By Tad Tietze
The significance of the Labour Party’s defeat in the UK election goes well beyond the scale of the electoral drubbing it received, holding onto fewer seats than in its 1983 catastrophe. A long series of heartland working class Labour seats fell for the first time in many decades (or ever) to the Tories: Blyth Valley, Sedgefield, Bolsover, and many more. Put in a broader historical context this election confirms the terminal condition of British Labourism just as much as bigger electoral setbacks signalled the deaths of once-powerful parties claiming to represent the working classes in the last 10 years — from Greece’s PASOK to France’s Socialist Party and even Germany’s once-mighty SPD. There is no coming back from this one in any meaningful sense.
The outcome confirmed how the 2016 Brexit referendum had driven realignment of UK politics on whether the Leave vote would be delivered by the political class, with Labour losing heavily in traditional, working-class strongholds outside London where the Leave vote had been strong, mostly to the Tories. Meanwhile in Scotland, which had voted strongly against Brexit, Labour was reduced in what was once a heartland to just a single seat, down from 56 in Tony Blair’s historic 1997 victory and 41 as recently as 2010.
Perhaps most painfully for the UK left, which almost unanimously threw itself headlong in the controversial radical left-wing Corbyn experiment (even if formally standing outside it, as some radical groups did), the disaster comes after the false dawn of 2017. In that election Labour did much better than expected in what looked like a revival of the old two-party, class-based British electoral set-up (their combined vote was the highest since 1970), and in which the Conservatives under Theresa May lost their majority and were forced to govern in alliance with Northern Irish Unionists. Relatively unknown to the public, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigning energy allowed him to appear as an agent of change. In 2019 virtually every voter knew who Corbyn was, and they didn’t much like him, as indicated by record negative net satisfaction ratings in opinion polls.
The problems for Labour are three-fold. First was its positioning around Brexit. To understand this a bit of background is needed. The 2016 referendum was called by Tory prime minister David Cameron to solve what he considered a “party management” issue. The Tories had been bedevilled by internal ructions over EU membership since the 1990s, with the issue standing as an avatar for the party’s identity crisis in an era where the end of the Cold War and the decline of the trade unions had robbed Tories of historic coordinates with which to define themselves. Rising support for the right-wing, anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the early 2010s had emboldened a series of backbench revolts over Europe in the context of the Tories being unable to recover their former electoral strength even with Labour’s loss in 2010 and while driving through unpopular austerity measures. The Leave result, unexpected in elite circles, was a shattering popular rebuff of the Westminster political class, over three quarters of which wanted to remain in the EU. Perhaps just as importantly, the vote was seen by most Leave voters as “taking back control” of politics. It is this slogan, formulated by Leave strategist (and now top Boris Johnson adviser) Dominic Cummings, that underpinned a surge in turnout for the referendum in working class areas where abstention had grown during the Tony Blair years.
The political class reacted with a series of attempts to — covertly or overtly — re-establish its authority. This included the mobilisation of nasty, condescending tropes against Leave voters, court cases to establish the legal supremacy of Parliament over any government trying to implement the vote, and Theresa May’s negotiation of a watered-down Brexit deal with the EU that would have left the UK under many EU rules while having no power to change them. All these were part a concerted effort to smother and perhaps even overturn the referendum result. Almost all the parties, including Labour, had gone to the polls in 2017 promising to deliver Brexit, and yet very soon all kinds of provisos and doubts were being raised by MPs across partisan divides, and a “People’s Vote” campaign was pushing for a second referendum to “reconfirm” (but in reality reverse) the 2016 result. Politicians’ insistence on the right of Parliament to veto any deal led to a series of catastrophic defeats for May’s deal in the House of Commons, as well as “indicative votes” that showed that while majorities of MPs could be found to oppose any number of permutations, there was majority support for pretty much nothing on offer.
Opinion polls showed that Brexit became the key polarising political issue in the country, and this drove substantial realignment in 2017 with the Tories making inroads into traditional working class Labour seats and Labour making gains in better-off constituencies that had voted Remain in part because it was offering a softer version of Brexit.
After its unexpectedly strong showing in 2017, the Labour leadership started to edge closer to becoming a force for stopping Brexit, despite Corbyn’s inner circle and a series of key backers in the union bureaucracy resisting the tide on the entirely reasonable basis that the party’s electorate was far more split on the issue than its overwhelmingly Remainer membership and activist layer. The result was the sense of betrayal over Brexit was especially acute among many “rusted on” working class voters who had seen in the referendum a chance to reassert some control over politics, precisely because their traditional party now seemed to be part of the charge to deny their popular sovereignty. The alienation could not be more extreme.
