Making sense of general election 2019

by Dr Chris Byrne

The 2019 general election resulted in Labour’s worst defeat, measured in seats in Parliament, since before the Second World War. Seats that had been Labour for generations turned blue: Don Valley, a Labour seat since 1922, changed hands on a 19 percent swing; Sedgefield, Tony Blair’s former seat, Labour since 1935, was lost on a 26 percent swing; and Bolsover changed hands on a 23 percent swing, ending 69 years of continuous Labour rule. These events are remarkable in their own right, but what makes them genuinely shocking is that they were not predicted by the polls, which narrowed in the closing stages of the campaign. These events also ran counter to the expectations of most commentators after Labour’s surprisingly good showing at the 2017 general election—not to mention the expectations of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn himself, who is reported to have said at Glastonbury in June 2017 that he would be Prime Minister “within six months.”

 

So what went wrong for Corbyn and Labour? One obvious problem was antipathy towards the Labour leader on the doorstep. Jeremy Corbyn was far and away the single biggest reason voters gave for abandoning Labour. This stems from a combination of personal animus based on perceptions of Corbyn as out-of-touch and lacking intangible ‘leadership qualities’, and his taking unpopular policy positions on a number of important issues. Chief among these was Brexit. Labour’s Brexit policy, of negotiating a new Withdrawal Agreement within three months and then putting it to a referendum with Remain on the ballot within six, was widely derided. Indeed, the studio audience at the ITV leaders’ debate laughed at Corbyn disbelievingly when he attempted to explain the merits of a policy that involved negotiating a deal no one in his party planned to vote for.

 

However, Brexit was a thorn in Labour’s side for another reason: At this election, and at the one before it, the nature of Corbyn’s appeal was fundamentally reconstructive: it highlighted problems and injustices in the existing political regime, and sought to tackle them with a radical new policy platform. In short, he promised an end to the neoliberal orthodoxy of the long 1990s. However, whereas virtually everywhere else Labour’s appeal was reconstructive in nature, in relation to Brexit it was fundamentally in favour of preserving the status quo. ‘Remain and Reform’ was Labour’s official position in the EU membership referendum, but the increasingly polarised nature of the Brexit debate after general election 2017 made it virtually impossible to talk about the need to reform the EU. The exigencies of party management and preventing the haemorrhaging of Remain supporters to a resurgent Liberal Democrats led Corbyn to a second referendum policy that ultimately blunted his reconstructive appeal.

 

Another crucial issue was credibility. Simply put, the public did not believe that Labour was capable of actually delivering on the plethora of spending commitments it made, especially given some dubious claims about where the money was going to come from. The sheer number of promises and their grand scale was impressive — nationalising rail, mail, water, energy and broadband, promising 33% off rail fares by January 2020, promising to plant two billion trees by 2030, compensation for WASPIs, compensation for miners over pensions, and the dubious claim that an ‘average’ family would be better off to the tune of £6700 per year under a Labour government. Labour’s contention that it could pay for all of this with a small increase in taxes for those earning more than £80,000 was derided by respected independent institutions such as the IFS.

 

Finally, the issue of antisemitism cut through in 2019 in a way that it didn’t in 2017. Just weeks prior to polling day the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mervis made an unprecedented intervention in the election campaign to insist that Jeremy Corbyn was unfit for high office due to his poor handling of complaints of antisemitism in his party, and the ‘mendacious fiction’ that all such complaints had been dealt with. Shortly after there followed damning leaked evidence from the Jewish Labour Movement’s submission to the EHRC investigation into Labour antisemitism, which included interference from the leaders office in disciplinary measures being taken against some of those accused of antisemitism. These events compounded Corbyn’s earlier blunder of refusing to apologise for his handling of antisemitism in his car-crash interview with Andrew Neil in late November.

 

That said, the result can’t simply be put down to Corbyn and Labour’s failures. Boris Johnson also did a number of things well. Contrasting with the complexity of Labour’s Brexit policy, the Conservatives’ could be distilled down into three words—‘Get Brexit Done’—and this message was rammed home at every available opportunity in a style befitting a campaign ran by a Lynton Crosby protege (Isaac Levido). More importantly, it was backed up by skilful framing of the reasons for holding the election and the choice before the British people. That choice was, vote for me and get Brexit, or vote for the other guy and get two referendums—one on Brexit and another on Scottish Independence. This was underscored by a narrative of complete parliamentary dysfunction, shaped by the prorogation saga and the drama surrounding the government’s attempt to pass its renegotiated Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This set the stage for a ‘people versus Parliament’ election that allowed the government to capitalise on deep reservoirs of anti-political sentiment in the country.

