2020 01 – The Brexit Defeat

Labour Affairs Statement on the 2019 Election

Voters tend to get weary of the same party in government. It happened to the Conservatives, deeply divided over Europe, in 1997, and to Labour, accused of overspending, in 2010. The five years of a Conservative, Cameron-led coalition government up to 2015 weren’t enough to test the voters’ patience. And Labour, led by Ed Miliband, was not seen as a credible alternative.

Labour’s biggest error was failing to challenge the Conservatives’ claim that the Blair/Brown government had left the economy in a mess, which enabled Cameron and Osborne to carry out the draconian austerity measures. Labour was even blamed for the 2008 banking crisis. And Miliband and Ed Balls, who had been an adviser to Gordon Brown, simply caved in to the Conservatives false accusations. They failed also to challenge the absurd notion, first propagated by Thatcher in the 1980s, that the economy should be run as if it were a household. This has seeped into voters’ consciousness and proven difficult to shift.

Elected as Labour leader in 2015 and again in 2016, Jeremy Corbyn pushed the middle ground to the left and began the process of breaking the Blairite grip on the parliamentary party. It flatly rejected the economic orthodoxy of the Blair/Brown years. An ‘orthodoxy’ that was a simple surrender to Thatcher’s economic dogma, even though economic growth had actually slowed under her premiership.

At the 2017 general election, in which Labour was expected to perform badly, the party achieved its highest total vote since the 1997 landslide. Corbyn was given grudging credit for this performance which prevented Theresa May from gaining the majority she required to get her withdrawal agreement through parliament. A cheque for £1 billion in the post to the Democratic Unionist Party propped up her weak government. This proved to be futile. Another failed attempt with the withdrawal agreement led to her resignation and the election of Boris Johnson as Conservative party leader.

With Johnson elected as party leader and his one-nation, pro-Europe colleagues purged from the party, the Conservatives became a united Eurosceptic force. Consequently, they were able to go into the election campaign with the clear, simple message: “Get Brexit Done!”, repeated ad nauseam. On the other hand, voters saw Labour’s message as confused, with Corbyn and the party undecided whether to back leave or remain. Pressure from remainers in the party led to its eventual support for a renegotiated deal followed by a second referendum.

In its 2017 election manifesto Labour promised to respect the result of the 2016 referendum. By committing to a second referendum the party was effectively saying to its leave supporters,  “We don’t respect your decision. You got it wrong. You need to think again” This, and Corbyn’s neutral stance on Labour’s Brexit position, clearly alienated many leave voters in Labour marginals. And it played into the hands of the Conservatives in the seats they needed to win to form a government.

There were parts of Labour’s manifesto—public ownership of key services such as energy, water and transport, for example—that opinion polls showed to be popular with voters. After all these services are for the most part in public hands in other western European countries. (In Britain they are owned and controlled by the very same publicly owned European companies). But these measures came on top of a range of promises such as free broadband, child care and a gift of £2,400 to every household, that were greeted with scepticism and labelled unaffordable and hence undeliverable. Labour simply failed to make a convincing case for the progressive policies in its manifesto. Its message on the doorstep was confused and generally met with disbelief.

Overall, Labour was accused of being profligate with taxpayers money, a charge often levelled against it by its Conservative opponents. But Johnson, newly ensconced as Prime Minister, may need to be profligate if he is to achieve his aim of repairing the towns in the midlands and north of England broken by previous Conservative governments. He may however simply borrow to spend on a gradual basis, hoping that it will be understood that the improvements to their lives cannot be realised overnight. The people in those regions, as elsewhere, need secure, well paid jobs to replace those created by the gig economy. And education and vocational training for new jobs to be grown out of higher investment.  Spending more in the midlands and north and focusing on their needs, may mean spending less in and ignoring the needs of the Conservative heartlands of the south. Choices will have to be made. Their inhabitants may come to resent that, having little empathy for what they believe to be the feckless working class. But Johnson’s majority is such that he can afford to take that gamble in the knowledge that there is no other party they can turn to.

