This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom

On the June 23 2016, Dad and I were driving back to San Francisco from Sacramento, where we’d visited our relatives. We were fairly late, so had on US public radio to help keep us awake for the drive back to our motel. In the previous two weeks listening to US media, international news tended to get only limited coverage. That night was different. The US media were focused on one issue, and that was the result of the Brexit referendum.

Listening to the results being reported while driving on that California freeway, I recall thinking ‘this result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom’. On hearing that both Northern Ireland and Scotland had voted to stay part of the EU, in contrast to the rest of the country, it was hard to imagine that this would not become a significant issue.

Fast forward three and a half years. Its 10pm, June 12 2019. By now I’m living in London. I’m driving home on the A40 in West London passing The Grenfell Tower, I hear UK general election exit poll predicting that The Conservatives would win a significant majority. I stay up all night to watch the results (though at times I struggle to stay awake). It becomes clear that the Scottish National Party (SNP) has won the vast majority of seats in Scotland. I also watch with interest the Northern Ireland results, where for the first time unionists (those who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) have failed to win a majority. I recall my thoughts back in June 2016, and once again I think to myself, ‘This result could lead to the break up of the United Kingdom’. 

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Is the break up of the United Kingdom imminent?

Prior to the election I blogged about Scottish Nationalism and why Brexit had revived calls for Scottish Independence. I also blogged about Northern Ireland and how Brexit threatened the precarious 1998 peace agreement.

So what happens now? Well for Northern Ireland, the major development since the election has been that the Northern Irish parliament (Stormont) has reconvened for the first time in 3 years. After the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) dismal result, they have now realised that power sharing in Stormont is their best hope of remaining relevant. Northern Ireland hasn’t suddenly given Sinn Fein or other nationalist parties wanting a United Ireland a majority – their vote remained fairly stagnant. The vote shift was from unionist to more moderate/pragmatic parties who support the Good Friday Agreement and are non aligned to either Unionist or Nationalist factions.

The 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement states the following:

“the Secretary of State” should call a referendum “‘if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

There is no sign that such a referendum will be called in the immediate future. Nor can one say with any certainty how such a referendum would go. But at the end of 2020 we will have a better idea whether the UK has secured a decent trade deal with the EU. We will know the level of alignment with EU legislation. And from here, it will be easier to gauge what the true impact of Brexit will be on Northern Ireland. A United Ireland is always an option, and if the ongoing relationship between the UK and the EU is fraught with difficulty – Northern Ireland may just vote to join the Republic.

Unlike Northern Ireland, Scotland do not have an arrangement where they can hold a independence referendum. At least not one that the British Government has to recognise. In fact PM Boris Johnson has rejected calls for a second referendum on Scottish Independence. This doesn’t stop the Scottish Parliament calling one. The experience of the Catalan independence referendum of 2017 should ring alarm bells with the British Government. If Scotland votes to leave the UK, but the government in Westminster refuses to recognise the result – this could cause an interesting constitutional crisis. Aside from civil unrest from the people of Scotland, internationally there would considerable sympathy for Scotland were they denied independence. Not least from the EU, who would relish the opportunity to take back part of the by then former UK into the EU.

In politics it is risky to make predictions, and I generally try to avoid doing so. But questions of whether Northern Ireland and Scotland will remain part of the UK are now asked daily in the British media. Further, there seems to be an increasing realisation and acceptance from the British public that this could well happen.

UK Labour, still reeling from the 2019 election loss are now in the process of choosing a new leader. Sections of Labour still see Scotland as part of the country they can win back, while others believe this unlikely. In 2014 Labour ran a united front campaign with David Cameron’s Conservative Government urging Scotland to stay in the UK.

Many in Labour fear if Scotland leaves the UK, the party will never have the numbers to form a government in the UK again. This is nonsense. The last time the UK Labour Party relied on Scottish MPs to form a government was after the 1974 General Election. In all 3 elections Tony Blair won, Labour could have formed government without its Scottish MPs. But this is beside the point. For Labour, and the rest of the political establishment in Britain, the issue of Scottish independence should be seen as an issue of self determination and democracy.

