Labour's Tale of Woe: Reflections on the British General Election

In last Thursday’s British general election, the Conservative Party won a resounding majority of 356 seats to Labour’s 203, in what proved to be the Labour Party’s worst election defeat since 1935. The Conservatives saw significant gains in Britain’s Leave-voting constituencies in the North East and the Midlands, as Boris Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’ clearly resonated with many voters in traditional Labour strongholds. The certainty of an exit from the EU, coupled with the SNP gaining 13 seats in Scotland including that of the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, has also left many contemplating the future of the Union and the probability of a Scottish secession. But the most striking aspect of the election was the collapse of the Labour Party, which lost 59 seats from their 2017 results.

Boris Johnson, in pledging not only to deliver Brexit but to increase public expenditure by £13.4 billion in 2020–2021, which would be the largest increase in spending in 15 years, clearly provided a theoretical break from the austerity policies and supply-side economics which had characterised the Conservatives’ previous administrations in the wake of the Financial Crisis, enabling him to win over voters in Labour strongholds. It is unclear, however, if this ‘One-Nation Conservative’ rhetoric will translate into policy, as Boris Johnson has voted consistently in favour of austerity policies since being returned as an MP in 2015. Moreover, it is entirely probable that having won a demonstrable majority, the Conservatives may use their relative unaccountability to continue the same cuts to income tax and spending that they were previously committed to.

For Labour, a schism between the Europhile, metropolitan, London-centric PLP and the Eurosceptic so-called ‘Red Wall’ of Northern, working class seats was the main source of their undoing. Labour lost 10.4% of the vote share in seats where 60% or more people voted Leave, as seats such as Sedgefield, Bolsover and Workington fell to the Conservatives. Dennis Skinner, a veteran Labour MP and former miner, lost his Bolsover seat after 49 years in Parliament. In 2017, when Labour had promised to honour the result of the referendum, they held 72 of the 100 constituencies in the most working class (C2DE) households. In 2019, this figure fell to 53, and the Conservatives increased their share from 13 to 31. Labour’s decision to cleave towards the centre to placate the Blairite elements of the Party was, therefore, an unmitigated catastrophe. Ian Lavery MP, who held onto his seat in Wansbeck in Northumberland by an unfathomably slender majority of just 800 votes, stated: “Ignore democracy and to be quite honest the consequences will come back and bite you up the backside.”

For many voters in the aforementioned deindustrialised Northern towns now beset by a dismal combination of unemployment and precarious, low-wage service sector work, the fact that Labour had failed to completely acknowledge their Eurosceptic stance eroded their faith in democracy. Devoid for the most part of media influence or capital, the vote was the only way of making their voices heard. Having been neglected by a London-centric party and a political consensus dominated for decades by financialisation, the City of London and an obsession with GDP as the sole indicator of the prosperity of the nation, they struck a lethal blow against those who purported but failed to represent them.

The perception of Jeremy Corbyn as an inadequate leader was another prevalent theme both on the doorstep and in mainstream political coverage throughout the election. Media coverage of Corbyn was relentlessly brutal. The virulent anti-Corbyn rhetoric even predated the election, as during the past 3 years, he has been referred to as a Czech spy, a Russian agent, an anti-semite and a Communist. It is undeniable that there are antisemitic elements within the Labour Party that Corbyn has been indecisive in removing, and that the British Left has a long and disgraceful history of indulging antisemitism, aptly described by August Bebel as “the socialism of fools”. Keir Hardie, the first ever Labour leader, blamed Jewish financial houses for the outbreak of the First World War. However, Corbyn himself has a long and understated history of opposing antisemitism. As far back as 1977, for example, Corbyn organised a counter-demonstration in defence of London’s Jewish community against 1,000 National Front members who attempted to march through Wood Green.

Blairites and moderate voices within the Labour movement continue to portray this election as proof that it is left wing policies that are unpopular rather than the party’s Brexit stance and alienation of its core voting bloc. They suggest that the Labour Party must revert to a pro-corporate ideology, being at ease with privatisation, marketisation and a bellicose foreign policy. Yet this is directly contradicted by the available evidence: a 2017 YouGov poll found that 60% of the British public support renationalising the railways, 59% support taking water into public ownership, and 53% supported public ownership of the energy companies. 60% also back higher levels of taxation and spending. To argue that the statistical success of Tony Blair compared to Jeremy Corbyn represents a necessity to return to a Blairite brand of politics is to misunderstand that the political context has changed significantly since 1997. A global financial crash, the longest squeeze in wages since the Napoleonic Wars, and house prices rising to 7.8 times the amount of annual salaries demonstrate that a significantly greater amount of fiscal intervention is required to alleviate the crises of the present.

The technocratic, Blairite conception of politics, which focuses entirely on winning power for its own sake and ignores the broader contexts in which new political and economic ideas come to the fore, has subsided. It has been proposed, therefore, that the future of the Labour Party is a combination of a culturally conservative, patriotic communitarianism with economic leftism of the kind espoused by figures such as Clement Attlee and George Lansbury. The resurgence of ‘Blue Labour’ attests to this. However, it must be acknowledged that Labour is a party that, for decades, has attempted to straddle a coalition of voters with fundamentally different outlooks and views of the world that may be considered irreconcilable. Socially-liberal graduates in Manchester and London, harbouring an instinctual aversion to the monarchy and the nation-state, on whom the Labour Party also depends, would be alienated by such a platform.

To reconnect with its core vote, and to pull together its fractured coalition of voters, Labour will need a sustained and coordinated presence within areas of the country which perceive them to be London-centric and elitist, rather than merely turning up a week prior to the election and expecting votes. The neoliberal atomisation and individualism which characterise the present political era have torn asunder many community institutions which once fostered political dialogue and enabled people to become involved with politics. Therefore, much of the impetus must come from the grassroots elements of the party, with a priority placed on engaging in programmes such as the National Food Service and serving the concerns of local residents regarding ordinary issues such as education, housing and healthcare.

It is clear that the schisms and fissures within the Labour Party, and between the party and the electorate have been destructive and have led to the party’s near annihilation. There is a significant amount of soul-searching to be done, as the Labour Party desperately attempts to avoid decades in political oblivion. Reconnection with the party’s Northern heartlands will be a clear priority, as will grassroots level organising and education. But some of these ideological vicissitudes, such as the gap between voters in the Northern heartlands and those in the major cities, run so deep that it is difficult to see the party recovering from them.


Tom Perrett

I write about politics, history and current affairs from a socialist perspective. My writing has covered a variety of topics, from the American opioid crisis to the Libertarian to Fascist Pipeline. My intellectual influences include Eric Hobsbawm, Emma Goldman and Murray Bookchin.

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