Labour Can Win This Election, But Only If It Goes Beyond 2017

by Aaron Bastani

29 October 2019

We will have a general election this year after all. This morning Labour came out in favour of going back to the people, with Jeremy Corbyn in an ebullient mood as he announced to the BBC that, while “Labour loves a debate, this is the end of the debate”. Amassed behind him was a similarly confident shadow cabinet, united around a December election as not only the best option to defy Boris Johnson – but to defeat him.

If the polls are to be trusted Labour starts ten points behind the Tories. While that represents a significant challenge, with the Conservatives reclaiming many of those inclined to vote for the Brexit Party before the Johnson premiership, it is not the twenty-four point gap they overcame in 2017. Then, internal polling conducted by the Tories projected a majority of 200. Ultimately they lost 13 MPs despite recording their best share of the popular vote since 1987 – such was the performance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

But can Labour overtake the Tories this time? It’s more than possible. Early indications are that Johnson will continue to erode the Brexit Party’s vote, diminishing the likelihood of any tactical alliance. This will be the Tory’s primary strategy to get to 40% and achieve something they view as a springboard for a Westminster majority: uniting the Brexit vote behind Johnson.

This itself presents a problem however. The Conservatives also need ‘soft Tories’, those occasionally minded to vote for the Liberal Democrats or, two decades ago, New Labour. Without such voters they can not win a general election, as proved the difference between the 2010 and 2015 elections. In trying to court the hard right of the electorate they will alienate such voters, the hope being that the weakness of the Liberal Democrats, as in 2017, combined with a disdain for Labour’s left wing economic agenda, will keep enough of them on board.

Which means Labour will have to improve on last time to win a majority. At first glance that seems eminently achievable, after all the party saw its vote share increase 16% over the course of the last campaign. But as one adviser told me in the days following that surprise result, “it will be harder to get the next 5%, and win big, than it was to get the last 15%”.

So here’s how it can be done.

The first task is to ‘expand the electorate’ with Labour, and the wider labour movement, spending the next fortnight – and using all the resources at their disposal – to engage in a mass campaign of voter registration. While the last election saw turnout rise by more than 2% to the high sixties – 2017 saw the highest turnout for twenty years in a general election – it will need to go higher still for a Labour majority. That means more young people, low-income households and BAME voters being registered. How might that happen? Through immediately mobilising the party’s ‘Community Organising Teams’, who are already doing impressive work, to get precisely such communities on the electoral roll.

In addition to that Labour needs to have an offer beyond just Brexit. That is only possible however because Labour, despite the media’s obsessing to the contrary, now has a clear line on EU membership: under Jeremy Corbyn the party wants to unite the country through an immediate referendum after forming a government which includes a credible leave offer. Compare that to the Liberal Democrats who tend to revoke or another referendum depending on what day it is. Sticking to this clarity, and repeating it, will be critical.

That steady footing means Labour will be able to engage with an issue which will feature more prominently in this election than any before it: climate change. By adopting a Green New Deal which entails massive investment across the country, they are are best placed to own this increasingly salient issue. Most impressive about Labour’s policies on climate, underwritten by a commitment to rapid decarbonisation after this year’s party conference, is that they address an issue often viewed as being of little interest to working class people in a way that gives them a stake in the shift. By becoming a world leader in green technologies Britain’s towns, for so long left to rot by neoliberalism, would not only have investment but a sense of purpose and jobs. At the level of identity and culture this matters – green politics can only win if it converges with a sense of national mission, civic renewal and an alternative modernity to the one presently on offer. While Labour’s Green New Deal achieves precisely that, the same can not be said of the Green Party whose ‘deep green’ wing oppose the things necessary to transition from fossil fuels at all, let alone in the time that is needed. The same applies to the Liberal Democrats and Tories, albeit in a different way, as they offer slight moderations to business as usual. As James Meadway put it in a recent NovaraFM podcast, “environmentalism without class politics is just gardening”.

So Labour’s offer of economic and social justice not only intends to reverse austerity, as in 2017, but aims at a different kind of country altogether. One that actually addresses the great crises of our time – elderly care, climate change, automation and rising inequality – rather than feigning a response. That matters because these crises will only intensify over the coming decades. As well as emphasising their unique position in offering catharsis on Brexit, it matters that Labour now have a holistic response to what I label the ‘great disorder’ in my book. Compare that to the Tories and Liberal Democrats, who barely even acknowledge such challenges. People intuitively know the scale of the problems that confront us – they will only take seriously those solutions which are of an equivalent scale.

Britain’s economy is broken and its civil society is fractured. Productivity is broadly the same as it was in 2008. The same is true for both wages and GDP per capita. Home ownership rates are at their lowest level since the mid-1980s. Put simply, this is unprecedented in the history of capitalism. On top of that public services are disintegrating and, among the poor, life expectancy is now falling.

Labour’s task now is to communicate to towns and cities alike, the second of which will be harder, that they understand their frustration with the current model. More than simply undoing the damage of the Tories over the last decade, which proved so potent in 2017, Labour must now articulate a confident, alternative of Britain. One of civic pride rather than empty storefronts and betting shops, one of public and popular ownership rather than privatisation and outsourcing, one where power resides with ordinary people, not millionaires, lobbyists and newspaper owners in London.

2017 was a historic election but for Labour to finish the job they must now go beyond it. That means expanding the electorate, having a green new deal at the heart of their campaign, conveying clarity on Brexit and providing a vision for a different kind of country. The next six weeks will define Britain, quite possibly, for the rest of our lives. Importantly the left can win.

Aaron Bastani is a Novara Media co-founder and contributing editor.

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