Defeat and a long winter

December in Morecambe, Lancashire — outside the halo of bus headlights it’s all cold murky gloom. I’m using the sound of waves to guess where the beach slips below the sea. In the halo, a firebrand Labour MP and maybe two dozen activists. It’s an empty early night and I’ve walked away a little. Between the sea and the outlines of old houses, in spray or light rain, we turn around. The little circle of hopeful light by the hot-red campaign bus is still there. But it has shrunk.

Campaigns can be transformative. Polling routinely doesn’t work or is misused. I avoid speculating on outcomes during campaigns. But when the election was called I was quietly that it was over. That night on the beach compounded it; the prior week I’d been in a frantic rearguard action, through Middlesbrough to the Blyth coast then across the Pennines and sweeping through isolated towns west of the Lake District by way of empty Holiday Inns and back roads. We were at the end of a long road.

It was a far cry from teenagers craning their necks through high, narrow windows to look at Jeremy Corbyn speaking in Camden Town Hall in the summer of 2015. On the beach I thought back over those years — scrambling back from a festival into an unfurnished office as the 2016 coup attempt kicked off, popping open Sainsbury’s Cava after we won my childhood seat of Kensington in 2017 in a landmark first, and along with so many others losing sleep and friends and youth over this project because we believed things could be different this time.

The Corbyn mission was framed by both its harshest critics and most loyal stalwarts as radical and revolutionary. In fact it softened the radical left. I grew up under a Labour government who cut benefits for single mothers in families like mine within weeks of coming to power, with images of Baghdad burning and bodybags at Camp Bastion, and with Labour championing austerity and racism. Of course the Tories were worse, but that didn’t make Labour any less ghoulish, and it took 2015 to convince me that the party could be a vehicle for real change.

It’s easy to miss both the silliness and seriousness of moments like the birth of the “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” chant at the sun-drenched Tranmere Rovers stadium in 2017. Treating a septuagenarian career backbencher as a rock star was self-consciously ironic, but also an opportunity to laugh away the grief of knowing nothing but both major parties routinely attacking the worst-off layer of working class people at home and starting wars overseas.

That hope was not enough. Our assessments of our defeat point to how we were sabotaged by the Labour right, stretched out on the rack of Brexit, battered by a hostile media, and so on. But all this was predictable. If our defeat was down to inevitabilities, we should not have tried. If it wasn’t, how could we have overcome it? This question need clearer answers before people are asked to trust the left again.

I will try to explore the question through three lenses that might guide us to answers. Firstly, how it felt at a personal level. Secondly, the national political picture. And thirdly, the context of a lethal year for the Western left internationally.

The long fall through the institutions

Comparing the sunshine of Tranmere in 2017 and the gloom of Morecambe in 2019 is more than an exercise in pathetic fallacy. Terrain and weather have a direct impact; last winter people were less inclined to open their doors, to attend large events, and to hope. In other sites of contests, like sports pitches or battlefields, we understand small fluctuations in the environment. In the Corbyn years, our environment was created by our internal opponents’ “keep shooting until he’s dead” strategy (in the words of one anonymous Labour MP). This had an obvious impact on operational effectiveness and public perception of our competence. But before that, it had an impact at a very granular level.

Having to work under John Gotti’s maxim of “don’t say anything you don’t want played back to you” is no way to run a plural project. The Mafia reference is not idle; I’m increasingly convinced that much of the attacks on Corbyn’s leadership had less to do with defending ideological centrism and more to do with protecting entrenched networks of power and patronage. A small group who were used to treating one of Britain’s two main parties as their instrument did not wish to concede control.

Infighting bruises everyone, across factions. But the Blair ascendancy attracted politicos who fought internal wars less to secure political goals and more because the aesthetic practice of politics (from the court nobility of the West Wing politics to its darker corollary of ratfucking campaigns) motivated them. From Iraq to Brexit they were good at it; not the left’s caricatures of pitiful “melts” but effective fighters bent on breaking the left and hermetically sealing them in a casket too poisoned to touch.

