My view on Labour's performancePolitics · · 13 minutes
Just over a week ago, I stood for election for the Green Party in Pudsey.
The election result was a dire one. While our vote and the vote of most smaller parties went up, Labour’s fell and the Tories went from a minority government to an 80-something majority with a tiny swing of 1.7%.
In Pudsey - a so-called “marginal” constituency, 894 people voted for me, while most people voted for one of the top two parties in a “tactical” vote. During the election I didn’t insult voters’ intelligence and I told them that I understood if they voted tactically and chose not to vote for me even if I was their preferred candidate.
While they’re not my party, here I offer my own view and analysis of Labour’s campaign and result, based on my own experiences during the election.
1. It’s not because of their policies
Labour’s manifesto this time around was arguably the most hopeful and progressive manifesto they’ve ever had. If anything, it felt like a watered-down version of what we’ve been pushing for for decades.
Throughout the campaign, the only hostility I found to our pledges was related to Brexit and immigration, and to the cost of implementing them. And these negative views were only expressed by maybe a couple of voters. On the contrary, I received many times more messages of support and hope about our policies, and I’m sure Labour had the same.
Anyone who tries to put a “Labour went too far to the left” spin on this might be pursuing their own agenda, rather than reality. The public are ready for a progressive government. I felt it hard in Pudsey, which is arguably one of the most representative constituencies anywhere.
I believe it would be a mistake for Labour to move back to the centre ground now, rather than do some detailed introspection on their tactics, rather than their policies.
2. They didn’t have answers to the difficult questions
There were two big questions for Labour this time round that they had trouble answering.
How are you going to pay for it? How are you going to pay for it? Perhaps expectedly, the Labour candidate got these questions over and over again and I didn’t, even though their plan was much less radical and expensive than ours.
Like us, Labour had carefully costed their plans. Being honest, there’s plenty of money to go round and both our manifestos demonstrated that with cold, hard figures.
But Labour chose to follow the “people earning over £80k will pay more tax” line. While that’s strictly true, the amount of extra tax they’d pay is peanuts compared to the money both our party and theirs would be demanding from the billionaires and the giant corporations — especially the fossil fuel corporations. Why did Labour choose to go after people, and not after capitalism? It felt like a massive own-goal, when their actual costings didn’t do this.
This wasn’t the “Brexit election”. At least, my interactions with voters both individually and at hustings suggested otherwise. People were much more concerned about issues that Labour had clear answers for — as did the Green Party — like the NHS.
But Labour was portrayed as being “confused” about Brexit and their candidates and spokespeople came across that way. Their policy made some sense, but refusing to state (a) why their Brexit deal would be different from Boris’s and (b) which side they would campaign for in a future referendum made them seem like they couldn’t agree amongst themselves. Which they couldn’t.
3. What is a leader?
More and more, general elections are being pitched as a battle between leaders. It’s the Boris vs Jeremy show, and the public don’t like either of them.
Labour could have prepared for this, by steering their party away from this obsession with leaders, and towards parties. Ultimately, it’s not a leader you’re voting for when you go to the ballot.
Labour is a party that seems to allow itself to change direction entirely when it elects a new leader, and party direction comes completely from the top, rather than from their thousands of members.
I was incredulous when I saw this tweet from the Labour candidate in Pudsey:
Proud to see that the betrayal of 400,000 WASPI women will be addressed by a Labour government and we will legislate to prevent future pension robberies #forthemany #onyourside #LabourManifesto19— Jane Aitchison (@JaneAitchison) November 21, 2019
“Proud to see.” The candidate didn’t even know what her party’s policies were going to be until long after she was announced as the candidate.
In the Green Party, our leader only leads. Party policy is permanent and updated on a six-monthly basis by a democratic process. When our leader changes, our policies don’t change and we know exactly what it is we stand for when we choose to stand for election.
Labour knew that Jeremy was unpopular. And the press was always going to characterize him as such. But they had an opportunity to change the story. To make it clear that the public are choosing a party, not a person, and to make it clear that whether Jeremy stays or goes, the important thing is the policies.
But right now, the public is left thinking that once again whoever wins the next Labour leadership race is going to take the party in yet another new direction.
4. Their reaction to antisemitism allegations
Yes, yes, we’ve all seen the numbers about how often the press attacked Labour over antisemitism compared with how often they attacked the Tories over Islamophobia, Windrush etc.
But antisemitism is a serious issue on the left of politics. I know this because it’s a serious issue in my party too. The freedom of Palestinian people is a noble and worthy cause, but it attracts some unsavoury elements who use the legitimate cause to peddle their hatred, in subtle ways that many people don’t notice. Antisemitism spreads through Palestinian freedom movements the same way transphobia spreads through feminism, by sounding “reasonable” until you think a little harder about it, by which point you’ve probably already accidentally liked that tweet.
