“The very ink with which History is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Mark Twain’s quote seems apt at the moment as we see the rapid writing of the history of the 2019 general election by different factions of the Labour party. Most try to fit within a certain frame i.e. explaining why young people tended towards voting Labour, as well as why the red wall collapsed. It is also important to remember why these histories are being written and in many ways rewritten too. Many have ties to or animosity towards the current leadership faction. Ties which will also be closely mapped to future leadership contenders. While it would be easy to think that the left of the party would be more loyal and accuse others of sabotage while the right of the party accuse the leadership of the failure, this is
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“The very ink with which History is written is merely fluid prejudice.” Mark Twain’s quote seems apt at the moment as we see the rapid writing of the history of the 2019 general election by different factions of the Labour party.
Most try to fit within a certain frame i.e. explaining why young people tended towards voting Labour, as well as why the red wall collapsed. It is also important to remember why these histories are being written and in many ways rewritten too. Many have ties to or animosity towards the current leadership faction. Ties which will also be closely mapped to future leadership contenders. While it would be easy to think that the left of the party would be more loyal and accuse others of sabotage while the right of the party accuse the leadership of the failure, this is not the full story even if it still makes up a large part of it. Many on the left of the party especially the young voices do voice considerable criticism regarding dealing of anti-semitism and so on.
Along with the notable GCSE style essay factors, we can also see how the different types of history are being teased out. It is quite interesting how these fields of history are used alongside simple factor based arguments.
Aditya Chakraborty seems to go down a social history theme. He blames the transformation of the Labour party under New Labour which was “Corbyn’s poisonous inheritance” According to him the influx of essentially metropolitan elite MPs parachuted into safe seats by Blair and Gordon have subsequently made them complacent. The small culture of Labourism disintegrated as the party was dominated by heavyweights at the top. His writing of history thus forms vindication of his argument written in 2017, that “a party that grew out of social institutions needed to turn itself into a social institution in precisely those areas it historically took for granted.” This might simply be relying upon the stereotype of the north caring about community while possibly urban voters don’t and thus a quite centralised London focused leadership of the party has damaged northern performance. Labour does rely a fair amount on its membership, although figures such as Paul Mason criticise that appearance may detract from some of the reality (see bottom of his article). However it may be that along with theatre, the membership has also been flooded by younger members driven more by socialist ideological purity and fervour instead of (using the overly-used phrase) “traditional labour working class values” more associated with the north. This could account for some of the social and cultural isolation that Johnson was able to capitalise on.
Ash Sarkar goes down a more of an economic account. Rejecting a traditional social setting of class she defines it in more strict economic terms. This being that asset poor millennials struggling with high rent represent a poor working class despite the fact they work in white collar jobs. Owen Jones argues similarly that because these people have moved away from the towns that make up the red wall it has simply left the old who are going to vote labour. It is important however, not to simply jump from correlation to causation when it comes to the age voting patterns and age distributions throughout the UK. The less believable but still possible flipside of their argument would be that these areas became more Tory which then had an impact on the correlation on the voting pattern with age because these areas where likely to be much older. Sarkar’s can almost definitely be described as a very historical materialist account. Yet it is likely to flounder when it attempts to answer the question of why there has been such a change from 2017 to 2019 and they do consider many other factors to be involved.
Political factors are unsurprisingly closely associated with the argument that Labour’s top leadership was a failure and also interestingly that they failed to get their priorities focused until way too late. This interestingly stems both from his previous supporters and opponents. Figures such as Stephen Kinnock point out a triumvirate of weak leadership, the alienation of leave voters with a second referendum and a manifesto “which was more like a Christmas wish list.” Figures such as Paul Mason claim that it was instead that Labour did not embrace a second referendum early enough. Tom Kibasi also points to both delay on deciding Brexit but also a campaigning failure as they released a “cacophony of policies, such that it was impossible to communicate on the doorstep.” Sadly for Labour they did not have a leadership campaign where they could endlessly repeat the numbers and key policies that were able to cut through over a number of months. And indeed quickly rattling these off in a few short weeks before an election does contribute to the ‘wish list’ tone or just strengthens the cynicism of election bribes. Indeed the conservative candidate in Bolsover ‘regularly heard jokes about the free broadband offer’.
