Labour's Defeat and the Triumph of Johnsonism


Photograph by duncan c via Flickr (cc)

by Jeremy Gilbert

It was the centrist dads who lost it

Before trying to examine the outcome of the 2019 general election, before any attempt to analyse the social complexities of the electorate that it reveals, it is important to understand three things. The first is that the UK has always been a multi-party democracy: it is NOT, like the US, an actual two-party system. Unlike other multi-party democracies it does not have a voting system that is designed to match the distribution of votes to the distribution of seats.

The second is that traditional social democratic parties have been in decline the world over. Almost everywhere where they were once strong, they have lost votes in two directions: to the nationalist right among ageing, post-industrial communities; to parties of the green new left among younger urban and professional-class voters. Indeed, arguably, from a long-term and genuinely international perspective, the real story of Corbynism may be that it managed to shore up and consolidate the latter part of Labour’s coalition where so many equivalent parties have failed to do so, with fatal consequences: from Pasok in Greece to the French Socialist Party (both of which saw support eventually collapse into single-figure percentages). By international standards, holding onto 32% of the vote is a pretty decent result for a party like Labour in 2019.

The third factor is that despite all of those long-term and global circumstances, the 2019 election came only 30 months after Labour’s astonishing 2017 result, when the party under Corbyn achieved the almost miraculous feat of remaking and enthusing almost all of its historic voting coalition, massively increasing its vote share of just two years previously, and very nearly forcing Theresa May from office. There is every possibility that, without the most divisive issue of modern times (Brexit) fatally splitting its electorate, Labour will be able to recompose that coalition much more quickly and easily than many commentators currently assume. But it might not. And even if it can, it will face the same issue that kept Theresa May in Number 10 in Jun 2017 and delivered Johnson a landslide in 2019: a hopelessly undemocratic electoral system.

This is the first of a six-part series of articles looking at Labour’s electoral defeat in December 2019, and what we can learn from it. In this first contribution, I will consider the key question of what happened to Labour’s 2017 coalition of voters, that led to such an apparently catastrophic loss of votes and parliamentary seats within 30 months.

I’m going to suggest that the evidence tells a different story from the one imprinted on many people’s minds already. It is undoubtedly true that Labour’s loss of seats to the Conservatives in its post-industrial ‘heartlands’ was shocking and traumatic. But it is a myth that the largest bloc of votes that Labour lost was from ‘traditional working class’ voters who switched to the Tories. In fact there is some evidence that the single largest demographic switch away from Labour was actually among middle-aged liberal voters, moving from Labour to the Greens and the Liberal Democrats.

First past the post punished Labour

The ‘first past the post’ electoral system dictates that parties only win MPs to the extent that they are able to win the most votes in specific, geographically-defined constituencies. This system punishes savagely any party that cannot win such a plurality in any one place, or in many places, even if it has substantial support spread throughout the country. It also punishes any party whose support is too heavily concentrated in particular places, even if that support is numerically equal to or greater than that of its rivals. It therefore rewards the one party that is able to win pluralities in a large number of small towns and villages while being unpopular in the major urban population centres: the Conservative Party. In effect, the UK electoral system gives far more weight to the votes of the inhabitants of the former type of place – principally, white propertied pensioners – than it does to working-age people of any background, or to members of ethnic minorities, or to students and young workers in particular. All of the latter groups tend to be more heavily concentrated in large towns and cities.

Because of this appalling anomaly, over 400 of the UK’s 650 parliamentary constituencies saw a majority of their voters vote Leave in the 2016 referendum on EU membership. Over 400. Out of 650. The actual percentage split nationally was just 48/52 in favour of leave. Just let that sink in for a moment.

Labour was never going to be able to prevent the 2019 election being a re-run of the Brexit referendum. But in this case, it was a rerun according to a system that was massively rigged in Leave’s favour. Conversely, literally 70% of Labour voters (and well over that proportion of Labour members) had voted Remain. Labour was always going to have a problem fighting an election on those terms.