If Scots want Scotland to be a separate country, then nothing should stand in their way. If Scots vote to stay in the UK again, as they did in 2014, then the issue is put to bed. But by refusing a second referendum post Brexit, this could bolster support for Scottish independence making it a much more likely prospect.

The break up of the United Kingdom isn’t inevitable. And there are pros and cons if it were to occur. But the calls for this to occur are becoming much louder. The challenge for the political establishment in London is how it will manage this. And if the UK does break up, what does that mean for the future of England and Wales. Would Wales and England stay united? How would a United Ireland and independent Scotland engage with England and Wales? What would be the social and economic implications of such a change?

The next few years will be very interesting for the United Kingdom.

The BBC – a failed public broadcaster?

 

The real disappointment of the 2019 UK General Election was the BBC. Once regarded as the bastion of quality media and the envy of much of the world, the BCC’s reputation is diminished greatly in recent years. From the historic cover up of Jimmy Savile’s sexual abuse, to having to pay compensation to female journalists in equal pay claims the BBC is no longer viewed in as positive light by the British public.

At the 2019 election the BBC had an opportunity to show the world what quality political journalism looks like in the 21st century. It failed. The consequences for this could be dire for the Beeb.

Last week it was announced that the BBC are cutting 450 staff, which will result in fewer stories and greater centralisation in London. The very things that critics believe caused problems with the BBC in recent years are set to get even worse. Is the BBC now in its death throes? And how did it get to this point?

One widely held criticism of the BBC is that it is run by upper middle class predominately white and well educated people. Also that the BBC is heavily London centric. While similar criticisms can be made of other media outlets, it matters more what people say about the BBC. It matters because it’s funded through the broadcasting fee and public funds. It matters because its raison d’être is to set the standard for journalism in the UK and abroad. If its quality is in question, this call into question what its purpose really is.

The first example I recall while living in London of the BBC not hitting the mark was back in 2018 when there were major protests in support of the NHS, and the BBC failed to report on them. As mentioned in my previous blog post it is difficult for the media to report on everything happening. But these weren’t small protests, and NHS funding and the threat of privatisation is and remains one of the major issues in UK politics.

There were two events during the election where I thought the BBC fell short of what the public should expect of a public broadcaster.

The first was the Andrew Neil interviews with Party leaders. Both Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and Liberal Democrat Leader Jo Swinson were interviewed by Andrew Neil and it would be fair to say took a grilling. Both agreed to the interview believing that Conservative Party leader Boris Johnson would also be interviewed by Neil. The BBC had lead both leaders to believe this was the case, where in fact Johnson had never agreed to do and interview with Neil. Andrew Neil ended up doing an ’empty chair’ speech criticising Johnson for not doing the interview. Yes Boris shouldn’t have refused and interview with a tough journalist. Equally, The Conservatives had never agreed to do an interview with Neil. The empty chair stunt felt like the BBC saving face having mislead other party leaders in claims that Johnson would do an interview with Neil.

The second was BBC Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg’s reporting the day before the election that postal ballot results painted a grim picture for Labour. The UK Electoral Commission issued a warning that these comments were a breach of electoral law. The day before the election postal ballots were still arriving by post, and had not been counted. So the statement being reported by Kuenssberg was not only breaching the law, but at the time it was being made lacked substance to back it up. It’s unlikely Laura’s comments had that much impact on the December 2019 election result. But they do make the BBC look unprofessional.

BBC Political Editor Laura Keunssberg came under fire for reporting on Postal ballot results before the polls had closed.

The BBC get accused of bias often, and this is nothing new. In recent years there have been criticisms that the BBC are too pro EU/anti Brexit and have been too critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. In both cases, there have been accusations that reporting on both these things has not been balanced or honest at times. Balance in the media is tough, and journalists and people working in news rooms will often have unconscious (sometimes conscious) bias. Given the generally middle class and urban nature of BBC reporters and its leadership, it is likely this would come through in its reporting.

