Wednesday 23 December 2020

No Holding Back: A Strategy for the Left

The Labour Together report into Labour's 2019 election loss was well received and got plenty of coverage, not least because it skipped over uncomfortable facts and dovetailed the dominant narrative of pinning the blame on Jeremy Corbyn. The No Holding Back report published in the Autumn by Ian Lavery, Laura Smith, and Jon Trickett splashed nowhere near as much because its findings, based on a nationwide tour and submissions from party activists, challenged the story Labour's leadership and their media helpers were determined to tell. Conversely, the report was heralded by many on the left who were of the opinion it was Brexit wot did it which, again, is far too simplistic and skirts over some unpalatabe truths. Thankfully, this report - which should be read by everyone on the left, and a few centrists too - is even handed, makes the right diagnoses (up to a point), and prescribes a course the party would do well to heed.

Okay, let's get Brexit out the way. On page nine, the comrades write,
People who had supported remain were sold a falsehood that not only could the result of the referendum be overturned, but that every version of Brexit was disastrous. This discourse was relentlessly pursued by senior politicians despite there never being a realistic prospect of it happening. The debate was purposely polarised away from any nuanced position on leaving the EU. Labour got on the wrong side of the Brexit debate and endless Parliamentary manoeuvres left people in our communities in no doubt about our opposition to their will. In the Party’s headlong rush todefend liberalism, it left behind its commitment to democracy. Never again should we forget that we are the Party of democratic socialism.
This is true, but also a bit too easy. As someone who was very much against a second referendum until the party switched its position to supporting one, our first unwelcome truth - not considered by the report - is how Labour didn't have much of a choice. Because the leadership did not move to consolidate the Labour consensus around a soft Brexit in the aftermath of 2017, the party ended up where it ended up with the remain wedge operation running riot. The decision the leadership had to make because it ducked the earlier battle was run the risk of losing a shedload of older Labour leavers or, perhaps even more catastrophically, haemorrhage support among the rising generation of workers who now comprised Labour's base. The lesson here is, borrowing a certain phrase, to move fast and make our revolution permanent if we find ourselves in such a position of strength again.

At least No Holding Back doesn't pretend the Brexit position was the only factor. Going from activist testimony, the report draws on a number of common themes. The first was Corbyn himself who was a hard sell on the doors. Time and again, as any canvasser will happily explain, he just wasn't cutting the mustard. I got the old communist and terrorist sympathiser routine, along with being no different to anyone else and going back on Brexit. This, the comrades argue, could have been avoided if early in the leadership the values and solidarity Jeremy frequently evoked were tied together in a srong push around, for want of a better phrase, our friend progressive patriotism. Leaving aside that debate, they do note (page 18) how in the space of two years Corbyn had become such a drag on the doors is still lacking a fully fleshed out account. This is true - the right can never concede how Corbyn was an asset in 2017 and too many on the left can't countenance how he came to be a liablity as far as many former Labour voters were concerned.

The second issue was policy incoherence. This isn't the same as capitulating to establishment claims about the character of the manifesto, but more an issue of not sticking to core messages about the party's plans - it was as if the lessons of 2017 had been unlearned. A populist story around inequality and the transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich were all possibilities that were neglected, and might have had an impact around the edges of the campaign. The report also notes the party pledges, in places, were contradictory with the promise not to raise taxes for anyone on under £80k versus plans to scrap the married persons tax allowance. Unsurprisingly, the incoherence of the platform, with new policies seemingly added willy-nilly, was matched by confused messaging and fell short of 2017 - not because it didn't cut through, but because it was less focused.

Party disunity was another key factor, which Labour Together somewhat papered over. Here No Holding Back doesn't point the stick too much, but does refer to that report as evidence of the toxic atmos and scabbing taking place at party HQ and acknowledges shenanigans on the parliamentary party's part. It's funny how, a year on, those doing the undermining and saying they had no effect on the result because Corbyn's unpopularity was baked in are also those now moaning about the left's knockabout with Keith memes and the like. Still, there were opportunities for the left to clear house but didn't take them. I'm sorry to say if a leader doesn't look like they're in charge of their party, average punters who don't pay politics much mind aren't going to deem them capable of leading the country.

