Family, nation, traditional gender roles, these are the things that supposedly matter to “real” people. If Labour wish to recover lost seats, they need to give up on multiculturalism, diversity, international solidarity, and other trendy terms only metropolitan liberals care about.

I was raised in the North, but this picture now being drawn, often by smug London commentators, is not one I recognize. It is also not a picture that fits the region’s history, a history marked by a remarkable tradition of working-class internationalist solidarity. Take Lancashire, a region built on cotton: In 1862, Lancashire mill workers boycotted all cotton that had been sent over from the slave plantations of the American South. Lincoln himself would later thank the “working men of Manchester” for the role they played in the war against the Confederacy. Three-quarters of a century later, the working men of not only Manchester, but also Yorkshire, Merseyside, and Tyneside would voluntarily leave their homes and families to fight the rise of European fascism in the Spanish Civil War. Rather than being closed off to the world, for most of the twentieth century, the North was home to anti-apartheid organizers, anti-racist defence groups, and Irish solidarity campaigns.

Meanwhile, Northern England produced an artistic culture that is the polar opposite of the insular, dour-faced, “we don’t like your kind around here” dreams of the Nigel Farages of this world. Postwar Britain was turned upside down by Northern artists. Writing in their own voices but displaying an almost arrogant entitlement to the intellectual avant-garde, the “kitchen sink” plays of Shelagh Delaney or Bill Naughton, or the novels of Keith Waterhouse or John Braine, showed Northern culture to be just as broad-minded as that which came from the gilded halls of Oxbridge.

The North’s literary output was further eclipsed by its music. The industrial supply lines that had brought goods and commodities to these heartlands had brought with it albums and records. Facing industrial decline from the mid-twentieth century onwards, the North became the engine room of British popular music, producing not only world conquering chart-toppers like the Beatles or the Arctic Monkeys but also left-field innovators like Joy Division, Pulp, or Echo and the Bunnymen. Wigan Casino housed an authentic Northern Soul scene where kids from across the region would travel to dance through the night to Black America’s latest R&B. Music formed a huge part of Northern self-identity—idiosyncratic, experimental, and always in search of the new.

Growing up in North West England in the 1990s felt like growing up in the center of the world, such was the sporting and cultural dominance of the region. People actually believed that, as Blair’s election campaign song put it, “things [could] only get better.” But despite the peppy optimism of its adverts, New Labour abandoned the North. Recent disillusion with the party owes a greater debt to Blair’s third way politics than supposed cultural discomfort with Corbyn’s cosmopolitanism. Bowing to xenophobia and cultural conservatism is far from the only way for Labour to try to win back the North. There is a spirit of intellectualism, internationalism, and innovation that has always been there and is waiting to be recovered.

Katrina Forrester teaches political theory at Harvard and is the author of In the Shadow of Justice: Postwar Liberalism and the Remaking of Political Philosophy.

Pragna Patel is a founder of Southall Black Sisters. She worked as a co-ordinator and senior case worker for SBS from 1982 to 1993 when she left to train and practice as a solicitor. In 2009 she returned to SBS as its director. She has been centrally involved in some of SBS’ most important cases and campaigns around domestic violence, immigration and religious fundamentalism. She has also written extensively on race, gender and religion.

Dr Keith Kahn-Harris is a Senior Lecturer at Leo Baeck College, London, and a Fellow of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research. His latest book is Strange Hate: Antisemitism, Racism and the Limits of Diversity (Repeater 2019).

Kojo Koram teaches at Birkbeck School of Law, University of London and has written for The GuardianThe NationHuffington PostMedia Diversified and Novara Media, amongst others. He was born in Accra, Ghana and moved to the UK in early childhood, raised mainly on Merseyside. He gained his PhD in 2017 and was awarded the prestigious Julien Mezey Award by the Association for the Study of Law, Culture and the Humanities. He is the editor of the book, The War on Drugs and the Global Colour Line, to be published with Pluto Press in March 2019.