Who really lost, and why?

A map of which areas voted Remain and Leave in 2016 (either/or, not by percentage).
A map of Remain and Leave votes in the 2016 referendum by district (leave: blue, remain: yellow). A percentage-based map can be found here.

By now it’s becoming obvious to most people that 13 years of Tory rule, with or without Lib Dem or DUP help, has been a disaster for almost everyone except the super-rich, and at every turn, every group among the losers has their own theory about why they lost and who is to blame. In 2019, when Corbyn’s Labour party lost dramatically with the Tories gaining a majority of more than 80 seats from a previous minority aided by the DUP, one might have hoped that Corbyn’s supporters might have noticed that their man was part of the problem, but no. In particular, the 2016 referendum and that election were won by a lot of factors that came together, but everyone seems to blame one thing or another, and it’s never themselves or their own position.

In 2016, Britain voted narrowly (as in less than 52%) to leave the EU. This followed the Tories gaining a majority in 2015, having previously led a coalition with the Lib Dems for five years since 2010. In 2015, three things were principally blamed for the Lib Dems’ loss and the Tories’ majority. One was the Lib Dems’ performance in the Coalition, which alienated a lot of their former progressive vote. Another was voters’ fears about a Labour-SNP coalition after the collapse of their vote in Scottish opinion polls, which was borne out on election day. The third was what was seen as a left-wing election campaign by the Labour party, Ed Miliband’s betrayal of his brother, and other doubts about his character and his leadership potential. Lib Dems were apt to blame the SNP issue for the loss of a large number of seats in the rural south-west; it’s undeniable that the Coalition did cost the Lib Dems a lot of seats in London, some of which they have since regained (e.g. Kingston, Twickenham), some not (e.g. Bermondsey) and Labour supporters often blamed former Lib Dem voters for handing the election to the Tories. But none of these things on their own are why the Tories won; the factor nobody mentions is the Tories’ promise of a referendum on EU membership. People wanted that referendum, and both the Tories and UKIP (then under Nigel Farage’s control) increased their vote in 2015. While I found Miliband’s dithering, timid performance exasperating (in particular, his failure to dispel doubts about the SNP, which he could have done by ruling out a further independence referendum during that parliament), I suspect he could have done everything right and still lost that election.

The 2016 referendum was won so narrowly by Leave that any one of a number of things could have been different and the result would have been different. Remainers were fond of blaming Russian-backed online propaganda and Leave campaign overspending, but if that really tipped the scales, it was because other things had primed the scales to be tippable. Why was it that in under 20 years, we had gone from Labour winning an election by a landslide on a pro-Maastricht platform, and 15 years since they won a further respectable majority on the same ticket (and other pro-EU parties were well-represented, including the Lib Dems and Scots and Welsh nationalists), to voting to leave? Decades of anti-Europe propaganda from the Tory commercial press had played a part, arguably more importantly than the propaganda on Facebook or even the mendacious Leave posters about, say, Turkey joining the EU.

What nobody — neither the pro-EU, left-leaning middle class nor the right-wing pundits who insist it was all about sovereignty or the communitarian values of the up-country working class that the “metropolitan elite” are so out of touch with — was admitting was that British membership of the EU hadn’t served a lot of people very well. The map (above right) of which areas voted which way said it all; outside of big cities, it was the working and lower-middle classes that tended to vote Leave while more affluent areas in the South, a strip running from Stroud to Tunbridge Wells, and a few other places, notably university cities, voted Remain; yet Remainers remained in denial, insisting the Leave vote was middle-class and that the “centre of Brexit was Essex”. Our engagement with Europe, typical of British engagement with the wider world, had been to the benefit of business, especially big business, rather than ordinary people; this is why we remained out of the Social Chapter when we first signed up to Maastricht, and why we remained out of the Schengen accords which would have provided a tangible benefit to many ordinary people when travelling abroad (even though it is less important than if you live near a border in mainland Europe, especially in the Low Countries). The turning point, in my view, was when Britain exempted itself from the usual practice when weaker economies joined the EU, and allowed unrestricted worker migration from the new member states in 2004; the upshot is that they all came to Britain and Ireland, while otherwise they would have been distributed across all of western Europe, or working for companies at home that had benefited from inward investment and new markets as a result of joining. The influx benefited businesses who wanted cheap labour, and did not benefit workers who needed good jobs with prospects, not banal shiftwork which is only attractive to people who intend to do it temporarily to send money home.

