“The Tories don’t give a shit about us.”
“I know, mate, but . . .”
The weekend before the December 12 election that proved so disastrous for Labour, I had not one but many exchanges like this. I spent that Saturday and Sunday out canvassing for Labour in Walsall and Stoke-on-Trent, two towns in the West Midlands, part of the Labour Party’s ex-industrial heartland.
On the doors in working-class areas of Walsall and Stoke, the anger and disillusion were palpable. We heard a lot of distrust of politicians and of electoral politics — entirely justified after decades of neglect, of policy effectively designed to let communities like these slowly rot.
Many conversations with long-time Labour voters veered to Brexit and “getting it done.” Nearly every one of these interactions touched on not following through on a democratic vote. After three years, disillusion and anger drowned out much else.
If I was given the chance, and often I was, I tried to cut through with class appeals. The appeals partly worked — many people were still open to seeing the world in these terms. They admitted gargantuan levels of inequality and the fact that the Tories represented the interests of the rich, interests opposed to theirs. But they wanted to be heard, and they were willing to vote knowingly against their class interests.
I was seeing the long crisis of democratic legitimacy unfold on a micro scale. Door by door, the victory of a culture war started by the Right and designed to avoid talking about a decades-long political and economic crisis for working people, was winning over a set of shared concerns that could have united a majority of the UK’s diverse working class — young and old, racialized and white, in the cities and towns. The culture war was able to win in large part because it was now harnessed to a (rightly) perceived democratic betrayal by people who felt otherwise voiceless and powerless.
The two other issues that came up most frequently at the start of doorstep conversations, Jeremy Corbyn and disenfranchisement from politics, were in many ways derivative of the same anger. Sometimes the door was slammed in my face, but often I was given the chance to start a conversation — surprisingly often even after an angry rant about Corbyn being a terrorist supporter.
Many times, all it took was a short question, “why” or “why not.” People wanted to talk, especially after so long having their voices ignored. (Centrists within Labour crowing about Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of popularity shouldn’t be smug: whenever Tony Blair came up, it was negatively.)
But one conversation was not enough to combat the deep distrust and the media narratives about Corbyn, or to make the case for a transformational economic program (even one that would “merely” transform the UK into the average continental European country in important respects). Corbyn was most often a proxy for other issues — from lack of clarity on Brexit to economic credibility — each hard to cut through on its own, never mind with the additional layer of media caricatures. There was distrust in politicians and disbelief that the economy could work differently. The manifesto, as others have written, was likely too disjointed, and that made it seem all the more impossible to actually carry out.
In hindsight, what I heard that weekend encompassed the election. That became clear to me on election night. Previously, the alarm bells I had heard canvassing in the West Midlands were drowned out by hope and the energy of a very spirited campaign that activated thousands of volunteers — driven in large part by Momentum’s impressive campaigning machinery.
The people I met who knew that the Tories don’t give a shit about them but who either wanted to “get Brexit done” or didn’t trust that anything could change were saying things of deep political substance. They were expressing a potent combination of class analysis and class anger that Labour in part misread and in part hasn’t had the time to counter because it was decades in the making. Much of the same disillusionment and disenfranchisement could be heard on the doors in London, too, though not reflected as much by the additional prism of Brexit.
Both of the constituencies outside the capital I visited that weekend had been already rather narrowly won by the Conservatives in 2017 for the first time in decades. This was part of Labour’s “red wall” that had already crumbled but was similar to the still-standing sections that would have been key to stopping a Conservative majority. In reality, the Tories increased their margin to over 10,000 votes in each of these two constituencies.
The conversations there mirrored what I heard on election day in Stevenage, where previous Labour voters would often turn out to be ex-Labour voters for this election, and where Labour also ended up trailing by more than 10,000 votes. What I heard also features prominently in the numerous other first-person accounts of Labour volunteers canvassing in Leave areas, particularly the Midlands, Yorkshire, and the North. Labour’s loss was presaged in these conversations.
So many people I spoke with viscerally understood today’s yawning inequality and that it was no accident, that it had been actively created. They knew whose interests the Tories represent. They often agreed that austerity was impacting them or soon would be. But they either wouldn’t vote, would vote Brexit Party, or would even vote Tory.
A closer look at the election data will surely reveal lots of wrinkles and a more sophisticated picture. Already, it is clear that Labour lost votes to all quarters compared to 2017: to the Tories, to the Lib Dems, to the SNP and the Greens, and to abstention. In both Walsall and Stoke, turnout was down even as the Tory majority ballooned.
