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December 20, 2019

What went wrong

Opinion

December 20, 2019

The scale of the Tory victory in the UK general election last week is known to all who read a half-decent newspaper or news site — the biggest Tory win since Mrs Thatcher’s success in 1987, and the biggest Labour loss since 1935.

As a member of the Labour party I of course found the loss shattering. It is no consolation that although Corbyn’s Labour obtained 2 million fewer votes than in 2017, he still gained more votes than the 3 previous Labour leaders in their elections: Ed Miliband (2015), Gordon Brown (2010), and Tony Blair (2005, but not 1997 and 2002).

Although Labour lost in 2017, it reduced the Tories to a minority government, and with Jeremy Corbyn entrenched as leader, with a mandate that was popular within the party (except for its Blairite remnant), there seemed to be a springboard for future electoral success.

So where did it go wrong? The possible answers are to be found in two areas: the campaign itself, and structural considerations that are longer-term in nature and predate the emergence of Corbyn and his allies (the so-called Corbynistas). To deal with the latter first.

Labour’s traditional base — the so-called Red Wall extending from Wales to the Midlands and much of the north — has been afflicted with postindustrial blight since the time of Thatcher, when the breakdown of the postwar social-democratic concordat between capital and labour occurred.

The Tories were quite content to do nothing about this, since votes in these areas went to Labour and not the Conservatives. In fact there is a letter, dated 11th August 1981 and marked “Secret”, written by Geoffrey Howe, the Chancellor of the Exchequer/finance minister, to Mrs Thatcher, warning her not “to over-commit scarce resources to Liverpool…. We must not expend all our resources in trying to make water flow uphill”. Howe recommended instead a policy of “managed decline” for Liverpool.

(In last week’s election, while Labour was being trounced in its traditional areas of strength, all 5 MPs in Liverpool and Merseyside belonged to Labour. But hatred for the Conservatives runs deep and long in Liverpool.)

Nonetheless, blame for this postindustrial ruination must also be attached to Labour. Tony Blair whizzed around the country talking about a new skills-based economy, but never really followed up with any substantial investment. Accompanying such industrial decline in Labour’s heartlands was the decline of working-class institutions.

Nothing significant took their place. Decently-waged industrial labour was replaced by precarious jobs in the new gig economy — insecure, flexible contracts in warehouses and the service sector were now the norm in communities that hitherto had enjoyed secure employment and respectable wages.

This erosion was a decades-long process, but New Labour did nothing to reverse it. Even Corbyn’s team misread the situation this time round.

Excerpted from: 'Where Did Labour Go Wrong?'. Counterpunch.org