Book Review: Left for Dead by Lewis Goodall

Part memoir part political analysis, in Left for Dead BBC Newsnight correspondent Lewis Goodall dives deep into the Labour Party of the past 20 years, starting in 1997, and going right up to the December 2019 election in which Labour took an electoral thrashing against current PM Boris Johnson. 

It’s a niche interest, but a highly interesting topic, one which tells a story as much about the change in Britain as the electoral woes of Britain’s left wing (or not so left wing these days depending on who you ask) opposition party.

Woven into the political analysis is a much more personal story of Goodall’s own family and the changes that have happened in England in particular that has seen the working class fabric that made up Labour’s core base in 1945 all but disappear. Goodall tells a deeply personal story as well as political, especially around his parents and grandparents, which mirrors the increasing disconnect Labour is having to deal with when it comes to their core voter base.

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair of Great Britain at  Meeting of the NATO-Russia Council - U.S. National Archives Public Domain  Search
Former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and George Bush

Today, politics, and society in general is highly factional. Are you remain or leave, left or right, Trump or Biden, Tory or Labour? These changes have been devastating for Labour and the left, which rely on ideas of societal cohesion, a sense of togetherness. But it’s been just as damaging for the centre ground of UK politics, which loves nothing more than compromise, triangulation, and a ‘big tent’ approach.

Labour’s biggest success, New Labour, was the epitome and apex of this type of politics. But it became a paradox, mixing social democracy with massive globalisation, a right wing law and order policy, but economic liberalism. This mis-match of policy agendas and value saw their support eventually bleed from all directions.

But far from focussing on the past, much of Goodall’s analysis concerns the rise of Corbynism, and the harsh devisions between the Blairite right in the Labour Party, the Corbynite left, and the voters themselves, who sit somewhere between the two.

The story of Corbyn’s unlikely rise and the reasons for their unlikely strong result in the 2017 general election are well explored issues, but Goodall takes an insightful and fresh approach, exploring through the prism of voters and members perceptions.  

Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, UK | Flickr
Previous Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn

Some of the analysis is now outdated, with Corbyn not only no longer leader, but suspended from the party, with the left almost entirely out of the Labour Party leadership. The book ends just before the December 2019 election (the original was published in September 2018), but much of the end book is concerned with with whether Labour could win the next election, which as we now know, they could not.

Goodall is at his best when trying to tackle how we got to where we are in our politics: he suggests the culture war is a product of the breakdown of the postwar economic consensus in the 1970s, and rise of economic individualism in the 1980s which made has broken down traditional right/left politics and lead to the dawn of identity politics, where individual choices matter much more than ever before. The right has dealt with this by becoming more nationalistic, the left by championing the causes of minority groups.

The divide between old and young has also never been higher, boosted by more people going to university than ever before. Traditional political strategies of chasing floating voters no longer apply, and now there is an us vs them mentality present through all political discussion.

Covid-19 has been a reminder that the NHS is not the envy of the world
Clap for Carers

I don’t quite agree with Goodall’s analysis of our hyper individualistic Zoomer generatio, which he argues tacks right but votes Labour. Yes we don’t all watch the same TV shows anymore, but there is a shared experience among our generation of struggling for work, student debt difficulties in buying a home. He also suggests young people may not be for public services like the NHS, preferring to take individual responsibility, but I think the last year has shown this is certainly not the case.

In fairness, the book was written before the COVID pandemic, which has of course changed everything in British politics. Goodall’s analysis is fresh and sharp throughout, with interesting perspectives on Labour’s electoral highs and lows. Always readable and never too ‘academic’, the book is often insightful even for someone who has read endlessly about many of the events covered. Highly recommended for those interested in the Labour Party – but unfortunately they won’t find many answers about how to win the next election here.

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