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Editorial: No Holding Back: a report key to understanding and reversing Labour’s decline

THE No Holding Back report on reasons for Labour’s loss of support among working-class communities merits serious attention.

While Brexit looms large, it looks at the longer-term alienation from Labour in many regions and forces socialists to confront the disconcerting reality that the Tories lead Labour among the poorest socio-economic categories.

For the right, occluding the role of Brexit in Labour’s defeat is important both so the result can be laid squarely at the door of Jeremy Corbyn and his socialist policies — and so the architects of Labour’s Remain policy, who include Sir Keir Starmer, can avoid blame. For the left, that makes it equally important that we resist this.

The authors — the MPs for northern English seats Jon Trickett and Ian Lavery, and Laura Smith, who was one too until December — warned long before the election that the drift to support for a second referendum would be catastrophic, particularly since Labour’s Leave-leaning seats tended to be more marginal than its Remain-leaning ones. 

These northern “heartlands” had been haemorrhaging votes by the thousand since the Blair years — with the temporary but significant recovery of 2017 — and were highly vulnerable by 2019.

This illustrates that Brexit was not the sole reason for the loss of the north, of course, and Smith, Trickett and Lavery make sound recommendations on how to encourage more working-class and local candidates for Parliament and on re-establishing Labour’s campaigning relevance through community organising.

But it is equally clear that Brexit betrayal was the final straw for lots of former Labour voters and came to symbolise the party’s apparent contempt for their views.

Senior Labour politicians are rightly chastised in the report for helping to polarise the country over Brexit.

While some still argue that a Leave-embracing Labour would also have crashed in 2019, though in different areas, the 2017 experience made it clear that Brexit did not have to be the defining issue of a post-referendum election.

If Labour had not appeared ready to overturn the referendum result, the Tories’ relentless focus on delivering it would have been far less resonant.

Some who campaigned for Labour to back a second referendum, like Peter Mandelson or Lord Adonis, were openly hostile to a Corbyn government; others, such as Starmer, were not openly so after the 2017 election but had no track record of support for socialist policies.

Losing Labour the election in return for a chance, however small, of overturning Brexit may have seemed to them a plan with no drawbacks.

The issue confronting the left is rather “some [who] should have known better … right at the heart of the Corbyn project,” as the report puts it.

Why was the Remain cause — which combined support for the status quo with commitment to an explicitly capitalist institution — so effective?

Part of the answer lies in demographic detail provided in No Holding Back. Though the party grew enormously under Corbyn, its membership was not reflective of the country either geographically or in class terms. 

But partly it rests on a lack of political education and the decades following the fall of European socialism that have entrenched the influence of liberal ideology throughout the labour movement.

The socialist case against the EU was barely heard and poorly understood, a situation not helped by the tragic deaths of two of its most articulate champions, Tony Benn and Bob Crow, just before Corbyn became Labour leader.

Furthermore, those who felt it was legitimate to rubbish the results of a democratic vote, insult and patronise the winning side as dupes of malign forces, deepened divisions that could continue to split the working class for years to come.

“Ultimately we put liberalism above democracy and that cannot be allowed to happen again,” the report’s authors state, calling for “a full-throated apology from Labour to the people for ignoring the democratic principle for which the labour movement has fought for centuries.”

Well said.

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