One might well ask, then, why the issue of the electoral system, and the evident need to reform it – if the entire country is not to be dictated to forever by white propertied pensioners – was less in evidence during this election campaign than at any other in recent memory (which is saying something: it has never been a major issue in any election campaign). This is probably a topic for another essay. Suffice to say, for now, that the ideological refusal of Labour’s Bennite left to engage with this issue – despite the urging of such close political allies as Arthur Scargill – has been its greatest weakness since the early 1980s. It has finally paid the price for that refusal, and we will all be paying it for many years to come. And yet, every other Labour leader before Corbyn has also pointedly refused to grasp this nettle, in other words, has also refused to commit the party to proportional representation for the House of Commons. We can only hope that this long century of idiocy ends now.

But let’s try to analyse the result in a little more detail.

Which Voters Did Labour lose?

The December 2019 election result is the one that many of us expected in June 2017. It came as a surprise back then that so many of the Leave-Voting constituencies of the North and the Midlands had mostly not fallen to the Conservative party: polls, and Teresa May’s strategists, had predicted they would.

The reasons why they might were always obvious. Labour’s vote had been declining steadily there since 1997, as the number of young workers in those regions declined, as the number of propertied pensioners increased, no previous change of leadership having been able to reverse the trend. Corbynism had its social base in the metropolitan regions, in an emergent culture shared by young urban workers and older professionals, characterised by social liberalism, cosmopolitanism and an extremely-online lifestyle.

Anyone familiar with the post-industrial North knew that in many places this might well be a turn-off, for the older and more conservative sections of those communities. Many of us who grew up in those places, especially in those areas with long socialist traditions, always believed that it would be possible to connect the new working class of the cities with at least some sections of the older working class of the post-industrial regions, by showing them that we shared so many of their interests and aspirations, so much of their anger and pain, so many of their losses and regrets. But we knew that it would take a particular kind of leadership and oratory to bridge the gap, articulating that shared narrative and vision. And many of us always doubted that Jeremy Corbyn – as much as we loved him personally – would be able to provide them. It was always hard to imagine him being able to speak to older people, back in the town that we came from, in a language that would make sense to them. We feared, even in 2017, that the Tory strategy of appealing to their sense of loss and grievance would prove more successful than Corbyn’s relentless story of hope and human kindness.

And it did. It is generally overlooked that in 2017 Teresa May did achieve a huge increase in Conservative vote share, a massive swing to the Tories in many of those places, and a fair few significant seat-gains. In fact Johnson has only slightly increased her overall share of the vote and her overall number of votes. But it was enough of an increase, and sufficiently concentrated in the same parts of the country, to have finally knocked down Labour’s ‘red wall’ of traditional ‘post-industrial’ constituencies.

From this perspective, it is important to understand that 2019 was not an earthquake but a tipping-point. And what really did for Labour in many of its ‘heartland’ seats were voters who did vote Labour in 2017, but in 2019 simply stayed at home, out of a distaste for Corbyn’s leadership and a feeling that they had to let Johnson into office in order to ‘get Brexit done’.

It is crucial to emphasise again that the drift towards conservatism in many of these seats was a long-term trend and that it had not been magically arrested in 2017. That drift was slowed down in that year by the fact that a section of the ageing ‘traditional working-class’ population saw Corbyn’s commitment to implementing Brexit as sufficient indicator that he was ‘on their side’. There is no doubt that many of those voters becoming disillusioned with Corbyn’s leadership, and convinced that Brexit must be done at all costs, had a devastating effect on the 2019 electoral outcome.

The centrist dads

But – and this is absolutely crucial to understand – the more surprising and more numerically significant demographic change was in fact the number of voters in their 40s and early 50s who supported Labour in 2017, and whose votes went in large numbers to the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Greens in 2019. Yes, I know how strange this will sound, if all you’ve heard since 10pm on December 12th is that Labour’s vote collapsed because it lost its leave-voting supporters. But that is a fallacy. It is part of the truth: but less than half. If you want to look at the best statistical breakdowns and analyses that I know of, then they are here.

Why exactly younger ‘Generation X’ voters decided to back Corbyn in 2017, and not in 2019, is an issue that has barely been discussed at all, given the understandable obsession of commentators with the increasingly immovable Toryism of propertied pensioners, and with the striking leftward shift of younger voters. But there is a good argument that in fact the single most significant demographic-psephological shift between 2017 and 2019 was the desertion of the ‘centrist Dads’ who had reluctancy backed Corbyn in 2017, for the Lib Dems, the Greens and (again) abstention.