If you are on the left and aiming for power, price all this in. You will be attacked by your better-resourced ideological opponents: conservatives with money and media barons behind them. This is not a debating society. They will not come at you with arguments about policy. They will clog the airwaves with demoralising dross that forces you on the defensive, which the gossip-first nature of the news cycle and Twitter obliges so readily.

Like everyone you will have flaws. Those flaws will be highlighted and exaggerated with a pack of lies appended to each truth, but to point out context will be called whataboutery. They will work directly or indirectly with your internal opponents who will recycle their attack lines in language that divides your side. If you respond vigorously you are drawn into a fight on unhelpful terrain. If you rise above it, it goes unchallenged.

You probably won’t trust politicians much, but you will regardless be surprised by this Alice-in-Wonderland world where saying what you mean or maintaining a consistent view is rare, disingenuousness is normalised, and things are punctuated by an odd mix of educational snobbery and morbidly incurious anti-intellectualism.

Supporters who were not very ideologically committed, or non-supporters fair-minded enough to give you a chance, may start to sour. Some will denounce you and some will quietly fade away. Your loyal supporters will get sick of being attacked and browbeaten and get into public rows that will be unedifying. Some may join the gutter fight, and invariably be less good at it.

Your opponents, having done their best to sabotage you, will complain that you’re incompetent. Your own people will probably agree and blame each other’s performance, worldview, or even loyalty, for what is going wrong. They will hunt quick fixes; a reshuffle or a sacking. They will start to fall out. Your people and systems will become corroded with mistrust. Arenas like Twitter, while broadening participation in political discourse, will exact the price of its inane battle rhythms magnifying conflict, consuming time, and poisoning discussion. You will become unhelpfully risk-averse.

Expect attacks not just from right-wing media; liberal and “neutral” media will join in with the monstering. In Corbyn’s case the “objective” state broadcaster described subsidised broadband as “communism”, mocked up Corbyn in front of the Kremlin and wearing a MAGA hat, and recycled endless absurdities, from silly ones like “nationalising sausages” or darker ones like routinely trivialising Stalinist massacres and antisemitic pogroms for cheap attack lines.[1]

It will take a gargantuan effort to remain focussed. You can keep teams working on day-to-day manoeuvre and long-term planning separated to ensure that not everyone is dragged into the wrong battles. You can run a high-performance internal communications operation that keeps members and supporters well-informed and morale high. You can wargame, a lot. You can develop systems that finely balance coordinate and discipline with adaptability and grassroots initiative. You can build resilience and look after the health and wellbeing of staff and activists. All this could have been done better — but it is mitigative, not curative. Asymmetric battles will take their toll — the answer is always in how you process that damage.

Europe above all

Before one general election David Cameron’s team reportedly watched the Vietnam War film Hamburger Hill. It’s an interesting choice: the US Army’s Screaming Eagles captured Hill 937 at horrific cost, only to abandon it when it proved strategically valueless. The useless hill Cameron died on was Brexit, before bequeathing it to Labour.

The Labour Party is an alliance of liberals and socialists. The centrist wing prides itself on pragmatism, realpolitik and a ruthless desire to win elections — but their role in the Brexit fiasco demonstrates how absurd this image is. The campaign to secure a second EU referendum made little attempt to shift swing voters. It largely dismissed over half the country as stupid and feckless.

Kamikaze-Remain was targeted not at voters but insiders, aiming to change the perceived plausibility of a second referendum within political circles. It was also driven by the aim of splintering Jeremy Corbyn’s coalition. Despite overwhelming evidence, those who prosecuted it still stubbornly refuse to accept responsibility for defeat.[2]

In April 2020 a dossier emerged containing a trove of conversations between senior Labour staff from the pre-Corbyn regime demonstrating their visceral hatred of colleagues even mildly to their left, and iron commitment to bringing down the leadership at the expense of electoral success. One of these staff went on to become a director of the anti-Brexit People’s Vote campaign. “How do we make the NPF (an internal policy body) Brexit session as difficult and unhelpful to McDonnell and Corbyn as possible?” wondered another policy officer.

