The election, Canterbury, Corbyn and what now…
Well, that was grim. After the build-up and the hope comes the crushing disappointment of a Conservative government with a significantly increased majority. And after the crushing disappointment, comes the traditional Labour infighting led by a Labour Right that long ran out of ideas, stuck as it is with 20 year old answers to 2020 problems. More on that later…
It was a weird night overall. The relief of the Labour candidate in Canterbury (100+ years Tory) not only retaining the seat, but significantly increasing their majority, the joy of seeing Leslie, Gapes and Swinson lose their seats, the horror of knowing that an openly racist party leader was confirmed as prime minister with a large majority. No amount of crushing the Tories locally makes up for the absolute horrorshow that has been delivered by a coalition of the racist, the selfish, the short-sighted and the naive. The campaigning to stop a “racist” succeeded in delivering a racist. Well done all involved.
By now the hot takes are coming thick and fast, from the weak and ineffective MPs in Labour that rejected Corbyn and contributed heavily to Labour’s defeat, to the commentators terrified of a little bit of socialism. And now…mine. Because, let’s face it, my take won’t be any more outlandish than any of the dreadful commentators that have been employed to spout opinions because opinions count more than actual investigative reporting.
Let’s start with how Canterbury was won…
Contrary to external perceptions, there were a number of factors that led to Rosie Duffield retaining the seat. Yes, you’ll hear talk of “it was the students wot won it”, but the reality is there were a number of factors that played into not only retaining the seat, but increasing her majority.
The Liberal Democrat Collapse
Since 2010, the Lib Dem vote has been in terminal decline in the city. The Coalition government of 2010–2015 caused a significant number of Lib Dem voters to abandon the party. Like a lot of places, Canterbury has two dominant voter blocs: pro-Tory and anti-Tory. The Coalition government, in many eyes, sounded a death knell for the Lib Dems as an anti-Tory vote in the constituency, and their vote has dropped through the floor ever since:
2019: 3,408 (fewer than voted Green in 2015)
There is a lot of talk about the “student vote” in Canterbury. It is, in fact, the Lib Dem collapse that has been the single greatest factor in delivering a Labour victory (with Greens standing aside in 2019 also helping to deliver the seat). It would be ludicrous to say the student vote didn’t have an effect, but it’s overstating it wildly to say this was the single biggest cause when the Lib Dems have shed nearly 13,000 votes since 2010.
A Coalition of Voters
Following on from the Lib Dem collapse, it’s also been clear there has been a coalition from the centre to the far-left (of which I’d consider myself part) in the constituency. From Blairites, to Brownites to socialists to communists, the left unified in common cause. Whether by accident or design, Duffield managed not to offend the various groups too much, ensuring they remained supportive of her candidacy. During the campaign we had Owen Jones, Emily Thornberry, the Jewish Labour Movement and Sandi Toksvig visiting the city, campaigning with Duffield. She therefore managed to appear as though she had a foot in all camps, not alienating any one particular group and keeping them all onside. Of course there were rumblings (I had and continue to have reservations), but ultimately the left pretty much united to get the job done.
Boots On The Ground
Associated with the number of high profile visits was the fact that Canterbury was, of course, very marginal. This focused minds, of course. You know if you vote anything other than Labour you increase the chances of the Tory getting back in. Much like 2017, the local Labour campaign was very effective and very visible. The number of Labour boards up on houses far outweighed the number of Tory ones (which, as far as I could tell, seemed to be restricted to a couple of farmer’s fields). The campaign locally didn’t rest on its laurels, it didn’t go through the motions because it was unenthused by the manifesto. It put in a huge amount of effort to try to secure the seat. Not something I felt was the case in the constituencies of Labour candidates who were less than keen on Corbyn (I could be wrong on this, but I got the impression a number of Labour candidates made very half-hearted attempts to campaign in this election and must take their share of the blame for what happened).
Despite some dispute locally by people who don’t know the difference between the constituency and the city council’s jurisdiction, Canterbury voted Remain. An overtly Remain MP in a Remain constituency was a no-brainer and the Labour manifesto struck the right balance between absurd retraction of Article 50 and no deal garbage. However, it’s clear to me that the manifesto commitment would only have played well in constituencies like this one. There are very few Remain seats with Remain MPs. The pivot to a vote may have won Canterbury, but it would undoubtedly have cost the Labour Party elsewhere.
