“The Left has to be rooted in class politics and it needs to be well organised in the communities we seek to represent.”Laura Smith
Thank you so much for inviting me here this evening -it means an awful lot to me to have been asked and it is so important that events like this happen-now more than ever.
Since the early hours of the 13th Dec when I had confirmed what I had suspected that we had lost Crewe and Nantwich after gaining it in 2017 I will be honest – I’ve been pretty devastated.
Devastated for my staff, devastated for my community and devastated because I loved my job and felt like I’d only just started. Mainly though I felt devastated because like all of you I had dedicated a lot over the last decade to seeing a socialist Prime Minister in number 10. I feel desperately sorry that we weren’t able to achieve that at this point and it feels like we have an awful lot of work to do to reach that goal. But if I am one thing it is a fighter. So after a lot of tears and my son telling me to get out of my PJs because I was a grown up, I did what I always do. Dust off and start again. Bruce Springsteen is helping me get my lazy arse on the treadmill.
So as we entered a new year and a new decade, and the Labour Party entered a period of reflection. It has been interesting to see what that means to some since the election result, because whilst there is an undoubted desire amongst members of the Labour Party to understand what has gone wrong and figure out the reason why we have lost the last four elections, human nature seems to have meant that whilst claiming to be reflecting, many are actually justifying what they previously thought.
Whether it is that they think the root cause lies at the leadership, whether it’s the fact that the party has lost touch with traditional working class communities, were we too remain and not leave enough or were we too leave and not remain enough, or that we need to accept that the support for the party now lies at the doors of a more metropolitan, middle class voter, or if indeed there has been a fundamental flaw in what we are offering the electorate in our policies and manifesto – I’m not actually hearing that much reflection.
After all reflection is primarily about understanding someone else’s viewpoint and the conclusion that they have come to-and here lies the problem. Many simply don’t want to listen to what the voters have said.
Look we have to accept that our model of representative democracy is limited – we should all acknowledge that.
But it is also there to respond in some way to popular demand.
Labour made its case and the public didn’t choose it. Many did – and that is a positive we should take from it – there are many many people who feel like we do. But most didn’t turn out to vote for it.
Political representatives, whether Tory, Labour or another party, seek approval by positioning themselves on the side of popular demand.
In many ways, that makes the popular demand more important that the personalities that we elect or select.
This is a key mistake that in my opinion was made by those who organised to stop Brexit. They focused on political manoeuvring, on triangulation, on the internal politics of the Labour Party and on arcane parliamentary procedure. It was infuriating to be honest, and many will tell you I’m sure what a massive pain in the arse I was to colleagues as I went on and on about this – and what I could see happening in communities like mine.
Ultimately they failed to generate serious popular demand to remain in the EU. That might be an unpopular thing to hear but it is simply true that despite Johnson positioning himself as ‘Mr. Brexit’, the Conservatives won… And labour didn’t… And the Lib Dems did shockingly bad.
I hope that the Labour Party doesn’t keep falling into the same trap with Brexit. People in communities like mine do not want politicians sitting in the sidelines waiting to say I told you so.
We must accept that the country voted to leave, accept that in 2017 the majority voted for parties that represented respecting the referendum and in 2019 they voted for the only party guaranteeing Brexit.
It’s time to start painting a positive vision for life outside of the EU under a Labour government. There are plenty of positives. Stop fixating on the Tories – they will be shit for ordinary people inside or outside, but to not shift this debate forward would be a catastrophic error and to be frank highlights the problem that we’ve had all along. People want to know what we stand for. Not what we are against.
The Left can’t repeat recent mistakes, focusing solely on the leadership of the labour party, on getting motions passed at conference. This work has to be accompanied by generating popular demand for the Left’s agenda.
And that can’t be done in a paternalistic way, with academics and theorists producing a programme behind closed doors and then marketing it to the public. We cannot be pushed into a position by journalists and media figures however left they say they are. It has to involve the communities we seek to represent. It has to be co-designed.
We need to focus on political education, recruiting more of the public into trade unions, the labour party, and other campaign groups that share our values and priorities.
We need to make sure our representatives are not just mirroring those communities but that they actually come from them – have shared in that lived experience, that political education and those demands.
Whoever the next leader of the party is – they will simply have to respond to popular demand or else risk losing again and again. So building that extra-parliamentary movement is in my opinion in many ways far more important than who the next leader is.The right recognised this. Anti-establishment sentiment has been growing especially since the 2007 financial crash. Corbyn was elected leader of the labour party. Membership was on the rise. Extra-parliamentary activity becoming bigger and more frequent. It wasn’t all left, though. The far-right has been on the move too.