A public broadcaster has a duty to be challenging and critical. And on Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership it is right that the BBC asked hard questions. In both cases there were plenty of hard questions to ask. But did the public broadcaster allow its middle class, urban and privileged perspective to cloud its reporting?

My view in watching the BBC reporting on Brexit, Corbyn, UK politics and global news is that it as a public broadcaster still operates like its the 1990s. In that context Brexit, Trump and the 2017 election didn’t make sense. Had the BBC really tried to understand why Brexit happened? Did the proponents of a second referendum really deserve as much air time as the BBC gave them? Did the BBC ever really try to understand why Corbyn won two Labour leadership elections? And why Labour’s vote increased significantly in 2017? The BBC took the view that the world had gone a bit mad, but if they just kept on saying and doing what they’d always done normal 1990s service would resume soon.

The BBC as a public broadcaster is owned by the government. The Government set the rules, and most importantly set the funding. After the election the Conservative Government announced that it would consider decriminalising non payment of the licence fee. They announced this at a time when people from across the political spectrum believed the BBC has underperformed as a reliable source of news. There is always a tension between the BBC and government, especially with centre right governments who don’t necessarily believe having a public broadcaster is necessary.

At a time of uncertainty, the BBC finds itself with fewer supporters than at any other time in its history. While still a much loved British institution which still produces a number of popular shows, many now question whether it’s achieving what it needs to as a public broadcaster.

The Fourth Estate struggling in the social media world

Ahead of the 2020 General Election in New Zealand, Labour Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that her party is committed to run a factual election and has signed up to a social media tool to help prove it. The 2020 NZ election will be an interesting case study of whether in the social media age there can be honest political debate free of misinformation and manipulation of facts.

In the era of fake news politics has become increasingly murky. The recent UK election has been the latest example of this. For politics and specifically democratic societies,  trying to adapt to this new era has been painful and disruptive. However, for  traditional print, radio and TV media the change has been profound. And not always for good.

As I outlined on my blog in November, despite many problems that it has caused, social media overall is a force for good. It allows for greater diversity and gives a voice to those who have been under represented in the media. In an era where everyone has camera on their phone, people can record and share events globally in seconds on a number of platforms. Social media provides a platform where people can build communities of shared interests and beliefs. And in politics, social media has helped engaged young people in democracy. Also social media has meant stories get public attention that mainstream media didn’t bother to report.

And this is the issue with mainstream media. It has never reported everything. It couldn’t. There is too much news in the world to fit into one 30 news broadcast or a 40 page newspaper. Often accusations of bias or corporate media blackouts steam from the media not covering stories, are due to limited space. These days much more can be reported, as what doesn’t make the headline news can still be put online. And if the BBC or the Financial Times don’t report a story – chances are it will still end up on social media and if its of interest it will quickly go viral.

The downside of this is that we live in a world where anyone can get anything published on social media. And anything online can go viral. Often this is good, but also it can mean fake news (aka bullshit) ends up filling peoples twitter feeds.

For this reason traditional media still matters. People may not buy papers like they did 25 years ago, but they take a report by CNN or The Daily Telegraph as far more creditable than say some guy called Nick Kelly who does his own blogs (with questionable uses of apostrophes and grammar). But how do these respected media outlets cypher through all the “news” online and seperate wheat from the chaff? The truth is they have really struggled.

About a decade ago there was a spate of fake celebrity death posts online. People would create a fake news that say Jon Bon Jovi had died – CNN or whoever would report this as being fact – and minutes later Jon would contact the station informing him of it mortal status and the report would be swiftly removed. This was embarrassing for media, and upsetting for fans (and even more so for the poor sod reported dead).

Fake news and lying is nothing new in politics. Politicians are being economical with the truth is par the course. And yes often they got away with it. But sometimes a clever journalist would catch them out. The old rules of engagement were, if you get caught that it was game over.

One of Trumps legacies in politics will be the way he has managed to blatantly lie and contradict himself, yet survive. The guy contradicts himself on his own twitter feed. He is calculated to have lied 5276 times since becoming president. But he gets away with it, at least till now, by saying his critics are spreading fake news. In 2020 it is now difficult to tell what is true and what is false. When once respected mainstream media have again and again been caught out reporting fake news events, someone like Trump has free rein to lie.

