Labour’s defeat: a long time coming

Labour’s defeat was the result of processes that have been at work for twenty years or more.

The Labour Party has always been based on an electoral alliance of the working class and the progressive middle class. In December this alliance (partially) broke down. The referendum result had already exposed the deep divisions in British society: between those with higher education and those without, between north and south, between the big multi-ethnic cities and the smaller ex-industrial towns and villages, and between young and old. The Tories spotted their chance: by stealing some of Labour’s clothes, especially with Boris Johnson’s promises of state support for troubled employers and investment in the neglected regions, they cracked open Labour’s electoral alliance and forged a new one of their own.

I would argue that, although there were conjunctural factors (above all Brexit), this was also the culmination of a long-term process. What has come back from many canvassers is a sense that a lot of working class voters felt betrayed by the Labour Party, that it no longer represented them (see for example Tariq Ali’s article in the London Review of Books of 23rd January [paywall]). I think that this has been building for some time. Some of it is down to the neoliberal political consensus that reigned from the mid-nineties really through to 2015: that the free market had to be left to operate without state interference, and that there was no alternative to this (TINA, “There Is No Alternative”, was Norman St John Stevas’ nickname for Margaret Thatcher). The massive deindustrialisation of the eighties and nineties (crucially for the labour movement the elimination of the coal industry) left many workers feeling powerless. As Jos Gallacher put it, When Tony Blair told us that ‘globalisation’ was as inevitable as the turn of the seasons, he was defining the costs of economic change as outside the scope of political action. A whole layer of Labour voters was lost after 1997, who felt excluded from the political system and didn’t find a way of expressing their protest until the opportunity of the EU referendum in 2016.

This was compounded by the New Labour concept of “electoral capture”, advocated by Phillip Gould in particular; according to this, the working class had nowhere else to go electorally, and so Labour could focus on producing micro-policies that could attract middle-class floating voters. Organisationally that meant that the historically Labour seats in the Midlands and North were treated as a resource to be exploited; time and again, incumbent MPs sitting on large majorities would be offered a peerage just before an election, and the emergency candidate selection procedure used to parachute in one of New Labour’s favourites. It may be a myth that, when visiting a chippie in his Hartlepool constituency, Peter Mandelson mistook the mushy peas on offer for guacamole, but it indicates a certain perception of the way that the Labour Party was evolving.

From the beginning of the millenium, living standards began to stagnate for the great majority of the population. Labour’s vote was already slumping badly in the 2005 election, but the key moment in the 2010 campaign was when Gordon Brown was confronted by 65-year-old Gillian Duffy in Rochdale. She wasn’t very articulate, but she was trying to complain about unfairness in the benefit system and about EU immigration; disastrously, Brown’s mic was still on in the car as he was being driven away and recorded him complaining about that…bigotted woman (for the transcript see here). It encapsulated the image of Labour as representing the liberal elite; years afterwards a colleague of mine from a working-class background still felt resentment about that incident.

Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015 promised a change of direction, and an opportunity for Labour to break with neoliberalism and offer a real alternative. However, as David Runciman and Helen Thompson pointed out in the Talking Politics podcast (Episode 204, at 0:29:40) his leadership team was still concentrated in London, and a large part of his base in the party was made up of the kind of urban, university-educated, downwardly-mobile millenials who have also been losing out since the beginning of the millenium. Sociologically the gap between the party membership and most of its voters was as wide as ever. Crucially the membership was significantly more pro-EU, and never really engaged with the concerns of pro-Leave voters.

Bridging these divides would be no easy task for any leader, and it will be interesting to see if Boris Johnson can hold together his new electoral alliance. However we should remember that this situation isn’t unique to Britain. In a future post I want to look at the Labour Party’s problems in the context of the wider crisis of social democracy.

Making sense of the election results

Let’s be clear: this was the Brexit Election.