The report also singles out "old-fashioned campaigning", i.e. voter ID and cold calling, at the expense of long-term campaigning. This is difficult to dispute, because it's true - but at least Corbyn's office made a start here with the community organising units, which are bigged up in the report. Sad to say, signs abound that Labour are about to go backwards on this. Lastly, the culture gap between the party and constituencies is singled out, particularly between those outside London, the South East, and the big cities and those in them. I'm not entirely sold on this or the idea Labour has a "working class problem" as opposed to an old people problem, particularly as the methodology here is premised on our ABC1/C2DE friend - which they at least acknowledge is problematic.

Don't bring me problems, bring me solutions as a neophyte call centre manager might say. Okay, the first - which did attract a little bit of mainstream attention - was the recommendation Labour apologises for its Brexit position to both sides of the debate. This should be a priority for Keir Starmer who, after all, did more than his fair share to polarise Labour members on the issue. Of course, our authors aren't so naive to believe this is a quick fix but a bit of humility and humble pie with new ideas (hmmm), "imaginative interventions", and coherent policy can all help. Naturally, the community organising is mentioned again with the recommendation each CLP should have an officer with this responsibility, assisted by the strengthening of union links and a recruitment drive among party members to get them into unions. This should be combined with more power and financial autonomy to constituency and branch parties, funds for growing low membership CLPs in deprived areas, and a more accessible subs structure. The report also wants to see an end to parachuting in notables and the favoured with a fixed percentage in any shortlist drawn from the local constituency, more financial support for candidates, a programme for developing talented activists coming through and a renewed commitment to political education with the unions. Lastly, Labour needs to take local government more seriously with priorities around ending outsourcing and providing national leadership highlighting the cuts made to councils, instead of leaving it to local Labour groups to fend for themselves or completely embracing the politics of compliance, thereby further undermining the party's support.

In all, this is a welcome document because it takes in each dimension of Labour's defeat and points to a better rounded and more strategic way forward cultivating the class politics the party rests on. But it comes with a caveat. As this place has argued more times than is healthy, the values dimension of British politics, as encapsulated by the terms of the Tory-stoked culture war demands both a rigorous understanding of what "identity politics" is and how Boris Johnson's success on this score isn't because he waves cheap little flags while dangling from a zip wire, but how Brexit, the war on woke, and the hatred of the young are rooted in the politics of property acquisition and class cohort effects. Thankfully, No Holding Back doesn't advocate saluting the flag/back our boys bollocks, and is right to focus on the issues that matter to our communities. This is the best way of winning back those voters Labour lost because it's the only way.

A good document then for which Ian, Laura, and Jon should be thanked. It gives the left a strategic orientation to organise and regroup around when the attritional warfare abates. This is good, commonsense class politics. And that is why if Keir Starmer adopts any of these recommendations, it will be because the weight of the membership have forced him to.

Image Credit


Blissex said...

«is how Labour didn't have much of a choice. Because the leadership did not move to consolidate the Labour consensus around a soft Brexit in the aftermath of 2017, the party ended up where it ended up with the remain wedge operation running riot»

The party as a whole had the choice of arguing that opposing the referendum result was unrealistic and soft exit was a viable compromise, the wedge operation convinced the majority of the membership that telling the "Leaver" voters to bugger off was a smart political move because they would be replaced by a much bigger number of tory "Remainers".

The same wedge operation then persuaded the majority of the membership that by handing over the leadership to Starmer, the frontman of of the wedge operation, would tell "Remainer" socialdemocrat voters to bugger off but would be a smart political move because they would be replaced by a much bigger number of tory "Leavers".

I guess that the majority of the membership is a bit too gullible.

«Going from activist testimony, the report draws on a number of common themes. The first was Corbyn himself who was a hard sell on the doors. Time and again, as any canvasser will happily explain, he just wasn't cutting the mustard»

That's a really pointless argument to make because what matters is not whether something is a hard sell on the door, but whether it is vote moving.

Plenty of Conservative voters detest and despise Johnson, Gove and their extreme "Leaver" demagoguery, but still vote Conservative because that are satisfied on their vote moving issue. Plenty of Conservative voters in 2019 were irritated that the Conservatives had pretty much no policy offer other than "get Brexit done", but still that did not move their vote.
Similarly in 2017 many Labour voters had been persuaded that Corbyn was a genocidal racist aiming to turn England into a stalinist gulag, but still voted Labour because on their vote moving issues they were satisfied. Similarly plenty of Labour voters were irritated that the Labour policies were a mess, but still that did not move their vote.

