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UK Election Shows Progressive Must Have More Than Great Policies, They Need to Win

There is no way to spin the results of this election as anything other than disastrous. So what should be done?

The broadcaster's exit poll results projected on the outside of the BBC building in London shows Jeremy Corbyn's opposition Labour Party predicted to win 191 seats and lose the general election as the ballots begin to be counted in the general election on December 12, 2019. (Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP / via Getty Images)

The broadcaster's exit poll results projected on the outside of the BBC building in London shows Jeremy Corbyn's opposition Labour Party predicted to win 191 seats and lose the general election as the ballots begin to be counted in the general election on December 12, 2019. (Photo: Tolga Akmen / AFP / via Getty Images)

Today the United Kingdom woke up to a new and for many troubling political reality—the Conservatives had won a resounding majority. Indeed this was a rightwing landslide unseen in a generation. The Tories will now move into government with the number and the popular mandate to enact policies that could have destructive implications for decades to come.

There is a necessary and obvious desire by those on the Left to ask “What went so wrong”? Already those from the so-called political “center” are declaring this as the end of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s progressive “extremism” and a return to the “moderate” policies that have previously ushered them comfortably into power. The fact that all evidence points to the unpopularity of this position, to say the least of its empirical failures to address any of the problems that 21st century Britain and the world face, will perhaps worryingly make little immediate difference. 

To effectively counter this attack from “reactionary moderates” it is necessary to draw out the real lessons of what actually did go wrong. The answer is complex but at its heart it was one of an unwillingness to identify the threat of the Right and mobilize a mass movement for its defeat. Doing so means means showing not only that another better world is possible but also that it is populist elites who are preventing it from happening.

A Progressive Loss

There is no way to spin the results of this election as anything other than disastrous. While it was clear from the polling that the Tories were most probably headed for a working majority, the scale of their victory was almost unimaginable. The progressive casualties of this defeat are already piling up with Corbyn agreeing to step down as leader before the next General Election.

Looking beyond the fate of any one politician, there are two immediate dangers from this progressive loss. The first is the untold damage that a Far Right Tory government can do to those most vulnerable—especially as it ran an explicitly racist campaign of division and xenophobic nationalism. The second is the belief that a progressive agenda simply can’t win democratically and should, therefore, be abandon onto the proverbial ash heap of history.

Both of these threats must be passionately and concretely countered. The Labour manifesto of 2017 and the surprising electoral gains made by the party that year revealed that a broadly left-wing agenda can rally mass support. It emboldened Corbyn and Momentum to go even further in their policy prescriptions for radically reimagining society. What was perhaps missed though was the effectiveness of the message over the policy agenda. The slogan “For the Many, Not the Few” put in stark relief the choice of the country - a genuinely compassionate government who cared for the majority or a callous elite.

The Conservatives learned their own lessons well in the rematch two years later. They put their energy into a similarly memorable if hollow slogan “Get Brexit Done” and then repeated until it was practically the only thing heard by the electorate. They also reframed their message from one of a “sensible government” to that of an insurgent force who could break through the elitist deadlock of Westminster.

Labour thus lost more than simply an election. They surrendered their hard won previous victory as a party of the masses to Prime Minister Boris Johnson—a leader of a party that couldn’t be more elitist. Labour positioned themselves as the party that was most in line with the status quo at a time when people continue to feel unheard and ignored. When the system is broken, it is a dangerous game to ally yourself with its main defenders, especially as your plutocrat opponents are reframing the “people” in the most retrogressive and reactionary way possible.

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Being more than simply “right”

The reasons for this progressive loss, thus, are at once simple and complex. At its most basic level, it was a rejection of Remain and those who were seen to be “undemocratically” trying to stop Brexit from happening. Digging deeper, it was a reassertion by a white working class that were tired of feeling left behind and ignored. Brexit was thus a symptom of how economic, social, and political elites could channel this popular anger to their own profitable ends.

In this respect, Labour was facing a comprehensive struggle that could not merely be fought on one front. They sought desperately to appease all their constituent parts without a clear message of change or a strategy for fighting back against their own right-wing members or a compliant conservative media. They saw the North as either “safe” or as an acceptable loss in the wider struggle to be “right.”

Consequently, they lacked the cohesion or mentality to recognize and take advantage of the shifting political reality. When it became apparent that Brexit was a third rail issue for many in the North, they could have used this as an opportunity to shift the debate into more internationalist and progressive directions, for instance. Here they could have portrayed themselves not as the party of “soft or hard” Brexit but a Brexit “for the Many or for the Few” that protected worker’s rights, the environments, and forged multi-national alliances with other countries for this purpose. While this would have understandably upset many who voted Remain, it would have also laid the foundation for simultaneously blocking the Conservative’s only popular issue, highlighted the growing threat of global capital, and created a foundation for building a diverse and inclusive “people” linked to an internationalist rather than isolationist project for change.

Just as importantly, it revealed that Labour had to become much more than merely a campaigning organization. While the progressive forces of Momentum brought much needed energy to a moribund party, it also continued in the tradition of reinforcing Labour as only caring about constituents and communities during election time. The bold plans of Corbyn would have done much to help these areas and the majority of their inhabitants. Yet they were not connected to their everyday struggles from an unjust benefit regime, to a worsening public health service, to the lack of good jobs. If Labour wants to seriously win they must ironically looking beyond elections and toward building up a sustainable movement for achieving economic and social justice everywhere. It is only in doing so that they can turn an exciting digital grassroots movement into a powerful independent multi-cultural working class politics in real life.

Ultimately, Corbyn cared more about “being right” in policy than in politics. He wanted a perfect manifesto to sweep him and the Left into power. He and the party were blinded by the fact that revolutions do not happen from the top down or begin at the ballot box. Rather they are forged from the bottom up and start with important local victories that show people concretely that actual change is possible.

Defeating the Right

The UK and much of the world is now confronted with two visions for defeating the Right. It can either return to the unpopular and ineffectual Conservative-lite Centrism of the past or rebuild a progressive politics that is willing to fight on many fronts and in a myriad of different ways for achieving ultimate victory. At its core this project must be about reimagining society and reconnecting people concretely for this purpose.

Crucial in this respect will be showing how socialism can work “on the ground” to improve people’s lives. This means investing in efforts to build collaborative economies across the country. It also means organizing people around local issues linked to a global struggle for justice. This entails meeting people “where they are” with the aim of broadening their horizons of who is actually to blame for their problems and how they can be concretely resolved with progressive ideas and policies. It also means being willing to make alliances when and where necessary for short term political victories (or even to stave off disastrous defeats) while strengthening this revolutionary project of socialist transformation from the ground up.

In the future, Labour and the Left must be more than simply “right,” they must be committed to doing all they can to defeating the Right. They must use every means at their disposable to create a genuinely working class internationalist movement that is waged not only on social media or from the halls of Westminster but in the towns, communities, and cities throughout the country. The only way the virulent fantasies of the Far Right can be defeated is by working daily and with renewed energy to create a better progressive reality.

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st-century democracy, politics, and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation, and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization and Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits released in November 2016.

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