On Tuesday, the Guardian ran an opinion article that accidentally explained everything about Labour’s historic wipeout. Written by Ash Sarkar, it bore the headline “It’s a myth that Labour has lost the working class”. In it, Sarkar took issue with psephologist Sir John Curtice for saying that Labour had ceased to be a party of the workers and become instead a party of the young, leaving the ‘Red Wall’ of Labour’s historically safe northern seats vulnerable.
This, said Sarkar, was “fraff”: it wasn’t that Labour had lost the working classes, it was that the definitions of class being used by Curtice no longer applied. Actually, the majority of Britain’s young people (in her obviously superior analysis) were in such precarious employment that they qualified as working class. Those young voters, she claimed, would turn out for Labour and save those heartland seats.
By Friday morning, constituencies like Blyth Valley and Redcar had turned blue, and Sarkar’s thesis had gone from looking desperately hopeful to definitively embarrassing.
Is this the end for Labour?
Political opinion journalism has an ungainly dual role. It exists to persuade, and it exists to explain. Everyone who writes it is part polemicist, part interpreter. So what kind of writing was Sarkar’s column? She wasn’t seeking to persuade — actually her whole argument was that the exodus of traditional Labour supporters could be ignored, because there was a new supply of Corbyn-enthused youth. She wasn’t offering an insight that could help readers make sense of the election — obviously, since her revised take on class and voting crumbled on first contact with the polls.
All the column did was offer cover and support to the Corbyn project in the last days of a campaign when anyone with an ear to the ground and an eye on the polls could have guessed that victory was not around the corner. But, with a few honourable exceptions, political writing on the Left gave up on the eye and ear approach in this electoral cycle, favouring instead a passionate solipsism that sought to reassure Labour voters that everything would be OK, and if it wasn’t OK then it would be someone else’s fault.
Over the last few weeks, Left-wing outlets have published multiple variants of the “I am voting Corbyn because of [emotive personal reason]” column. Individually compelling as every single one of them may be, all they are is the story of one person’s ballot. They don’t dig into what’s happening in the country, and they rarely explain why anyone who doesn’t share [emotive personal reason] should make the same choice. Nor is there much effort to understand why people would vote differently, beyond bad-faith accusations of privilege and racism that seem unlikely to sway the uncertain.
“The ‘politically homeless’ need to bite their lip and vote Labour, or condemn even more people to misery,” commanded Dawn Foster in an article for Jacobin, which defined the “politically homeless” as an indulgent sect of the bourgeoisie who “correspond exclusively with a small group of friends who also graduated from Oxford, and they fetishize the 2012 Olympics, believing Britain was a utopia then”. It’s unclear how well that description matches the voters of Don Valley, who, having been solidly red since 1922, rejected the admirable Labour MP Caroline Flint in favour of a Tory.
The problem with political journalism
Corbyn’s 2015 victory in the leadership election caused a problem for outlets on the Left that has never adequately been solved. How do you give an avidly Corbynite readership the avidly Corbynite writing they want, without losing the scepticism that is fundamental to journalism? The answer seemed to be to junk the scepticism, and take an increasing chunk of their commentary from the “outriders” who blurred the line between journalism and activism. (As Buzzfeed reported in November, many of these writers shared a WhatsApp group with Corbyn staffers explicitly intended to coordinate messages in order to secure a Labour victory.)
Commissioning Corbyn partisans to write about Corbyn results in myopic coverage, most grievously when it comes to the issue of Labour anti-Semitism. A poll for Survation found that 87% of British Jews consider Corbyn to be anti-Semitic, but these Jews weren’t given a voice on the subject. Instead, we got articles like: “Scared of Corbyn? As a black Jewish woman I’m terrified of Johnson”.
The writers of such pieces were undoubtedly sincere, but their predominance only served to obscure Labour’s problems.
How Labour betrayed their supporters
And this is why the failure of Labour is a failure of journalism. Too much of the material that gets published under Left-wing mastheads is written by the Left, to the Left, under the assumption that there is an imaginary public out there who will automatically agree with their politics if only they are presented with them. (Owen Jones, king of this tendency, offered this on the eve of the election: “Young people have been hit hard. Now they can rise up and reject Johnson.” The young people declined.)
The ideologically impure reality of voters, whether working class, Jewish, or women like me who have been repulsed by Labour’s inane embrace of gender self-ID, are unwelcome intrusions to this philosophy.
It’s a culture that has protected Labour from the scrutiny of its own failures, but couldn’t protect it from the electorate. Labour’s troubles run deep: it’s a party of the working-class floundering for a place in a post-industrial economy, trying to hold together a mutually uncomprehending coalition of the socially conservative in the North and the socially liberal in the South.
If Corbynism isn’t the thing that killed Labour, it’s the parasite that commandeered a weakened organism and ran its host into the ground. But if there is anything of Labour worth saving, its rescue begins with a Left-wing media that can tell the truth about the party it claims to support, and about the people that party claims to serve.