The most plausible and obvious explanation is that these are centrist-leaning voters, whose 20s and 30s were spent in the halcyon days of New Labour, who were the very last cohort to benefit from the long property bubble, whose children are not yet old enough for the full implications of the resultant housing crisis to have dawned on them. Heavily pro-Remain and heavily influenced by mainstream legacy media (the BBC, the Guardian), they backed Corbyn when a Labour-negotiated soft Brexit seemed like the best possible outcome to the 2016 referendum. But by 2019, their patience with Labour’s need to appease its minority of Northern Leaver voters had driven many of them back into the arms of parties who they felt represented their own views more unambiguously. It is crucial to understand that under a first-past-the-post voting system, the loss of votes such as these can contribute as much to certain seats going Tory as can any actual transfer of votes from Labour to Conservative. And in a number of places, this is clearly what happened.

So Labour lost votes in all directions. And it apparently lost most votes among middle-class, educated, centrist-leaning voters who could not be persuaded to accept a compromise on Brexit in order to prevent a Johnson landslide. It must also be suspected that, contrary to my own expectations, such voters were also heavily influenced by the constant media propaganda around Labour’s supposed ‘anti-semitism’. This discourse was always intended in part to alienate cosmopolitan and socially liberal voters from Labour, and sadly it seems to have helped in doing that.

Generational Politics

But if Labour lost more of these types of voters than any other, it lost actual seats in places where such small shifts in support could make the most dramatic difference. And this was in those Northern and Midlands seats where its support had been dwindling steadily since 1997.

Even in those seats, the best evidence is that voters had been moving away from Labour since the 1990s not merely for ideological and cultural reasons, but for hard economic ones. The ‘baby boomer’ generation has been bribed and bought-off by successive governments like no other in history. The full beneficiaries of the post-war welfare state settlement, Thatcher let them buy houses at knock-down prices in return for letting her tear up that very settlement. Every government since has done everything it can to inflate the value of those houses, and to protect the pensions of their owners, even while everyone else’s have been flushed down the toilet. At the same time, the erosion of the welfare state and the lengthening of life-expectancy has produced a situation in which voters in their 60s (or whom there are very many, and they are very likely to vote) tend to be concerned that protecting their property wealth is the only plausible defence against penury in their 80s, because publicly-funded social care cannot be relied on at all.

It is not surprising that such voters are largely unmoved by socialist appeals for a better, cleaner, greener future. As Keir Milburn has so decisively shown in his book Generation Left, their interests are now, whatever their historic ideological commitments, objectively aligned with those of finance capital and the rentier class. Labour might win back some of them by reassuring them that we will not tax their wealth and will provide social care to the elderly, as any decent civilisation should. But most of them are not coming back to Labour, and chasing them too hard would be pointless.

On the other hand, all evidence also suggests that the Labour vote held up among working-age people in almost all of the lost constituencies. The real question for Labour is how to reach poor working-age voters in those places, who still do not turn out to vote in large enough numbers to ensure Labour victories in those places. The anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. The level of demoralisation and despondency in such places makes it impossible to convince people that Labour, or anyone else, can help them. The institutions that used to convince people of that possibility – democratic local government, a robust labour movement, and (a long time ago) relatively Labour-friendly media – have all been defeated, downtrodden and weakened since the 1970s. Labour – as a movement and a party – must now recognise the need to start rebuilding and reinventing those institutions. In particular, I strongly suspect that unless the kind of energy that was put into electoral canvassing for the 2019 election is now diverted into active campaigning to recruit workers to trade-unions, then Labour can never recover in those places.

The Crisis of Neoliberal Hegemony

Hegemony – or we could just say ‘leadership’ or ‘success’ – is always a function of the ability of a particular political force to bring together a coalition of social groups and to take them in a particular direction. What happened between 2017 and 2019 is that Labour was unable to retain and extend its coalition. Over the course of this series, I will explore some of the reasons why it was not able to do so. But it is also important to understand the larger context of hegemonic relations as it has shifted over that time.

Broadly speaking, both Brexit and Corbynism emerged around 2015-6 as reactions to one key phenomenon. That phenomenon was the critical loss of authority suffered by the professional political class since 2008. That technocratic elite had governed Britain (and most other countries) since the emergence of neoliberalism as an international project to restore capitalist power in the 1970s. Neoliberalism in practice was a counter-revolution against the successes of socialism, social democracy and communism over the course of the 20th century, and it never enjoyed very broad popular support. In its earliest realised forms, it relied on the reactionary militarism of Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan to win a political foothold. But for most of its history, neoliberalism was administered by a cosmopolitan technocratic elite, exemplified by the Clintons and their political allies and imitators.

