And so that seems to be that. The left-populist experiment across Europe has fizzled out. A decade since the global financial crisis and nothing to show for it. It’s devastating, really.
The ‘red wall’ did indeed crumble, and far more than I had even imagined/predicted. One after another, constituencies formerly based in steel or coal fell. The one that most struck me was Yvette Cooper seeing her 15k majority fall to around 1k, with huge swings to the Brexit Party as well as to the Tories. Wakefield next door did actually fall to the Tories.
These dramatic sites of the miners strike of 84/85, where they literally ‘fought the Tories’ now saw ex-miners voting for the Tories. Or at least the Brexit Party.
You’d think this would prompt immediate self-reflection, but of course the left’s capacity for self-delusion knows few bounds. How long till they’re dismissed as merely old (will die soon anyway), white (racist) men (just bad)? Paul Mason naturally got his shots in early, calling it a “victory of the old over the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet”.
But this has nothing to do with any of that. The fact staring Labour in the face is that they have the same leader and the same popular policies as in 2017. The main difference is, after 2 1/2 more years of Brexit impasse, they were promising a second referendum, while Johnson decided to take on the mantle of ‘decisive leader’ and ‘get brexit done’.
Labour wants to pretend that ‘Brexit got in the way’. But Brexit *was* the way. It offered the possibility of rupture with post-politics, with the end of history. It could only be properly delivered by the left. Instead Britain will get a shoddy depoliticised Tory Brexit. No cause for celebration.
And this is entirely leaving aside the question that leaving the EU was the right thing to do. Right because it would be more democratic. Right because it would mean honouring the referendum and the popular will. But it also would’ve helped the electoral calculus.
There now should be a serious reckoning within the Labour Party, and the left in general; those PMC liberals who pushed Labour down a 2ndRef path held to account. Strung up, if that’s not too strong.
Labour’s gamble of winning in younger, more urban, more middle-class seats failed miserably. For every Putney they gained, they lost several dozens of post-industrial ‘Labour heartland’ seats. There were many people who warned of this. Labour Leave, LeFT, and above all my friends at The Full Brexit, who’ve been utterly vindicated. It’s a crying shame they weren’t listened to.
As to lesson-learning, the centrists will try to obscure the Brexit question and argue Labour were “too left”. That’ll be the lesson they’ll try to teach. Nonsense. Labour weren’t “too left”. They were too liberal. Too wedded to old decrepit institutions, not insurgent enough. Many of Labour’s policies were popular, remain so. But policies, especially today, do not win elections.
The institutions of politics and media (about which more below) are suffering from historic trust deficits. Duh. People know this. And yet they carry on as if it weren’t true. (New) Labour abandoned the workers. This is remembered. Corbynites claim that no, things are different now, it’s a different party. But despite those policies directed at working class interests, the trust isn’t there. (It might not help that Corbyn himself and much of Momentum looks and sounds a lot like the hated ‘metropolitan liberal elite’, as clichéd as that designation is).
So in the end, policies are just words on a page. Drawing up a great, radical manifesto is one of the easier jobs. And you, Labour activist, may trust unquestioningly, but many people don’t have that luxury. They’ve got little trust to give. And the Brexit prevarication hardly builds trust.
Someone asked on Twitter, about the great policies, “who doesn’t want these things??” This is all rather like a parent showering an adolescent with gifts and then being astounded at the teen violently rejecting the offerings. I guess people don’t just want to be beneficiaries of munificence. They want autonomy. They want to be in control of their lives. “I don’t want stuff. I want to be listened to. I want to be treated like an adult.”
And here we are back at the Brexit thing. Brexit is about far more than ‘Brexit’. It was – certainly among working class, traditionally Labour areas – about saying fuck you to the establishment, for being ignored or condescended to. For Labour to then say, “yes yes, we’ll honour the referendum, but actually also vote again” – that’s a real insult.
These dynamics of authority I think are pretty important to understanding politics, especially today, where deference has died and trust is at a historic low. The paternalistic strain in a lot of the left ignores these questions. With last night’s inevitable results. The watchword should be autonomy, not fairness.
An associated problem is the tedious blaming of the media. First of all, yes the capitalist media is against you. The media is awful and its getting worse. It affects the state broadcaster too. But secondly, and more importantly, it will *always* be against socialists. Running on the assumption that you’ll be treated “fairly” is naive. That’s the game. Factor it in. Whining about unfairness is childish. And it insults your audience, as you seem to be saying to them “we don’t win because the media tells you not to”. Not nice to hear.
Many say the left needs to build its own, alternative media. And when in power break up media oligopolies. I’m fine with all that. +1 from me. But at the same time, it’s not all about the media. We really overstate the media’s role. Yes, society is more mediatised today than ever. But the media is also far more fragmented. And trust in the media is lower than ever (journalists rate little higher than pederasts in public trust surveys). This isn’t the early 90s, where you had high mediatisation but a still highly concentrated media. Today is more mediatised but that concentration is gone, as is deference to elite gatekeepers of knowledge and information.
The irony is that it is the PMC liberals and leftists believe *far too much* in the media. They overstate its importance. Meanwhile, no one else is paying all that much attention. Of course, the PMC think they read the media *critically* so that’s ok, but the plebs out there don’t, so they end up brainwashed. Hogwash. Stop focusing so much on the media.
So here we are. Amidst a global revolt against the political class, Labour fatefully opts to side with the political class’ Remainia, and bolster the status quo. Johnson is not an anti-politician. ‘Populist’ is not the most appropriate term. But he has managed to project decisiveness. And in precarious times, that has mattered more than words on a page. These questions of character matter. And not just peronsalised character. But the character of a group, movement, party. Labour said “trust us, we’re here to help you”. Maybe in today’s times that doesn’t fly.
So that’s Syriza done, Podemos propping up the establishment PSOE, LFI languishing. Labour seemed to promise more. Maybe the contradictions of left populism would be kept in check by the structure of a traditional mass party, rather than the more ephemeral populist forms. For a while it seemed it might. But instead the PMC liberals proved decisive and steered Labour in a disastrous course.
Bernie now is the last man standing. I love Bernie. And he has advantages that Labour and other Euro left-populists don’t have. Bernie has balls. I trust his instincts. But more importantly, he doesn’t have the politics-deadening EU to deal with. And should he actually win, the power of the US presidency seems a more stable perch than European parliamentary politics. Let’s see. All power to him, may he have the strength to fight off the PMC liberals who will do everything to steer him to failure.
After the PMC liberals screwed Bernie, only to lose to Trump, it was rightly said that #BernieWouldveWon.
So now, after the PMC liberals screwed Corbyn, making him back a 2nd ref, only for Johnson to win, now we must say: #BrexitWouldveWon
I’ve long held that Corbyn was ultimately in a tragic position. He could not reconcile his Leave voting constituents and his Remain members. And Corbyn is a democrat to a fault. He had to go with his party. He lacks real leadership instincts, so he never performed the Leninist move of seizing the moment, and going against his party. Maybe that would’ve been impossible.
So tragedy, rather than treason, may be the better way to see all this.