The problem with a lot of these is that they are incredibly Labour focused. Sadly most of the accounts written by people from the left that address ‘Tory Agency’ you could say are not full simply of criticism (which you would obviously expect) but a certain vilifying of Conservatives and plagued with what can only really be described as conspiracy theories. A good representative of this would be Faiza Shaheen. She claims that “the system is rigged”. The reason she lost was not just lies and misinformation but fear, unfair demonization and the massive media conspiracy: “it is the media - not you or I - that chooses who will be our next prime minister.” Clearly the media was wrong to draw focus to the allegations that Labour is institutionally antisemitic or that while wrong to demonise Corbyn it was fine for her to do the same for Iain Duncan Smith as the grand architect of oppressive universal credit. Andy MacDonald of the Guardian also jumped in to add the BBC to the cast of conspirators.
These histories of course are also being largely written for a purpose. To bring about the “correct” remembering of faults to help bring about the ascent of their desired faction to leadership. What is even worse is how many claim to even be objective. I’m not sure if Caroline Flint kept a straight face as she wrote how “we could rush to pre-prepared excuses”.
Though they may be subtle, we can see how these narratives beg conclusions that the authors often want. Take Aditya Chakraborty, Ash Sarkar’s and Owen Jones’s accounts of the election. Their arguments cite long term problems and thus absolve the leading faction, or definitely the ideology behind it, of much of the blame. Although they do criticise some aspects of Corbyn’s leadership and of course Brexit. However, the notion that political events were simply the last few straws that broke the Camel’s back would also suggest that it would still not be the next Labour leaders fault when they lose in 2024. While it is doubtful this is a purposeful future defence of the British population again rejecting Corbynism under a different name in five years time you can see that this a conclusion easily drawn from their arguments.
Critics of Corbyn and the remnants of New Labour are also unsurprisingly writing accounts of how it was his fault. From the anti-semitism to the ‘not backing Britain’ it is almost a repeat of Thatcher’s ‘I won’t vote for that bloody woman.” You could possibly even argue that fairly safe answers such as those from Kibasi may also stem from a reluctance to not have to back a certain faction in the coming leadership challenge.
The narratives of the conspiracy theorists obviously stem from an assumption it was not their fault that they lost. Just as some aspects of remain after the referendum tried to cast doubt on the integrity of the democratic process they do likewise. Whether it was a project fear or lies or so on. There are even aspects of ‘they didn’t know what they were voting for’ beginning to emerge.
Is it then possible to write an objective history of the 2019 election? One might leap to polling to try and ask this question. Indeed we have before us a tool of quantifying a hierarchy of concerns for certain groups that historians in the past could only wish at possessing. It is worth remembering the polls are not gospel. While pollsters mostly at least to pretend to be independent there is always a risk of some personal bias muddling the answer either through subtle means such as the choice of questions or more serious manipulation. Moreover, those who answer polls may not also be answering truthfully but may want to use their answers to manipulate events in a certain way (or at least as much as they can being just one sample). Nonetheless, despite not being perfect polls do offer probably the best way to try and build a quantifiable evidence base to a historical argument. YouGov, Lord Ashcroft Polls and many other sources give some insight into what were the factors that motivated voting groups to vote in they ways that they did (indeed this one may be the most important).
We will nonetheless continue to see the construction of narratives by many motivated to bring about certain conclusions in the minds of voters whether deliberately or subconsciously. Indeed this article itself could be seen to be structured to draw certain conclusions. It does seem to me that a combination of anti-semtism, election strategy and also in part a rejection of Corbynism as a whole is to blame although I am interested in how long term social and economic causes could have also contributed. A lot of the narratives being written do seem also to suggest that the ideology was not at fault and with Long-Bailey set to be the favourite however to be elected it seems that the religion of Corbynism and the church of Momentum will continue to dominate the Labour party. While we cannot be certain how the next election would be fought by that sort of leadership nor what the result would be I am highly doubtful that the British people have much more patience for the Corbynist/Momentum project. In spite of the unpopularity of Corbyn, the anti-semitism, being slightly caught out by Brexit motives and also an effective Conservative campaign much of the Labour manifesto failed to inspire and provoked laughter from many on the doorstep.
For Labour to keep to its current hard left ideology will only mean a surrender of any chance of them winning the next election. For those ardent Labour supporters out there wanting to get into government it may be that Karl Marx’s quote is more apt than Twain’s, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce”.
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