Was it Corbyn? Was it Brexit?

BBC Map showing the seats which changed hands during the 2019 election.

So, just over a week ago the Labour Party crashed to one of its worst defeats in its history, gaining only 30% of the vote (down from over 40% in 2017) in a general election which gave Boris Johnson’s Conservatives a majority of more than 80 seats (on the back of about 43% of the popular vote). While it held or gained some unlikely seats in London and the south (Canterbury, Putney), it lost large numbers of seats in what used to be its northern heartlands including, for example, much of outer Tyneside, Bolsover (represented for decades by Dennis Skinner), north-east Wales and all of Stoke on Trent, all of which went Tory, often for the first time in decades or ever. Significantly, this election had a very high turnout (usually a good sign for Labour) despite being, unusually, in December when the hours of daylight are short. Within the Labour party, people are generally blaming the loss on Labour’s decision to back a “People’s Vote” on Brexit while others blame Corbyn’s leadership and the numerous question marks over his past associations (the IRA, various Middle Eastern terrorist groups) and the perception that he was unpatriotic. Others are suggesting that it was really because Corbyn sided with his student and ethnic-minority supporters and neglected his ‘traditional’ (i.e. white) working-class base, often with the implication that the party should really take a sharp turn in the other direction.

I was never happy with Corbyn — he was proposed late in the day during the 2015 post-election leadership campaign and it was always understood that he had never held ministerial office while Labour were in power (indeed, he briefly defected to the Liberal Democrats during the Iraq war) but all of a sudden this was an asset rather than a liability. Labour MPs openly displayed their contempt for him from the beginning and the fact that he was “always a rebel” during the Blair and Brown years was taken to mean they could do the same when he was leader. The reason he was suggested was the uninspiring offers of the three leadership contenders then, one of whom (Andy Burnham) I called on this blog a “shop-minder”, i.e. a would-be Labour PM who treats 10 Downing Street as a Tory property in which he is a guest, just minding the shop for them. While still running for leadership, he made a speech at Ernst & Young in London praising financiers as “wealth creators” and lecturing against the “politics of envy”, Tory talking-points of the time. So, somebody was needed who could change the record but it should never have been Corbyn.

As someone on the fringes of the Left, having been involved in the anti-cuts and disability rights movement since 2010, the cult-like mentality of the Corbynistas was very, very noticeable. He could do no wrong for them. Often these were long-standing Labour activists who saw him, somehow, as a “great hope” despite evidence. But they acted as if, if you talked about victory enough, it would come. They presented trivial advances, such as Labour wins in civil parish council by-elections, as great victories and actual losses as wins. While the party was still clinging to the “respect the referendum” policy in late 2018, I saw people who had voted for Remain come out with the line that the advantages to ordinary people of being in the EU benefited only the middle class while real working-class people were crying out for jobs. (If we were to properly fund the education system rather than just the bare minimum, we could fund school exchanges and decent language tuition; British people are among the worst in Europe for learning other languages, and British school language tuition is some of the worst in Europe. It’s an ignorant attitude typical of the British mentality towards Europe.) It’s no wonder that when Labour lost the election, Labour Brexiteers rushed to blame it on the shift towards a People’s Vote, even though many people who canvassed door-to-door in the North say that in the houses they visited, people gave numerous reasons for turning away from Labour, more of them to do with Corbyn’s leadership. It rather reflects the usual far-left reaction to defeat: to assume that it was not because they were too extreme but because they were not extreme enough. 

It was the right thing to do to back a People’s Vote. Nobody who supported Brexit had anything to fear from it; if it remained the will of the people, it would have gained approval again. The landscape had changed since 2016, more was known about the realities of leaving the EU and the Tories had not come up with a decent withdrawal agreement that would suit any majority. Before the referendum, the most talked-about ‘solution’ was to rejoin EFTA and have a relationship with the EU similar to Norway’s; after, this was dismissed (including by some in the Labour party such as Chuka Umunna) as it would not allow us to refuse free movement, i.e. to close the doors to east European workers. It’s also known that mixed British-European families are being split up or leaving, that NHS workers have been leaving because of uncertainty or because of racist abuse by patients, that companies are declining to invest here, that the situation in Northern Ireland depends on there being no border to speak of for British or Irish citizens, that there is a substantial majority for Remaining in Scotland and that it is fuelling calls for another independence referendum which, if it goes ahead, might win. Twice we have seen signs on motorways warning of “changes to paperwork” for anyone travelling to the EU after a certain date; we are seeing preparations for long queues near to ports in Kent, which would not be needed if we simply remained in the EU. Yet the Tories will not admit, nor tell the people, that they are wrong, nor give the population the right to change their minds, as had many Tories now known as Brexiteers since the early 2010s when some of them said it was ridiculous, madness, folly to leave.

