A lot of commentators were keen to make comparisons between this British general election and the last one in 2017 and they were right to do so—to an extent. Brexit overshadowed both. All three parties, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats struggled with its meaning and will continue to do so.
At the heart of Brexit is a paradox. The Leave vote to take back control meant handing it back to a political class that wanted no such thing. Everyone says politics is about gaining power, but in the 2016 referendum all the parties in Westminster, except the small Democratic Unionist Party, campaigned hard to continue ceding that power to Brussels.
It has often been said that Brexit was a rejection of the political system, but what was destabilising about it was that it was actually the opposite. It was a call for the political class to take control and the political system to revive itself. This was why it was so destructive. The vote not only forced the political parties to defy the voters’ demand to “take back control” but do so for the most debased reason, they were both unwilling and, almost, incapable of doing so.
This was apparent immediately after the 2016 vote from the supposed victors, when the attempt by leaders of the Leave campaign, Johnson, Gove and Leadsom, to take on the leadership of the Conservatives rapidly descended into farce, while Nigel Farage’s UKIP party disintegrated, forcing him to jump ship. It was left to the Remainers under May to recapture the Conservative party and the Brexit negotiations with the EU that, behind the rhetoric, were usually all too ready to make concessions. The most extraordinary of these was to give Northern Ireland a separate status from the rest of the United Kingdom, something that the British government and military had conducted a twenty-year counter-insurgency operation to prevent. Ending free movement was the only really recognisable part of Brexit in May’s deal as she, like most Remainers, thought that was what the Leave was mainly about. Leave voters hated the deal.
Nevertheless May’s strategy was to take advantage of the dilemma that she knew Parliament was in—that while it could not bring itself to support Brexit, it neither had the will to overturn the result nor the nerve to risk facing the public again with another referendum. So despite her deal losing by historic margins, she kept battering the House with it on the reasonable expectation that eventually Parliament would have to give in.
Unfortunately for her, the public intervened. When the March 2019 deadline was missed the public’s patience suddenly snapped and the major parties’ polling went into a tailspin as the Remain vote went to the pro-European Liberal Democrats while the Leave vote went to Farage’s newly formed Brexit party. At the European elections just two months later, the Brexit party triumphed while Labour and Conservatives both failed to reach the top two in a national election for the first time in modern political history. The Tories slumped to less than 9%, the lowest national vote since the party’s formation in 1834.
Boris Johnson’s second attempt at the leadership was premised less on delivering Brexit than saving the Conservative party, seeing delivering Brexit as the means to do so. From the start, the strategy was to win back Tory Leave voters from the Brexit party by talking up a threat of No Deal and expelling Tory Remainers, even if it meant destroying his control of Parliament. The calculation appears to have been to then force Parliament to an election by making it increasingly difficult for the opposition parties to turn down what they should naturally want. Eventually, the Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists took the bait and the Labour party was forced to follow and agree to the December poll. The Conservative strategy worked: it recovered their Leave voters and replaced lost Tory Remain voters with Labour Leave voters from Labour’s heartland.
For Labour, however, recovery was much more difficult. Historically, Labour had been a Eurosceptic party, especially on its left, but shifted to a pro-European stance as its union base was side-lined in the 1980s, choosing instead to look more to EU political structures to pursue its agenda. The dilemma posed by the Leave vote in 2016 was especially acute for Labour not just because it was structurally even less capable than the Conservatives of disentangling from the EU political structures and ‘take back control’, but that the demand to do so had predominantly come from working class voters. While many of these voters had stopped voting for Labour, or anything else, years ago (two thirds of Labour voters voted Remain) they lay dormant in Labour’s strongest seats, the so-called ‘Red Wall’ in the north of England. The achievement of the Conservative campaign was to get these dormant voters to come out and vote Conservative, much as they had encouraged them to vote Leave in 2016.
Labour’s abandonment of its previous commitment to deliver Brexit was the critical difference between the 2019 election and the one in 2017 that had seen Corbyn Labour make a surprisingly strong showing. By failing to give a clear line on Brexit, it undermined everything else. A seemingly radical program of change becomes reduced to just a bunch of nice stuff if Labour could not do anything but propose ‘dither and delay’, as Johnson called it, on the number one issue of Brexit. All of Corbyn’s political negatives, that had been present and known in 2017, such as his past rad-left associations, came to the fore when there was not much else to him.
A brief comment should be made here (it deserves its own post) about one particular weakness of Corbyn, namely his poor management of anti-Semitism in the party and his past habit of associating with, and sometimes defending, virulent anti Semites. There is considerable confusion about the anti-Semitism in Labour (and appearing elsewhere in the European left) not least because parallels are too readily made with past anti-Semitism on the left, let alone the far right. However, Labour’s anti-Semitism in 2019, while carrying tropes of one of the oldest prejudices, has roots that are thoroughly modern: mainly the decomposition of one of Europe’s largest and most established social democratic parties. It is one form of the conspiracy driven view of the world that is becoming increasing common on the left whether it is Russian bots, media moguls, tax-avoiding billionaires or rapacious hedge funds or, for some, ‘Zionists’—all summed up in the few that Corbyn likes to counterpose to the many. This is primarily an internal political disease, and that is why it causes Labour such agonised confusion, as the party grapples to understand how awful it appears to everyone else.
The erosion of working-class support has been a long running problem for Labour over the last 30 years, including the ‘successful’ 2017 campaign. Labour’s 2019 campaign just accelerated it. But it did so in a way that caused a psychological shock with the loss of heartland seats on what appeared a radical program targeted at them. Labour is likely to plunge into an acrimonious period from which it may not recover. At the least, Corbyn’s wish to hang on to the spring may be ambitious.
For the Conservatives, they have launched themselves irreversibly into Brexit, if only to save themselves. There is a recognition that having done so it now cannot stop. The lesson of the last thirty years, and the whole reason the European Union exists in the first place, is that there is no real sustainable basis for a national-based politics, or at least it is now much more difficult. It is likely that Johnson will negotiate a soft Brexit with the EU, if he can, that may look somewhat like the May deal even if without the Northern Irish ‘backstop’. As he was London mayor, Johnson has always been more Global Britain than Little England
This election also demonstrated what we have seen in Australia for the last thirty years, that class loyalty to political parties is eroding. The gain of northern working-class voters has now made adapting to this erosion of class-based politics a pressing electoral necessity for the Conservatives. This was underscored by Johnson immediately after the election with a warning to his party that it had to change, reinforced with an early visit to the newly gained northern seats, and his Blairite tagging of his ‘people’s government’.
Class and nation have been the two foundations of the Conservatives, arguably the world’s most successful democratic political party for the last 180 years. It is now unclear what will fill the gap beyond a large spending commitment. But at least, for a while, against Labour, it will look good in comparison.