Labour Briefing Editorial Board member
The result of the general election came as a shock, it was an upsetting shock, it was a painful shock and many exhausted activists are still in mourning. Who lost, Labour, obviously. Our party lost 2.5 million votes compared to 2017. But the Lib Dems despite gaining 1.5 million votes also lost along with every single defector from Labour and the Tories. The Greens, irritatingly, secured enough votes to exceed the Tory majority in eleven constituencies while also coughing up for 465 lost deposits.
Jobs, wages, rents, the NHS, social security, crime, policing and climate change were all areas where Labour made a superior offer to the electorate, yet unlike 2017 that offer didn’t cut through. Why? It was Brexit wot done it. Corbyn correctly declared that Article 50 should be triggered immediately after the 2016 referendum result and held a position of respecting the decision to leave the EU – this was the only substantial difference between Labour’s 2017 position and that of 2019.
So what went wrong? First the shock 2017 general election result left the Tories floundering, losing their majority and having to rely upon the DUP to sustain themselves in government. The Tory government, riven with splits, was looking like it could fall at any time. The Brexit forces were in stalemate. Corbyn emerged more secure with the PLP mainly gratefully accepting their increased majorities, but some on the right soon resumed the pressing the anti-semitism button as well as vocalising their preferred Brexit outcome. Parliament fought hard to ensure the Brexit deadlock continued in the House of Commons. In the world outside Westminster, Brexiteers fanned the flames of a betrayal narrative. The EU elections (May 2019) were a disaster. Turnout was low at 36.7% but worse, the Brexit Party replaced the decrepit UKIP as the clear victors with 29 MEPs and 31.6% of the vote; Labour lost 11.3% of its vote with 10 MEPs, down 10 and the Tories lost 14.8% of their vote with 4 MEPs, down 15. The Lib Dems gained 13.4% with 16 MEPs, up 15 and the Greens gaining 4.2% with 7 MEPs, up from 3.
Remainer’s within the party and across the political spectrum started to up their game. Inside the Labour party, pressure was applied to change the position on Brexit. The position of constructive ambiguity was abandoned as remainer’s claimed that 33% of the Labour vote would be lost unless the party adopted a more explicit remain position. Labour found itself caught in the cleft stick of Brexit, forced to campaign either for leave or a second-referendum, alienating a large section of our core support either way. A compromise was arrived at: a Labour negotiated Brexit that would then be put to a second referendum with remain on the ballot paper. However, some Labour MPs made it clear that they would back remain regardless of any potential deal negotiated by a future Labour government.
Meanwhile, Theresa May resigned and Boris Johnson took her place promising a better Brexit deal. In no time at all he threw the DUP, who were propping up the Tory government, under a bus and charged head down for a deal that looked very much like the one Theresa May had negotiated. He had read the EU election results and decided to gamble on a strategy of turning the Tories into the Brexit party.
The mainstream media played its part, relentlessly anti-Labour in general and relentlessly anti-Corbyn in particular. Although any Labour leader should expect that as par for the course, the 2019 election was one of the dirtiest on record. Despite the tremendous efforts of Labour’s superior ground forces we suffered 60 losses and made only one single gain. “Red Wall” seats fell like dominos, only islands of red remain in a sea of blue. But the “Red Wall” was undermined by Tony Blair and New Labour who were only too happy to live with the deindustrialisation inflicted during the Thatcher years and who had no intention of addressing the issues created by the loss of highly skilled, highly unionised jobs. New Labour took “Red Wall” constituents for granted so it is not surprising that they developed a view that “Labour governments do nothing for us”. When the EU referendum came it should not have been a surprise that so many voted leave. Their communities, stripped of jobs, were devastated in the 1980s and 90s, their neglect by New Labour when in office and their suffering from austerity post 2010 was deflected away from another cost cutting government and towards the suspicion of migrants – they were sold the lie that migrants were undercutting their jobs; taking all the council houses; clogging up our schools, our GP surgeries and our hospitals and significantly contributing to crime. This lie ate into the hearts of too many once solid Labour voters.
Polls and vox pops revealed that more than half of all voters said they made up their minds in the last four weeks of the election campaign, with a quarter saying they did so within the last few days before polling – 16% saying they decided on polling day. Labour support was higher among those making up their minds within the last week of the campaign but it was too little, too late.
