Reflecting on defeat
During the 2019 election, I canvassed in five marginal constituencies in the North West and one in the South West, all of which Labour lost.
We were brimming with confidence and with hope. “We are ready. Bring it on.” The country’s public services on their knees, Brexit stubbornly unrealised, an acute climate crisis. It was ours to win, or lose, we thought.
We played, we chucked everything we had at it, and we lost.
Now we reflect and tell a story of what went wrong, being honest with the diagnosis.
Every weekend I went canvassing in marginal constituencies. Along with hundreds of others, I commuted to Altrincham & Sale West, Bolton West, Bolton North East, Bury South, Crewe & Nantwich and Filton & Bradley Stoke (the last of these is in the South West of England as I had been visiting my family on that weekend). Braving the winter elements, we were there to make the case to voters that Labour should be the party to form the next government.
In light of the result, it is tempting to feel down that your efforts were fruitless. However, I am immensely grateful to have had the opportunity to go out and engage with the people of these communities.
Initially, canvassing is intimidating because you place a lot of emphasis on ‘winning the argument’ at each door. But with time, I began to approach each door as simply a discussion about the state of the world from the perspective of the elector, a conversation which canvassers let them lead and listen openly. “What issues concern you?” you almost always ask to kickstart the conversation.
From knocking on hundreds of doors, I learned about what the issues are to a lot of people and what action should be taken to address those. The experience was a course of the concerns of working class communities, those proverbial ‘left behind’ constituencies perfunctorily alluded to in the national newspapers. I listened to their stories of those people whose lives had been shaped by the historical forces of neoliberal evisceration. I put myself in their shoes, trying to look at things from and engage with their point of view.
I feel I have grown politically and personally as a result. My skin is thicker, my mind more open, my outlook changed. For this I am thankful.
Canvassing was also a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded people with generally sound politics. Over the course of election I met dozens of young, hopeful, intelligent people. Canvassers were supportive, giving each other tips of what to say in certain scenarios on the doorstep. People gave us lifts in their cars to the constituencies free of charge, others fed us between canvassing sessions. I was able to build a network of fantastic people which will withstand the demobilising effects of defeat.
Putting the positives aside — why do I think we lost?
Without a shadow of a doubt, Corbyn was a major contributory factor in our defeat. Anyone who canvassed for Labour this election and listened openly to what voters had to say will tell you that Corbyn was incredibly unpopular on the doorstep.
I still believe in Corbyn’s vision and I commend him for shifting the terms of discussion on many issues such as inequality and investment in our favour.
But many voters I talked to, the undecided voters in the marginal constituencies who we needed to convince, simply did not buy him as a statesman. Many acknowledged his career as a principled backbencher and as a campaigner. But the electorate did not want a Nice Old Man to lead the country. He just did not fit the bill.
Generally, I do not believe that Corbyn was disliked on a personal level, so much as his political persona of ‘nicety’ was perceived negatively and, ultimately, judged unfit for the uniquely powerful position of Prime Minister. At best, it came across as indecisive; at worst, voters suspected unpatriotic intent.
The second referendum seemed like a genuinely sensible solution. But as soon as we adopted this position, our promises of transformative change through investment and reindustrialisation became unconvincing. To be sure, people liked our policies on almost everything else. But how can you be the party of insurgency if you going to go against the democratic will of the working classes on the thing they care about most?
Labour was not able to convincingly present itself as the party of radical transformation, while at the same time being committed, hypothetically, to overturning the Brexit vote. Rather than being a party of change, we instead became the party of the status quo ante.
This had not been the case during the General Election in 2017. Back then, a Corbyn-led Labour Party secured the biggest increase in the party’s vote since World War II by accepting the result of the referendum and connecting the ruptural energy of the Brexit vote to a manifesto that promised real change for these marginal working class communities.
This Brexit policy combined fatally with anti-Corbyn sentiment. It became clear to me that, in the eyes of many voters in the swing constituencies, Labour had become an establishment party which couldn’t be trusted to respect the referendum. This was then inducted into their latent suspicion of Corbyn’s lack of patriotism. “He’s got something to hide, we can’t trust him with Brexit,” I heard over and over again.
I take consolation in the fact that Manchester-based activists gave it their all. However, the fact that we won none of these marginals suggests that the central policy, Brexit, and the leader, Corbyn, were deal-breakers. You can have as many people on the ground as you like. It will not change the fact that voters do not trust the party’s leadership.
For what it’s worth, I am do not think this is the end of the left in England. Brexit and Corbyn were contingent factors on which support for the Conservatives rested and they will not be in play next time round. The Tories will finally have to own Brexit and there will be nowhere to hide for further immiserating communities which leant them their support.
For us to convince others to give us the power to re-invest in their communities, we will need to regain their trust. To this end, we have to listen openly, and build enduring relationships by re-establishing genuinely democratic institutions which will provide a sense of control and inclusion.