Labour’s second problem was in the contradictions of the Corbyn project. Corbyn won the party leadership in 2015 thanks to changed rules that gave members and paying supporters exclusive control over the choice. His campaign and victory produced a growth surge for the party, making it (at around half a million members) the largest political party in Europe. In the context of despair over the Tory win in 2015, a victory for a previously marginal hard-left candidate infamous for sticking to his principles was seen by most of the left — including its most radical elements — as indicative of a potentially momentous left-wing revival in British politics. Large numbers of self-identifying revolutionaries and Marxists threw their support behind Corbynism in one way or another, many joining the Labour Party after having in the past been highly critical of “parliamentary reformism”. The reality, however, was that while the radical left could win outsize influence in a party that was a husk of its former self, it had no means to overcome the social vacuum at the heart of a decayed Labourism.
This configuration set up a dynamic in which Corbyn was reviled by most Labour MPs but supported by a large majority of members, most of the party’s committed activists and several key union leaders. Between 2015 and the 2017 election he was the subject of white-anting and coup attempts but held on because he had the numbers where they counted most. After 2017 his parliamentary foes largely resigned themselves to working with what seemed to be an electorally credible leader.
For all of the left’s enthusiasm for Corbynism it had no ability to deliver on dreams of fundamentally transforming UK politics (let alone society) in a radical direction. Talk of Corbyn Labour being a social movement in gestation was not matched by any significant revival of social struggle in the UK. Indeed, levels of industrial action have been at lows not seen since the late nineteenth century, and there has been no evidence that Labour has driven a rise in on-the-ground campaigning separate from official politics. The tensions in the party have meant that high levels of activist energy have been pulled towards internal wrangling and, later, purely electoral work, rather than any kind of “movement building”.
Internal tensions were perhaps most acutely expressed in the party’s anti-Semitism crisis. Despite a large number of serious allegations being made by Labour MPs, staffers and members, Corbyn failed to decisively admit (or for that matter deny) the problem and then seemed to drag his feet on making serious change to party processes to deal with it. His defensiveness on the issue, not helped by evidence he and his inner circle had repeatedly intervened to protect factional allies accused of anti-Semitic statements and behaviour, was like an albatross around Labour’s neck. This stance was encouraged by activists and social media warriors who saw in every accusation another “right-wing smear” in a conspiracy to undermine the Labour leader. Talking up Corbyn’s record as an anti-racist campaigner or exposing Tory Islamophobia only made it look like the party was trying to change the subject. Any look at some of the language described in reports on the problem speaks more than anything to Labour’s bizarre internal world, where “Zionist” was thought to be a reasonable epithet to direct against those you politically disagree with. For voters not privy to the febrile Labour bubble this must have seemed as at best bizarre and at worst clear evidence of a lack of seriousness in stamping out anti-Jewish prejudice.
While many on the left saw in Labour’s relatively radical (for the UK) big-spending statist programme a serious rupture with “neoliberalism” and “austerity”, full of policies that were in themselves popular with the public, in fact the program looked unrealistic to many voters, who would have been sceptical of Labour being able to deliver it given the constrained realities of state finances. It also seems likely to me that public scepticism was exacerbated both by the policy program’s “created by central office” feel and Labour’s inability to deliver on Brexit, making its other promises seem even less plausible. Finally, there is the simple fact that the radicalisation of Labour has not happened at a time of radical change in public attitudes, making Corbynism look ideologically very far out of step with the vast bulk of voters who still hold more moderate views. These are similar contradictions to those which have humbled other left projects in recent years, most catastrophically SYRIZA’s decision to implement harsh austerity in Greece when it had no social base to do otherwise.
In the end, though, the contradiction at the heart of Corbynism was its inability to address Labour’s third problem, the long-term loss of its former social base, a decline that — ironically — had created the possibility for a radical left-wing Labour leader to be elected in the first place. Labourism’s base was in the bureaucracy of a mass, powerful but relatively conservative trade union movement, one that by WWII was deeply integrated within the political structures of British capitalism. Union leaders and Labour MPs dominated the party, with the constituency members a relatively weak component until more recently. The more recent change in that balance has been driven by the decline of the unions as a social force, which was accelerated by their wage-cutting Social Contract with the Labour government of 1974-1979. Despite the subsequent mythology about Thatcher successfully practicing “hegemonic neoliberalism”, she really mainly depended on Labour’s travails during the 1980s to protect her from her own unpopularity.
With the Tories bereft of an agenda and losing their reputation for good economic management after the currency crisis of 1992, they lost to Tony Blair’s New Labour, a project leveraging public discontent with the now hollowed-out left-right politics of the past. This was Labour discarding core aspects of Labourism but while Blair comfortably won three elections, helped by the Tories’ identity crisis and internal ructions, his modernising project did nothing to overcome the decline of Labour’s former bases. While Blair made much of reforms to manage public withdrawal from engagement with a disliked political system — e.g. electoral reforms, devolution, a greater reliance on technocratic decision-making and greater integration into the EU — all of these measures only worsened popular anti-political sentiment. As the UK Democratic Audit grimly concluded in 2012:
Almost all available indicators suggest that representative democracy is in longterm, terminal decline, but no viable alternative model of democracy currently exists. All measures of popular engagement with, and attitudes towards, representative democracy show a clear decline since the 1970s. Whether the measures we adopt are turnout in elections, membership of political parties, voter identification with political parties, or public faith in the system of government, the pattern is the same.
