Corbyn, Brexit, and Labour’s civil war

A 'Brexit flag' with an EU flag and Union flag being torn apart.

I still follow a number of Labour ‘left’ accounts on Twitter and among these there is a common explanation for the 2019 election result, which is that Corbyn’s decision to adopt a second referendum on Brexit as a policy was the cause of, if not the result itself, then at least the loss of a large part of the “Red wall” to the Tories. The ‘proof’ is that, while still promising to “respect the referendum” in 2017, the party secured more than 40% of the vote and came within a few thousand votes of being able to form a government, while after supporting a second referendum, they lost hand over fist in Leave-voting “Old Labour” constituencies in the North. They tout a single poll which supposedly found that Corbyn himself was a deciding factor for a tiny proportion of the voters who switched while Brexit was a factor for something like 45% or more. I find this explanation doubtful, and still less than the idea that it is the whole story of why they lost so dramatically.

Put quite simply, it’s a standard trope of Labour Left thinking: when Labour lose, it’s because it wasn’t ‘left’ enough. It was the same thinking which prompted Labour’s lurch to the left in the early 1980s which led to the major defeat of 1983. They know that Jeremy Corbyn was on the Labour Left in the 1980s and was always opposed to the EEC and EU and it’s widely perceived that his pro-Remain stance in 2016 was tepid; his change of stance in 2019 was seen as him “not being him enough” and “caving in” to opponents (read Blairites or Starmerites) in the party. They ignore the fact that many of Corbyn’s supporters in the party are young people who have little or no memory of the IRA campaign of the 1970s to the 1990s, for example, and thus are not put off as older people are by Corbyn’s association with them, and are often opposed to leaving the EU: young people often are, as it means that their prospects will be narrowed, and their travels will be made more difficult.

The Tories won 44% of the vote as a result of the Brexit Party not contesting seats where there were Tory Leaver incumbents. With the exception of the Ulster and Democratic Unionists, who do not compete with the Tories anyway, the pro-Brexit (mainstream) vote was largely united. That left three, sometimes four in the case of Wales and Scotland, parties opposing Brexit or at least supporting a further referendum standing against each other. In some of these constituencies, a single anti-Brexit candidate could have defeated a Tory insurgent: for example, in Blyth Valley, which was won by a Tory with 42.7% of the vote, the combined Labour, Lib Dem and Green vote was 49%. In Burnley, where a Tory newcomer won with 40.3%, the combined Labour and Lib Dem votes alone were 45.9%. This was not the case everywhere; in some “red wall” constituencies, the Conservative candidate secured more than 50% of the vote and in some of those, a Brexit Party candidate additionally polled more than 5%. In many safe Tory seats, the Tory candidate won well over 50% of the vote, even in constituencies which voted to remain in 2016 (e.g. Newbury, Henley, Tunbridge Wells). But the vote share of anti-Brexit parties (Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens) in England alone was 49.9%; the Tories and Brexit Party’s combined was 49.2%. In Wales, the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru combined polled over 50%. The reason the Tories won was division, and this was a product partly of their usual sectarianism but also, very largely, of distrust of Corbyn and the people around him. (There was a pro-Brexit alliance, but the Labour party refused to participate; only nine of its candidates were elected and only one who was not the incumbent, namely Sarah Olney in Richmond Park.)

Another favourite claim is that Corbyn’s vote tally was larger than some of Tony Blair’s. A good example is this tweet by “Damian from Brighton” last Sunday:

The problem with this is that it fails to reflect anything about the changing times. Blair’s second and third election victory were 19 and 15 years ago and the population will have increased since then. Blair had to contend with two significant opponents in England (three in Scotland and Wales) as the Liberal Democrats were still a significant force; in other words, his opponents were more divided. This is why Blair was able to win a majority in Parliament on the back of 36% of the national vote. A large body of the Lib Dems’ support has dissipated as a result of their participation in the 2010-15 coalition but also because of the Tories’ promise of the EU referendum in both 2010 and 2015 and their “yellow wall” in the south-west has fallen entirely; they are now only to be found in a few prosperous towns (e.g. St Albans) and London suburbs. These vote tallies also do not include the Tories’ vote tallies, which were 13,966,454 in 2019 and 13,636,684 in 2017: more than Corbyn’s on both occasions, in other words (and their vote share increased by much less than Labour’s decrease). This is not a US-style election where you can win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by more than 3 million votes.

There is much to criticise about Corbyn’s campaign, the behaviour and attitudes of his followers during his leadership and since. They blame everyone but themselves and are wedded to conspiracy theories about why Labour lost two elections, the second by a very large margin. However, the party’s Right, the remnants of Blair’s movement, share a large part of the blame for the party’s current predicament. Any leader in 2017 and 2019 would have been hindered by Blair’s legacy: his decision to allow hundreds of thousands of migrant workers in from eastern Europe, contrary to the decision of almost all the other prior EU member states and the policy at the time of the Spanish and Portuguese accession, where their workers could travel freely but not work in existing member states for a period of years until their economies had caught up. As Blair had treated the northern white working-class vote as being “in the bag” and believed they had “nowhere to go”, he left the northern “rust belt” intact and made no attempt to revive heavy industry there. Neither the Remain campaign in 2016 nor the Labour party in 2019 had anything to sell to northern working-class voters; Britain had never engaged with Europe for their benefit but for that of big business, especially the finance industry. Blair also dissipated his support among voters inclined towards social justice with a contemptuous attitude toward civil liberties and repeated outbursts of meanness from senior politicians before and after the 1997 election; he kowtowed before the Tory press on immigration and led us into a disastrous war because he was unwilling to say no to George W Bush, allowing the Lib Dem vote to be built up and later sold to Cameron. His admirers remind us again and again that he won three general election victories but his two respectable victories were 19 and 23 years ago; his third was only possible because of the strength of the Liberal Democrats and he did not cultivate credible leaders to succeed him, which is why the party lost every election after he stepped down. Apart from the equalities reforms of his first term, his legacy was so thin that it could be torn apart in one parliamentary term.

Blair’s followers are arrogant. They have contempt for dissenters, which includes most of the party membership currently (though this may have changed since Starmer became leader). They believe they own the party. They are blind to the limitations of their model: Blair’s charisma only carried him so far, and nobody who is around now has anything like it anyway. The 1997 model cannot be redeployed in the 21st century as the world has moved on. We even see them imitating Corbyn’s cult following by praising Starmer’s performance which anyone can see is weak; they call his questions ‘forensic’, for example, when they are nothing but common parliamentary point-scoring. Although, as discussed in a previous article, opinion polls now are of limited value as there is no prospect of an election any time soon, Labour’s approval ratings are vastly below the Tories’, contrary to Starmer’s supporters’ expectations. This does not mean they would be greatly higher if Corbyn were still leader; it means that the public does not trust an obviously divided party, much as it did not trust the Conservatives in 1997.

Labour will never recover the trust of the general public, let alone win an election, until its two warring factions stop blaming each other, and indeed everyone but themselves, for the state of the party. They both have to face up to the role they each played. They have less than five years to do this as Boris Johnson is not another Blair and his bumbling personality will not carry him through multiple elections.

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