Nonetheless, Labour’s left led the party and must take final responsibility. Many leftists were persuaded by the centrist strategy because it saturated their every intelligence source. Even those sceptical of the Guardian newspaper still ate its daily diet of manufactured push polls supposedly indicating surging Remain support. Large London protests were taken to be representative of a wider popular movement.[3] The social circles and social media circles of politicos created similar illusions.[4] We bent to the will of the most connected and privileged section of our coalition because there were few attempts to analyse and broaden our intelligence sources and attempts to do so were ignored or suppressed when they conflicted with received wisdom.

Those who could see this coming failed to offer coherent alternatives. The Conservative party dealt with its Brexit malcontents via high-profile sackings and an all-out attack on the British constitution itself, which was forgotten about within weeks. Labour could not and should not have done the same — its political culture depends on pluralism over blind deference and it does not benefit from a compliant media — but the line between open debate and open sabotage was crossed early on. Points of policy were conceded gradually, with each new announcement appearing ever more incoherent as the party tried to win over itself rather than the electorate. Exhausted from constant firefighting, the leadership were unable to assert effective control at key moments. On Brexit as with other issues, there was no consistent and systematic approach to selecting which battles to fight as well as an aversion to starting battles at a time of our choosing[5].

The second referendum argument was not just about perceived pragmatism. Huge swathes of members believed that we could not in principle accept Brexit. Some of this involved buying into centrist conspiracy theories, e.g. that the referendum was “actually only advisory”, or was fixed by Russia. There were two more serious points; the Brexit campaign had handed a material victory to some of the ugliest bigots in British politics, and Brexit risked economic disruption which would hurt the poorest hardest. A pragmatist might note that 1) the doomed attempt to cancel Brexit midwifed a harder and more disruptive one, and 2) a second referendum after a two-year logjam and no significant movement of public opinion would have been even more vicious and toxic than the first, without any guarantee of overturning the result. But the problem here is not only one of tactics. The general analytic framework deployed by much of the left was based on incomplete information at best and wishful thinking at worst.

Ironically the Remain standard-bearers for European left integration did remarkably little to interrogate the experience of other European nations — perhaps a function of a discourse conflating “the EU” and “European countries.” Neoliberal Britain routinely found itself to the right of European regulatory drives and never experienced the business end of the EU’s regressiveness. Realities like union-busting, undermining left-wing governments most notably in Greece, structurally readjusting Eastern European economies[6], driving down standards in the global South, and the world’s most violent borders were obscured. This is a failure of intelligence-gathering of a different order to the first; not just failing to seek information but failing to engage meaningfully with available information.

The belief that Brexit would be defined or implemented by the hard-right contains a hidden assumption that a Labour government capable of maintaining the EU’s progressive content was impossible. Even Left-Eurosceptics failed to make the case for what a Labour Brexit would look like operationally. Much of Labour believed — even after 2017 — that the party was too weak to control the interpretation of Brexit. In short, we failed from the beginning to seriously imagine ourselves in control of the narrative or, indeed, in power.

A different approach was possible. We could have accepted the referendum result and pivoted to the conversation half-started by the referendum debate; what kind of country do we want to live in? The slogan “take back control” resonated, and we could have relentlessly pressed the government on the implications of this; control of what? In the hands of whom? Towards what ends? Had we been trusted to deliver what people voted for, we could have attacked the government’s hypocrisy and veiled intentions without being framed as simply trying to frustrate delivery. We could have extracted progressive political content from the Remain cause and campaigned vigorously on migrant rights, on a fleshed-out internationalism[7], on workers’ rights and on environmental protections.[8] This would have been an effective compromise between Leavers and Remainers. Instead, we absorbed the weaknesses of both sides; Leavers’ weak analysis, and Remainers’ refusal to pursue a majoritarian strategy.

The combination of poor intelligence, poor analysis and poor coalition-building left us with an institutionalist focus; the wrong compromise for the wrong coalition. Time that could have been spent mounting sustained campaigns on popular issues which energised and mobilised our base, persuaded the unconvinced and yielded concrete results was instead spent on parliamentary procedure. We were accused of being “absent” on Brexit and yet our abilities were going into complex parliamentary manoeuvres, followed by few and frustrating many. A “radical” flank of this institutionalist strategy consisted of holding up slightly more left-wing placards at liberal marches calling for procedural solutions.