Liberal academics are quick to deride working-class opposition to this kind of large-scale worker immigration; when they don’t just dismiss it as racism, they put it down to the “lump of labour fallacy”, the notion that there is only so much work to go round, when in fact work generates more economic activity which generates more jobs. What this overlooks is that the new jobs are likely to go to people like those who did the earlier jobs, which won’t be British workers if there is a stereotype that they are lazy, or demanding, and they have been given no opportunity to disprove the stereotypes. It was not just a question of “they’re taking our jobs”; the large reserve army of labour freed business from having to take a chance on or invest in British talent. They were able to refuse to hire newly qualified staff, for example (such as lorry drivers), often because of more favourable insurance premiums if they did not, a practice facilitated by a ready supply of staff. Without this, British membership of the EU would never have come under serious challenge and ‘Brexit’ would never have become a word, let alone a reality.

This brings us to the 2019 election. I see people claiming from time to time on Twitter and elsewhere reminding us that Corbyn won more votes, or a bigger proportion of them, than Gordon Brown, or Ed Miliband, or Tony Blair in 2005 or whenever. The fact is: Corbyn lost, twice. He lost for lots of reasons. One was the perception that he was antisemitic. Much of this was untrue, and in the context of an election campaign where the alternative was a Tory party led by an open racist which had unjustly deported Black British citizens, hypocritical and unfair. A lot of the accusations were not even about Corbyn himself but various ordinary party members, or nothing to do with attacks on Jews but with views on Israel; the definition of ‘antisemitism’ was one dictated by pro-Israel ‘mainstream’ Jewish community organisations and much of it bore no resemblance to what would normally be seen as racism. The witch hunt has moved on, targeting prominent Muslims elsewhere (e.g. Shaima Dallali in the NUS) as it did in the Labour party. But it wasn’t the only reason he lost.

Corbyn had never taken front-bench roles in government or opposition before he was elected as leader. He was not taken seriously by Labour MPs. He was, and is, rightly seen as weak on foreign policy, especially Russia. He is part of a faction that has an instinctive hostility to what it sees as ‘imperialism’, but only western imperialism, that reviles dictators who are supported by western powers, but not those associated with Russia or others, including Bashar al-Assad. When he opposed western intervention in Syria, there were multiple resignations from his front bench; if he had been PM by the time of the Ukraine invasion, his reaction would have had similar results. Take his recent interview with Lewis Goodall (and with previous interviews on the subject); he pontificates on the need for a ‘settlement’ which would be at Ukraine’s expense. This rather reminds me of certain teachers I knew at school who, confronted with obvious bullying, treated it as a ‘dispute’ and conveniently ‘resolved’ it in favour of the bigger boy. There is an obvious whiff of cowardice about this stance; sometimes it’s not a dispute, it’s an aggression, and needs to be confronted and faced down. (Goodall also quotes him as saying that, if elected, his first act would have been to “abolish homelessness overnight”. Clearly, he is not lacking in self-esteem; although drastically reducing street homelessness is an achievable goal and was achieved during the Blair years, it did not happen overnight.)

Yet his dramatic loss in 2019 is commonly put down to his adoption of the second-referendum policy in the run-up to the election. He might have won if he had stuck to his “respect the referendum result” policy, even though this would also have cost him votes elsewhere because, among other reasons, Theresa May had previously cited Labour votes in 2017 as votes for “respecting the referendum” and therefore for Brexit and because he never spelled out what outcome his version of Brexit would mean. His cult followers blame pro-EU Labour MPs whom they accuse of stabbing him in the back, as well as what they call the ‘FBPE’ faction on Twitter; they cannot fathom that Corbyn, to whom some of them display a Messianic level of devotion, unable to hear anything negative said about him, was a vote loser who was not seen as credible, or a potential prime minister, and who led a divided party.

I know a lot of people who admire Jeremy Corbyn, who supported him because they saw him as standing for social justice, as someone who would repair the damage of the (by then) nine years of Tory austerity, and who appeared to be a friend to poor people, working people and ethnic minorities at home. Not everyone who supported him was a cultist, but some were. I don’t blame Muslims for supporting him when the alternative was Boris Johnson whose hatred of Muslims had been made plain during his editorship of the Spectator in the 2000s (though not greatly evident while he was mayor of London, admittedly), though those with connections to Syria have a much dimmer view of him. I don’t believe he would have made any worse a PM than Boris Johnson; we might even still be in the EU if the second referendum had gone the other way, and the idea might well have been buried as a result of Covid. Either way, we might not have witnessed the obvious corruption and contempt for the rules everyone had to live by at the height of the outbreak, nor the scandal of unchecked river pollution; we wouldn’t be governed by a cabal of super-rich financiers with no loyalty but to their pockets, mostly eyeing jobs abroad once out of office. Sadly, it says a lot about Corbyn’s credibility that people preferred to vote for Johnson, already known to be an unserious, dishonest chancer and bigot, than for him.

Image source: Mirrorme22Nilfanion, via Wikimedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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