Why UK Labour lost? Part 6: New Labour & Blairism

In 2017 Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell and those in Labour who had never accepted Jeremy Corbyn being elected party leader had their speeches prepared. Worst defeat since 1983. “Look, this just shows that Labour can’t get elected if you move too far to the left. You need to have a leader who is moderate, sensible and can win the centre.”

On election night in 2017, UK Labour’s vote increased significantly, getting it to within a stones throw of government. The 9% increase in Labours vote was the largest in the Party’s history, and got Labour to within a percentage point of the Conservatives. The Blairites were in total shock.. Those sanctimonious, condescending speeches about the virtues of centrism never got made. Not on election night. But those who opposed Corbyn, still never accepted him as leader, and used every tactic they could to undermine him. Even tactics that would do long term harm to the party. 

December 13 2019. Labour is defeated in the general election. As the election results come in Alistair Campbell is on the BBC saying this is a defeat not “just for Corbyn, but for the politics he represents.” Campbell’s analysis does not explain Labour’s increased vote in 2017. Nor does he show any atonement for the fact that he and his allies were the primary advocates of Labour taking a more remain position on Brexit.

A few days later Labour Tony Blair made a speech saying Labour had become “a glorified protest movement” with no chance of being elected to government. He added that Labour would be replaced as an electoral force if it didn’t change. This was nothing new from Blair. Again he failed to acknowledge the increase in votes in 2017, and the fact that even in 2019 Labour won more votes than the Party had under his leadership in 2005. Blair’s critique of Corbyn and Labour’s indecisiveness on Brexit is justified. However the remain position Blair advocated Labour take on Brexit was not one that Labour could ever win on.

For those who had been part of the New Labour project, the election of Corbyn never made any sense. In fact for most MPs, or people who had held leadership positions in the party prior to 2015, Corbyn’s leadership and the change within the Party was treated with distain.

The 3rd way crew within Labour had an agenda to push. Since Corbyn’s election they have been working overtime to get rid of him, but more importantly the political change he represented.  The 2019 election loss has given this wing of the Party an opportunity to repeat their tired message with renewed vigour. But their analysis wilfully ignores the 2017 election result, or the impact the 2nd referendum position had on Labour’s vote. After an election people often interpret the results the way they want to interpret them. But to judge the 2019 result without atoning for the 2017 outcome, their arguments lack credibility.

Fact is that the world has moved on from the 1980s and 90s. Politics certainly has. The types of 3rd way or centre/centre right positions that Blair and Campbell think will win just won’t anymore. Change UK, formed by 3rd way MPs from both Labour and Conservative Parties sunk like a stone after being formed in early 2019. The Liberal Democrats result in December 2019, though increasing in votes, was still a very distant 3rd place on 11.4%. And in terms of seats the Lib Dems lost ground, with Party Leader Jo Swinson losing in her own Constituency.

Labour need to accept that after an election they got things wrong and things need to change. But there is little evidence that going back to pre 2015 Labour/New Labour policies and tactics will work. If anything, it’s that which would really harm Labour’s viability as an electoral force.

As a major political party in a democracy, it is normal that there are differences of opinion within Labour. Further there is a place for those more centrist members within the party. However that many of them have showed a) an inability accept the 2015 leadership result and b) have undermined both the leader and party policies do also shoulder much of the blame for the election loss.

In particular, former deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson spent the last few years acting like the faction leader for Labour First, and not a deputy. It was fine for Watson to support a stronger remain position within Labour. It was fine for him to hold different views to Corbyn on various issues. It was not ok for the Deputy leader to act as a faction leader rather than do his job. But thats what he did. Watson recently did an interview with the Guardian talking about the pressure he was under, causing him to leave parliament just before the election. In particular he talks of a death threat he received. Nobody should have to go through that. However, Watson acted in a divisive manner as Deputy Leader and upset and demoralised many Labour supporters.

Image result for Tom Watson
Labour’s former Deputy Leader Tom Watson

Progress and Labour First factions within the Parliamentary Labour Party need to accept they contributed to the loss, as much as Corbyn and his allies. They have been unable to adapt or evolve their politics to the realities of 21st century Britain.

They have failed to understand how a decade of austerity has meant the aspirational or radical centre positioning of the 1990s won’t work. Specifically for younger voters who are now considerably worse off than their parents generation, a social democratic or Keynesian manifesto has considerably more appeal than the 3rd way. They still cannot understand the youth-quake of 2017, nor indeed the strong support for Labour with voters under 40 in the 2019 election.

The 3rd way factions of Labour have also failed to understand the rise of English Nationalism. Specifically, that the positions they have advocated regarding membership of the European Union have been rejected by the electorate.

Progress and Labour First MPs and members in the Party are as much to blame for Labour’s fortunes as those on the left of the Party. But Momentum, and those on the left of the party who predominately backed Jeremy Corbyn, also made a number of mistakes which contributed to the loss. The next post in this series will look at this.

Previous posts in this series

Why UK Labour Lost? Part 1: Historical Context

Why UK Labour lost? Part 2: UK Labour’s strange loyalty to First Past the Post

Why UK Labour lost? Part 3: Its Brexit Innit

Why UK Labour lost? Part 4: Oooo Jeremy Corbyn

Why UK Labour lost? Part 5: Antisemitism


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