I never thought anything would stop me cracking a smile on the day Chuka Umunna lost his seat in Parliament – seeing it happen was number 32 on my bucket list. But watching it happen on Thursday did nothing to numb the sense of devastation, the feeling of all-consuming despair. Nine years into Tory rule and all that comes with it and Labour has lost, and badly. Boris Johnson has a 78 seat majority (with one still to declare); no longer a minority government, no coalition, no “modernising” Cameron at the helm. The worst elements of the Tory Party now have the space to wreak havoc in ways our generation has never witnessed before.
It’s devastating for anyone who had hoped – despite all the signs – that Labour might have done better. We could all see this was coming, really. But fuck me were we desperate for it to not.
And while the pundits and positioning politicians continue to predictably fight it out on TV in increasing states of delirium, it seems few lessons have actually been learnt. What’s needed is some honesty about what can be understood from this disaster. That starts with looking at what went wrong.
It’s true that a lot of blame lies with Brexit. In constituencies I visited, voters could visualise January 2020 and Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deadline – it was a date in the diary after years of paralysis. People are tired. They didn’t care what Brexit looked like; nor that there’d be years of further wrangling under Johnson’s current proposals. Please, I heard in marginals, anything to move on.
But taking a neutral position while offering a second referendum was ultimately a necessary and sensible political calculation for Labour. Another course of action would have seen the party lose a grip on its metropolitan centres or end up wiped out in the Midlands and north west completely. Either would have been worse. Triangulating, though, did little to inspire anyone. In 2017, Labour was the anti-establishment party – it was the underdog. Brexit forced Labour – on this election’s defining issue – to take the middle ground.
So yes, Brexit fucked it. But honestly? Everything else also fucked it, too.
What Labour failed to do was make voters think past January 2020 in any meaningful detail. The prospect of five more years (minimum) of Tories on our NHS, on our schools, on minority communities? That didn’t cut through. Instead, too many policy announcements clouded voters’ vision – the sheer quantity caused questions over credibility. Labour’s 2017 manifesto was simply more concise. None of the most ardent of Labour supporters I interviewed – much like undecideds in marginals – could recall them all.
And Jeremy Corbyn, the accidental leader, was just too unpopular. A strong social media game and a genuine heartfelt affinity many feel towards him simply couldn’t repair the reputational damage already done. The caricature image couldn’t be shanked off.
Of course, this was fuelled by an overtly hostile media and a Tory campaign machine spewing out lies and disinformation. The odds are stacked against us. But given Boris Jonson’s numbers there’s sod all chance he – or his cowboy campaign chief Cummings – are going to address those any time soon.
But there’s little evidence to suggest specific policies were considered in any way too radical: 60 percent of voters supported Labour’s policy of free broadband, and 64 percent said they would support renationalising the railways. Fifty-six percent backed the total decarbonisation of the UK economy by 2030. I could go on. Instead, there was just too much in Labour’s offer to compete with those three words: Get Brexit Done.
The lesson to take from all this is there needs to be a change in personnel and approaches to announcing policy. But the principles? Of reducing inequality, of the rich paying more, of public ownership, of a radical plan for the climate crisis and free and accessible public services? It’s imperative they don’t go anywhere at all. These are the ideas that offer hope to a generation terrified about its future, while no other progressive solutions have come to the fore. Dragging the left into the 21st century will be the legacy that John McDonnell leaves as shadow chancellor.
The temptation to think otherwise must be entirely resisted. We’ve seen the failure of the Liberal Democrats, of Change UK and the Independent Group. Ed Miliband in 2015. There’s no appetite for the “centre” of the past – it offers nothing new. But the left will need to think carefully about how a newly inspired generation takes the reigns. One which is media-savvy and free from the past baggage Corbyn comes with; one that rejects the sectarianism which has paralysed progressive politics. One rid of its fringe of antisemitism for good. New ways to resist the onslaught an emboldened right will undoubtedly bring need to be found.
In the meantime, though, I’ll be taking my eyes off Westminster and back to the places that will be hit hardest by what the Tories have in store for us. Both to help soften the blows in any way possible, but also to ensure that all those of us for whom a future left-wing government offers hope will welcome it in next time we have the chance.