Until I saw the exit poll from the UK general election on Thursday evening, I was holding out hope that there would be a hung parliament, leading either to Boris Johnson squirming again under an opposition majority, or a Labour-led coalition or minority government.
I wasn’t the only one. The polls were narrowing, and millions of people were at least giving the impression of being undecided until the last minute.
It didn’t happen. We suffered a defeat. Here are some thoughts about it.
1. Boris Johnson’s xenophobic populism worked.
Clearly there were many reasons why working-class voters either voted Tory or did not turn out to vote Labour. But equally clearly, amidst the fear and desperation caused by
years of austerity policies, falling living standards and unemployment, the Tories’ vilification of outsiders (the continent of Europe, migrants, Muslims, and so on) had some resonance. Let’s not try to pretend otherwise.
“Get Brexit Done” was the latest in a series that includes not only “Take Back Control” but also Donald Trump’s “Lock Her Up” and “Build That Wall”.
Three days before the election, Johnson returned to the heart of his Brexit message, complaining that EU nationals are “basically able to treat the UK as though it’s part of their own country”; that there was “no control at all” over this outrage.
Part of Johnson’s political success, I think, was in linking “Get Brexit Done” to the perception that the referendum outcome was the “will of the people”. Friends who canvassed for Labour told how Remainer voters said that – while they were heartbroken and worried at the thought of the UK leaving Europe – they believed that a second referendum would somehow be undemocratic.
Canvasser friends also reported a weariness with “the whole Brexit thing” – again, reflecting the success of the powerful right-wing and media campaign to present Brexit as a simple task, frustrated by an obnoxious parliament. “Parliament against the people.”
2. Johnson may get more extreme as his problems pile up.
I don’t buy the argument that, now Johnson has a big majority in the House of Commons, he can loosen his links to the right wing (European Research Group, etc), and reveal himself as a liberal, one-nation Tory.
For a start, he is not a politician of principle or ideology. Compare him to Margaret Thatcher, the last Tory prime minister to shift UK politics fundamentally. She believed in things: the need to smash the unions; neo-liberal economics; that “there is no such thing as society”. These beliefs underlay her actions.
Johnson is not the same. Whatever liberal things he may have said as mayor of London, since the Brexit referendum campaign his agenda has been set by Dominic Cummings, the ERG and the extreme right. To the extent that he has an ideology, it is shaped by this English nationalist wing of Conservatism. It’s not as though Johnson has any problem embracing it: we have all heard his one-liners exhibiting racism, Islamophobia and contempt for the working class.
Moreover, even though Johnson now has a parliamentary majority, the fundamental problems with his Brexit strategy – from capital’s point of view – still remain.
First, the north of Ireland. The major amendment Johnson introduced to the Brexit deal with the European Union is a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, which Theresa May would not accept. When Johnson says there will not be checks, he is just lying, again.
The six counties – where the devolved parliament has been closed for nearly three years, where pro-EU parties won nearly twice as many votes as the Democratic Unionists last
week, and where trade with the south is booming – are slipping out of Britain’s control. For all of us who oppose Britain’s imperial legacy, this is good news. But we have yet to see how the Tory party will deal with the raised threat of Irish unity.
Second, Scotland. The Tories made clear at the weekend that they would not concede the Scottish Nationalists’ demand for a second referendum. But this is not the end of it. Assuming the UK leaves the EU on 31 January, Scottish people will find themselves bearing the economic burden of a policy they did not agree with.
Could they head towards a Catalan-style independence movement? Will there be organisation on class lines? Time will tell. However things develop, this will be a major challenge to the government.
Third, the economy. Michael Gove says a trade deal will be negotiated with the EU by the end of 2020. Oh yeah? Within hours of Thursday’s election result, French president Emmanuel Macron said “a very ambitious agreement” would require “very ambitious regulatory convergence” – the opposite of what Johnson and Gove want. Angela Merkel, German chancellor, said the UK would become “a competitor on our doorstep, now that it is no longer integrated in the internal market”.
As Johnson presides over a declining UK, facing aggressive capitalist competitors, and an economy battered by Brexit – and tied in knots by his own spending promises – he will lash out.
The challenge is to organise and build movements that can effectively fight back.
3. The causes of Labour’s defeat stretch back decades.
Of course the immediate causes of Labour’s election defeat included the political dead end of Brexit. Even on that, Labour’s big failure was not this year or last, but in 2016-17, in my view.
Labour did not question the basis of the June 2016 referendum; did not insist that it had only advisory status; and “pledged to respect the result” without pointing out the consequences. In February 2017, three-quarters of the Parliamentary Labour Party voted to trigger Article 50, thereby endorsing e.g. the idea that the Irish border issue could be wished away by magic.