But overall there is no doubt that Corbyn was in part a negative factor in 2019 as he was in 2017, just like 2nd ref and a complicated policy. The key political and electoral questions are:

* How many voters regarded 2nd ref, policy mess, Corbyn as vote moving issues rather than things they whined about?

* How many of the voters who regarded 2nd ref, policy mess, Corbyn as vote moving issues resulted in handing over seats to the Conservatives?

Looking at the electoral results, the vast majority of seats lost by Labour were in "Leaver" areas with many voters regarding "2nd ref" as a *negative* vote moving issue, areas that in 2017 had still voted reflexively Labour despite whining that it had too many poncy southern wankers and a useless leader.

Looking at where the seats were lost, and that the loss of votes was much smaller than the loss of seats, and concetrated in "Leaver" areas:

Blair: 1997: 13.5m, 2001: 10.7m, 2005 9.5m
Brown, Miliband: 2010: 8.6m, 2015: 9.4m
Corbyn: 2017: 12.9m, 2019: 10.3m

My impression is that in 2019 without switching side on brexit Labour would still have lost, as policy mess and Corbyn were negative factors, but by a much smaller margin. because in many of the lost seats it was "2nd ref" that was a vote moving issue, however much Corbyn and policy mess were hard sells.

A detail that many don't notice is that Labour in 2019 actually advanced a bit in several areas, typically heavy "Remain" ones (without the huge seat landslide promised by Blair and Starmer for any party promising a "2nd ref") and did not lose much in many areas, which confirms that brexit was a much bigger issue than 2nd ref or policy mess as to a vote moving issue.

david walsh said...

Unfortunately (and I stress I'm not an uncritical admirer of a Hayekian corporatist EU / EC) the place of the UK (or what may remain of it) in Europe is so utterly fundamental to our economy and our social coheson, as to make policy decisions based on how at this time it plays in Peoria (or Peterlee, Peterborough or Penrhos) meaningless. Trying to buy short term respite and to somehow rebuild temporary support is pointless if the foundations of that activity are built on straw.

Boffy said...

The analysis is based on comparative statics, not any kind of dialectics, which requires consideration of what role a party can play in changing ideas, and creating dynamics. It starts from the same assumption as all electoralist parties begin with, which is the idea that there is an electorate with a fixed set of ideas, which parties have to try to discern and mould their offer to.

The unpopularity of Corbyn cannot be divorced from his position on Brexit - and his dissembling on other issues he rowed back on. The basic reason for defeat was Corbyn's abandonment of the party policy on Brexit, i.e. to oppose it. That undermined his support amongst 90% of the membership, and amongst millions of Labour voters, and millions of Liberal and Green voters who lent Labour their vote in 2017. The collapse in Spring 2019, proves that, and from there it was a matter of trying to recover what had been lost.

Its not true that the vast majority of party members who back Remain were lied to about any Brexit being disastrous, because what we have seen since is that any Brexit deal IS disastrous. Nor is it true that Labour could not have won by maintaining its anti-Brexit position? No. Every poll since the referendum has shown a majority against Brexit. The majority thinking it was a mistake now, is significant and has been continually growing, with position on Remain and Leaving also hardening with 66% holding these positions militantly.

If Labour had stuck to a militant anti-Brexit position, it would have put itself at the head of that opposition, and done a lot to prevent the other grounds on which Corbyn became unpopular. It could conceivably have won in 2017.

They NHB Report still refuses to accept that their reactionary economic nationalist support for Brexit is what lost Labour the election, and they offer no way forward as a result.

Boffy said...

"Time and again, as any canvasser will happily explain, he just wasn't cutting the mustard. I got the old communist and terrorist sympathiser routine, along with being no different to anyone else and going back on Brexit."

All this "We could never vote for Corbyn" narrative is bollocks. This is the same Corbyn who in 2017 led the LP to its largest increase in votes since 1945! Obviously many of those voters who claimed they could never vote for him, did so in 2017. Or else, we have to conclude that they did not vote for him in 2017 either - just as many of these actually Tory working-class voters, and those to their right, had been deserting Labour since 1945, nothing to do with Corbyn - and in that case, Labour's stellar performance in 2017 was nothing to do with those "core" Labour voters at all, but was actually a manifestation of the fact that Labour, and its anti-Brexit message had mobilised millions of younger more progressive voters, including some from other parties.