Implications

Our mental model of the party and the electorate were identical. This is what I call the linear model: a minority at each end of a line identify as left or right and everyone else lies somewhere in between. This implies that one simply needs to capture the moderate middle and you have a majority. It favours the centre, but could be operated from the left. However, it does not reflect reality or predict voter behaviour.

The Brexit campaign and Vote Leave faction of Johnson’s government understood this. No-one beyond hardline ideologues of centre, left, or right, sits neatly at one point on a line. There are near-infinite forms of compromise positions between left and right which are not conventionally centrist. Potential voters (a better framing than “non-voters) can be as important as swing voters. Some “swing” voters are a wild mix of views in flux, others are identifying as undecided while consistently voting the same way. Majority-building involves activating the parts of people which align with your programme and using those to bring them closer to you. This is not done through abstruse debates on procedural amendments to EU exit procedures.[9]

This is significant beyond Brexit because our inability to adapt to the post-referendum space triggered a cascade failure of our entire campaigning apparatus. It meant:

- We became trapped within a right-wing cultural frame pitting metropolitan liberals and non-urban conservatives (with a healthy dose of implied racial division.) Elsewhere this frame has manifested through concrete election results — e.g. Donald Trump. In the UK, because it had manifested through a single-issue referendum, there was time to reach across this divide. This time was not used productively, and it cost us dozens of former Labour heartland areas who had suffered most under neoliberalism. (This is a crying shame, because the leadership did advocate a majoritarian politics of redistribution, produce excellent content on non-urban renewal, and combine a firm commitment to equalities and social liberties whilst largely avoiding Very Online culture wars.)

- Trapped in this frame, we mishandled all parts of Labour’s coalition; its multiracial urban working-class communities were under-appreciated or their priorities assumed, its industrial working class base sacrificed and its urban middle class increasingly captured by centrism.

- We actually shied away from attacking the worst reasons why people had voted Leave. The Labour left did not only fail to reframe the debate on race, migration and internationalism, it did not properly attempt to in spite of objectively good conditions for doing so. (It was beyond galling to be lectured on “internationalism” by apologists for the Iraq War. Worse, Labour people routinely appealed to the worst of British exceptionalism and mocked Corbyn for being “more interested in West Papua than West Yorkshire”, etc, would then mock him in a week when he focussed on say, Universal Credit or rural bus services rather than Brexit.)

- We neutralised Jeremy Corbyn’s main appeal — an anti-establishment outsider who has always been honest — when Labour was seen to adopt ever more circumspect positions and align with a political establishment which had been forfeiting public trust for a generation.

- We failed to regain the trust which had eroded between New Labour and much of the party’s onetime core vote, inheriting negative perceptions of New Labour and infusing them with negative perceptions of the left in a worst-of-both-worlds compromise.

- We wasted time. The institutional focus not only demoralised people and created arguments but sapped energy from more important projects; e.g. a serious attempt on part of the party to revitalise trade unionism and workplace politics which never really got off the ground.

- We sacrificed seats with narrow Conservative majorities in favour of seats with higher majorities but higher numbers of wealthier Remainers. This led to incoherent messaging where we attempted to appear insurgent to some voters and establishment to others. Overall coherence broke down.

The Brexit divide, on a more abstract level is about space. It appeared in the UK due to competing strategies among conservatives for dealing with post-imperial decline in the 1980s. Empire nostalgists, fans of the “special relationship” and national-capitalist interests became suspicious of the EU, while cosmopolitan conservatives who believed in a multilateral free market (and were prepared to make compromises to achieve it) embraced Europe. It demonstrates how (neo)liberals and conservatives have construed politics along two theories of territory.

Neoliberalism has allowed our territory to be dictated by distant forces, from unaccountable developers to overseas institutions to global markets. The new “populist” right maintains this in policy terms while rhetorically asserting “our” right to territory at the expense of outsiders. The mix of views captured by Brexit reflects these mixed anxieties about territory and ownership. This necessitates a politics which demands territory while defining control of it inclusively — which should have been, and should still be, our approach to ongoing questions of national versus global institutions.