In the 2019 UK election accusations of fake news were constant. Days before the election an image was published of a child at Leeds hospital lying on the floor due to a lack of hospital beds. I used this image in my blog post about The NHS. Soon as the image was published, there were multiple posts online claiming the image was fake. So while papers like The Mirror were reporting it as real, other media were reporting that the image was fake. In the end many who supported the government chose to believe it was fake. Whereas those supporting opposition parties were likely to believe the image was real. The truth became a matter of opinion, based on what you choose to believe.

Complete objectivity in reporting is a bit of a myth. There is not and has never been a purely objective news source. Certainly in politics where there are conflicting policies, values and ideologies being neutral and objective is near impossible. This is not to say that there aren’t ways media that can provide a reasonable degree of balance. And some journalists do this very well. But sadly in 2019, the media struggled.

It is easy to blame journalists and the media. But we also need to understand the environment they operate in. Newspaper circulation has declined rapidly in recently years. While papers can publish stories online, they have to compete with other free media, so make no money in posting stories online other than what they gain through advertising. The decline in revenue has meant fewer journalists, and pressure to do quick high impact stories rather than invest in in-depth investigative journalism.

Breakdown of UK daily newspaper circulation, 1956 to 2019.
The above graph shows the decline in print media circulation from 1956 to 2019.

In TV and radio, commercial pressure have created an environment thats is not conducive to quality reporting. Some still manage it, but many believe the quality of journalism has been dumbed down over the last 30 years.

In 2020 it will be interesting to watch the NZ election to see if the governments announcement about running a factual campaign works out. In particular will the opposition parties sign up to similar factual campaign pledges. Whilst this may seem unlikely in NZ, the chances seem far slimmer in the US where Donald Trump is up for reelection this November.

The future of journalism is uncertain. Traditional media will more and more be operating within the realms of social media both to seek information and to disseminate it.  There is a great need reliable and trustworthy sources of information, as far as this is possible. Certainly one would hope that public broadcasters will be up to this challenge. Sadly, as my next blog will outline, the UK’s BBC so far has not stepped up to the plate.

 

 

 

 

Why UK Labour lost? Part 9: What the party needs to do now.

UK Labour lost the general election. A new leader needs to be elected. The Labour Party is now consumed in this process.

Much has been said and written about why Labour lost, the quality of which varies considerably. The broader context of this defeat is that over the last century, UK Labour has won 8 out of the last 28 general elections. Overall the Labour Party is not a successful electoral force in the UK. What makes the 2019 loss harder, is that the party lost sections of its historical base in the North of England and the Midlands.

But being honest isn’t just about focussing on the negative. Many have compared the 2019 election to 1983. Labour in 2019 did well in London, with many MPs being returned with staggering majorities. By contrast in 1983 Labour’s result was no where near as strong in London.

Also Labour performed strongly with younger voters. The below map shows how voters under the age of 40 voted in the 2019 election:

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Above is the UK electoral map if only voters under 40 voted. Source: Election Maps UK

Labour and parties of the left did significantly well with young voters. By contrast back in 1983 the Conservatives enjoyed a much higher support from younger voters. During the election I discussed the impact younger voters were having on UK elections, and that this is part of a global trend. Younger voters have been hit hard by a decade of austerity. For many under 40 the middle class aspirations of their parents generation are far beyond reach. For this reason, trying to pitch Labour to the aspirational centre will likely alienate rather than inspire younger voters. But if the Party can hold much of this support, it give it a good base to build on for the future.

The problem Labour faces is the UK is now a polarised electorate. Generational divides have seldom been so stark. The Brexit vs Remain division runs deep, and trying to win support from both sides is damn near impossible at this time. The other major issue that I’ll discuss in a future blog is the future of the United Kingdom. The future of Scotland and Northern Ireland as members of the United Kingdom is far from certain.

