Listen to the many, not the few

21st December 2019

Written by

Reflections on the General Election from our Vice Chair, Bilal Mahmood

Anyone who tries to give you a hot take about this election with one simple answer is selling you a dud. Part of the reasons behind our defeat have arguably been generations in the making. The fall of the red wall certainly happened on Jeremy’s watch, but even his most ardent critics would begrudgingly admit it wasn’t all down to him on this election. That said, we have to face facts. The electorate were not buying what we were selling (so much so, that they opted for possibly the most dysfunctional Tory government in modern times). The causes of this are our inability to properly engage with those feeling left behind, effectively telling people what we were going to do to them instead of listening to what they wanted, and a circle of power brokers around the leader (and Jeremy himself), that alienated the electorate and many within their own party.

The fall of the red wall hit me hard. It represented the end of the normal political landscape almost permanently. But we have been warned about this for years. Traditional Labour seats feeling left behind by all parties. The policies that were meant to appeal to them did nothing, outweighed by their distrust of Corbyn. While Brexit played a factor, it certainly wasn’t the only one. In any event, I do believe that our policy was one that tried to be the only grown up in the room, and bring all the nation together to move forward having had their voices heard. So surely our red-blooded manifesto was exactly what we needed in the Labour heartlands to re-energise our vote? Apparently not. So what were we doing wrong?

This is the first election that I’ve campaigned in (and I’ve campaigned in many), where I felt we were telling the electorate what we were going to do to them, rather what we want to do for them. We looked at the problems of the country and unleashed a wide ranging set of eye-catching policies all aimed at fixing acute problems of the past decade of Tory misrule. We also had many policies ‘rectifying’ past policies of previous governments (such as re-nationalisation, scrapping tution fees). This felt like we were redressing past grievances rather than building a new future. But what the promises failed to do, was accumulate to a vision of how Britain functions in five or ten years time. We made it clear who’s side we are on. We made it clear who we didn’t like (the usual godless and faceless bankers and billionaires). We listened to our own echo chambers (with the Twitterverse going into overdrive). But to swing voters, at the core of all of that was the idea of wanting to pull people down in order to build others up.

Like most of you, I have more WhatsApp Groups than I should. In my close, non-politics group, the election, Jezza and the 50% tax on £80K earners came up. What I found astounding was the ferocity and passion that those few who liked the policy advocated it. What was telling was how the majority of the group (all of whom are left leaning liberals) felt targeted by that threshold and policy. For them, living in London with a good degree and 10 years of experience doesn’t make an £80K salary impossible (or something that they wouldn’t want to aspire to). For them, it represented the Labour party and its members resenting people doing well, even ones who contribute a fair share of taxes. Our policies got Jeremy’s ardent fans fired up, but left all others (especially swing voters) high and dry.

It would be remiss if I didn’t also mention Jeremy’s leadership these past few years. His mismanagement and stubbornness on accepting and aggressively tackling anti Semitism in the party will have lasting damage. His isolation of the wider PLP with trigger ballots and a network of hard-line supporters contributed in dividing the party and made us appear unready for government. He engaged a new generation of young voters and campaigners which is vital and genuine good. But these activists are now finding themselves somewhere between a pressure group, and an institution for progressive change. The Labour Party can only be the latter. While the last five years have given many of us the sense of being a voice for change, we were largely talking to ourselves. We now need to prove we are the means of change that is actually wanted by listening to the many, not the few.

Bilal Mahmood