The end of the world as we know it

The previous two sections dealt with two linked causes of defeat. One is dysfunctional organisation. The Labour party contains too many people who hate each other, is basically designed to produce internal conflict, and contains much technological, organisational, and human infrastructure which simply does not work properly.[10] The second is the Brexit debacle and what it reveals about the movement’s composition, strategic assumptions, and lack of confidence. A third overarching reason — true internationally as well as of Labour — is our failure to communicate the viability of a different way of life. Most people basically agree that things are already bad, liable to get worse, and in the hands of people who are neither trustworthy or competent. But the worse things get, the harder it is to imagine an alternative.

This problem has become more pronounced since the election. The left remains out of touch with large sections of the class it aspires to represent. The right has resolved its internal crisis and regrouped enough to exercise the full advantages of its asymmetric position of power. The centre is muddling through with no evidence of solutions.

A brief overview of the last year. Left candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey was everything self-styled left-wing critics of Corbyn claimed to want: an agile media performer, warm and kind, a clever technocrat, a younger woman from the Red Wall, and with less so-called baggage. But such criticism of Corbyn was rarely made in good faith. Long-Bailey struggled to unite a Labour reeling from defeat, that had largely been held together by its uniquely trustworthy, principled, and left-unifying leader.[11] In spite of her talents, the campaign was lacklustre, divided, and left little useful legacy. Keir Starmer probably would have won comfortably even without insincere commitments to policy continuity.

Starmer set about consolidation. Junior left-wing frontbenchers were driven out, the bureaucracy reordered and factionalised, socialist commitments dropped, and finally Jeremy Corbyn suspended. In short, he did everything Corbyn was breathlessly accused of (and probably should have done) while incurring none of the outrage. Supporters claim this is a matter of “restoring electability.” During a catastrophically mishandled pandemic Starmer retains a poll lead below or at least consistent with Corbyn throughout the Brexit debacle. But the left hasn’t exactly done better: there has been a lack of clear direction, while infighting incidents like the boring and alienating Momentum faction fights which dogged the Corbyn years have continued at pace.

This reflects a story beyond Britain. Insurgent politics rose after the 2008 crash, most notably in the West through decentralised movements like Occupy. By 2015 neoliberal social democrats and conservatives were increasingly discredited. Space opened for a coalition of social movements and the remains of the socialist and trade union left inside and beyond mainstream parties. Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, Pablo Iglesias, Jean-luc Melenchon, and Alexis Tsipras all achieved striking successes. While different (and spanning the somewhat different universes of continental Western Europe and Anglo-America), their organisations shared a commitment to combining movement and party power in the state to oversee significant redistribution of wealth and power.

These organisations reaped the benefits of insurgency. They began younger[12], more technologically adept, swifter and more adaptable, and confounded opponents who refused to take them seriously. The “chicken coup” of 2016 Labour is perhaps the most striking example of comedic incompetence from establishment figures countering a new threat. It wasn’t just the left that caught an insulated, arrogant political class napping. Donald Trump is one major example of an insurgent right tearing through the institutions — with the tacit support of Hillary Clinton’s operatives who assumed he would be the easiest Republican candidate to beat. It became reasonable to expect that the centre could not hold and soon the socialist left and the nationalist right would face off.

In hindsight the vulnerabilities of the new democratic socialists were clearly visible. Individuals and hastily-assembled projects bridged a range of cultural and ideological divides but did not have a clear shared politics; leaving a progressive movement ripe for exploitation by “wedge” strategies.

Part of these organisations’ leadership stratum genuinely emerged from mass movements and marginalised communities. Where this is the case they have persisted; the fusion of the Sanders left and movements like Black Lives Matter resulted in the election of figures like Cori Bush. Yet often the game-changing constituency of the leftward shift was young urban professionals; people from relatively comfortable backgrounds suddenly faced with poor housing and job insecurity but retaining some social capital. Some became class-struggle socialists, most simply saw a more decent liberalism in the left. The left did not build a majoritarian strategy capable of overcoming attempts by liberals and conservatives to split working or middle class people along regional and cultural lines.

