Post-mortems suggest that Brexit and Corbyn were responsible for the party’s collapse. It’s much more complex.
Britons awoke on Friday the 13th to a watershed moment in UK politics. The Conservative Party, led by Boris Johnson, won a thumping majority in the 2019 General Election — one that will be forever remembered as the Brexit election.
The Conservatives won 365 seats to Labour’s 203, driven by a dramatic swing of working-class support away from Labour, leaving the Tories with a majority of 79 seats – its greatest since Thatcher’s re-election in 1987 – as Labour fell to its lowest number of MPs in 84 years.
Electoral post-mortems have primarily fixated on Brexit and Corbyn(ism). Labour, like the Conservatives, was no less divided on Brexit. But while the Tories revamped the party and culled dissent in a realpolitik purge, Labour remained hamstrung by internecine squabbles, ineffective messaging, and a protracted media assault.
Punctuating a long-running Brexit saga are the profound effects this electoral outcome will have on altering the British political landscape and its social fabric. The scale of the Tory landslide now ensures that Parliament is filled with sycophantic conservative legislators as the opposition plunges further down the abyss of civil war.
The working-class strikes back?
There is little doubt that the issue of Brexit derailed the Corbyn project. Labour spent too long wavering before coming up with a half-coherent position. They saw Britain’s biggest political question as a distraction from their real “bread and butter” agenda. They had three years to offer a credible counter and failed.
The tensions between the two wings of the party were intractable: the traditional and trade union-based Leavers, and the urban youth and professional Remainers. As the country polarised along the Brexit divide, Labour tried to reconcile itself as the party of both “Hackney and Hull.”
The hemorrhaging of Labour's northern heartlands — the so-called “Red wall” — which largely voted to leave, was a testament to this unresolved contradiction and the final nail in the coffin.
At least, that's the narrative in the election’s aftermath: that the “working-class” turned their backs on Labour and its support for a second referendum.
And it is overstated.
A significant shift was almost 3 million who voted Labour in 2017 were lost to abstention in 2019. Age was another factor. Labour won a majority among those aged 18-34 and a plurality of 35-44, the Conservatives seized majorities with those 45-and-over.
Yes, certain Labour strongholds did vote leave on an anti-migrant platform, stoked by disinformation and a zealous right-wing press. But the facile line that “Labour lost the working-class” doesn’t explain why the party garnered votes from age groups that are least likely to have a secure job or own property.
To see Brexit as a working-class phenomenon, like Trumpism, is a myth.
Labour failed to educate its base about Brexit from the start. It should have made the case it was a far-right racist scheme to hoodwink working-class voters that wouldn’t end austerity nor return sovereignty.
Instead, Brexit provided the terrain for the culture wars and an odious English nationalism to flourish.
Credibility gap, media onslaught
Following Labour’s loss, the media has been quick to reinstate hackneyed talking points: that it went "too far left" and ran an "unelectable leader." That a bumbling, compulsively lying, overtly racist Etonite, exploiting the prime ministerial office for his own vanity project, is somehow more "electable,” cannot go unnoticed.
Those assertions can be contextualised with previous election results.
Under Corbyn, Labour secured over 10 million votes, roughly what Tony Blair achieved in 2001 and more than he got in 2005. Labour also managed a better vote share than under Gordon Brown in 2010 and Ed Miliband in 2015.
Nevertheless, it’s false consolation. In the final analysis, Labour lost to a party that was economically incompetent and mired in political crisis – itself a damning indictment.
The reality, however irrational, is that people will not elect a party they can't trust on the economy, even if the alternative is deliberately steering them towards an unprecedented, self-inflicted crisis.
Voters’ dislike of Jeremy Corbyn was an undeniable factor too. Much of it was linked to a ruthless media operation, which relentlessly smeared Corbyn as everything from a terrorist sympathiser to an anti-Semite.
Meanwhile, Conservatives were hardly pressed on Islamophobia and their disastrous economic record. Their leader cowardly sought refuge in a fridge to avoid scrutiny. In the broadest of daylights, the corporate media acted as an arm of the Tories. Even the BBC.
To say that the Conservatives won on a post-truth campaign isn’t hyperbolic. Consider a study published right before the election that indicated 88 percent of Tory ads were dishonest. Hardly surprising when Leave mastermind Dominic Cummings is your party’s chief strategist.
That doesn’t mean valid criticisms couldn’t be made of Corbyn’s leadership. While cynically manufactured to hysteric levels, Corbyn fumbled the anti-Semitism crisis. He possessed retrograde geopolitical inclinations that translated into selective anti-imperialist positions.
But it is something else to act in bad faith as if he was a treasonous and rabid ideologue, when he was a social democrat pushing for moderate reforms and preservation of the welfare state.
Thus, there were two Corbyns: the vilified media construct that was eventually rejected by the public, and the activist politician, warts and all, that genuinely attempted to forward a vision for a better Britain.
The last gasp of British social democracy
Given that Labour entered a terminal crisis before his nomination, Corbyn’s campaign mobilised the energies of thousands of young people who otherwise felt marginalised by the political system.
Labour’s leftward turn was never about Corbyn. He was merely a vessel, albeit an inadequate one, to fill the vacuum left behind by the collapse of a discredited neoliberal status-quo.
So even with Corbyn stepping down, the social movement that coalesced around him is going nowhere. Brexit notwithstanding, Labour’s radical manifesto enjoys popular support.
How Labour moves forward with this progressive coalition will be imperative to reconstituting party and how it builds a viable counterweight to Tory electoral hegemony.
Blairites will likely return to spouting shibboleths of moderation. But the electorate did not abandon the left for the centre, as the defeats of Liberal Democrats and Change UK candidates indicate. They instead went to the far-right in England and Wales or to social democratic nationalists in Scotland.
Despite a bruising defeat, Labour must resist embracing anti-migrant and racialised dog-whistles to reclaim “working-class” (white) voters. This strategy is the lifeblood of the hard-right, composed around a reanimated Thatcherite vision – the prism through which an anti-egalitarian, plutocratic-friendly party will govern with Johnson at the helm.
Brexit has allowed the Conservatives to purge internal strife, reap an electoral revival, and consolidate their political agenda.
With a commanding mandate, Johnson has to balance the concerns of a newly acquired welfare-chauvinist bloc with the party’s pro-corporate wing. Assembled under a “Get Brexit Done” message, this coalition is fragile and could easily splinter by 2024.
But make no mistake what the Conservatives, now a party of reactionary populism, stand for. They will seek to smash the remaining restraints on capital and take a sledgehammer to public services. They won’t hesitate to stir up bigotry and normalise a culture of social sadism as they pursue a vision fueled by turbo-capitalism.
In global terms, disaster nationalism continues its ascendancy. The UK is its latest victim, following the election of demagogues in India, Hungary, the US, and Brazil.
Britain is likely to become a radically different place, forever changed by a Johnson premiership. Upon leaving the EU, Scottish independence will be on the cards and Irish reunification a distinct possibility.
Paradoxically, as English nativists prepare to take back control, they might have simultaneously triggered the breakup of Britain.
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