The accusations of anti-Semitism within the party, which tarnished Labour’s image as an anti-racist party, arose shortly after Corbyn’s second leadership victory in 2016. It intensified following Labour’s unexpected strong performance in the 2017 general election. At that point there were signs that a Labour victory at a future election was a distinct possibility. And it soon became clear that there were forces both within and without the party that weren’t prepared to accept a Corbyn-led Labour government. His support for the Palestinians was well known and his harsh criticism of the Israeli government, both unique for a British party leader, was well established. Under Corbyn’s leadership Labour became labelled as the anti-Semitic party and, in the words of many of his opponents, an existential threat to Jews in Britain. This could have been nipped in the bud had Corbyn shown some fight and stood up to the accusers, but he and the party hierarchy dealt initially with the accusations in a weak and perfunctory manner.

Corbyn’s perceived weakness and indecisiveness began with this issue. (He was also seen to be unpatriotic and untrustworthy on defence and security, issues that matter deeply to Labour’s traditional supporters). He and the party were boxed into a corner and forced to acknowledge that anti-Semitism was a serious problem. But the attacks on Jews, mostly on social media, involved a small minority of party members. Labour’s error was to undertake an investigation into the allegations itself. Accused of failing to deal quickly enough with the allegations, the investigation was handed over to the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which has yet to report. If anti-Semitism is a hate crime the alleged perpetrators should have been handed over to the police enabling the law to deal with them. Instead, by initially undertaking the investigation Labour effectively admitted that there was a serious problem that it, and not the law, had to deal with. Once that happened the party became wide open to criticism on how it handled the matter.

Although anti-Semitism damaged Labour’s image it wasn’t a major factor in its defeat. At 32.2%, Labour’s share of the total vote was higher than that in 1983, 1987, 2010 and 2015. Its collapse from 40% in 2017 was in the main due to internal party squabbling over Brexit, its failure to present a clear election message, and the constant attacks on Corbyn’s leadership from his party colleagues and persistent negative headlines and reports in the media.

It was not, as the media claimed, ‘the worst result since 1935′, if you allow for the 40 seats that were lost in 2015, when the SNP were clearly to the left of Labour. Corbyn won six of those seats back in 2017, but in 2019 the Scots could hope to soon get their own left-of-centre government. In terms of votes cast in England, Corbyn’s result in 2017 was actually greater than Blair’s 1997 victory.  And in 2019 the total number of English votes for Labour was higher than the victories of 2001 and 2005, as well as the 2010 and 2015 defeats. In terms of the number of seats, in 2019 Labour lost 59, compared with a loss of 52 in 1983. But in 1983 Thatcher had a majority of 144 against Johnson’s 80 in 2019.

Labour’s vote among the under-35s was higher than that in other parties, but it fell dramatically among the over-65s in England, where culture and patriotism have become the key determinants of voting behaviour. In Scotland Labour held onto just one seat. Scotland, where the SNP is the dominant political force, is now a social democratic country. As a result there will be a further determined push for a referendum on Scottish independence. It will not go away. Johnson’s talk of healing a divided country is just bluster, a political art he has perfected. His aim is to hold onto the newly won seats in England. He cares little for Scotland or Wales, where Conservative MPs are few. Nor for Northern Ireland where Unionist support has proved expensive.

Believing that Johnson’s withdrawal agreement had been suitably amended Labour fell into the trap of supporting an election at a time that suited the Conservative party. The election was used as a test of which party would get Brexit done. This suited Johnson. Labour’s attempts to turn the focus onto domestic issues proved to be futile. Other issues, primarily the NHS, featured in voters’ concerns, but Brexit was the major conductor of the campaign, alongside constant swipes at Corbyn. The election became a question of who the voters trust the most, Corbyn or Johnson.

The next Labour leader will have an almost insurmountable task of winning back the lost Labour voters. Around 124 seats will be needed to be won for Labour to form the next government. It will be a long process. Learning the lessons of why their traditional voters turned to the Conservatives after more than nine years of austerity must be a priority. Winning the next election will not happen by fighting Johnson and the Conservatives on their terms. It will only happen with realistic, achievable policies that will tangibly improve the lives of the majority. This will require a united party with a leader who has the political courage and strength to stand up to and expose the blarney and bluster of Boris Johnson.


Labour Affairs Published by the Ernest Bevin Society

Editorial Board: Dick Barry ,Christopher Winch, Jack Lane, Gwydion Williams

LabourAffairs@virginmedia.com Website: https://labouraffairsmagazine.com/

Subscription: £20 for one year (10 issues)

Distribution: Dave Fennell.

Editorial Address, No. 2 Newington Green Mansions, Green Lanes,  London  N16 9BT