The left is now stronger in size, depth, experience, and presence. But this provides limited comfort when the surge of last decade has faced defeat everywhere (Podemos’ current role in a coalition government notwithstanding.) Neoliberal and radical left critics of electoralism have effectively the same explanation: you can’t win elections from the left or govern if you do. This explanation carries the risk of every political science assertion — an insufficient sample size. Regardless, anyone disagreeing will have to explain why a similar project will not end badly. Defeat means recognising the flaws of the system which previously sustained action, and searching for new explanations, perspectives, and approaches.

This piece is a reflection on the implications of defeat not the articulation of a new strategy. But it does attempt to discuss the environment in which new strategy might be successfully developed. In Britain we have had many initiatives over the last year, and clarion calls to leave Labour and start anew or stay and fight. Neither have achieved much. We are in a paradoxical position; we need time for thinking and reflection and development, which a year of lockdowns should have provided. But the year of lockdowns points to an opposite and equal conclusion: time is short.

The coronavirus pandemic has been the most serious global — and globalised — crisis since the Second World War. It has demonstrated how our current ideological and institutional setup creates, exacerbates, and reproduces disasters. The left had hoped to win swiftly in several major economies and avert or radically impede major crises through redistribution and investment. Concurrent with the end of the Corbyn and Sanders projects, the disastrous coronavirus response in advanced neoliberal economies demonstrated the world which follows the failure of those ambitions.

From climate change to geopolitics to economic stagnation to political polarisation to the pains of technological change, we are facing a long period of crisis and upheaval. By the time the left could feasibly wield sufficient power, the balance will likely be toward mitigating rather than preventing crisis. The old disagreement over focussing inside or outside existing institutions betrays a gradualism on both sides; capturing a system or replacing it are long processes. This system is tearing itself down quite well without left intervention; the new democratic socialists tried to save it more than destroy it.

The left’s core insight remains essential: the need to dismantle a system which incentivises a miniscule few to grow and hoard vast wealth, and others to protect it in defiance of in the hands of the common good. But this is the beginning, not the end, of a process which involves developing far-reaching solutions to sustained crises and winning a critical mass of people to them.

The starting point is organising; enabling people to understand the power they have and use it in their shared interests. This involves a holistic conception of political life that maps and utilises connections between the workplace, identities and communities; non-industrial material issues like housing; and engagement with political institutions.[13] It is through organising that Labour’s left will overcome its bad habit of conflating broadening its public appeal with either factional unity or single-faction control.

The next critical point is developing shared strategic thinking even when we differ on conclusions. We fall into traps constantly; from overthinking relatively minor points that cloud action, to being vulnerable to a range of baiting, distraction and attack tactics, to appearing distant and irrelevant. We routinely forget obvious rules of campaigning in the smoke of action: to work out the specifics of what we are trying to achieve; to develop structures and systems that support this; to understand who we are trying to reach and how; and to have in place a set of principles, plans and heuristics that guide us when things go wrong.

A third key is finding language that inspires action, that can bridge internal and external divides, and communicate our understanding of what the problems and solutions are while texturing it with the insights of others. A friend of mine refers regularly to an anecdote in which a voter opposes Corbyn because she has heard him pledge to end food bank use and is worried this means he will close her food bank. Similar stories are commonplace; popular understanding of what the left is and stands for remains low and overinformed by hostile media. With some notable exceptions left media has not sought to achieve mass cut-through and outside of electoral door-knocking left organisation has been absent in much of the country.[14]

Our neoliberal opponents’ primary public critique of us is that we can’t, or don’t want to, “win”. No Labour faction is currently good at winning elections. The centre routinely put defeating the left before winning elections, concede endless ground to the right at great cost to themselves, and become mired in subcultural obsessions like Kamikaze-Remain. Their model of politics is fatally flawed.[15] Corbyn’s Labour, meanwhile, represented a compromise to win where the left made major concessions.

Regardless: we have not pursued victory as breathlessly as the right have. This is largely the result of more differences, more of a debating culture, fewer advantages, and more caution.[16] The solution to these drawbacks lies in three things, all easier said than done. The first is a relentless focus on exposing every injustice this current system produces and building leadership from those touched by such injustices. The second is earning trust by being seen to competently fix practical problems, whether through mutual aid or through controlling institutions. The third is popularising and sustaining an intuitive common sense of what our movement is for, that exists above and beyond strategic, cultural, and demographic differences.

