Tonight’s results around the country, but especially in the heartlands, are really bad for our movement.
After a spirited campaign by thousands of activists over many weeks, this will be a tough pill to swallow. But the most important ramifications fall to those outside the party. Another five years of the Conservatives will mean more attacks on unions and working-class people, our public services and the people who rely on state assistance to live.
It is important at moments like these to try to find perspective in history. The labour movement in this country has had deep defeats – and it has bounced back from them.
In 1926, we lost a massive battle in the general strike. By 1929, Labour was the largest party in parliament. In the 1930s, party leader Ramsay MacDonald almost destroyed the party many had worked so many decades to build. By 1945, that party was rebuilding the country.
This moment of history is different, of course. But it is far closer to those than the historical analogy the Right will reach for: the long defeat of 1983, which removed the Left from frontline politics for a generation. Instead of social democracy, we were given neoliberalism and the promises of economic growth and a resolution to years of economic crisis.
Today is not that day. The ruling class has not found a new model of popular prosperity and capitalism remains in crisis. This Tory victory is substantial, but it need not be epochal – as long as the Labour Party and the Left learns the right lessons.
At a moment when class is re-emerging as a central feature in Western societies and we can talk about capitalism again, the task for Corbynism was clearly to rebuild Labour as a working-class party, one which was not captive to the liberal sections of the business elite, was seen as an insurgent force against Westminster and which, fundamentally, the working-class majority of this country, the people who rely on their wages to live, believed could improve their lot.
It failed in this. All of us who were part of it failed in this. But we at Tribune magazine did make an attempt, after the European election, to hold back one of the most damaging concessions: the turning of Labour into a party which stood against the democratic mandate on Brexit.
At the time, the popular notion among much of the Left was that the party could simply rely on its Labour Leavers, who had deep party loyalties, and that the real threat was losing Remain voters. That has been exposed as fatally flawed.
Already neglected by the political establishment for decades, workers in postindustrial areas correctly saw that they were being taken for granted by Labour. They responded in kind – either by not turning out for us, or by turning Tory.
The consequences of this are profound. If there was any truth in the loyalty narrative, it was that many Labour Leavers had voted for the party for years more out of habit than out of conviction. That habit is now broken. Repairing it will be a monumental struggle.
This, unfortunately, leads us to another deep problem in Corbynism: the fact that many of those places which most needed the transformations promised by Labour’s economic agenda never felt in any sense that this project was theirs.
As party memberships exploded in London and the South East, they were often stagnant in the very “heartlands” we lost tonight. That was disguised by the result in 2017. It cannot be disguised anymore.
Labour lost not because it was too much of a working-class party, but because it was too little of one, in too few areas.
This is partly because Corbynism was too much the product of the Left which had been defeated in decades past. When the tide went out in the 1990s on socialism, those that remained were extremely isolated. They fought brave battles and without them – without Jeremy Corbyn – not only the socialist movement in Britain but internationally would today be worse off.
However, when the tide came back in, this Left had been beached for a long time. Its contact with mass politics was minimal. It had to learn fast. It didn’t learn fast enough.
When things got tough, it too often pivoted to the comforting embrace of a younger generation who had been washed in on a wave of dismal job prospects, student debt and sky-high rents. Unfortunately, this generational, progressive politics was not a substitution for class.
The criticism we made in the wake of the European election – that we were leaning into progressivism, “a project to build majorities by uniting those with progressive social views” – was not because we were critical of those views. It was because they are not the basis for class politics. That is an effort to bring together a majority on the basis of material conditions that unite them, not divide the society into smaller and smaller segments and try to cater to each.
This, sadly, was reflected in the manifesto, which came across as a shopping list. Many of the policies on their own terms were popular. And, in fact, that is one of the legacies and successes of Corbynism. We must fight to retain those policies which will improve the lot of working-class people and in whatever fight follows, Tribune will do just this.
But this list of policies, when combined, came across as a retail offer. Simply more and more things. Without a uniting vision that could really sell them, without telling the story of the Labour society. Not well enough. And people, fundamentally, didn’t believe us.
After decades of neoliberalism, it is not surprising that was the case. But given the scale of this defeat, we must ask serious questions about why we couldn’t change that.
The answers will be found in the fact that we simply weren’t present in too many places, in too many working-class people’s lives – and also the fact that Corbynism didn’t coincide with a heightening of class struggle which might have brought more of our people to our side.
Tomorrow, the fight to salvage what we can begins. The socialist movement has been here before, and we will get through it stronger – what is genuine will be proven in the fire. But they will come for us.
But tonight, we must remember that our cause endures, that as long as there is a capitalist system there will be the need for a socialist movement, and steel ourselves for the next fight.
Ronan Burtenshaw is the editor of Tribune.
This article was first published by Jacobin.