Across the country, some Labour Leave voters, including some of those I spoke to, voted Tory, and some abstained. But even some Labour Remainers were convinced by the Tory message that something had to be done, while others swung to the Lib Dems, SNP, Plaid Cymru, or Greens anyway.
So this wasn’t just an election about longtime Labour voters voting Tory. But it was one where Brexit dominated, where political disillusion remained strong, and where Labour couldn’t push through — in significant part because its centrist wing misunderstood how and where the election would be won or lost.
It Was Never Going to Be Easy
It was always going to be a tough road given a crisis for working people decades in the making, the Right setting the agenda on Brexit from the very start, the widespread campaign of media vilification, and the Labour right looking for any weakness to sabotage a left project within what they saw as “their” party. But now is the time to look strategically and coolly at mistakes, learn the right lessons, and gear up to fight with renewed energy.
The lack of a clear position on Brexit is one straightforward lesson. I count myself among those who were wrong about just how damaging the second referendum position would make talking about anything else in large parts of the UK that Labour needed to hold or win back. What seemed like a bad way to get out of an even worse dilemma proved to be a blunder. An unclear position caused losses on all fronts, some very severe.
Brexit has always been the Right’s terrain, an issue concocted to displace righteous anger at austerity and neglect with anger at bureaucrats and migrants. But despite the short but sophisticated conversations about political economy on the doors, attempts at reframing in Leave areas were for the most part unsuccessful because many people felt they had been given a chance to finally have their say, to voice their displeasure at their situation, and now they saw themselves being told that they had made the wrong choice.
Labour had to give voice to working people from across its diverse constituency, in cities and in towns, young and old, without giving in to prejudices or discounting democracy. That task was more successful in 2017.
It is important not to substitute part of the working class for all workers or to forget that the Leave vote also came from other classes. The working class as a whole has been left behind by neoliberalism and austerity. There are shared interests divided by a sometimes bitter, sometimes hateful culture war that has to be directly confronted. The lesson is decisively not to adopt social conservatism, to marry reaction to economic demands.
That is why it is also important to emphasize that the 2019 Labour Manifesto was not too radical. Its policies are very popular. They are, in part, the basis on which those shared interests and shared understandings can be built. Missing was a more unified vision, as the manifesto too often seemed like a laundry list.
The Way Forward
As trite as it sounds, now is the time to organize. To organize broadly. Too many people have too much to lose from this new government, one that commands a crushing parliamentary majority.
Internally, the immediate task will be to protect the current political project within the Labour Party, the only one able to meaningfully unite the broad working class, to deal with industrial decline and racism, with climate change and inequality. More important, the long-term task is to orient the Labour party outward, to engage in community-building, political education, and social struggle. Labour must be present in people’s lives between elections, present in opposing the hurt that this Tory government will surely impose.
Labour and Momentum have built a formidable campaigning machine. However, we can’t understate the enormity of the task ahead or overestimate the scale at which we will initially be able to operate. Part of neoliberalism’s success has been the decimation of collective institutions, encompassing both organic working-class institutions, often but not only centered on unions and friendly societies, as well as public services created by the state. A society of individuals is what Thatcher set out to create, and it is what we have increasingly become.
Pure voluntarism will not be able to replace these institutions, in the long term or the short term. It is slow, patient work that requires real and significant material resources. It requires constant attention to the relationship between the Labour Party and other collective organizations. It requires winning local councils, winning over existing trade unions, organizing new workers and new institutions. Our politics has to be broad-based and well rooted: it cannot be something transactional, but a way of finding collective solutions to collective problems.
We have to reinvigorate our curiosity about one another and about what we do, what we need, what brings us trouble, what brings us pain, what gives us hope, and what we love. One of our tasks is seeing one another as a collective, rich in differences and with common interests. And then building the institutions that put this into practice. This is not a moral quest for the sake of others, but something done for all of us, for ourselves.
Building working-class institutions on the ground where they have been totally hollowed out is no easy task, but it is possible. Labour’s gain in Putney can be interpreted as middle-class urban seats gained at the expense of working-class town seats elsewhere. But this is one constituency where people connected to Labour started to put in place a model of local organizing around local issues after 2017. It was a gain for a community starting to get organized over those still unorganized.
My doorstep conversations in Walsall and Stoke were difficult, but so were those in central London. Disenfranchisement and disillusion is widespread. At the same time, these conversations demonstrated to me and thousands of others out on the doors in the last month that people know what’s up — our task is to break down disillusion.
Political education and participation in common struggles can connect working-class understanding with a working-class political project. But for that, one or two conversations every four years won’t cut it.