I mostly defended Corbyn on the anti-Semitism issue. Actually, for me this was not about Corbyn so much as about the principle of free speech on the issues surrounding it, including the rights of the Palestinians to live in peace and dignity in their own country and the rights of their supporters to support them. Many (not all, but many) of those targeted were Muslims who were expressing points of view that are common currency in the Muslim community and which do not include any suggestion of violence towards Jews just because they are Jews and some of those expressions were made years before they were in the running to be MPs. There has been a deliberate attempt to weed out and exclude Muslims from public life and it has claimed a number of casualties during this election campaign and indeed during the whole of Corbyn’s leadership and, whatever the criticisms from the Jewish mainstream that the party does not leap when they say ‘jump’, the party has been too timid in defending them. It is atrocious, quite simply, that anti-racist mechanisms and doctrines should be used to defend a foreign country which has nuclear weapons, whose founders and several of whose leaders were terrorists, which has used international terrorism — kidnappings and murders — to eliminate and silence its enemies, which oppresses the non-Jewish native population of the territory it claims, from criticism or condemnation.

Equally sickening was the spectacle of privileged, middle-class white people — some of them working for a newspaper with a history of witch hunts against Muslims, including the notorious foster care story from 2017, and some sharing their stories on a regular basis — affecting the air of a persecuted minority, complaining that Corbyn did not show them empathy, accusing Corbyn of ‘gaslighting’ them by not accepting their claims at face value. We hear continual reminders of their past persecutions and how strongly British Jews remember them despite the fact that none of them were in this country, not under governments of left nor right. Jews are not an oppressed minority in this country and should not be treated as one; they are well-represented in the political classes and in the media (in both of which they also have a lot of powerful friends), are not visible by skin colour and are not recent arrivals whose right to live here is in question at all.

It’s ironic also that people are criticising the Labour party for concentrating too much on middle-class voters and too little on the ‘traditional’ working class, while others criticise it for ignoring or belittling ‘conservative’, nativist sentiment among that working class. Most of the examples of ‘anti-Semitism’ which gave rise to the scandal would not have struck most people as racist; they were classed as such according to an ideological interpretation of racism, and lost the party votes because they caused dissension and division in the parliamentary party. I cannot imagine that most of working-class Britain would be greatly exercised about most of these particular incidents, certainly not to the extent that (we hope!) they would be about a politician or party that advocated racial violence or explicitly discriminatory policies or used “go home” rhetoric — bothered enough by them not to vote them into power. But, of course, we know that not to be the case. This was a dogma that was bought hook, line and sinker by the Labour Right and their sympathetic media, long enough to use it against Corbyn.

This election and the government it puts into power will be a chapter in the downfall of modern democracy. Like so many British governments of recent history, they have a false majority: some 43% of the vote which translates into more than half of the seats, yet is treated as an absolute mandate just because it gives them unfettered power. The matter of Brexit is now deemed to be ‘settled’ (I saw a Tory MP lecture Jeremy Corbyn about this in Parliament this morning, reminding him that he is supposed to be a democrat), yet the Tories and Brexit Party between them received only 45.6% of the vote while Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and Greens — all committed to remaining in or holding a further referendum — received 47.1%. The population is as divided as ever; only the make-up of Parliament has changed. Of course, the Labour Right has only itself to blame: they were in power themselves for 13 years, yet opposed electoral reform all the way. Winners don’t change the rules, after all.

As for who should succeed Corbyn: obviously it has to be a unifying figure, not someone implacably wedded to Corbyn’s vision but neither a throwback to the Blairite past. Blair’s time was 20 years ago, things have changed and nobody entitled to vote for the first time in the most recent election was born when Blair came to power (they were only seven years old when he left office — if there is no election until 2024, they will have been two). His mistakes are a large part of the reason for the mess we are in now. While they will not be in a position to stall Brexit, they need to be open to the possibility of rejoining if that is in Britain’s national interest (especially if Brexit is a disaster); they should be committed to as close a relationship as possible and to maintaining the rights of cross-border families. They should also have a plan to regenerate the areas neglected by Thatcher-Blairism with real industry, not handouts, infrastructure projects (which, by nature, do not last) and service-sector jobs. They must not capitulate to any demands to pursue nativism or anti-intellectualism as a means of ‘reconnecting’ with people who get their ideas from tabloids; Labour cannot win elections without a broad appeal and this includes to the young, well-educated and ethnic minorities. If Labour goes down that road, all Boris Johnson has to do to win a sizeable chunk of the ethnic vote in 2024 is keep a lid on the worst excesses of racism; his term in office has to just not be an obvious disaster, as was the case with his mayoralty (I emphasise obvious). Finally, Labour really has to be committed to electoral reform, as we must never again see a situation where a leader committed to a ruinous policy and with an aversion to the concept of rights is gifted a majority because of the vagaries of the voting system and his main opponent’s shortcomings. 

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