The SNP’s success in the general election effectively wiped out Labour in Scotland, and continues a decade long decline of Labour as a political force there. Many in Labour still see winning back Scotland as the path back to government. The prospect of this happening seems increasingly unlikely. For Labour, their focus needs to be on winning support in England and Wales. Scottish independence isn’t certain, but Scotland being a separate nation wanting seperate representation is now a fact of life. It is now unlikely that any English dominated political party will gain the majority of seats in Scotland ever again.

The current Labour Leadership race is gearing up. Underlying this race will be a debate between two waring factions within the Party. One supports a return to a 3rd way Labour like Blair led in 1997. The other, supports Clement Attlee style Social Democracy. these are two distinctly different political ideas, both trying to operate within the same political party. While many 3rd way supporters may feel more comfortable in the Liberal Democrats, under First Past the Post their chances of gaining government are limited. Likewise for socialist or social democrats, forming a new left party would likely struggle in the current electoral system. So these two political perspectives are forced to share the Labour Party.

I’m not going to pick the upcoming leadership election, or do analysis on any particular candidate at this stage. But understanding the context in which this race takes place is crucial. The reasons for Labour’s defeat weren’t just about leadership. The challenge for Labour is trying to win power in a small c conservative electorate. Also an electorate that is deeply split over the question of Europe. An electorate that is four seperate nations, where in Northern Ireland and Scotland there are growing calls to leave the UK. An electorate where there is a generational divide more stark than ever. And an electorate where the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. But most importantly, an electorate that traditionally has not voted Labour and where trust in the party and its politics is lacking. Despite all this Labour can win the next UK election. But it will need to do a damn sight more than just elect a new leader.

 

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

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

Why UK Labour lost? Part 7: Momentum and the Corbynistas

Why UK Labour lost? Part 8: what it takes to win?

 

Why UK Labour lost?  Part 8: What it takes to win

The UK Labour Party in the 2019 election assumed that like in 2017, the release of their policy manifesto would see their support increase significantly. Assuming that 2019 would be a re-run of 2017 was a foolish mistake. Also in 2017 Labour was under new leadership, and it was the first time in many years Labour had a manifesto with things like nationalisation and spending increases to reverse austerity cuts. In 2019 everybody knew the manifesto would include these positions.

Labour’s manifesto did help the party increase its vote share and support in 2017. After that election, Labour needed to build on this. It needed to be finding or creating political space to promote policies like re-nationalising rail or saving the NHS. Instead, the political discourse over the last two and a half years has been about Brexit. This was unavoidable and Labour could not prevent this. This forced the party to spend considerable political capital engaging in this fight. Labour found itself in a position where it could not clearly articulate how it would keep its pledge to honour the 2016 referendum result, and provide a credible alternative to the Tories. Further too many in the party actually wanted to stop Brexit, a position Labour hadn’t run on in 2017. All of this meant other issues were given inadequate attention.

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Labour’s 2017 Manifesto had overwhelming support polls showed. 

By the time of the 2019 election, Brexit eclipsed the political landscape once again. Trying to announce new policies in other policy areas was going to be difficult, even if there had been a strong strategy. Labour’s campaign strategy and messaging was not strong. An example of this was the free broadband policy. This was actually an interesting policy and an important debate to have. But the timing to announce this was poor. And the way it was sold to voters was hopeless. The policy came across as a cheap election bribe rather than a coherent policy.

The policy aimed to nationalise broadband and for the government to invest in high speed internet infrastructure in parts of the UK where investment was desperately needed. This policy should have been sold as part of a coherent regional development strategy. Invest in high speed broadband, helping to create business and jobs parts of the country that have been left behind.  Instead of this, the policy was sold as save £20 a month on broadband charges. This policy was launched mid election campaign where there is no time to properly explain or sell it. Thus the policy was reduced to a sound bite making it look like nothing more than an election bribe. Not surprisingly it failed to resonate.

The broadband policy was but one example of this. Labour needed to spend the last couple of years building support for its policies in the community. It needed its core policy message to be central to everything it did over the term of parliament. Policies like the broadband one should be announced mid electoral cycle, and take the time to explain yourself to voters. Instead of complaining about the media misrepresenting the policy, hold national road shows, use social media to explain and promote the policy. And in the process of this, engage with voters and allow supporters to have input into it. This takes time, is resource intense and won’t see a massive poll jolt. But such a process builds trust with voters, and come election time means the policy is clearly understood.

