When the exit-poll predictions came out on election night, now just a month ago, they felt like a body blow. I recall feeling physically sick. But the real pain came afterwards. The psychological blow of realising we on the left had misunderstood the public so badly was worse. Much worse. And I’m still reeling from it.
I’m not going to win popularity contests for writing this column, but it isn’t just the Labour party but the broader left that needs to learn from this defeat. We need a debate about how we need to change. Over the last month I’ve repeatedly seen sentiments along these lines: ‘how could people vote the Tories back in? Where do these people come from? Don’t they understand what the Tories are doing to the country?’
I have three observations to make on the aftermath. First, we were shocked by the Tory victory because our left-wing echo chamber reinforced the view that people really hated them. We had convinced ourselves there was no chance the Conservatives would increase their share of the vote. We just didn’t understand why people would vote for them as it was so obvious why they were hated. The echo-chamber not only shields us from conflicting views, it also compounds the shock when people don’t behave as we expect them to. It may be reassuring but the echo-chamber is also self-destructive in the end.
Secondly, because of the echo-chamber, we have stopped understanding the people we are trying to reach. We don’t speak their language or relate to their worries, we only understand ourselves. The main reason Tony Blair kept winning elections was because he understood non-Labour voters. They wanted clarity, strength and someone who sounded like them. He gave them that in spades, so they voted for him (until he betrayed that trust over Iraq). I’m not saying we need to ape Tony Blair, but we do have to address this gaping cultural deficit. We have to understand the right and talk in a language they understand.
Thirdly, thanks to the echo-chamber and cultural gap, we have become obsessed about language or tone that betrays a shift to the right. Like an angry partner worried about betrayal, people on Twitter instantly pounce on any wording by Labour MPs that sounds like a shift to the right. We probably spent more time in the last 5 years arguing over words and tone than policies and tactics. We have become obsessed by the notion that the overton window could shift to the right if we adopt their language or tone.
But it’s not language or tone that shifts the public debate to the right, it’s the fact that we keep losing. People listens to winners not losers, and the left keeps losing. We may stick to our principles but the public is steadily moving away from them. And so we keep losing more. And in turn we desperately cling on to what we can control: the use of our own language and tone.
Here is what Spain’s Podemos General Sec. Pablo Iglesias said when students came to his despairing about people not understanding them: “Can’t you see that the problem is you? That politics has nothing to do with being right, that politics is about succeeding?”
He goes on to say: “The enemy wants nothing more than to laugh at you. You can wear a T-shirt with the hammer and sickle. You can even carry a huge flag, and then go back home with your flag, all while the enemy laughs at you. Because the people, the workers, they prefer the enemy to you. They believe him. They understand him when he speaks. They don’t understand you. And maybe you are right! Maybe you can ask your children to write that on your tombstone: ‘He was always right — but no one ever knew’.”
This is us. We have become those people that the public doesn’t understand. We have become more obsessed about being right than succeeding. There’s always someone on Twitter spouting cliches and say they’d rather be principled than worry about winning. This is a false dichotomy and we need to get out of that mindset. We need to change how we talk about issues. We need to talk about issues in radically different ways, in ways the mainstream can relate to.
We need a left that is focused on winning: debates, campaigns and elections, not just symbolic displays of protest. I’m not asking for everyone to believe in the Labour party as the only electoral vehicle, merely that the tactics and strategy of left-wing groups, campaigns and parties focus on winning not symbolism.
You want examples? I’ll give you examples. This cultural gap, echo-chamber and posturing is frequently apparent when discussing immigration. Last week, Diane Abbott accused Liz Kendall of a ‘dog whistle’ after the latter said Labour needs to white working-class youths. I don’t agree with Kendall on much but some of us mention white working class underachievement a decade ago. It doesn’t help to racialise an obvious problem, nor always question the motives of those raising the issue. Not everyone who votes UKIP or talks about immigration is a racist and those people aren’t going to be won by shouting about facts and figures.
During the election campaign there was boundless outrage about Miliband’s immigration policies even though on closer inspection most accepted the policies were actually quite sensible. I didn’t meet a single voter on the doorstep, even in London, who was turned off by the mugs, but plenty who wanted to know of Labour policies on immigration that would stop their wages being undercut. Yet all I heard online was blind outrage about those fucking mugs.
There are plenty of other examples. Whenever I talk about English identity and nationalism, I get dismissive retorts from lefties who have no concept of why cultural identity and belonging may feel important (even to non-whites). This is the same mentality that Ed Miliband inhabited and why he didn’t feel comfortable talking about it.
The easy way to respond to the election defeat is to say ‘the press lied’ or ‘Tories lied’, but we have to get better at challenging them not try to wish them away. It’s far too easy to claim the left Miliband lost because he wasn’t left-wing enough or that the Tories didn’t win a majority anyway. But we would be telling ourselves consoling tales than facing up to the reality of what happened.
Just saying – ‘don’t stay sad, get out there and mobilise and organise’ – without a discussion of what went wrong is not good enough. May 2015 was a horrendous disaster for the left, not just the Labour party. If we don’t realise that and learn and change, we are only set for more defeat.