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15 December 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 1:23pm

Labour’s loss was bigger than Corbyn – now his critics must rebuild

Only with a fresh start, and a genuine acceptance of the reasons why we lost, can Labour's progressives begin the task of reconstruction at hand.

By Nathan Yeowell

Thursday’s election was a catastrophe, both for the Labour Party and for the country. It was heartbreaking for all of us who campaigned for a Labour government over the past couple of weeks. But our heartbreak is nothing compared to the difficult Christmas and uncertain new year ahead for the many millions of people who desperately needed us to win.  

They still do. They need us because the economy has flatlined. Because there are now more foodbanks than there are branches ofMcDonalds and because homelessness has become a national scandal. Our hospitals have been driven to their knees, our childrens’ schools are operating a four-day week. 

Despite promising  to fix all these things, we still couldn’t win. Instead, we lost to the most outrageous and opportunistic Conservative leader we’ve faced in modern times. 

That we did is staggering, and hints at a deeper issue than just Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of leadership. Make no mistake, wherever we knocked on doors in this campaign, people told us they couldn’t vote for us because they couldn’t stomach the thought of him as Prime Minister. But what is worse, we had no popular, unifying narrative. No cohesive political argument to put before the country. No credible guiding light to illuminate the path ahead.

It is right, of course, that Mr. Corbyn steps down as leader. And it would be wrong to deny his achievements, especially bringing more young people into  the movement. But it would also be wrong not to challenge the posturing, the cronyism, the anti-Semitism and the doctrine of infallibility that have defined his period of office. 

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These issues were never wholly attributable to him. If I’m being soul-scrapingly honest, all of these have existed at one level or another in the party for the 25 years I’ve been in it (with the exception of the antisemitism which has metastasised on Mr. Corbyn’s watch).

But since 2015 these aberrant behaviours have been used to secure his position within the party – oblivious or uncaring of the damage this would do outside with the electorate. We cannot assume they will disappear with his departure, we will have to clear them out in his wake.  Only with a fresh start, and a genuine acceptance of the reasons why we lost, can we begin the task of reconstruction at hand.

What you won’t get from me is some prescriptive idea of what that this reconstruction should look like. Labour Party members have got to come together, regardless of faction, agree on a new set of shared values and make the case for the future we want to see – for both the party and the country at large. 

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We need to listen. Not just to each other. Not just to what we want to hear. But to the people who we care so much about and have, reluctantly I’m sure, rejected us last week.

We need to work with our friends and neighbours, with business and community groups to begin to understand why they spurned the platform that polled so well and many members were so passionate about. To airily assert that we won the political arguments but failed to win the vote and leave it that is a nonsense, an unwelcome combination of one-last-heavism and elitist condescension.  

We need to define our positive, optimistic alternative vision for the country as we navigate life after Brexit. What is our long-term plan to bring communities back together, to bridge the leave/remain divide, to unite all parts of our fracturing United Kingdom? 

We need to rebuild, re-energise and mobilise a new progressive grassroots movement if we want to avert a repeat of this catastrophe in the future. This will involve critics of Corbynism turning away from Twitter (occasionally, at least!), rolling up their sleeves and getting stuck into the recovery effort, not just commenting on it from afar. 

We need to encourage those serious progressive candidates who put themselves forward for the leadership, giving them the space they need to grow and connect with the membership. And we need to ensure we fall in behind the right candidate when the time comes.

We need to start right away. 31st January is almost upon us and we need to redefine our relevance and purpose in the post-Brexit era to come. And in May 2020 we have important local and regional elections to fight – we can’t go into them hamstrung by the policies and personalities that did for us last week. 

We failed to renew in government before 2010. In opposition, under Ed Miliband, we chose not to grapple with the fundamental question of what the Labour party stood in a time of austerity, leading to a decade of Conservatism and the failed experiment of Corbynism. The country deserves better.

The last time we faced a similar period of Conservative dominance, reeling from a fourth, consecutive defeat, was the mid 1990s. We rose to the challenge then, renewed and reformed the party, and rebuilt the trust and confidence necessary to be a viable contender for national office in 1997. I’m optimistic we can do so again now. 

The challenges of the 2020s are likely to dwarf those of the 1990s, and the risks if we fail – of division and paranoia and social unrest – will have a huge impact on all of us if they come to pass. 

This task is tough, but doable. Now more than ever is the time to put our faith in our progressive values, to stand up, stand together and provide the political leadership the country is crying out for.

Nathan Yeowell is the director of Progress, Labour’s progressive thinktank