Most Labour MPs thus joined the Tories in capitulating to the Nigel Farage myth that the referendum was the “will of the people”. They left themselves no room to propose the reversal of the process. My point is not that Labour should have ignored the result of the referendum, but that by accepting in the first place that the complex issue of the UK’s relationship with Europe could be resolved by it – which, as we have seen, it could not – they allowed the “will of the people” crusade to gather steam.
Once Labour was locked in to the Leave/Remain lunacy, it was too late. Having accepted the ridiculous premises of the referendum, the only way out of the May/Johnson mess it could propose was … another referendum.
But a far greater cause of Labour’s defeat – Labour’s disconnection from its working-class voter base, and the decline of organisations through which that was mediated – unfolded over much longer time scales.
Labour’s resounding electoral victories in 1945 and 1964 were built on decades of workplace and community organising. In working-class areas, the Labour Party was closely linked to trade unions, clubs, tenants’ associations; it was involved in a wide range of political and community activity.
As Thatcherism laid into the working class in the 1980s, these links were weakened. The relationships changed. The labour movement went into decline; social democracy as a form of social control went into decline. In the 1990s, Blairism turned Labour into an electoral machine increasingly distant from this base. As Aditya Chakrabortty wrote in this thoughtful article at the weekend:
While the party bigwigs threw their weight about, the mines and the manufacturers, the steel and the shipbuilding were snuffed out. With them went the culture of Labourism: the bolshy union stewards, the self-organised societies, most of the local newspapers.
Cynicism about politicians in general, and Labour politicians in particular, became more powerful in working class areas abandoned by Blair and then ravaged by the 2008-09 economic crisis.
It took time for this to feed through to electoral results. First came Scotland. In the 2014 independence referendum, Labour urged a vote for the Union. In the 2015 General Election, it was wiped out in Scotland: the Scottish Nationalists took 56 seats, compared to six in 2010 – and converted themselves from the “Tartan Tories” they were always seen as to some sort of social-democratic nationalists.
This shift, which came before the 2016 Brexit referendum, made it to all intents and purposes impossible for Labour to win an absolute majority in the House of Commons.
In the north of England, there is no party that can so clearly elbow Labour aside as the SNP has. Those votes that went to the Tories this time are still up for grabs in future.
4. It’s not about Jeremy Corbyn.
Friends who went canvassing – and who sided with Corbyn against the Labour right – say that voters were not convinced by him. He was “not seen as a strong leader”; his position on Brexit confused people; they “didn’t trust him”.
To work this one out, it may be worth dividing the actual Jeremy Corbyn from the monster “Jeremy Corbyn” created by the Labour right wing and the media. The actual
Jeremy Corbyn, like all of us, is complex: a principled leftist, who fought against the stream for decades, embracing anti-racist and social justice causes long before they were popular, and who also, like many of his generation, was strongly influenced by Stalinism and, probably as a result of that, embraced views e.g. on Syria that I find repugnant.
He was, also, always in a tiny minority in the parliamentary Labour Party. His room for manoeuvre was always tightly constrained – and I’m guessing (i) that the left-wing criticism about what he “should have” done (usually, switch to the critic’s particular politics) will now intensify, and (ii) much of it will miss this point.
The monster “Jeremy Corbyn” created by the Labour right wing and the media, on the other hand, has done its work, with an unprecedented witch-hunt over a period of years.
When voters told my friends they didn’t trust Corbyn, or couldn’t work him out, was that the monster they were talking about, or the real Corbyn? The monster was there. But the real Corbyn was too, I think, in particular because he interpreted his “new kind of politics” as not only avoiding personal abuse, but also (apparently) avoiding too many direct attacks on Tory politicians who thoroughly deserved it. On TV he came across as an old guy who would rather be on his allotment, because that’s part of what he was.
What to do now? One thing is to sort through this “new kind of politics”, which was so hopeful, and brought so many thousands of young, and some not-so-young, working-class people into the Labour Party in the last five years.
Paradoxically, some of the things that in right-wing Labourites’ eyes made Corbyn a liability – his refusal to do presidential-style lying and grandstanding, his ability (so unusual among politicians) to speak a sentence as though he meant it – are what made him popular among young Labour party members in the first place. Being “electable” is not the same as doing what is needed to build a movement. But trust, I think, is different: as a movement, we have nothing without the trust of the communities we live in.
Let’s rethink the “new kind of politics”, keep the humanity, the connection with social movements, the radical social and climate policies, and reject what has failed – much of which, I suspect, may be more about the parliamentary Labour Party as a whole.
This is not, for me, only about the Labour Party (of which I’m not a member). Although elections can be important – and this one felt very important – they are only one of the ways in which the world changes. The development of social movements, the joining together of actions on climate with those on social justice, the shaping of internationalism in practice, the emergence of new forms of labour organisation – because those old forms with which Labour used to connect need to be superceded, not repeated – are decisive. GL, 16 December 2019.