The winter of 2019 was a low point. The year that followed has felt worse. But Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that things can and will change remains true; not as a prediction but as an instruction to carry on, because there are always more lessons from defeats than from victories.

We have a great deal to win, and very little time to lose.

Footnotes

[1] Much ink, little of it helpful, has been spilt on Labour’s antisemitism rows. I’m not adding to it here. From an electoral standpoint I am unconvinced that claims of racism cost Labour an election where the alternative was Boris Johnson’s Conservatives.

[2] The Conservatives won a shocking majority on a campaign consisting solely of repeating “Get Brexit Done” ad nauseum, Labour’s position on Brexit was the only functional difference between the 2017 scenario where it gained seats and the 2019 scenario where it lost seats. 51 of the 54 seats lost in England & Wales by Labour were pro-Leave and there were majorities for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, for anti-second referendum parties in 2017, for the Brexit party in the 2019 EU elections and Brexit parties in the 2019 GE.

[3] They were not even particularly representative of Londoners, or for that matter many Remain voters, including me, who did not translate their vote into an all-encompassing cultural obsession.

[4] The opinions of young Twitter politicos were blithely assumed to represent the “youth vote” — part of a naively complacent belief that we permanently “have the youth vote” due to majorities among the smaller proportion of young people who turn out to vote.

[6] Essays in “Welcome to the Desert of Post-Socialism” (Stiks and Horvat) and “The Left Case Against the EU” (Lapavitsas) are useful further reading here.

[7] Multilateralism and internationalism are routinely confused in political discourse, including on the left. This is never useful, but particularly dangerous when alliances of dominant global-North powers are referred to as “internationalist.”

[8] The left has endlessly debated whether the Brexit vote was an assertion of radical anti-establishment sentiment or bigoted reaction. The simple answer is “both”; the new right are highly effective at blending legitimate grievances with either subtle or explicit bigotry. We must be judged by how we can effectively separate one from the other in the minds of persuadable voters.

[9] The linear model heuristic has also informed a section of progressive opinion who believe that through proportional representation and alliances between non-conservative parties we have a ready-made progressive majority. It is a comforting magic bullet to believe in, but manifestly untrue.

[10] “People on the doorstep simply did not like Corbyn, goes the usual argument. Indeed, many did not. But “the leadership” is a catch-all reason encompassing the Brexit position, Corbyn’s personal appeal or lack of it, the difficulties of a left pitch, the state of trust in the party as a whole, and other factors. It makes little sense as an analytical category on its own.

[11] Some of the more seasoned left criticised somewhat mawkish Corbyn fandom and missed the point that they had failed to build anything better. Obviously it is an indictment of the wider British left that the closest we have come to wielding serious power since closing the Saltley gates has rested largely on the character of one man. But in a period of relatively low mass action (e.g. days lost to strikes or large successful movements), it was somewhat inevitable.

[12] The base was younger, the leadership often was not. This reflects the trust and experience earned by the rump of leftists who survived the wilderness years with their principles intact, refusing to accept neoliberal reality.

[13] Labour-affiliated unions have always had to deal with the contradictions of industrial and political work, and provide both good and bad examples of squaring them.

[14] Communications as a discipline is siloed off from organising and largely understood as talking to the media. Labour’s operation should have sought a much more multidisciplinary infrastructure spanning experts in physical and digital networks, linguistics and cognition, creative writers, persuasive organisers, and people with a wider range of experience of the privations and difficulties the party talked about. Absent the new community organising unit, the organisational forms inherited from the centrists remained largely unchanged.

[15] There is a view that Joe Biden reflects the return of centrist hegemony. But the circumstances of Covid-19 and Trump as an individual are sui generis. Biden has won but has yet to govern. Where the centre has rallied — in France and Germany, for instance — its problems seem only to be deepening.

[16] An adjacent issue is that when leaders of the left see overcautiousness and dialling down irreverence as “tactical”, the role of building a combative politics is left entirely with those they (probably correctly) regard as tactically inept.

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