Don’t disdain the voters if they focus on character and credibility more than any single policy. They’ve got a point
They say the first step to recovery is recognising you have a problem. Perhaps it’s unsurprising, just before Christmas, that much of Labour hasn’t got there yet. More strikingly, much of Labour has decided that it’s other people who have a problem instead. For some it’s the media; for others it’s Brexit; for still others, increasingly, it’s the voters themselves.
But actually, even if we ignore the truism that the voters are never wrong, they deserve more credit than many are willing to give them. And looking at the early indicators of why they demurred, the reasons seem thoroughly fair. Labour would do well to start by recognising as much.
Fitness to govern
Challenged on Corbyn’s political record, many Labour supporters asked: ‘which Labour policies do you disagree with?’ That’s reasonable as far as it goes. The left places a great deal of weight on what manifestos say. It often dismisses those who focus on the character of those who seek to govern. They can sometimes ignore their own hero-worship in the process (this includes moderates, by the way). But more importantly, they miss the point of elections if they treat leaders as mere channels for manifesto delivery.
In every term, governments have to make decisions they never even considered before the election. They wield a great deal of power independently of Parliament. They usually set the agenda to steer through Parliament. And Prime Ministers have to take ultimate responsibility for all of that — and personal responsibility for decisions in a supreme national crisis. That makes a Prime Minister’s character, background and personal beliefs supremely relevant.
So it was entirely reasonable for voters to ask whether Corbyn was more or less fit to govern than Johnson. It is widely agreed that Corbyn’s personal stock was badly hit by the Skripal affair before the election, and that’s completely fair enough. People were murdered on British soil. Voters had good reason to question whether a man who suggested getting Russia to verify the Novichok it deployed could be trusted on national security.
Many Labour people say their manifesto policies were popular. Ultimately, well-received Labour manifestos don’t end up producing large Tory majorities. But it’s true to say voters seemed to like a lot of Labour’s policies, in isolation and in theory. In combination and in practice, it’s a different story. And again, whether you agree with their judgment or not, the voters’ point is a fair one.
Basic common sense — or experience of trying to run any project — will tell you people have limited capacity. The same applies to a state — especially given that the British state’s capabilities have declined a great deal since 2010. So it’s not just understandable if lots of voters say they support a raft of Labour policies and then worry about their ability to deliver. It made good sense for voters to worry.
Similarly, whatever you think about the costings of Labour’s manifesto — regarded pretty dubiously by many — the way it behaved in the campaign made voter doubts very reasonable. Labour threw a £58 billion pledge (for the WASPI women) into the middle of an election campaign after its manifesto was launched. There seemed to be (because there was) no sense of prioritisation from Labour. According to YouGov, voters tended to say Labour had a lot of policies which didn’t seem to be thought through. And voters had good reason to be sceptical.
I would have preferred a Brexit compromise to the fight to the finish we ended up with. I found Johnson’s ultra-hard Brexit too much to live with and disliked the Liberal Democrats’ pledge to simply revoke Article 50 (even if I knew it was just a symbol). So in 2019, while I doubted what kind of Brexit they proposed and the timescales in which they proposed to work, Labour’s policy was my least-worst option.
Except for the part where Corbyn refused to say which side he was on. I found it irritating, but it looks like the voters cared about Corbyn’s unwillingness to pick a side more than I did. It looks like it reinforced their pre-existing view of his inadequacy as a leader — more than taking either side would have done. And again, voters were right about the choice facing them. Labour didn’t want to take a clear Remain- or Leave-aligned position. Its leader didn’t want to tell them what he thought. That reluctance was where its policy position ultimately came from.
Leave voters were right to think that if they wanted to ensure Brexit happened, then the Tories were the party to do that. Remain voters were right to think the Labour leadership’s heart wasn’t in its Remainier pledges — but that probably mattered less in practice. Not unreasonably, Labour Remainers were much more likely to stay loyal than Labour Leavers.
Antisemitism’s impact on Labour’s fortunes seems harder to pin down than broader fitness to govern, lack of credibility and obfuscation on Brexit. But anecdotally, more than one Labour candidate reported that it did real damage. Anna Turley reported: ‘what they said was, “My parents or my grandparents — they fought the war over this.”’
This was reasonable and right. Under Corbyn, two female Jewish MPs were driven out of Labour, antisemitic incidents soared and Labour found itself investigated by the EHRC for institutional racism. Corbyn himself was (rightly) challenged for antisemitic tropes he’d used in the past. Corbyn’s antisemitism became a point of near-consensus in the Jewish community.
Did the voters as a whole go so far? Possibly not. But doorstep unease suggests a lot of ‘less-informed’ voters deserve a lot more credit than some very well-informed people who found excuse after excuse to avoid the obvious. Frankly, the latter could do with learning from the former. Voters who recoiled at the Corbynite record on antisemitism were absolutely right.
The voters had a point
Blaming the voters, who cannot after all be deselected, never gets you far in a democracy. But even leaving that pragmatic reality aside, Labour will do itself no favours by ignoring their overall message. You might be appalled by the alternative (and I’d agree with you), but Labour’s thumping was richly deserved, and the voters’ main apparent objections to their offering were right.
The voters neither trust nor much like Boris Johnson. Labour shouldn’t rail against them for looking at their man and deciding he was even worse. It should, instead, take a long, hard look at how they came to put the public in a position where they came to that conclusion.
This post was originally published on Medium.com on 24 December 2019.