One of the other features of Labour’s campaign was the desire to centrally control the message. 20 years ago this was how you did politics. In the 21st century social media environment this is a) too slow and b) just looks contrived. Social media narratives are crucial for selling policy or ideas. It’s also how negative messaging or trolling works. An offical Labour Party tweet maybe seen by a few thousand followers. A good one maybe retweeted thus seen by a few more thousand.

For a message or hash tag to viral quickly, you need a number of posts or tweets sent with a consistent message and hashtag sent at once. Ideally people who are in different social media echo chambers so as to quickly gain a diverse audience. To do this, requires organisations and individuals to do social media posts. With 600 thousand members Labour was in a great position to own the social media narratives. Labour still tried to engage members and supporters by getting them to share content from the centre, rather than support members to create content themselves. This is a scary concept for those running campaigns. But to win in the 2020’s this is what is required.

Finally, Labour lost the campaign by having too many messages, rather than some core ones. Boris and the Conservatives had get Brexit done. Labour had a long and detailed manifesto. Some of the ideas had been heard before, some were new. But the branding of Labour’s offer to voters was poor. The Party were quick to talk of it as a radical manifesto. Actually most of the policies were  bog standard social democratic positions, common throughout much of Europe. Most voters didn’t read the manifesto. Most Labour Party members still haven’t read it cover to cover. What was needed during the campaign were some key big ticket policies or themes. Instead of talking about being radical, have a simple message about how you will make life better for voters followed by three popular examples. Then have the policy manifesto in the background to provide detail.

During the 2017 election polls showed that voters overwhelmingly backed Labour’s manifesto. This was and still is ground where Labour can win power. But behind this, the party needs an election strategy that properly sells these manifesto positions. In 2019 it was never going to be easy to move the conversation along from Brexit. But a decent strategy to sell its social democratic message was Labour’s best shot.

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

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

Why UK Labour lost? Part 7: Momentum and the Corbynistas

Why UK Labour lost?  Part 7: Momentum and the Corbynistas

The previous post looked at how those who opposed Corbyn contributed to the election loss. Corbyn’s allies also contributed to Labour’s loss. The factional organisation Momentum was formed after the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour Leader in 2015. It is headed by longstanding party left activist Jon Lansman. Jon’s role as Chair of Momentum is not elected, something that has raised the ire of both friend and foe within Labour. It is particularly galling when Momentum’s stated aim is to democratise the Labour Party.

Jon Lansman at the 2019 Labour conference made the clumsy and damaging error of calling for the Deputy Leader position to be abolished. This was in response to Tom Watson using the position as a platform to voice factional views as outlined in the previous post. But Jon Lansman putting up a last minute motion at the NEC to scrap the whole position was infantile and divisive. The fact that Corbyn had to come out and oppose the move and side with Watson demonstrates the level of ineptitude of Lansman’s actions.

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Jon Lansman, Chair of Momentum

Jon also serves as a member of the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC). As part of this committee he supporter the Trigger ballots compromise regarding open selection of MPs. Basically the so called compromise was instead of every Labour MP facing open selection before every election, members would have the chance to vote to Trigger an open selection if they felt there was the need.

Many other social democratic parties throughout the world have open selection. In fact it is fairly common in many major political parties operating in an established democracies. In most cases the MP or representative will be re-selected unopposed. Generally for a sitting MP to be deselected the following criteria would or should apply:

  1. The MP does not represent the Party’s policies or values
  2. The MP does not represent their constituency or community
  3. The MP is not considered electable, and an alternative candidate would stand a better chance.

Generally to deselect an MP, all three of the above are in play.  Added to these factors,  there needs to be a strong candidate who demonstrates that they are viable alternative.

Trigger ballots process meant members wanting to trigger a selection, had to try and demonstrate the above 3 in order to gain support. Further, the rules forbade other party members declaring their intention to stand prior to a successful Trigger ballot. So in effect you have a full on campaign to try and deselect and MP, without being able to (openly) promote viable alternative.

