Thursday, 19 December 2019

Could Labour’s lost election open the way for eco-socialism?

Forget Brexit, Corbyn and anti-Semitism, Labour lost the general election because it tried to look back rather than forward.

Written by Dee Searle

Media reports of Tory victories in former Labour heartlands included an almost wide-eyed amazement at the scale of the loss. But this should come as no surprise to anyone interested in politics, least of all political commentators and the Labour leadership, because the writing has been on the (red) wall for decades.

As long ago as the early 1990s, during development work for Red Pepper magazine, a number of left-wing academics and activists were attempting to warn about the erosion of Labour’s traditional support base in the trade union movement, former industrial towns and council estates by years of Thatcherite cuts and sell-offs and four general election defeats. In fact, one of the aims of Red Pepper magazine, when it launched in 1994 as an independent, radical voice for the left, was to explore and help develop new red-green politics both inside and beyond the Labour Party on the understanding that ‘one last heave’ was unlikely to bring the party back into power.

This new politics was not merely about policies, but about new, more inclusive ways of organising and embodying the vital connections between social and environmental justice. Red Pepper and its forerunner, Socialist newspaper, adopted the banner ‘Red, Green and Radical’ and opened its pages to writing by Greens (such as Penny Kemp), human rights and liberation group activists (such as Peter Tatchel), critical voices in the trade unions, plus lifestyle and cultural commentators. It advocated proportional representation as well as looking internationally at different models of green-left organisation.

Labour experienced a false reprieve through Tony Blair’s New Labour election victories, based on moving the party to the centre ground, winning over voters in key marginals and appealing to the more aspirant sections of Labour’s heartlands. But the malaise was merely in abeyance, as defeats by subsequent more traditional Labour leaders (Gordon Brown, Ed Milliband and Jeremy Corbyn) have shown.

Disappointingly, when Jeremy Corbyn became leader, rather than developing a new, collaborative, radical red-green politics, the party dusted off old, dearly held policies and went all out for ‘one last heave’. Political tribalism dominated, with a refusal to work with other parties nationally and no sign of living up to some Greens’ hopes that the widely respected Green MP Caroline Lucas would be invited to join Corbyn’s team as shadow Environment Secretary.

Corbyn’s Labour failed to grasp the threat and opportunity from climate emergency as a means of enabling the Party to develop an inspirational new means of tackling global capitalism and inequality. Instead they produced a growth-based manifesto with a bit of green-washing, such as planting trees. Even Labour’s Green New Deal was more about reassuring their union backers that there would be jobs for their members rather than genuinely re-gearing the economy.

The Party retains its centralised, hierarchical, command-and-control structure, apparently oblivious to the more open, horizontal organisation of successful radical European parties such as Denmark’s Alternativet or even Portugal’s Red-Green alliance.

While it’s completely understandable for Corbyn’s Labour to want to reclaim traditional socialist values, it was misguided to think enough of the electorate would understand them and hold them in sufficiently high esteem. Numerous studies show that societies tend to prefer a bright future than a worthy past, even if that bright future (in the case of Boris Johnson’s promises) is a con.

A case in point was Labour’s pledge to bring back state control of utilities and key industries, which was in direct conflict with the 1996 paper for Capital and Class by the socialist academics Huw Beynon, Ray Hudson and David Sadler. The study pointed to the ‘disastrous experiences of public ownership’ in Britain and argued that nationalisation had been a form of state capitalism rather than any critical overhaul ‘of the purpose of production or a communistic or socialist alternative to capitalist forms of organisation and life’. The authors’ research in the North of England revealed that state-run coal mining, steel production, railways and shipyards had wreaked more havoc on local communities than multinational corporations. Going by the election results in the North, many voters seem to agree.

Closer to home, the Green Party needs some of its own soul-searching. The Unite to Remain agreement with the LibDems and Plaid Cymru failed to realise either of the two extra seats the party was aiming for, while attracting criticism from some quarters for working with the austerity-supporting, unGreen LibDems and losing some long-standing members.

Although the 865,697 Green vote total was an improvement on 2017’s 512,327, it was still below the 2015 tally of 1,111,603, with many more lost deposits and fewer second places. There is substantial concern in the party over the decision to fight some marginal seats which contributed to Labour losses. And the Green Party has its own ‘one last heave’ in terms of relentlessly pursuing its ‘Target to Win’ local elections strategy, while ignoring the fact that it does not work everywhere and leaves scant resources to put into attracting new members or building local parties.

A Boris Johnson government is not going to introduce proportional representation and to seriously tackle climate emergency, and it remains to be seen how and whether the Labour Party will recover from this major setback, so the immediate future is bleak. However, if, as seems likely, the UK will leave the EU, there will be new areas where reds and greens need to collaborate, including on defending the environment, basic rights and consumer safety, and creating an optimistic narrative about the benefits of creating a low-carbon economy. That will entail learning lessons, not ignoring inconvenient truths and addressing the tribalism within and between all of our parties.