These processes were driving the possibility of realignment and fragmentation of entrenched political arrangements, something that was presaged in Labour’s 2015 collapse in Scotland, exacerbated by its decision to line up with the Westminster establishment to oppose Scottish independence in the 2014 referendum. Moreover, the old markers of social class were becoming less important in voting patterns, with Labour losing working-class voters in 2015 and 2017 and the Conservatives sweeping up significant numbers of them in 2017 especially.
The great irony was that Corbynism, a left-wing project drawing on the historic image of Labour as being the party of the working class, the poor and oppressed minorities, controlled a party that was more disconnected than ever from its historic base of support in the electorate. For all the talk on the left that Corbyn Labour was about “rebuilding class solidarity”, organised class solidarity in British society has been at historic lows with the decline of the unions and other civil society organisations. Labour electioneering was never about solidarity, but about getting atomised voters to support its political project. Labour’s membership surge also blinded activists as to how these numbers couldn’t even begin to make up for the loss of bases in a once-powerful mass union movement in terms of giving the party social weight and relevance. Neither could any “radical manifesto” substitute for social institutions that are long gone.
Finally, it is worth considering Boris Johnson’s achievement here. When the two-party system fell off a cliff in 2019 and briefly became a four-party system because of voter discontent with its handling of Brexit — with the Tories, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Nigel Farage’s newly formed Brexit Party all on about 20 percent in the polls and the Tories beaten into fifth place in the EU Parliament elections in late May — Johnson ran for the Tory leadership clearly stating that only by delivering Brexit could the party beat back an “existential” threat posed by the Brexit Party. So bad was the crisis that large numbers of Tory members were willing to see Farage lead the Tories or for the UK break up in order to get Brexit done.
Ideologically amorphous, a socially-liberal “One Nation” Tory, a provocateur whose trolling left him exposed to overheated claims he was a racist or homophobe, Johnson was no “right-wing populist” (nor even an anti-politician) despite the desperation of opponents and commentators to squeeze him (and the Leave vote) into their preferred narrative of the age. Johnson was a political insider seeking to restore the authority of politics by ruthlessly delivering on a democratic mandate, and not a firebrand trying to tear down the political class in the name of the will of the people. He was certainly chaotic in style, yet in fact was trying to restore political order in a situation where it had imploded because of its own detachment from society.
Johnson positioned Brexit as not just something that he had to deliver because the public had voted for it but because getting it done would both end the paralysis afflicting Westminster and unleash the potential for politics to deliver for society more generally. Meanwhile the majority-Remain political class had only a negative agenda, of trying to delay, hold back, smother and even overturn Brexit. They did this by using a series of unorthodox parliamentary manoeuvres in which they trapped Johnson in government but without a majority to pursue his agenda, unable to call an election, in the name of preventing a “no deal” Brexit. In this they had the support of the overwhelming bulk of the left, with many radicals twisting themselves into knots to extoll EU membership and some of them joining in the denigration of the “racist” “left behind” voters who had voted for Brexit and were now abandoning Labour.
Johnson upended their expectations by securing a deal with EU leaders, thereby exposing their parliamentary games as an attempt to overturn the popular mandate. This political approach meant that his deal, only a bit more “Brexity” than Theresa May’s, was welcomed by voters in a way that hers had been rejected. This further allowed Johnson to outmanoeuvre a real anti-politician, Nigel Farage, whose Brexit Party went rapidly from existential threat to irrelevancy. Finally, the Tories pushed a relatively high spending, pro public services agenda, seeking to attract working class Labour voters who might once have seen the Tories’ pro-market and pro-austerity image as a bridge too far. Of course, many on the left will say this is all smoke and mirrors, but that distracts from the fact that this was an election far more about a massive rejection of Labour in its former heartlands than widespread enthusiasm for the Tory alternative.
Tory electoral vulnerability was laid bare when the party’s vote collapsed earlier in 2019 and there is no reason to believe that Johnson’s government can reverse the long-term decline of the Tory social base. We live in an era where declining social bases have led to socially weightless parties, new and old. Despite winning a crushing landslide, beyond a popular mandate to “Get Brexit Done” Johnson relies mainly on the implosion of his opponents. Even with Labourism effectively over, further political crack-up and realignment in the coming years will be virtually impossible for the Tories to side-step.
What I think is very clear is that Labour will find itself unable to benefit from the conflagrations ahead, its contradictions having now caught up with it and left it in terminal condition, after having dragged much of what counts for the left in Britain with it.
Tad Tietze is currently in the late stages of writing The Great Derangement: Political Crisis and the Rise of Anti-Politics for Verso Books.