The forward march of labour halted, again

Labour’s failure in the general election will lead to more needless suffering. Merlin Gable explains why the party cannot give up hope.


The six weeks since the election have allowed for those on the left to mourn, reflect and perhaps begin to look to the future.


I will not be ambiguous. The fourth Tory election victory in nine years will have a dire effect on people in Wales and in the UK. 130,000 deaths have been linked to austerity by some people’s reckoning and this will continue so long as the policies that were driven by austerity continue. As the NHS further deteriorates, waiting times increase and US pharmaceutical companies hold the health service to ransom, lives are at risk.


Universal Credit will continue to be rolled out despite clear concerns about its design and effects and disabled people will die waiting for PIP assessments. There will be untold pain in other nations too so long as the UK pursues neo-imperial foreign policy, supporting and weaponizing human rights abusers. In the Valleys, in the Midlands, in Glasgow, in Tower Hamlets lives are in the balance as the key determiners of poverty continue unaddressed. Our thoughts first must go to this immediate and real suffering.


Labour called this election a once-in-a-generation opportunity for change. They weren’t wrong. As in 1945, as in 1979, this election came at a time where the prevailing system’s internal contradictions have reached such a point that it required a decisive move either to a more egalitarian world, as achieved in the former example, or a more individualised, atomised and cynical one, as in the latter.


Not just in the UK but across the Western world we see right-wing politics regrouping around an anti-internationalism populism, preparing for impending climate disaster not by striking hard and fast at the root of global heating – that is, capitalism’s fixation upon unsustainable and cruelly unequal growth – but by reconstituting the nation state as a fortress against the global instability and mass displacement that climate disaster will cause. Neoliberalism is a failed system – and it is dying – but we do not yet know what will replace it. Faced with the first clearly laid out choice for this future, the country took a worrying and possibly historic turn.


There were problems with Labour’s campaign, of course. It failed to tie together popular policies into a textured vision of a different future. It relied too heavily on ground force and social media virality without assessing how porous and wide-reaching those networks are.


Many within Wales will also argue that it insufficiently addressed a seam of growing disappointment with Welsh Labour’s twenty-year tenure in the Senedd and failed to reckon with the growing specificities of Welsh political culture. (A word of warning, though, to any nationalists who argue that nothing would have changed for Wales anyway – always the ignored, poor relation. Wales’s struggle is, has always been, and will foreseeably always be in part a class struggle, and a struggle to see the shared benefits of capital, not a rerun of a mythical, historical conflict with the saeson. To deny that, in the face of the entrenched suffering which characterises much of our country, would feel crass.)


A Labour government in Westminster would have made real, material difference to Wales. It would have given new energy to a devolved administration that has been often insufficiently challenged by incompetent opposition.


It would have meant more money to the Welsh Government and better funding for non-devolved areas. It would have meant the possibility of a constitutional convention aiming to address fairly the constitutional makeup of the UK and find parity for each of its four nations.


Much of this is now impossible, at least for the medium-term, and it is incumbent upon the Welsh Government to find a way forward out of austerity and towards a truly different political vision now that the oft-cited magic bullet of a Labour government in Westminster is not forthcoming. What levers we do have must be pulled as hard as possible to address the poverty, suffering and hopelessness that many in Wales feel.


There is no guarantee, regardless of how the Labour Party regroups, that in 2024 the political orthodoxy for a smaller state will not be too entrenched to be successfully overturned. I worry, as I’m sure many of my generation do, that it could even be far longer before we see a government that fully takes on that mantle of responsibility to govern on behalf of the poorest, most disenfranchised as well as the richest.


There is also the very important realisation that progressive forces, despite the righteous joy and optimism that was witnessed across Labour’s campaign, were not able to convince others – often people who have been deceived, confounded and drained by nine years of cuts, a stuttering economy and communities left to wither – to let themselves hope for a better world. As well as offering a vision, we must make sure to build up those resources not just during elections but always, so people are ready to imagine a different future.


Perhaps most dangerous of all is this potential at this point to lose hope. There is a terrible, existential pain in watching the realisable dream of a better world gutter out like a candle. I experienced this last month, as did so many others who will be far more materially impacted by this election than me.


There will be time to regroup, assess, and soberly move forward as has been the long, dignified tradition of the left. We must remain hopeful, and I still firmly believe there are real reasons to do so. But there is also the time for grief and for rage – rage against the dying of the light, and rage against the suffering that will be caused by more years of Conservative rule. This final step is crucial, for hope only avoids indulgence if it is a hope that the world can be radically transformed, and that we are the ones who can do it.


So what now? It’s too early for easy or complete answers, no matter what the leadership contenders say. But we also mustn’t lose sight of what has been built, despite the election defeat, in the past four years.


Raymond Williams describes in the conclusion to his speculative social commentary Towards 2000 that ‘once the inevitabilities are challenged, we begin gathering our resources for a journey of hope’. We have challenged those inevitabilities; that cannot be denied. Labour has challenged and defeated the ideology of austerity so completely that the Tories have been forced at least in message to put an end to that dogma.


We have begun a slow journey to rediscover the Labour Party as a social organisation as well as a political one through community organising – this must continue as a priority. The party has over half a million members, many of them children of the 2008 recession politicised by the proletarianization of graduate employment and the ravaging of the fabric of Blair-era social democracy which we recall from our childhoods. The structure of feeling of this betrayal, and its effect upon class politics, must be bottomed out and reckoned with.


The question remains, therefore, how we gather our resources for a five-year journey of hope, one that will further build our movement, develop roots in our communities again and, with any luck, bring the country along with us. There aren’t easy answers – any leadership contender who pretends there are should be rightly challenged. But we can do better than this; through all things let us hold on to that.


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Merlin Gable is a Labour Party activist and community campaigner. He is culture editor of the welsh agenda but writes here in a personal capacity.

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