Postscript: Corbyn’s leadership prompted Red Pepper to ditch any pretense of its founding aims of nurturing broad radical politics and to declare its support for Labour. If Red Pepper is to avoid going down with the Corbyn ship, it’s a good time for it to revive its 1990s red-green vision in the context of the prevailing 2020s urgency.
Dee Searle was launch editor of Red Pepper (1994-95) and editor of Socialist (1991-93). She is a member of Camden Green party and a Green Left supporter 


  1. Excellent analysis. May be the foundation of alliances from the grass roots, across trade unions and alongside so-called non-political Climate Change and other environment orgs to forge a revived red/green united front?

    I am in.

    Will be busy renewing contacts from former Greens who fell for Corbyn and have nowhere to go now.


    1. Thanks Nicole. Let's continue the conversation

  2. Terrific piece Dee. ( Would write more ...but winding down after +30 emails and Facebook posts today)

  3. Labour needs to become a party of democratic eco socialists

    1. That would be great. I'm sure there are some in there already!

  4. You obviously didn't listen to John McDonnell's outline of how bringing utilities under public ownership would work - it was a very syndicalist influenced idea of actual public, local control rather than the traditional top-down approach of state socialism. It was very similar to an article I wrote for the Guardian about the Royal Mail back in 2010 ( I know John has read it, because I'm fairly sure we've chatted about it in the bar at one of the subsequent NUJ conferences.

    Also, Labour lost "the Heartlands" where most of the people whose jobs were destroyed in the 1980s are now pensioners and many own their own homes. Young people who can escape those communities are much more likely to be found in the cities in which Labour won. Older people voted Tory, younger people voted Labour. The age profile of areas was essential to the Tory victory.

    This means we're in the unprecedented situation in the UK where the ruling party was rejected by every one of the main cities. Other countries like that include Turkey and Egypt, which is a scary thought.

    1. When you refer to "cities", I assume you are referring to the central parts of cities rather than the very extensive urban outer city areas....It needs to be borne in mind that the population of cities reduces remarkably outside of the working day....But the central part of cities still reflects the culture of those commuters, as well as residents....😊

  5. I did listen and take note of JD's outline but that wasn't how it was portrayed and is still some way off a Green, community-based approach. There's certainly scope - and need - for Left-Greens and Green-Left to talk about this and more. The situation is more nuanced than simply old people voting Tory and young people voting Labour.

  6. Taking the question of Green Party electoral strategy it clearly continues to be problematic in its approach to parliamentary elections whilst the approach for Council elections is I feel a different matter.

    Given that the Green Party is in no position to form a Westminster government , it should be clear that the GPEW should be doing all in its power to reduce the possibility of Conservatives gaining power since that party’s behaviour is the most contrary to the Green Party’s environmental and social objectives.

    So it was pleasing to see a few Green candidates stand aside for Labour in closely contested seats. However, it was dismaying to see Labour being challenged in very marginal seats. No more so than in Stroud where Labour was defending a 2017 majority of 687.The Green Party waged a big campaign with an elite figure :Molly Scott Cato as candidate. This resulted in the Green Party taking 4,954 votes which was significantly bigger than the 3,840 majority that the Tory got over Labour. So though one cannot be entirely sure it looks as if our party caused the defeat of a reasonable Labour MP. And at the very least the act of contesting was irresponsible to our Party’s objectives.

    Because our Party has no evidence –based , processed parliamentary strategy it is vulnerable to electoral fantasies and fevers. Caroline’s Progressive Alliance fiction leading up to the 2017 General Election probably tops the bill. That was produced by top down manipulation of party structures including the packing of Conference platforms but was also hugely reliant on deference to Caroline. Deference to key figures seems too often to outweigh thorough and grounded consideration of electoral strategy.

    1. Thanks Mike. I agree with much of that.
      I think (from a Green Party perspective) it comes down to us honestly developing a philosophy of social, economic and political change. We don't even control a local council, let alone the government. So we need to establish constructive ways of working with those left parties that are closer to power.
      Tragically Brexit might just present an opportunity to do that if we can develop an inclusive, non-jingoistic form of British identity based on fairness, respect for natural resources etc.

    2. Picking up and expanding on a couple of comments :

      Mike says : "However, it was dismaying to see Labour being challenged in very marginal seats"

      Greens candidates are directly and irrefutably responsible for 10 Labour MPs loosing their marginal seat to the Tories in marginal seats. In Bury North a pro-PR, pro- People's Vote, anti-austerity and pro-Green New Deal Labour MP lost his seat by 105 votes. The GP candidate got 808 votes.

      Caroline Lucas and 10 key members were warned about ignoring Labour marginal seats in Leave territory on Sunday 8th September 2019. The reply I got on the same day at 3.53 pm read :" Really good point, thanks. "

  7. Unlike the other commentaters here, with respect, I strongly disagree with your comment: 'Corbyn’s Labour failed to grasp the threat and opportunity from climate emergency as a means of enabling the Party to develop an inspirational new means of tackling global capitalism and inequality. Instead they produced a growth-based manifesto with a bit of green-washing, such as planting trees.'
    It was pretty radical & All-inculsive from what I remember, not green-washing at all!