Labour’s response to this extra scrutiny was ridiculous. Corbyn is probably not antisemitic himself, but he enables them by acting like the problem doesn’t exist. Why couldn’t he have just said “yes; we are aware that it’s an issue and here are the steps we’re taking to address it”? The Tories are, on the whole, terrifyingly racist, but when their candidate in Leeds NE was found saying antisemitic things, he was immediately kicked out of the party. This kind of action matters to voters.
5. Most of all, they didn’t play the game
But really, all of this is small potatoes, when compared with the disaster that is our First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system.
FPTP is a game, and Labour refused to play it. It used to work for Labour, because their only serious opponent everywhere was the Tories, and people voted for smaller parties like the Lib Dems, Ukip and the Green Party in similar numbers so we all balanced each other out.
But now we are in a world where Labour’s serious opposition in many places is not the Tories. In most of Scotland it’s the SNP. In Bristol West it’s us. In places like Stroud and Isle of Wight, the progressive vote is split between Labour and the Green Party. [The Tories could have had the same problem with the Brexit Party, but they knew how to play the game and stood aside everywhere the Tories already had a seat.]
On the day my candidacy in Pudsey was announced, Labour’s candidate posted this:
Really disappointed that the Green Party have chosen to stand in Pudsey. Labour’s Green New Deal is fantastic and standing here just makes it a little bit harder for me to beat the Tory and make it real #fortheMany #VoteLabour2019 pic.twitter.com/Fa5DUNOyZC— Jane Aitchison (@JaneAitchison) November 14, 2019
Doesn’t this read like someone saying FPTP is broken? That someone with similar (but perhaps better) policies might make it harder for her to win? And even more icky, that she’s saying people should vote for her not because she’s the best candidate, but because tactically, she’s the only one who can win? Eurgh.
Numerous times during the election I made coded overtures to Jane to see if she could come out publicly supporting electoral reform. If I knew she was in favour, maybe we could have worked together somehow to take down the Tory. But she wouldn’t budge.
The public resent this. So many people… so many people told me that they were going to vote Labour even though they preferred me as a candidate. That doesn’t leave people with a positive taste in their mouths about Labour. It doesn’t encourage them to talk to all their friends about how great the Labour candidate is or how great her party’s policies are.
And the whole spirit of tactical voting creates a kind of bitterness amongst Labour’s supporters — I even saw a social media post from a Labour-supporting friend (who I deeply admire) calling people who vote Green in this election “selfish”.
So what’s the alternative? The Green Party stand aside in the election and maybe help a party win without any promises that they’ll change the voting system? We keep doing that, eventually we’ll be seen as an irrelevance and they’ll stop feeling like it’s necessary to bring their policies up to some version of ours.
In 2017 the Greens stood aside as a gesture of good faith towards Labour and they offered us nothing — this election they wouldn’t even pick up the phone to talk about an electoral alliance that would usher in a new voting system.
Thanks to the rise of the SNP and, yes, the Green Party, Labour cannot easily win an election under FPTP on their own, and maybe never will again.
But you know how they could win? By promising a one-off alliance for electoral reform. Imagine an election where the Tories were the only party who seriously supported FPTP, and in order to oust them forever, all the parties supporting electoral reform agreed to stand one candidate in each constituency, as the “not Tory” candidate, with the intention of the new government having the primary goal of changing the voting system so no one ever has to vote tactically ever again. In an alliance like that, the Green Party would probably be very happy to stand aside for Labour almost everywhere, in exchange for a free run on places like Isle of Wight, and the promise that this would be the only election where we’d ever have to do this.
And that could win it! Only 43.6% voted for the Tories this time, so that means 56.4% voted for “not Tories”. Of course, nothing is that simple but if people knew it was the last time they ever “had” to vote tactically I think they’d feel much more comfortable doing it.
Yes, electoral reform would kill the Labour party, because it really only exists because of FPTP. It’s a monolith of a hundred different political viewpoints who are allied in order to win elections under this broken system. But that’s the thing — if it’s meant to be lots of smaller parties, it should be lots of smaller parties, who can govern together if necessary. That’s how the left works in most of Europe and it seems to work for them!
The good news is that lots of Labour MPs, including (genuinely decent politician) Alex Sobel in neighbouring Leeds NW, are in favour of this change. If Labour are going to keep up this ridiculous “leader decides policies” approach, then they should make it a requirement of any new leader that they support electoral reform wholeheartedly. It’s the only way they can win the next one.