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Editorial: Labour's future lies in more radicalism, not less

FORMER Labour leader Ed Miliband is in some respects well placed to head up a review of Labour’s election defeat.

Miliband may have received a smaller share of the vote in 2015 than Jeremy Corbyn did this month.

But that experience may place him in a position to see that the trajectory Labour was on before Corbyn won the leadership culminated in a dead end.

Geography matters too, following a lengthy campaign to push Labour into a Remain position which relied heavily on abstract national opinion polls and tended to ignore the reality that most of the seats Labour needed to win had voted Leave. Miliband’s experience in Doncaster North may well have shaken him.

Like so many Labour MPs, he massively increased his support at the 2017 election, receiving over 60 per cent of the vote and romping home with a majority of over 25,000. Two years later the majority had been cut to just over 2,000. Not only was the combined Conservative and Brexit Party vote higher than his, it actually represented an absolute majority of voters in the constituency.

A shock perhaps, but an understandable one when Doncaster voted 69 per cent to leave the EU in 2016.

This local experience is important because careful assessment of Labour’s devastating losses on December 12 actually reinforces the paramount significance of Brexit in the election.

Many argue that the manifesto was too crammed, the campaign too littered with separate policies, and that voters instinctively distrusted such an all-encompassing wish list.

Quite possibly, but the reason for that distrust was not that Labour’s policies seemed inherently unrealistic. If they did, we would not see such broad support for so many of them — from renationalisation to a Green New Deal — in polls. 

A crucial factor was the way Labour, having supported holding a referendum on EU membership in 2016 and promised to honour the result in 2017, then reneged on that promise. That fatally undermined the notion — so successful in 2017 — that Corbyn offered “a more honest politics.”

Similarly, the Labour right makes much of Corbyn’s personal unpopularity. A rigorous analysis by Lee Jones on The Full Brexit website shows however that this was directly connected to Brexit. 

The most common reason given by voters who had switched from a favourable to an unfavourable view of Corbyn in a January poll by YouGov was simply “Brexit.” The next most common was that he was indecisive — a perception linked to Labour’s frequent wobbles on Brexit. Jones cites Tory focus groups in the autumn coming to the same conclusion: the numerous smears and character assassinations on Corbyn “did not register with voters” but what did was that “they have seen him struggle to control his party, fail to take clear positions, and handle Brexit haplessly.”

It would be too easy to conclude that Brexit was the only cause of Labour defeat, and certainly foolish to imagine that as we will have left the EU by the next election the party’s problems will be over. But the issue clearly struck at the heart of Labour’s credibility. 

And that’s because “you can’t change the system by voting for the system.” Like so many European social-democratic parties, Labour’s bid to be taken seriously as a vehicle for radical change was undermined by being implausibly tied to support for one of the most powerful institutions of the international capitalist status quo, an enforcer of market capitalism within its borders, a champion of unequal and exploitative trade with the Global South beyond them.

The Tories have won, but to do so they had to put on anti-Establishment clothing in an age of anger and revolt. The left’s future success does not depend on being less radical. It rests on our being more so.

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