A dreadful Tory candidate
The hubris of the local Conservative party was something to behold. Thinking it was enough to choose their first woman candidate in an effort to appeal to what they believe appealed to those who voted for Duffield, they forgot to factor in that the candidate they chose was a big fan of Brexit and had previously praised Nigel Farage and Dan Hannan as “political heroes”. Hardly a good fit for the constituency you are trying to win back. Factor in as well some of the disreputable behaviour by well-known figures in the local party, and you have a recipe for defeat. Perhaps due to the last Tory MP and the complacency around their stranglehold, the local Tory party has allowed itself to slip ever deeper towards the hard-right (it was very noticeable how many Diane Abbott memes were posted in the local Facebook Group in support of the Tories with no pushback from local Tory party members, despite their claims Corbyn was a “racist”, not to mention Tory supporters posting antisemitic tropes, again with no condemnation from local Tory members). The local Tories shot themselves in the foot, and lost support as a result.
No single one of these pillars explain how Labour won Canterbury. Take any one of these pillars away and the Tories would have retaken the seat, all were crucial in Duffield’s victory. It’s also important to recognise that the overall conditions were very specific to Canterbury. You can’t take too much away from here and build a winning strategy across the country. That doesn’t mean to say there is nothing to learn though…
One of the depressing things post-election has been the pile-on from Labour centrists and those on the Labour right against Corbyn and his allies. Rather than accepting the positives of the Corbyn leadership (the very good manifesto that polled very positively with the electorate, the larger popular vote than Miliband, Brown and the final Blair election), they’ve decided that all elements of the Corbyn years must be erased and the left of the party needs casting into oblivion. The reality is that they, like Duffield, need a coalition of the left in order to win. That means ensuring that the left have an important role in shaping the party in the aftermath of the election, casting the left aside completely and turning exclusively to the Labour Right will not bring electoral success.
Hard as it is to believe for elements in the Labour Party, turning the clock back 20 years will not bring them an election victory. The world has changed. It’s not 1997 anymore. Turning to 1997 in 2020 is as laughable as turning to 1973 in 1997. This infatuation with Blair (led by representatives of the only enduring cult within the party — The Cult of St Tony) and the myth of his electoral success needs to end. Despite what the right of the party might like to claim, any Labour MP leading the party in 1997 would have won that election. It was the biggest electoral open goal in history (don’t let people fool you into thinking the current shower are the worst in Tory history, the Major government was very much a “hold my beer” shambles).
No doubt over the coming weeks, in advance of the leadership election, there will be plenty of chatter of abandoning the (very popular) policies put forward in the manifesto and an emphasis on reaching out to the voters they’ve lost. In terms of the latter, this will no doubt take the form of characterising Labour from 2015–2019 as being a party of the middle class for the middle class, with the working class marginalised from the party. “The working class don’t trust Labour” will be the refrain (Jess Phillips). Lots of “we need to win them back” and “we need to listen to their concerns”. This is very much the dog whistle politics of the old(/New) Labour years, because when they say “working class”, their gaze falls primarily upon an idea of the white working class, not the working class as a whole (which perhaps explains the “sack Diane Abbott” nudge and wink of, oh look, Jess Phillips). Listening to the “working class” will, inevitably result in dog whistles and control immigration money-spinning tat. They will not seek to unify the working class, they will instead drive a wedge in their efforts to make themselves, as they see it, “more electable”. You cannot address and resolve the concerns of the working class if you encourage a hostile environment that demonises and marginalises a section of the working class. As Kimberly McIntosh argues in The Guardian “Labour needs to dig deep and find what unites the working class in its entirety — it must emphasise what is shared.”
And I guess there’s the rub. The success in Canterbury relied on a degree of left unity. It relied on a wide spectrum of leftists combining to Keep The Tory Out. But for the Labour Party’s future, the answer is more than the old call for Left Unity. The call must be for class unity. It is only through uniting the working class that we can overcome the deeply ingrained inequalities in our society and deliver a society built on equity and social justice. That means resisting the shift to the right of the Labour Party, blighted as it is with dog whistles and nods and winks to attract a lost constituency. It means standing up for class unity, it means not just simply listening to concerns and parroting them on mugs sold for £££s in an effort to neuter the right-wing press, but listening to those concerns and explaining that they are misplaced and that the extreme capitalism of the past forty years is their enemy — that only the unification of the working class can roll back the damaging effects of extreme capitalism and alleviate the hardships it brings.
We know elements within the Party will gallop off to the Right, pitching their dog whistle answers as a solution to the antipathy towards the Party amongst a section of the working class. We know also that this will not bring class unity, but drive a wedge through the working class, elevating the concerns of the white working class to the exclusion of people of colour. The old (/New) Labour tactic of dividing the working class must not prevail. Left unity may have won Canterbury, class unity can win the country.