People are still furiously debating where exactly it went wrong for the Labour Party in last week’s election but there is a near universal consensus that Jeremy Corbyn must take a large part of the blame. Dislike of Corbyn put large numbers of voters off voting Labour. The party clearly needs a new leader and a new direction if it is ever to stand a chance of regaining power. Amid all the anger and recriminations I feel compelled to put my head above the parapet and admit that I was one of the people—one of the 250,000—who voted for Corbyn in the leadership contest in 2015. It troubles me that for the last four years there has been no real effort on the part of the centre and centre-left to understand why so many people made that decision. Corbyn supporters are easily dismissed as “Corbynistas”, Trotskyists or Marxists trying to transform the country into a socialist utopia. That doesn’t describe me at all and I am sure I am far from alone.
In 2014 I returned to the UK after fifteen years of living in the Netherlands. The 2015 election was the first I’d voted in since 1997. While living abroad I’d felt that the UK was basically on the right track under Blair’s and then Brown’s government and I’d grown complacent that Labour would remain in power for the foreseeable future. The 2010 election took me by surprise and then for five years I followed the harm that Cameron’s coalition was doing to the UK—the growing numbers of food banks, the underfunding of the NHS, the anti-European rhetoric. Every time I returned home it seemed that a despairing greyness was taking hold everywhere. Shops were closing down in town centres, roads were full of potholes and rubbish, people were getting angrier and more resentful. In 2015 I voted for the first time in 18 years, very much hoping that Ed Miliband was going to win. I think he would have made a very good prime minister.
But he lost and I had to conclude that it was for a large part because he hadn’t fought hard enough against the central pillars of the Coalition: austerity and extreme fiscal responsibility. Miliband’s manifesto was certainly far more progressive than what Cameron was promising, yet he and Ed Balls were so scared that Labour was viewed as economically irresponsible that they didn’t dare to challenge the Tories on the most crucial issues.
Throughout the Coalition years I’d read critique after critique of the government—in papers like the Guardian—arguments by columnists, political thinkers and economists that austerity was a political choice, that it was counterproductive and spreading misery and suffering, that even the Tories’ management of the economy was a disaster. Yet few in the Labour Party were making that case to the public and Ed Miliband certainly wasn’t. He fought the 2015 election promising to get the deficit down and to balance the budget. I watched in despair as this strategy only entrenched the idea that the Tory approach had to be the right one for the country.
Miliband barely even challenged the lie that Labour overspending was to blame for the economic crisis the country had found itself in at the start of the decade. Again, article after article in the centre-left press, exposed this argument for the nonsense that it was. But still, during the election campaign, Cameron went around the country pretending that he always carried that note from Liam Byrne in his pocket, the one he’d left in the Treasury saying that the money had run out; pretending that he actually thought it was true. And Labour let him get away with it.
The moment when the bleakness of their position really hit home came during one of the TV debates. A member of the audience confronted Miliband with the accusation that Labour had crashed the economy. It wasn’t his answer that troubled me. He gave a vigorous defence, pointing out that there had been a global financial crisis in 2008 and that Britain had been harder hit than most countries because of its reliance on financial services. What made my heart sink was his surprised expression as though he was hearing the attack for the very first time. People in the press and social media had been refuting the argument for years but it hadn’t cut through to much of the public. Many people had been taken in by the Conservative line and Labour had timidly allowed it to happen.
So, after the election and Miliband’s resignation what I was hoping for in a new Labour leader was somebody who would stand up against austerity and really fight against the Tory agenda. Somebody who would take the enormous body of criticism of the Tories in the media, and on social media, and use it to attack the government and to persuade the public that another, more hopeful course was possible. It’s easy to forget now, but the three main contenders for the leadership, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall were all seeking to continue Miliband’s approach or, worse, to shift Labour’s position even further toward that of the Conservatives, the very strategy that had just failed. It’s too easy now to say that people like Jess Philips or Keir Starmer would have made better leaders. Neither were running then. And Yvette Cooper, who has shown real fire and energy on many occasions since ran a bland campaign, decidedly lacking in both. Liz Kendall, on the opposite wing of the party to Corbyn, actually impressed me with her decency and integrity but the idea that she was the “one the Tories feared” was never believable.
