After our defeat: what Labour socialists need to do

Nottingham East candidate (now MP) Nadia Whittome with fellow Labour for a Socialist Europe and Labour Campaign for Free Movement campaigners during the election

By Ruth Cashman, Tooting CLP Women’s Officer and Lambeth Unison Secretary

We are scared and disappointed at a victory for the Tories, especially for a Tory party which has sharply moved to the right.

My shoes are still wet from election week, but we have to start this discussion now for two reasons. One, there is a real risk that many people attracted to politics by Corbyn and Corbynism might drop out, demoralised by the defeat.

Two, that many sides have been quick out of the blocks to “set the narrative” to explain why we lost and those narratives are the background to the next stage of a faction fight in Labour we can’t ignore.

There are two big explanations for the loss.

One – people in the “red wall” seats hated Corbyn – Corbynistas lost us the election

That is the main argument of the Labour right.

Two – people in the red wall hated the Brexit policy – remainers lost us the election.

That is the main argument of the established Labour left.

As a far-left Momentum member who opposed Brexit I have been called scum on social media and shouted at in pubs by proponents of both narratives for Labour’s election loss, and we’re not a full week on yet.

I’m sure there will be numerous studies on what happened in this election which will give us more detail, but I can tell you anecdotally from my experience in this election, people in northern towns hated the Brexit policy and Corbyn. In particular, not the second referendum policy, but blocking Brexit in parliament was seen as a betrayal, and the Corbyn IRA story and related impressions on his lack of patriotism poisoned people against him.

These aren’t actually counter-explanations, but part of the same picture. A picture of a divide in our class between younger and older people, between towns and cities. A right-wing politics of resentment growing in some areas, as Corbyn’s politics of hope took hold in others.

The advance of right-wing demagogic nationalist politics since the crash of 2008 is not new or unique. We have seen several far-right initiatives, both electoral alliances and street movements. Trump, Modi, Erdogan, Orban, Bolsonaro, Salvini are all part of the same trend internationally.

There is a particular nature to Johnson’s version. Compared internationally, the current British right is unusually godless, with the absence of the religious right as a plank in our British new right moment.

This manifestation is also unusual in capturing, almost totally, the apparatus of major, well-established party – the Conservative Party, the most successful bourgeois party in history. This gives it particular advantages and weaknesses.

The seats we lost to Tories were more likely to be smaller towns, generally in economic decline, so with an absence of union jobs and therefore a weak labour movement and fewer young people.

We hit a bizarre stage in Labour rhetoric last year where we used “working-class areas” to mean “areas with no jobs”. Clearly this is nonsense. These may have been pit areas, NUM strongholds, but we were defeated and now the labour movement is absent from those lives.

That doesn’t mean we just say it’s a structural economic problem Corbynism had no chance to reverse outside of government.

There were things which hampered us :

● Communities gutted by Thatcherism and neglected by Blairism, which were replacing class identity with national identity long before 2015.

● A relentless campaign by the Labour right and the press, which drained energy from the Corbyn project and the resulting bunker mentality that damaged the labour left.

● Brexit itself.

But we missed opportunities too:

Firstly – since 2015 we should have begun a long period of push back against nationalist, xenophobic, racist and anti-migrant rhetoric. We do not know how far we could have convinced people of class politics and identity in place of nativist resentment in just a few years, but we certainly would have had a better chance if we had tried.

Look at the Labour immigration video featuring a Tory politician trying to blame Ali the migrant, for the area’s issues. It came out in November 2019! We should have been producing consistent propaganda on this since Corbyn first won.

That video wasn’t aimed at changing the minds of Labour voters or others who blame immigration for society’s ills. It was aimed at Labour activists, it was to make us feel better despite the fudge on migration in the Party manifesto.

This was a wider problem with both Labour and Momentum’s output, that it was creating one set of messages aimed at activists and another aimed at voters, with no suggestion of how the two interlink.

Instead we needed clarity and honesty. Migrants don’t drive down wages; this is how you drive up wages. Migrants aren’t a drain on hospitals; this is how we will rebuild the NHS. Class, not race, not nationality.

Secondly – many of the policies could have won confidence and support if the central party machine had campaigned for them, and rallied our membership to campaign for them, over the years or even months instead of the days before the election.

The Green New Deal explodes out of conference, not quite intact but better than expected, largely thanks to Unison in September this year. Clive Lewis, Rebecca Long-Bailey and John McDonnell’s have been working on this stuff for years, we should have been winning people to it for years.

When Tata Steel collapsed, Labour said they would nationalise to sell on to another private company, once it was stabilised. Labour should have said we will take this company into state control, we will develop the British steel industry first through recycled steel and then new technologies to a greener industry to supply steel for the renewable energy industry we will build. The possibilities were there for policy in real terms spelling out a just transition.

Bolsover, a seat we all talk about losing, has a hospital that is being sold off. Labour did not run a campaign to save that hospital. It is suffering an adult social care crisis. We do not have Labour party resources making that campaign real in working-class communities.

There are care and logistics workers in large number of seats across the red wall. Labour did not run campaigns to unionise them, to build living wage campaigns.

When Asda said they’d sack everyone if they would not agree to worsened conditions, there should have been solidarity rallies in every Asda car park. Labour has the resources and the membership to pull this off, but instead they behaved as if being pro-worker was a dirty secret only to be discussed amongst ourselves.