In that case trying to win back reactionary working-class - many of whom aren't working-class, but petty-bourgeois and lumpen elements - voters was always a fool's errand. Its result was always going to be a failure to capture those reactionary voters, a loss of the progressive voters it captured in 2017, a demoralisation of party members, and a collapse of the party's message into contradiction and ridicule.

Boffy said...

Polling also showed in 2019 that a significant majority of Labour voters thought that the Liberal proposal to simply scrap Brexit if they won the election was better than the mess of a message that Labour was putting forward. The problem was they knew the Liberals were in no position to implement it, as they flew off into their own fantasies.

had Labour adopted that stance they could have cleaned up.

Anonymous said...

Useful document but nothing new and hardly rocket science. Nonetheless useful that it is in black and white and that there are names attached to it.

Anonymous said...

What about the community organisers often parachuted into local areas (they new nothing about- often with little or no experience of community capacity building or campaign development) then supported by Unite to stand as MPs? What about the fact that many TUs support particular candidates to become MPs and not because they have experience? Then there is Tom Watsons campaign (one example) to be deputy leader funded very generously by Unite. And so much more...

Jim Denham said...

Do you *seriously* think this shower of semi-Stalinist little-Englanders have anything worthwhile to off the working class (who, of course, voted 'Remain' by a clear majority)? Or that Ian Lavery is a suitable figure to give any kind of leadership tothe Labour left? - see, for instance, the Certification Officer's report into Lavery's use of the funds of Northumberland NUM for his own personal benefit.

Anonymous said...

If we are going have another batch of community organisers can we make sure they have the experience, skills and commitment. We had someone in Stoke on Trent for a short while really contributed nothing at all in Stoke although I understand many people were interviewed about what they were doing regarding community development and local campaigns. Then the individual left to work elsewhere for the Labour Party. No feedback from the interviews either. Very poor practice.

Phil said...

Jim, if I may say so you are tiresome at times.

Why don't you actually read their recommendations. You know, the whole play the ball and not the man thing and say where you disagree and what they've got wrong. Perhaps then you'll have something interesting to say.

Anonymous said...

Reasonable travel expenses for volunteers should be paid and there should be a process for this. Perhaps funded in part by MPs into the LP (maybe at a regional level). Regarding funding for campaigns for candidates Tom Watson raised this when he was deputy leader. Trade Unions do fund and endorse candidates which has a significant impact and influence on who can become an MP.
I think this document is a good starting point. I agree with others comments we do need people with the appropriate skills to be community organisers. It should not just be a position given to favoured people who want to become MPs either. Community development takes some skill and experience.

Jim Denham said...

Phil: in the case of Lavery it is *impossible* for anyone who cares about basic principles in politics, not to "play the man": the record speaks for itself (and not just with regard to Northumberland NUM funds: also actively promoting the concept of the "white working class": do you think we should simply overlook that?).

As for the recommendations: they are so thin and vacuous as to be vitually meaningless: It purports to be the result of a “listening exercise” amongst Labour members and trade unionists, with the aim of reconnecting Labour with its lost “red wall” voters, but contains few practical proposals beyond unspecified “strengthening trade union and workers’ rights”, taxing firms like Amazon more, creating a “cronyism watchdog” and adopting “progressive patriotism.” On the issue of redundancies and defence of jobs (the cruical issue now facing the working class) NHB says precisely nothing.

On one question, however, NHB has plenty to say. The authors want “A full throated apology” from Labour for not having supported Brexit and seeking a second referendum. That was, they say, a case of “putting liberalism above democracy and that cannot be allowed to happen again.” The election, they say “should have been about putting a fair, hopeful and socialist vision for leaving the EU against a neoliberal Tory Brexit.” What that “socialist” version of Brexit would have been is not explained.

No wonder the pro-Brexit Morning Star loves NHB, and sang its praises in an editorial, as well as interviewing the three authors; in the course of this Lavery addressed the fact that what he and his friends are really saying is that Labour should have ignored the vast majority of its members on Brexit: “There was a huge difference between what the membership wanted and what the country wanted. This was complicated by the fact that two-thirds of the membership were in the south”. (NHB itself, by the way, describes the “discourse of North versus South” as “unhelpful”).

The report continually counterposes what it calls “hardworking communities in places like Mansfield” with “the urban middle classes in metropolitan centres like London.” The Morning Star described it as a “report on reasons for Labour’s loss of support among working-class communities.”