What better way to shape public demand than to introduce a divisive referendum on our membership of the EU.
This debate isn’t the place for revisiting what position the left should take on the EU but we positioned ourselves on the losing side of that debate and then failed miserably to respond to the result – that is indisputable.
The working class overwhelmingly rejected the calls from most trade unions and the labour party to vote to remain. It was an exercise that saw a huge turnout and had a far sharper correlation with class divisions than any general election result before.
We all know what happened after that and in my opinion, we walked right into the trap that the right-wing had set for us.
Regardless of the other periphery issues in the campaign – smears on Corbyn, strategic messaging, electoral campaign strategy and so forth – Labour’s policies were actually popular in many ways. That gives us a solid foundation to start building from.
But we need to focus far less on machine politics and triangulation – and far more on building mass popular demand for socialism.
People do feel like there is an elite that rips them off, they desire popular sovereignty, they want to address inequality, they know the system is rigged against them… These are conditions in which the left can thrive.
But it has to be rooted in class politics and it needs to be well organised in the communities we seek to represent. I personally, like many of you have been going on this journey for quite a while. Some of you for far longer than I have been. I often say that growing up in my house me and my siblings were offered socialism for Breakfast, lunch and dinner – I’m grateful for that.
It’s meant that I’ve always known what I think and what I feel and what I hope for based largely on my own life experiences and those around me- My politics is raw and built in me through generations of my family.
It used to be straight forward for Labour-we stood for the workers. We were born from trade unionism and fighting against oppression. We were united in our working-class beliefs and credentials. For example, my father was one of 4 born into a poverty-stricken community in Scotland. My grandfather worked in the coal pits as all of the other men in the village were destined to do.
He was a socialist, a Labour man and attended a variety of left-wing meetings for his own political development and understanding which were common place in his small town. He was a trade unionist; he was part of a collective. Not just in work but in his faith, in his football and indeed in his town where everyone knew everyone else. Socialism already existed amongst the workers, if someone needed something and someone else had it was theirs. They were poor people but rich in community and solidarity.Of course, as Thatcherism intended communities like this up and down the country were destroyed. The emphasis on the individual over the collective became the narrative of the day. The closing of factories, coal mines and other industries such as the railway works in my own town meant all of a sudden communities started to change. Nothing replaced these jobs.
Poverty, poor housing, insecure work, unemployment and health problems now link communities across the UK. Our post industrial heartlands are in desperate need of investment in every single area. This doesn’t mean we become anti city, but we do need honest debate about how jobs have been sucked out of towns by companies making huge centres in the city. There is undoubtedly massive poverty in cities. However, the main difference is in towns like my grandfathers and indeed mine, that poverty is teamed with isolation. If you can’t get a bus your opportunities are immediately stifled. If there isn’t an affordable and reliable train link you can forget that job. The same can be said for meetings like this. We must be making sure we are reaching the many people across this country who are with us by organising in every region. I’m not anti London or anti city but our thinking and organising on the left has to change.
I firmly believe that Labour weren’t rejected because of our radical offer to the public. The fact is that most people whether they realise it or not have natural socialist tendencies. It is natural human nature and it is capitalism that has set to divide us and make us feel reliant on the status quo. We need to now rise to the challenge as a socialist left movement and make sure every person sees the benefits of what we’re offering in their communities.
For a long time being a socialist was something we were made to keep quiet about, but do you know what change takes courage, and we shouldn’t be afraid to be bold. We have a political culture of intimidation and now more than ever we must reach out to a disaffected electorate and inspire and motivate them to vote for socialism.
I’m going to draw my remarks to a close now with a quote from a man who is an absolute hero of mine and some how became my dear friend. I was so lucky to sit by him often on the green benches and in the house of commons canteen. Let’s all be a bit more like Dennis Skinner:
“I am proud to stand up for my class, to say publicly that I am from good working class stock. I am proud to be a trade unionist, to be a member of the labour party and to be a socialist. I stick to my principles. I know no other way in politics. I make mistakes, everybody does. Nobody is perfect. I have no monopoly on the best way of being an MP. I try not to let anyone down. I’ve sailed close to the wind in my life but always for the good of the cause, to champion those at the bottom of the pile who deserve better.”
- We are pleased to publish Laura Smith’s speech above to the recent ‘Where now for the Left?’ meeting in London as a contribution to the important and ongoing debates on the Labour Left following the General Election.