We didn’t need more policies; we needed to make fighting for them a collective process in communities and workplaces.

The SWP probably has knocking on for 1,000 members and manages to pull off some fairly impressively scaled campaigning work. Labour has or had 500,000 members. The Corbyn Labour Party has seen less campaigning even on issues it is most closely associated with like Palestine or austerity.

We should have been knitting together local and national campaigns, community, workplace organising. New exciting protest movements, linking with organised labour.

And once we had the policies, despite the left-wing manifesto, Labour made no general argument for socialism, or class politics. John McDonnell said that the aim was not overthrowing capitalism, but “transforming it into a new form”.

Jeremy Corbyn, asked if socialism was better than capitalism, said that socialism could bring improvements for “the very poorest” if done “in a certain way”. He cited Scandinavia as an example.

Corbyn regularly drove home in the debates that tax rates on corporations would still leave them with some of the lowest rates in Europe – worse than France or Germany.

They fought “get Brexit done” with different versions of a common market outside the EU. The fought the idea that somehow the Tory party were taking on the elite with, firstly, “the billionaires fear us”, and then “but they shouldn’t: we’re ok with billionaires”.

There are no short-cuts around convincing a majority of big-picture class politics. That is the work of years, not of days. We wasted years.

So mistakes have been made. We cannot turn back to 2015 and start again knowing what we know. We have to look at what is ahead of us.

Immediately we will see a leadership election and some sort of battle for Labour’s future. We will also see a Tory government with a majority that means they can push what they want through parliament. These should be the focus of what we discuss today

We will need to see large scale defensive struggles ahead:

● Migrant rights and anti-racism.

● In response to attacks on the right to strike and right to protest.

● To protect public services.

That isn’t an exhaustive list. We do not yet know everything the next government will do.

Labour must fight every single Tory attack and that includes frustrating Tory Brexit plans. The answer to global capitalism is, now as before, not retreat behind national borders, but to build a cross-border socialist movement based in the working class.

The Labour left will face huge pressure to roll back on left-wing policy commitments, to abandon party democratisation that had stalled, and to focus on “saleable”, less left-wing, policies.

We need to regroup those who want to push Corbynism forward not backwards, to democratise, to put clear class politics against the politics of resentment.

Now we need to be very clear with ourselves and each other about the real obstacles to this. Banning rail strikes is not closing hospitals, it could prove very popular.

The left we need to build must be completely committed to support of direct working-class struggle, irrespective of the implications for the fortunes of the Labour Party in elections.

That is not going to be universally popular I assure you, but our task is to rebuild class power, not to pretend for votes that class no longer matters.

Ruth was speaking, alongside fellow Tooting CLP and Lambeth Unison activist Simon Hannah and Cameron Matthews of the FBU, at a public meeting organised by Workers’ Liberty.

Let us know what you think? Write a reply?


  1. I sincerely like Nadia’s commitment to take only a worker’s wage and general commitment to a left pro-working class programme. Pity she can’t disentangle from the pernicious AWL. The AWL have spent the last 4 years inflating claims of anti-semitism (despite official complaints last year amounting to little more than 700) in order to defend their pro-imperialist position on Israel’s occupation and brutality of Palestine.

    This act of opportunism played well in the capitalist media and helped tireless anti-racists like Corbyn and others to be presented as anti-Semitic.

    I truly hope the AWL can clearly see reversing the referendum was a vote loser and that energy should have been used to outmanoeuvre the shaky Tory government and forward a left and socialist vision for post Brexit Britain.

    This is the AWL though of course. Humility and reflection doesn’t come easy for such dogmatists. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them carry on the same reckless and thoughtless activity behind some front group helping to manipulate the narrative within the LP keeping the party in opposition for generations.

  2. I’m logged in as the Clarion editors account but this is actually a personal comment from one editor, Sacha Ismail. I’m only speaking for myself, not The Clarion, or for Nadia (who is not a member of the AWL, not a Clarion editor, and whose only role in this post is the picture illustrating it!)

    You seem to be saying: Nadia Whittome is great and left-wing, but she works with the AWL who have bad politics. What a neat distinction. But:

    • The positions you like, eg on the worker’s wage, are AWL positions too. And:

    • Nadia also holds positions on Palestine and antisemitism, and on Brexit, you don’t like.

    Not everyone who supports The Clarion agrees with the AWL’s position on Palestine. But how on earth is our position pro-imperialist, pro-occupation, pro-Israeli brutality? AWL supports an end to the occupation and a Palestinian state alongside Israel, the same position as the PLO, most Palestinians, every UK trade union – and Jeremy Corbyn. You may disagree with this stance, but try not to caricature it.

    So convenient: Nadia Whittome good, AWL bad, despite substantive agreement on all the issues you cite. Similarly, Corbyn on Palestine good, AWL bad, despite the same position.

    As for antisemitism, the issue is not reducible to the number of complaints – though actually the number you cite is pretty high. But in any case, yes, of course, the issue has been exploited to attack the left. That doesn’t settle whether it’s a real issue – I would say it clearly is – or how to respond to attacks effectively.

    Did you see Corbyn during the election on TV, refusing to say whether talk about Rothschild Zionists controlling Israel and a world government was antisemitic? It was a car crash.

    Sacha Ismail

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