And yet, when it comes to class, NHB (like the Morning Star) has no clear or consistent definition. At one point, NHB states that the working class is “anyone who relies on a salary to pay their bills”, yet throughout the report, class is defined in the sociological categories developed by marketing industry in the 1950s, with “C2DE voters” described as “working class voters” and “ABC1s” as “remainers, the South (inc London) and middle class voters.”

As a matter of fact, C1s and Bs (for instance teachers, social workers, many civil service and local government workers, indeed many service-sector workers) are the core of the working class in Britain today, 52% of the population, and predominantly the younger sections of the working class. And, by very clear margins, they voted Remain in the 2016 referendum.

This report has nothing practical or of value to offer activists and is based on a false and regressive concept of what constitutes the working class. I find it extraordinary that any serious socialist can find anything worthwhile in it at all.

Phil said...

Come on Jim, if you were to consistently apply your strict definition of political hygiene then you would spend all your time condemning your own organisation for cheering on the so-called people's vote campaign, for example.

I'm also disappointed that a "serious socialist" can't remember what the object of their ire has previously written about one of the dramatis personae involved.

As for the rest of your objections, it's worth noting the report criticises the ABC1/C2DE model as oversimplified and - if you'd read my piece - you'll see I take them up on this too. Nevertheless, as a piece of work with a set of objectives for the Labour left to organise around it's a good start. It beats banging on about rejoining the EU, as I'm sure the AWL are about to start going on about.

Anonymous said...

Nepotism across political parties is nothing new. The Labour Party could develop a practice where this is less likely if they wanted??? I am speaking about who gets support and endorsement from 'institutions' (left and right), and key people to become MPs (and I don't mean the local CLP.) Who gets a real chance to work in some senior officer positions within the party. Who gets the phone call...?

Jim Denham said...

Phil: perhaps you'd like to specify which particular examples of ripping off working class organisations, fake redundancy payments or promoting a racialised concept of the working class, the AWL promoted in its efforts to support the vast majority of labour members in wanting to reverse Brexit?

Anonymous said...

A wise and politically experienced friend of mine said to me once with reference to who gets to become an MP and other prominent positions in the Labour Party that 'the only thing that really counts in politics is your connections' from another part of the party a previous Labour First supporting regional director said the same thing also. Bottom line that's where we are at.

Anonymous said...

@Jim and other EU obsessed quasi-trots. I remember when the far left used to have principles and swam against the stream when they had to (which was most of the time). There are so many now trying to hop on pro or anti EU bandwagons and pretending their opportunism is the height of cunning strategic thinking and a no brainer for any Labour leadership. Disappointing in so many different ways. But what feels good for the sect (paper sales and contact with larger groups) is not good strategic thinking for Labourism which has to look at the whole of its potential voter base as well as Labour's various bourgeois/statist/internal interests.

Come to that I remember a time when the far left were critical of Labourism...


Boffy said...

"@Jim and other EU obsessed quasi-trots. I remember when the far left used to have principles and swam against the stream when they had to (which was most of the time)."

You'd have to go back a long way to the 1960's for that to be true. Then the Far left had a position of abstention on joining the EEC, but even by the late 60's, most of them had abandoned it in favour of an opportunist stance of opposing the EEC, for fear of losing their periphery to the CP.

But, times have changed since the 1960's, and Britain did join the EEC and EU, which means that those trying to turn the clock back are reactionaries, who Marxists should oppose. Its now no longer a matter of abstention on the question over the EU, but a question of principle of defending the more advanced, more mature form of capitalism as against less developed, forms of national capital.

Marxists do not argue in favour of capitalists monopolies, for example, but nor do we argue against them, and when such monopolies exist, we point out as did Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that these more mature forms are the very basis for Socialism, and so we are opposed to the reactionaries who want to break them up, and pose in opposition to them the backward small capitalists, by promoting "anti-monopoly alliances" and such other popular frontist nonsense.

John said...


I think a principled left-wing position on Brexit requires a certain degree of nuance: critical of the "actually existing" EU, but even more so of the "actually existing" Brexit project, dominated as it is by racists, reactionaries, and ruling class opportunists.

This has been a disaster for 'Corbynism' because our position is necessarily slightly more complex than the right-wing "Fuck the EU!" or the liberal's "The EU is the best political institution in history!", and thus (given our minor presence in the mainstream media) has been largely drowned out.