With the NEC elections rapidly approaching there have been few moments in our history more important for us, as members of the Labour Party, to reflect on our place in the party, and our party’s place in the country. With the exit poll still ringing in the ears of all members, and blame cascading from twitter feeds and online articles of both left and right over this long seven months, it has left many of us exhausted and in dire need of a new way forward. Factions representing the left, in the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance (CLGA), and the centre, in the form of Labour to Win, have coalesced around their prospective slates - leaving many members feeling squeezed in the middle. Trauma of past defeats can often harden set positions, make us blind to the present moment, and leave us seeking to right the wrongs of past battles whilst the world passes us by rather than the reality of what we face.
Defeats such as December’s replay a common story in our party’s history. In many ways we have become defined by our defeats, much more than our victories. In 1983, we faced an incumbent Thatcher government, tearing limb from limb the welfare state our forebears built 75 years ago. We failed to face up to the challenge, unable to unite our party and, as a result, our country. However disturbing, the collective trauma of that election would mould the party in our long 18 years in opposition. Many of the new intake were profoundly shaped by this shattering loss - and often in vastly differing ways. Three of these MPs would go on to lead the party and two Prime Minster. Strangely, what the 1983 defeat allowed us was space to begin again - to shock the party into the present and forcing it to face the future.
Trauma affects everyone in different ways. For some the answer is to scorn the past and uproot ourselves from the confines of so-called ‘rigid dogma’ of radical policy. For others, it is to retreat into the known and the traditions which have kept us together for the last century. Neither, however, is a healthy way to grieve. And neither is a healthy way to win.
This seems, however, to be the choice offered by the two slates previously mentioned. This grief, whilst understandable, cannot become an end in itself - only a means towards acceptance and reconciliation. Nostalgia or self-criticism shouldn’t become a binary choice for members - many of whom remember their formative years in politics as a time of hope and opportunity, and a chance to change the country for the better.
I, like a good deal of others, joined the Labour Party under Corbyn. I campaigned under the 2019 manifesto and had faith in the radical program we put forward. However the crippling defeat in the face of our electoral collapse showed that faith, often blinding, cannot alone deliver the change our country so desperately needs and deserves.
There remains a strong sense that members, and the country, were let down - both before and after the election - by the leadership many of us so strongly believed in. This should have been a time for healing, however old wounds don’t vanish overnight. Infighting and blame stole away this vital time to regroup.
Whilst things may not look as bleak as they did in April, having recovered from polling at 28%, the question remains: How can the party move on? Whilst many of us have that desire, the injustices that touched everyone in the party linger on. Brexit, the antisemitism crisis, the leaked report, and a toxic culture in many of our institutions drove right to the core of our principles and our own self image as an open, inclusive, and hopeful party. These ugly stains cannot be solved by more factionalism, or we risk the most important part of this whole project, the public, drifting away as we’ve seen happen to so many of our sister parties on the continent.
7 months on, and with sparse evidence of a healing process taking place, there does remain some things to be hopeful about. The party seems to be cautiously supportive of the leadership’s approach so far, with a much feared exodus seemly not coming to pass. Few times in history has the party maintained such an engaged and active membership, with the creative and often times raucous formulation of ideas that comes with it. The Labour Party has succeeded in switching on a large part of a generation to the injustices and wasted opportunity that these last 10 years of Conservative rule have allowed. There is, however, much work to be done.
But what can we do to bring the party together and, whilst not papering over our differences, try to forge that consensus that a Labour Party in government is what this country deserves? It is a strength of our party that people feel passionate and committed, and that different opinions can, and will, thrive. To recognise that we must break out of the classical frames of debate the Labour Party has so often fallen into. To see that our history is something to be proud of, a party of differing beliefs and traditions, which has achieved so much for the people of this country and will continue to do so. We remember 75 years ago, almost to the day, when our party proudly won the trust of the people we were founded to represent. We must do so again, actively involving ourselves and the public in building a new vision for a post-Covid, post-Brexit settlement. This is essential, or else we risk losing sight of our aims; of building a better, more equal Britain.
Joe Sutherland is a second year Politics and IR student at University of York. He’s on events committee for @UYLC and York Union.
He tweets at @J_SuthTwit