13 December 2019

It’s time for Labour to show some humility

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Over the next few hours and days we will hear a lot about the alleged political genius of Boris Johnson and his Lazarus-like revival of the Conservative Party. We may even see the return of the ghastly ‘Heineken politician’ moniker, a description which seems to demand a working knowledge of 1980s Dutch beer adverts.

Well, to the victor the spoils and all that, but I would caution delighted Tories not to overindulge on what could yet be a decidedly mediocre brew. Indeed, hiding from the electorate and offering little in the way of policy do not appear to have done much for the Prime Minister’s favourability ratings, which are currently hovering somewhere around the Tony Blair post-Iraq war mark. Don’t mistake this for sour grapes either – this is not in fact a column about Boris or the Tories. Rather it is to point out that there is a simpler hypothesis here. Which is that what we have just witnessed is a referendum, not so much on Brexit, but on the Leader of the Opposition. And that, frankly, is a campaign a great many of us could have won.

Oh, Jeremy Corbyn. So much ink has been spilt on your political foibles and yet in the final reckoning it almost feels cruel to punch the electoral bruise. After all, what more could I say that the British people have not already told you with emphasis? The cold facts are enough. This is Labour’s worst result since 1935 (and even then it added seats). No four-term opposition in the modern era has contrived to go backwards. If Boris Johnson serves a full five years – as he surely shall – it will be over fifty years since a Labour leader not called Tony Blair won an election.

There will be recriminations, certainly – Corbyn has already signalled he will not lead another campaign. However, the key question for Labour now is will there also be reflection. This is of course an absurdly banal demand to make of a party so comprehensively rejected at the polls. But then again the contemporary liberal left has not exactly shown an outsize capacity for critically engaging with the challenging electoral judgements of recent years.

The European referendum result has been widely dismissed as an illegitimate aberration; explained away by ordinary voters’ weakness for lies, fakes news and Russian disinformation. Meanwhile, where Labour activists were not bizarrely celebrating 2017’s loss to a Nick Timothy inspired Theresa May, the old left-wing bogeymen of media bias became the preferred theory of defeat.

The conceit here, usually expressed sotto voce, but occasionally – as Steve Coogan did on Channel Four News on Wednesday evening – belted from the rooftops, is that right-wing forces “depend on ignorance” for their support. That support for the various liberal-left electoral cause is so self-evidently correct that the only explanation for its regular rejection is idiocy. Days like yesterday should, ordinarily, ensure such sanctimonious moral certitude is replaced with a degree of humility about a party’s failings. But alas, Corbyn’s tenure so far does not give grounds for confidence.

Under his leadership, Labour has become the first party other than the BNP to be investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission for institutional racism. It has pro-totalitarianism advisers who see the end of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. It has a manifesto that reads like it was written by a student instructed to cram anything and everything they have ever read by a third sector lobby group into one single document, without any sense of priority or a credible assessment of what an obviously flawed state might achieve.

The party turned up to this election without being able to tell the public what outcome they would want in a second referendum on arguably the biggest political question of a generation. When British citizens were poisoned with chemical weapons in Salisbury, its leader chose to side with the Russians. Yet despite this, all through Thursday the tweets and hashtags rolled-in, each ever more convinced of the absolute certainty that nobody of sound mind or good character could doubt Labour’s superiority for a second.

I don’t doubt that many on the left will bristle at these words. I don’t begrudge people voting Labour either, such is the grotesque utilitarian relativism this election has forced upon the country. But unless the liberal left regains the humility to accept both criticism and opposition towards its politics as legitimately in good faith, then one suspects it is doomed to find its hopes endlessly dashed against the rocks of voter rejection. Whilst Boris Johnson runs the country.

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Alan Lockey is a former adviser to a Labour MP.