Relatively few citizens ever actually liked the neoliberal programme: why would most people want to privatise public services, cut taxes on the rich and suppress trade unions? So the authority of the neoliberal elite always relied on being able to offer them high levels of private consumption (usually facilitated by expanding consumer debt). After the 2008 financial crisis, it became increasingly difficult to offer this to large sections of the population, especially to the young. The neoliberal elite was also generally committed to forms of social liberalisation that were typically popular with young people, the educated and the female; but less so with everyone else. So as its authority waned, various social groups began to make demands for things that neoliberalism could not deliver: from the restoration of social democracy, to the slowdown of global migration.

The crisis of this elite’s authority therefore created opportunities for both the political left and the political right. In 2017 in the UK, the emerging right-wing alternative – nationalistic, conservative, anti-immigration, but theoretically anti-austerity – was still in its infancy. Theresa May was its wholly uncharismatic leader. Into this context emerged the movement led by Jeremy Corbyn.

This took both the emergent nationalist right and the residual neoliberal centre quite by surprise, and in the election of that year, Corbynism came close to establishing itself as the new politically hegemonic force. But ultimately it could not do that. Labour could not extend its voting bloc to enough of the electorate: in particular, the 7% of voters who clung stubbornly to the Liberal Democrats prevented its voting coalition from growing large enough. Corbynism could not extend its social coalition far enough outside its metropolitan bases to win. By 2019, under various pressures that we will discuss, its coalition had fractured and shrunk, while the right had fully regrouped behind Johnson’s new type of anti-political nationalism.

I will discuss this bigger picture, and the shape of the emerging Tory hegemony, in the final article in this series. First I want to go through some of the specific operational issues that caused Labour such difficulties in 2019. Apart from long-term social and organisational issues, and apart from the incredibly-complex issue of Brexit, there is another key reason for Labour’s defeat in 2019 that was cited by more voters than any other as their reason for rejecting Labour at the polls. So in the next article I will consider the vexed issue of Corbyn’s leadership, and of what kind of leader Labour might need now.

Corbyn was intensely moral, but never a working class hero

It has already become a cliché, reported by thousands who canvassed for Labour during the election, that the reasons given for disliking Corbyn included both specific issues obsessively promoted by the right-wing press, and a general sense that Corbyn appeared weak, indecisive and unaggressive: normally, it seems, voters would give one of these two sets of reasons rather than the other. The first was usually justified with reference to Corbyn’s supposed historic sympathy for the IRA or his ‘excessive’ sympathy with Muslims. The latter was more generally framed in terms of Corbyn lacking charisma, energy and fighting spirit.

Working Class Heroes

In fact, the difference between these two sets of reasons for liking or disliking Corbyn might reflect an ideological fault line that has always run through Labour’s ‘traditional working class’ electorate. On the one hand, there has always been a constituency whose identification with Labour derived from a historic tribal identity as well as a general sense of collectivism and loyalty to social institutions (from trade unions to the monarchy). That constituency has often been allergic to militancy (opposing the 1984 Miners Strike, for example) while attracted to nationalism, militarism and imperialism. Politically, Corbyn was always going to alienate this constituency. But as the 2017 result showed, he could largely do without them.

On the other hand, the tradition of instinctive labour militancy lives on amongst sections of the working class more deeply influenced by the socialist tradition. This tendency found expression in Labour’s astonishing 2017 result. But that tradition demands a certain standard of its leaders. From Ellen Wilkinson to Arthur Scargill, from Tony Benn to Ken Livingstone, they have all been blessed with some mixture of oratorical skill and ‘the common touch’. With some combination of fiery rhetoric, wise-cracking humour and common-sense class politics, they have been able to express the anger that working class people feel at the injustices for which they suffer; and an appropriately steely contempt for their oppressors. If you want a contemporary example, just think of Bernie Sanders.

Unfortunately, Corbyn had none of these qualities. His intensely moral condemnations of the social consequences of austerity just never occupied any of this range of rhetorical registers, and so working class people largely heard them as ineffectual hand-wringing. And so, eventually, he lost this second set of working class voters as well. And so he was done for.