Many in Labour, even those not aligned to Momentum or the left, support the concept of open selection prior to each election. Many felt betrayed by the NEC and in some cases by Momentum for accepting this compromise.

In the weeks leading up to the general election being called, a number of Constituency Labour Party’s (CLP’s) were in the midst of these bruising Trigger ballot campaigns. Few were actually successful in forcing open selection, but they did successfully divide local Party’s and cause distrust and hurt. The result was that by the time the election was called, many party members couldn’t stand to be in the same room as each other.

One of the other weaknesses or errors of the Labour left was that they fell into the trap of personality cults. Whilst many felt a strong sense of loyalty to Corbyn and his leadership of the party, this should never have been the primary focus. The right and the media were quick to smear Corbyn, some of it justified, much of it not. While a defence of an elected leader is important, the more important task was to sell the policy manifesto and vision of the Labour left. It would be wrong to suggest the latter didn’t happen, but often personality and loyalty got in the way of actual politics. This in my experience happens a lot in politics, and can often lead to poor judgement and being blindsided.

Labour’s position on Brexit was confused and unclear. Momentum’s membership were generally from the remain camp, or at least the more active or vocal members were. Certainly paid officials and those in the inner clique were more sympathetic to a remain position. So while the likes of Owen Jones knew that calls by Progress and Labour First MPs for a second referendum were electoral folly, they eventually succumbed.

For factional leaders and the party as a whole need to understand that it is not just what the policy is. It is as much if not more about how you present the policy and engage and win over the public. Constantly framing the Party Manifesto as Radical in a country that is traditionally conservative is not clever politics. Especially when most of the policies are just mainstream social democratic positions. In short, it is not just what you are debating, but how you conduct the debate.

An example of an important debate being conducted poorly was the private schools remits at the 2019 Party conference. Many would agree that private schools should not get the state support that they do in the UK. But the way this issue was raised at the 2019 UK Labour Party conference in Brighton wasn’t clever. At the conference policy remits were put up and passed which would effectively abolish private schools, and force them to integrate into the state system. Many voters have sympathy for this, but also recognise that this is a significant change to the way education policy has been in the UK.

Timing wise, by September 2019 it was clear an election was imminent. Trigger ballots were happening throughout the Labour Party. Parliament was in dead-lock over Brexit and little else was getting discussed on a national political level. The 2019 conference would have been an opportunity to show unity and support for the popular policies in the 2017 Labour Manifesto.

Yes conference is the chance for active party members to debate policy at the highest decision making body in the party. But it is also an important PR event for the Party, especially at a time when Boris Johnson had Prorogued Parliament. Throwing private schools into the mix at this time was naive and foolish. There was not the proper opportunity to discuss and debate this policy. The media were generally dismissive  and didn’t take the debate seriously. The private schools debate was framed as the Labour Party left being detached from reality – ie they are debating “weird left stuff” while the country is in crisis over Brexit. The optics of it were rubbish.

Putting forward remits at a Party conference should come after a long debate both within the party and outside. Broad support should be won for a position, so that Labour (or any other Party) can feasibly gain support by taking this position. For example the campaign to bring British Rail back into public ownership had been rumbling on ever since the Conservatives sold it in the 1990s. When Labour included it in the 2017 manifesto, it won them support.

To win support for ending state support of private schools there needs to be a campaign involving teachers, students and the broader community. This campaign should be focussed on the type of education system thats needed in the 21st century, and part of this would be questioning and challenging the role of private schools. From this Labour could then pick up the mantle and take a position opposing the current private school set up.

Momentum played an important role in 2017 producing some every clever social media content and winning over a layer of young voters. In 2019 it tried to do the same, but in a much tougher climate with limited success. As a movement within Labour, it still seems to be in its infancy. It cannot seriously change Labour’s democratic structures with much credibility until it fixes its own. And in winning political battles, Momentum and its supporters need to find a way of selling genuine social democratic politics to a conservative English public.

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

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

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