“This isn’t just a matter of opinion, or even moral judgement. The voters don’t believe this approach is right either.”Diane Abbott MP
Labour Outlook spoke to Diane Abbott MP on the election results since Thursday and the way forward for Labour.
The election results we’ve seen so far have been bleak for Labour. You’ve also commented already that simply blaming the left for these results is completely wrong. Could you expand on your initial thoughts on the results so far, and what the way forward and how Labour can build its support is?
The political line pursued in this election campaign by Labour had nothing to do with Corbynism.
Just look at the scale of the Tories’ attacks. 150,000 people have lost their lives. Over a million have been made unemployed. Millions have contracted a virus and half the workforce have suffered a real terms pay cut. Poor people have suffered most, Black and Asian people have suffered hugely disproportionately, and disabled people have been treated shamefully.
These are the people Labour values most and are supposed to defend. The government bears a huge responsibility in all of this, and there is a catalogue of bad decisions, all stemming from their own terrible values.
The Labour leadership has been asked repeatedly what they would do differently, or even what they will do to oppose the worst effects of these policies. But there is silence. Keir has told us that he will oppose the government only when he disagrees with them. His silence on these issues therefore speaks volumes. On all these fundamental matters, the Labour leadership agrees with the Tories. We even learn now that Keir has refused to sign a letter opposing ‘fire and rehire’.
So there is no lack of clarity about Keir’s policies just a lack of popularity. The public are clear what we currently stand for. They know isn’t Corbynism, and they don’t like it.
To what extent, and how, do you think stronger attacks on the government, their handling of the pandemic and what they are doing now is needed from Labour?
I actually agree with Keir that you should only attack political opponents where you actually disagree. The difference is that I do disagree with the government on almost every fundamental issue. Given the catalogue of attacks on workers and some of the most oppressed and vulnerable people in our society, how could anyone not disagree with the government?
There is an important political aspect to this. The public does not approve of government policies. Voters in Hartlepool were asked what kept them from voting for us. The word ‘Corbyn’ does not appear on the list. It is disingenuous of Peter Mandelson to claim that this is what voters were agitated by, to say the least.
In another poll voters were asked were asked about their attitudes to the government handling of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout. Naturally, they thought the vaccination programme was a huge success. But surely, it is not beyond the whit of a Labour leadership that this is actually a huge success for public investment, for the NHS and for its co-operation with local authorities?
At the same time, they said they thought Boris Johnson’s handling of the pandemic was terrible, but did not believe we would have done any better. This is a logical assessment, because the handling of the pandemic was disastrous. But we have had no criticism of it.
So, this isn’t just a matter of opinion, or even moral judgement. The voters don’t believe this approach is right either.
There seems to be emerging voices calling for Labour to “change faster” and for dramatic shifts on multi culturalism and immigration – what do you think the dangers of this are?
There are often nonsensical calls for a shift towards Tory policies if they have won. I remember a tearful colleague packing his office in 2017, certain he would lose his seat ‘because Jeremy is so out of touch’. He was returned with an increased majority and a few weeks later wrote an article arguing we would have been in government if we had been tougher on immigration!
Typically, we don’t lose votes to the Tories in any meaningful way at all. Nationally, we lost net votes to the LibDems in 2019. The combined Tory/Brexit party vote was barely changed from 2015. But mostly, our vote is depressed because people stay at home, when they think we don’t represent them. That is exactly what happened in Hartlepool.
So, people have to ask themselves, is it realistic to expect people who previously voted for us to revive their loyalty by pushing St George’s flags through their letter box, or trying to outdo the Tories in support for the armed forces? That approach was tested to destruction in Hartlepool.
Even so, I am sure some colleagues will want to repeat or even ‘accelerate’ the experiment and yet expect a different result. Dressing it up with cod-sociology about ‘white working class’ is a threadbare cover for this nonsense. All workers are exploited. All Black and Asian people in this country, and many other ethnic communities, face discrimination. They all want to know what Labour is going to do about that exploitation and oppression. Not how they are going to be divided and ruled.
Finally, any last comments on Labour, it’s strategy and the left?
You would never know it, but we have had some successes in the recent past and people like our policies. Wales, Salford, Preston, Manchester and I hope many more besides show Labour can hold its own or even make gains in the current climate. None of it was achieved by flag-waving or being ‘tougher on immigration’.
In addition, the policies of our last two manifestos were and remain immensely popular. They were so strong that we weren’t really attacked on them at all. What brought Jeremy down was personal attacks on a scale we have never seen before.
So, I think we need to build on success, update our policies to meet the new challenges arising from the pandemic and learn from our winners. Unfortunately, if colleagues are intent on repeating failure there will be no easy road back.