    So for me, it was very good, and yes, while the Green Parties was more to do with the way we live our own lives, our mindset (this is in the words of their male Leader) Labour's was voted a better one by Friends of the Earth. Maybe that was to do with them being amian party so it was more effective to put a vote behind Labour, but I don't think that's essentially what it was
    It was, I imagine, also very rushed, and McDonnell says he is now going to get really into 'extinction Rebellion' and the fight against climate change (I believe him, for I feel he tells the truth)
    Corbyn wanted to bring democracy to our local communities and it was very good; but of course, this wasn't noticed.
    Also - their policy re the environment would have been a bit of a rushed-job. All I know, from one of Corbyn's friends, is that he and McDonnell get the 'climate emergency, but he siad most MPs just don't!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts. Some insider info I gleaned from FoE was that their high score for Labour was based on the number of commitments, including the late ones such as planting trees. Also, FoE supports nuclear energy as a way of cutting carbon, as do Labour. The Green Party doesn't.
      Corbyn and McDonnell (who gets climate emergency even more than Corbyn) were in a unique position to develop those policies (they'd had four years) as well as questioning assumptions about their heartlands. The tragedy for all of us is that they didn't do any of that sufficiently.
      Also, Corbyn is still wedded to FPtP, which is not only undemocratic but is becoming increasingly implausible for Labour success.
      The article was intended to be provocative. Only by questioning ourselves and each other in a constructive way will we be able to mount an effective left-green challenge in future elections.

  8. Corbyn I am sure, is not wedded to fptp. He is, unlike the media portray him, and those of us who know him, very open to good suggestions that -of course- don't compromise his principles.

    I agree with your last para here, as I'm sure we all do. But -we (friends and myself) have been observing the suffocating might of not only the right-wing media's pollution of the average voter-so shockingly blatant, but they get away with it!; but also the mainstream media's more unconscious, cultural conditioning (although these people are educated-'intelligent', I do not think they can see their own bias, which is deep in the unconscious!)

    But we need to work together in a way that we can turn the 'Newscorp' and subtler elevisual bias to our own advantage somehow. For me, that would be a monitoring and a broadcasting, with humour, etc. of just what they say and how they are saying it.
    Maybe I don't know what forces we are up against, but something has to be done for the sake of our democracies, as well as how green and socialist agendas (which are not truly extreme- even if radical) can come to fruition!!
    For those of us not-so-hypnotised, we can see it so Starkly!

    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree about the blatant and subtler media bias.
      I believe John McDonnell supports electoral reform but friends and supporters of Jeremy Corbyn confirm that he is pretty wedded to FPTP because he feels PR will weaken the constituency link between MPs and voters.
      This is another area were we need constructive conversations to explore which types of PR can help keep a version of that constituency link (some are better than others) and also what other kinds of electoral reform should be introduced (such as around party funding, enforced restrictions against downright lies etc).
      Have you read "How to Lose a Country"?
      I saw the author speak at a literary festival last summer. The book is about Turkey but she raises many relevant points for the UK and elsewhere.

    2. Thanks, no, I'll go look.
      Happy new year!

  9. As a supporter of Glexit (unlike most Greens sadly) I agree with the point Brexit provides potential political space for alternatives.

    Re Labour's policies I agree with those who say that the policies on nationalisation were not simply top-down revivals of the past but whatever their limits an attempt to empower.

    The question of FPTP is a tricky one. The fact is under a PR system genuinely radical policies will never be tried due to the need to accommodate coalition partners. Do you really think the Lib Dems would ever support anything anti-capitalist? I don't.

    If Corbyn is succeeded by a Continuity Blairite like Starmer or Phillips all radical policies will be junked anyway.

    As for the likes of Lucas, she is so immersed in the parliamentary game I have no residual respect for her whatsoever..

    These are difficult times but of one thing we can be reasonably certain: the current government will not positively transform the lives of Labour voters who defected to them. A cause for some hope, paradoxically.

    1. Thanks for your comments. A couple of responses:
      I agree that Labour's policies on nationalisation were not simply top-down revivals of the past but the way they were portrayed (or possibly how the traditionalists in Labour chose to portray them) didn't emphasise their new aspects. And they still shied away from detailed proposals on the roles of community, co-operatives etc (echoing old Labour's suspicions).
      Regarding PR, I guess it depends whether we take a revolutionary or evolutionary approach. As an eco-socialist, I genuinely believe that a society that equally respects people and planet is the best way forward for all. If we could get Green-Lefties into some kind of coalition government and begin to introduce eco-socialist policies, I'm convinced that the public would see, understand and benefit, so would be more inclined to vote for the party(s) advocating them in future.