A few thoughts on the election

  1. My activist career began with the campaign against the Iraq war in 2002/2003 when I was a teenager. What political agency I have formed against the backdrop of a New Labour quasi-hegemony which made parliamentary politics seem turgid while nonetheless providing, in combination with being born into steep upward mobility, what I realise in retrospect was a surplus of ontological security. There’s a sense in which my orientation to the political was profoundly shaped by New Labour even as I sought to reject it. Hence my overwhelming need to understand it which I’m surprised has never led me to a serious academic project on it. But the experience of this defeat has left me a sense of the affectivity of New Labour, rooted in the comparable experience of 1983, which holds both lessons and cautions for the contemporary Labour party. I can feel a renewed respect for ‘pragmatism’ in myself even as I feel immensely cautious about where that might lead.
  2. By this I don’t mean a return to the mythical centre ground. This election was a victory for the new Conservative formation which Will Davies accurately diagnosed as Mayism even if he terribly overestimated the longevity of her own project. It wasn’t a victory for centrism and those who see it as a vindication of the old political rulebook are deluding themselves. But it might suggest in electoral terms the necessity of a lib-lab coalition, with all the concessions and compromises likely to flow from this.
  3. My concern is there’s a tension between the moral necessity of getting a functioning opposition up and running asap and a longer term reckoning with what this result means for the future direction of the Labour party. The former would suggest a ‘progressive alliance’ with the intention of restraining a government which has the capacity to be profoundly dangerous. The latter would suggest something which is neither a lib-lab coalition nor Blue Labour. What this means in practical terms isn’t clear to me beyond leaving me preoccupied by the necessity of getting an effective parliamentary and media presence established as a matter of urgency.
  4. I suspect there’s been a tendency to mistake the disintegrating coordinates of the austerity consensus for being on the verge of hegemony. We’ve played a huge role in contributing to their disintegration but this is the shattering of the quasi-hegemony that was initially willed into being by the message discipline of the Osborne-era Tories and entrenched by the moral weakness of the post-Brown Labour party in their response to it. I think we were much further from hegemony than many of us, including myself, chose to believe and this reflects a failure to distinguish our (necessary but insufficient) role from the broader socio-political conditions which rendered the outcome possible. For all the immense progress that had taken place since 2010 we simply hadn’t got to the position which we believed we had got to.
  5. Nonetheless, we shouldn’t underestimate the profound tensions within the Conservative party. This is not a stable electoral coalition when considered in light of the ideological dispositions of their leadership. There’s an almost neurotic quality to the performance of recognition taking place at the moment in which Johnson performs recognition of having been ‘lent’ ex-Labour votes. There’s a profound contradiction at the heart of their position and everything we know about the PM (eugh) suggests a deeply disorganised, even though ruthless, figure genuinely oblivious to the details. Cracks will begin to appear much sooner than his majority would suggest and we need to be in a position to respond to them.
  6. For all the problems with their analysis, I’m persuaded by Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton’s underlying point that Corbyn as a symbol held together a project that would otherwise have fractured under the weight of its internal tensions. I think we need a reckoning with that symbolic force and what it means for us going forward. In 2015 I was a member of the Green party and had recently stood (as a paper candidate) for council elections in Coventry. After seeing Corbyn talk at a local event during the leadership campaign I left the Greens and rejoined Labour, animated by a sense that ‘we’ were taking ‘our’ party back. It was a populism internal to the Labour movement and I think we need to carefully understand what it was and why it had the force that it did.
  7. This has implications for what comes next within the Labour party. I can’t help but wonder if the best case scenario at this stage is that a post-Corbyn block, with an institutional power base in Momentum and the trade unions, comes to be the strongest faction with a centre-left party. When I first heard Emily Thornberry speak at a CLASS event in 2010 I immediately imagined her as a future Labour leader. If you’d told me 10 years ago we could start the 2020s with her as a leader of a Labour party significantly to the left of the one I grew up with then I would have been delighted. If we weren’t as close to hegemony as we thought we were then we can’t be as prescriptive about what comes next as we might otherwise have been.
  8. But there are tactical lessons to be learned from this election. This was the election in which the Tories went full Trump and spent 6 weeks gaslighting the nation. We were overconfident about our ground game (understandably so) and our digital campaign (less forgivable). My instinct is that the heavy lifting took place on Facebook, particularly in the closing days of the campaign, with Twitter being more than heat than light. I’ve spent the last year obsessing about Mark Fisher’s injunction that we need to learn to use social media rather than live in it. Our enemies are using it ruthlessly and we need to learn how to respond to that.  The fact that we have the numbers to dominate organic advertising was sufficient for 2017 but it wasn’t for 2019 once the Tories upgraded their digital operation.
  9. Whatever else happens we can’t lose sight of where we have got to, even if it might not have been as far as we thought. In 2017 40% of the country voted for socialism in a campaign which evidence suggests we would have won if it had continued for only a couple more weeks. Even this time 32% of the country voted for a more radical manifesto than in the previous election against an opponent which showed a terrifying unity and clarity of purpose. The British left is far stronger than it’s been in my life time. How do we acknowledge the fact that we weren’t as strong as we thought we were without abandoning the gains that we have made or the momentum (!) that has accompanied them?