Would we have lost more remainers than leavers by sticking with our 2017 policy? The detailed breakdown of how people voted will not be available until the British Election Study publishes the results of its face-to-face survey in a few months’ time. This may provide some further insight, but we may never know. My gut reaction is no, we wouldn’t have. It may not have been enough to win the election, but may have been enough to prevent the significant Tory majority that is now going full steam ahead for a hard Brexit. We would certainly have taken some big hits, but I believe that Labour’s progressive manifesto would have trumped Brexit with many remainers in the metropolitan constituencies, but Brexit trumped our manifesto with leave voting constituencies. (However, It is worth noting that the Tories kept more of their remain supporters than expected, but this was probably because a fear of a Corbyn government trumped their fears of Brexit for them).
So what are we left with? A pro-racist Tory party – not a pro-working class Tory party – now dominates government. Already Tory promises to raise the minimum wage to £10 per hour by 2024 have been caveated with a mealy mouthed, “if economic circumstances permit” and the commitment to workers’ rights has now been withdrawn from the “oven ready” Brexit deal, but to prove their pro-racist credentials the Tories have reneged on a promise to replace the EU law that allows child refugees stranded in Europe to reunite with family members in the UK after Brexit and broken the promise to hold an inquiry specifically into the issue of Islamophobia in the Tory party. It has also signaled an increase from £400 to £625 a year surcharge for all non-EU migrant workers (payable by each of their family members) to use the NHS and to extend this surcharge to all EU citizens who migrate to the UK post Brexit. Johnson knows that migrants pay tax and national insurance like everyone else and are therefore are entitled to the same services as everyone else – this is a racist tax.
The problem for the Tories now is of delivering Brexit without inflicting further pain. No one believes this is possible, so expect more beating of the Brexit drum and blaming the EU for Tory failure to deliver on bread and butter issues, and expect more racism if that doesn’t cut through – although every bigot already believes that their hatred is endorsed by the prime minister.
The 80-strong majority secured by Johnson at the election may have ended the parliamentary stalemate that left him unable to push through his Brexit deal, but to “get Brexit done” there will be plenty of painful trade-offs ahead that will affect every sector of the economy and every constituency. Those “Red Wall” Tories will have to face some very tough questions from their constituents as the reality of the “oven ready” Brexit becomes clearer. A “no deal” Brexit is not off the table and if the economy slows there will be even less money for public services and a new era of even harsher austerity will stunt the lives of millions for years to come. The financial crash of 2008 was the consequence of hyper-deregulation originating in the Thatcher years, with Johnson’s “oven ready” Brexit we should expect a bonfire of regulations should we be out of the EU without a deal by the end of the year. Goodbye NHS, hello chlorinated chicken.
So what is to be done? There is no mistaking that the results for Labour were dire, but beware of comparisons with Labour’s defeat in 1983, yes the Labour vote was poor at 32.2%, but in 1983 it was even lower at 27.6%. Then the Tories had a majority of 144, today the Tory majority is 80. In votes cast Labour’s 32.2% translates into 10.3 million votes – its second best result in the last five general elections (9.5 million with Blair in 2005, 8.6 million with Brown in 2010, 9.4 million with Miliband in 2015 and 12.9 million with Corbyn in 2017). Today we have a membership in excess of 550,000 (50,000 joining since the general election) with many of them now battle hardened, and it is to the membership we must look. What Labour must not do is abandon the anti-austerity strategy or row back on plans to democratise society. But how can we be trusted to democratise society if we can’t even democratise our own party? Robust open selection and reselection processes must be put in place for all publically elected positions as quickly as possible.
For Labour to rise from this defeat we must go back to basics. We need to rebuild our confidence as a movement, we need to build a larger, more diverse and outwardly looking activist base. We need to strengthen the trade unions by promoting membership and by supporting them in their campaigns, but most of all we need to organise within our communities not only to help provide practical solidarity to help plug the ever growing gaps in services created by austerity, but to rebuild trust, grow networks and to strengthen social bonds. The arts, sports and culture as well as self-help are essential to this project. Youth events, older people’s clubs, nurseries and childcare, film screenings and discussion events, space to meet and talk combined with benefits advice, solidarity kitchens and the promotion of social enterprise should be our building blocks. Of course, we can’t do all of this as individuals alone and it can’t be done overnight, but each of us can do something; if you can’t start something yourself gets some friends together and do something, even if that is lending a hand to an existing project. Street by street, block by block, estate by estate, from the grassroots up is how it must be done. If that seems like hard work, you are right, but the time for mourning is over, now is the time to organise.