I don’t believe that democracy should be based upon focus-grouped polling of what people think they want. That gives too much power to those with the means—and the money—to influence public opinion. In Britain this has resulted in ideas about what is politically possible shifting ever rightwards. Democracy should be driven by discussion and by trying to persuade voters which policies are best to create a stable, inclusive society. The only contender who seemed to want to challenge the Tories’s agenda on austerity and who was promising to try to change people’s minds about the type of society Britain could be through making his case was Jeremy Corbyn. So, enthused by his approach, like many others I paid the £3 fee and voted for him. (Call me an entryist but remember that even if only members had voted he won over twice the number of votes of any of the other candidates).
As soon as Corbyn became leader he was attacked by centrists, within the Labour Party and within the press, and his supporters were dismissed as cultists, people on the extreme left fringe who stubbornly refused to compromise and reach out to the centre, who were prepared to sacrifice any chance of Labour gaining power on the altar of ideological purity. Yet, while creating this caricature the “centre” was just as stubborn in refusing to reach out, refusing to ask what had made Labour members (and entryists like me) vote for Corbyn. The phrase most often used to describe Corbyn by his critics on the left was “unelectable”. The implied message was “Personally I’d love to see Labour moving to the left a bit but the voters just won’t buy it.” It was an easy way of avoiding engaging with his supporters who felt that the changes he stood for were possible.
The least such critics could have done to reach out to Corbyn’s supporters was to discuss his policies and tell them why they thought tuition fees couldn’t cut, why the railways couldn’t be re-nationalised, why corporations couldn’t been taxed more, when all of these things work perfectly well in other countries I’ve lived in. To give arguments beyond “the voters won’t like it.” Some of the very same journalists who’d been most biting in their attacks on Cameron seemed oblivious to the frustration of a lot of Labour supporters that the Party had gone so easy on him.
I’ve never wanted to transform Britain into Venezuela. But my years living in the Netherlands—all of that time under a right wing government but one that was far to the left of UK thinking on issues such as welfare and provision of public services—had made me frustrated that Britain, a much wealthier country, was doing so much worse in looking after its citizens and its government doing so well in convincing them that nothing—transport, education, housing, healthcare—could be any better than it already was. I don’t buy the right wing argument that such policies would bankrupt the UK and cause the economy to collapse since this hasn’t happened elsewhere. I’ve yet to see left wing opponents of such policies make an actual case against them. Just yesterday morning Andrew Adonis was tweeting that we should not cling to the idea that the 2019 manifesto was a good one – it was, he said, “delusional nonsense”. Well maybe it was but then tell us why! Talk to us about what you do want to change and about how how you are going to take the fight to the Conservatives.
I am far beyond disappointed that Labour did so badly last week. I accept that Corbyn has to take a large share of the blame for all sorts of reasons. I also take my share of the responsibility for having voted for him. I’d long since realised that he wasn’t the best person to be leading the party but I’d be lying if I said that this time last week I didn’t still have hope that there would be a hung parliament, or that Labour might even emerge as the biggest party. A fantasy, I know now, but I think there were far more than 250,000 of us hoping for that. For all his faults I still think that a Corbyn government would have been infinitely better for Britain than what the election has given us.
The Labour Party does now need a new leader and a new direction but dismissing all those who ever supported Corbyn would be neither fair nor helpful. Those who voted for him are not all irredeemable idealists trying to turn the clock back the 1970s. I’m sure we don’t all believe in “Red Tories” (I certainly don’t, with the obvious exception of Kate Hooey) and aren’t all driven by a passionate hatred of Blair and the Blairites. We’re not all fired up for the Party to come out with the most radical left wing manifesto ever. Some of us were simply looking at the world around us and asking why solutions to problems that work in other countries couldn’t be made to work in the country we love. We were looking for the Labour party to make the case for the country taking a different course with the urgency and energy that it so desperately needs.
Whoever takes on the mantle now needs to draw lessons from the failure of the election and to “listen to the voters”, as we are repeatedly being told. But they will also need to draw lessons from why Corbyn was made leader and from the divisions that have torn the left apart for the last four years. The new leader would do well to listen and talk to supporters like me, supporters who were frustrated with the lack of passion and purpose on which the Party had run aground; supporters who strongly believe that most Labour PMs regardless of their place on the political spectrum are working very hard to make the country a fairer more decent place; supporters who they’re also going to need if they are to win next time.