On the morning after the UK 2019 election there were plenty of voices in the Labour Party that were clear about why we lost: “It was Corbyn’s fault” or “It was Corbyn’s fault” or “it was Corbyn plus Momentum”. Jeremy Corbyn had called for a period of reflection after the result, but Andrew Adonis reckoned that period of reflection should last about ten minutes. Maybe it’s worth a bit more.

It does seem necessary to state the obvious: that this was The Brexit Election. Of the 54 seats that the Conservatives gained from Labour, 52 of them were in areas that voted leave in 2016; the Tories only gained two seats that voted remain from Labour, both by small margins, and in both of those seats the Green party vote was larger than the Conservative majority. According to Professor John Curtice (on the More Or Less podcast, at 0:14:50 onwards), about one in ten Labour voters switched to the Conservatives, mainly in Leave-voting seats in the North and Midlands, and this was the deciding factor. We will have to wait until the British Election Study for more in-depth data as to what voters were thinking when they cast their vote, but we do have Lord Ashcroft’s polling data from election day itself. His polling shows that the number one issue for Conservative voters was Brexit, number two was the economy and the choice of prime minister was only number three.

Given the importance of Brexit to the voters, there was no way that Labour was going to be able to somehow pull the election away from Brexit onto territory that it felt more comfortable with. The party’s divisions on Brexit were plain for all to see, and the attempt to face both ways on the issue failed. From the data so far, it seems clear that we were perceived as a Remain party. The “Labour Brexit deal” never seemed a credible option: who was going to actually negotiate such a deal was never clear, and Corbyn himself was intending to take a neutral position during the subsequent second referendum campaign. We actually saw off the threat from the Lib Dems, and they never realised the breakthrough that the European elections had promised in May (my hunch is that it was our support for a second referendum that pushed Jo Swinson into calling for outright revocation of Article 50, as a way of distinguishing the Lib Dems from Labour). Of course, this perception cost us dear in the Leave-voting seats.

Let’s think about the hypotheticals. What if we had committed clearly to fighting for Remain? Well, it’s possible that with a much less radical leader and a much less radical manifesto we might have picked up some Remain-voting Conservative seats, but nothing like enough to make up for the rout in the North and Midlands. And we would have burned our bridges with those Leave voters.

What if we had stuck with the policy of respecting the result of the referendum? It would have opened up more space for the Lib Dems in Remain seats, but would have neutralised the Brexit issue in the Leave seats, as it did in 2017, and allowed us to focus the campaign on anti-austerity. However, to really deny the right-wing populists their “People versus Parliament” election, we would have to have avoided the repeated delays to Brexit. Exploiting the constitutionally dodgy Fixed-term Parliaments Act may have entertained people like us but to others it showed a political class disconnected from the concerns of the voters. If the Labour leadership had helped to push through Theresa May’s deal then that would have been the least bad outcome: a second referendum was never likely to happen, either before the election or after. With May’s deal the UK would have been committed as a whole to the Level Playing-Field, with its protection of employment rights and the environment, until or unless a trade deal was signed at some point in the future. As it stands Johnson is now free to make whatever deal he wants or to leave with no deal in December.

It’s certainly the case that Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity played a rôle in the defeat, but for all the baggage he was carrying from his past, or the antisemitism issue, or his response to the Salisbury attack, the biggest single cause of Corbyn’s unpopularity was his perceived weakness on Brexit. He had previously seen the strategy of respecting the result of the referendum as crucial, crucial enough to sack Owen Smith when Smith called for a second referendum, so I think he should have resigned when he lost the argument over the issue. By hanging on he produced a terrible outcome for the future of the party, especially for the Campaign Group/Momentum left, which now has the albatross of a defeat round its neck caused by a policy that wasn’t even its own.

In this post I’ve concentrated on the short-term, tactical issues. To be fair there are some deeper dilemmas at play here that actually made the decisions very hard, and I’ll look at these longer-term issues in another post.