It’s not like nobody saw this coming. I was one of many voices sympathetic to the Corbyn project, publicly and privately worrying that Corbyn just could not channel working-class anger effectively, from the beginning of his leadership. At one point in 2016 I was invited by someone around the leader’s office to submit ideas for future strategy, and I made this point then, suggesting that other voices (preferably with Northern accents) needed to be brought to the fore, just as John Prescott had been given a prominent role in campaigning for Tony Blair’s premiership. That memo was, as far as I know, ignored.

Three and a half years later, two weeks before the election, when polls showed the party facing annihilation in the North, we finally saw former miner, Ian Lavery MP, being brought out to address the Northern constituencies, featuring in a very moving video about the legacy of Thatcherism. He was a fine choice for the job (others could have included Jon Trickett and Angela Rayner). But he should have been given it three years earlier. To be fair to those involved, I’m told by members of Labour’s 20018-19 communications team that figures like Lavery were reluctant to take on this role once Labour had moved away from an unequivocal commitment to implementing Brexit. Why John McDonnell – the most talented radical politician of his generation, and a Northerner to boot – was never systematically deployed in this way, remains a mystery. Perhaps he was, and it was simply invisible to London-based people like me.

There is a crucial lesson here for any future Labour leadership. The sort of common-touch-charisma that I am describing, that Corbyn lacked, is difficult to quantify. Livingstone had it, despite his nasal whine and unprepossessing appearance; and that was what allowed him to remain beloved of Londoners for a generation, while always adhering to a radical socialist politics. Corbyn lacked it utterly, through absolutely no fault of his own.

Any future Labour leader must possess this quality: and simply speaking with flat vowels will not be what guarantees it. What it requires, more than anything, is a kind of intuitive Marxism: an automatic ability to frame important political issues in terms of the class interests that animate them, and that unite diverse constituencies of working people up and down the country.

What this would have looked like, in practice, during the 2019 election, would have been a Labour leader – at least sometimes – castigating Johnson as the scion of a parasitic aristocracy, pointing out that, for example, the reason for the national housing shortage was the fact that his class had spent decades greedily cornering the property market. It sounds incredibly obvious. How could we never once get to hear this, in any of the public debates? But we didn’t get anything like it from Corbyn, even once; and as the campaign went on, it became impossible to imagine him doing it. Asked to comment on the housing crisis, Corbyn would appeal to our sense of moral outrage at the social fact of widespread homelessness. It’s a fine sentiment to express. But it completely misses the point.

In case you want me to put this in much cruder terms, I will. To win over grumpy old Northerners, you don’t necessarily have to be a grumpy old Northerner. But you do need to be able to tell them which bastards are screwing them and what you’re going to do about it; or they will listen to someone else who does (such as Boris Johnson, telling them that the bastards who are screwing them are foreigners). Corbyn couldn’t do this. All he could tell his audiences was that some other poor folk were getting screwed even worse than they were. Which really wasn’t what they wanted to hear at all.

This wasn’t his fault. This kind of antagonistic politics just isn’t Corbyn’s style. Which is why he was never really the right person for the job, and should at least have had a stronger team around him much more often. And it is this that the next Labour leader must be able to do.

But before leaving the topic of Corbyn’s leadership, it is important to say this. The very qualities that made him a poor public antagonist of the capitalist class are those that enabled him to play the historic role that he did. I said this at the moment of his first accession to the leadership, and it was true: Corbyn had rallied the left. He rallied the left in Britain for the first time since the 1980s, providing a focal point for our re-emergence as a significant political force. It was always too much to expect that he could lead us to victory as well. After decades of defeat, despondency and disaggregation, it was Corbyn’s unique decency, his sheer humanity, that enabled him to usher a movement into existence. Yes, that movement would have emerged anyway. But it might well have happened outside the Labour party, or more likely in its ultimate ruins, had it not been for Jeremy Corbyn. And it might well have emerged less unified, less positive, less full of intelligent hope, had he not been there to lead it.

Above all, I think: Corbyn’s kindness, gentility, and unflinching anti-imperialism gave many poor women and people of colour – used to suffering abuse, neglect and micro-aggression as a permanent and institutionalised fact of social existence – a sense of a possible home in mainstream British politics. The fact that his right-wing detractors in the party have been unable even to concede that achievement, or to treat his decency as anything other than contemptible, is a symptom of their own appalling cynicism.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.