 

The Conservatives also took measures to neutralise the popular bits of Corbynism in this election. In comparative historical context, Boris Johnson might be described as a disjunctive political leader: a prime minister affiliated with a dysfunctional political regime. This placed him in a parlous political situation, but the Conservative manifesto implicitly acknowledged this in seeking to tackle a range of pressing regime vulnerabilities. For example, there were manifesto commitments to address regional economic imbalances in the form of the Towns Fund, Northern Powerhouse Rail, and extra funding to upgrade transport infrastructure in the major city regions outside London. There are promises of new protections for gig economy workers, and measures to tackle the unaffordability of housing and housing insecurity, with the rollover of Help to Buy and outlawing ‘no fault’ evictions in the private rented sector, respectively. There were even proposals for a clampdown on tax evasion involving tougher prison sentences and a new Anti-Tax Evasion unit within HMRC. Now that Brexit is going to happen, and most likely in a fairly ‘hard’ form, what all of this means is that we are seeing not the reconstruction of British politics, but a reconfiguration and deepening of the existing neoliberal political regime.

Brexit and the Median Voter 

By Dr Paul White

British public opinion remains sharply polarised over the issue of Brexit. The nation appears more divided than at any time in living memory. On the surface, the issue at stake would appear to be a simple binary choice, and indeed was presented as such in the 2016 referendum question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union’? Almost three and a half years later, the divisions opened up by the referendum appear almost impossible to reconcile. On the face of it, whatever path is chosen by the next government appears certain to be deeply unpopular with approximately half of the electorate.

Given this political landscape, political parties have been forced to make careful electoral calculations and, in most cases, have clearly targeted voters on one side of the divide or the other. In the current election campaign, the Conservatives under Boris Johnson are standing on a firm platform of ‘Get Brexit done’, while the Liberal Democrats have targeted the Remain half of the electorate by committing to a withdrawal of Article 50 notification. By contrast, Labour have prevaricated for many months. To some extent this indecision is understandable, given Labour’s awkward position. On the one hand, a large number of Labour supporters are Remainers. On the other hand, many constituencies in Labour’s traditional heartlands, particularly in the North of England, voted Leave, in some cases by a goodly margin. Committing decisively to either camp seems likely to alienate a goodly fraction of potential Labour voters. The result is a woolly policy stance based around negotiating a new Withdrawal Agreement, but then holding a second referendum in which the party may or may not campaign against its own negotiated deal. If current polling is anything to go by, this indecisive stance may have cost Labour votes from both the Leave and Remain camps. The lesson appears to be clear; political parties cannot simultaneously target both sets of voters, but must choose one side or the other.

A more nuanced analysis, however, might conclude that the range of public opinion on Brexit presents more of a spectrum than a simple binary choice. While the Leave camp is certainly not united around a single vision of Brexit, it would be fair to say that the Remain camp does not share a single vision of the future either. For example, while some Leavers undoubtedly would prefer a complete ‘hard’ Brexit, others would prefer continued single market membership. Some Remainers are comfortable with the potential prospect of an eventual federal union, while others would oppose federalism but believe this can be avoided. Attitudes towards Brexit thus represent a continuum rather than a simple dichotomy. At one pole are advocates of the hardest of hard Brexits, at the other are the Euro-federalists; but many voters are positioned somewhere in between these two poles. It seems possible, therefore, that a solution acceptable to the majority may also lie somewhere in the middle.

Survey data collected prior to the referendum suggested that the primary concern of Remain voters was the economy, while many Leave voters were primarily motivated by sovereignty concerns (British Election Study 2016).  A solution that addressed sovereignty concerns by leaving the EU political institutions, while simultaneously protecting the economy via continued membership of the single market, might therefore prove to be an acceptable compromise to substantial numbers of voters in both camps. Black (1958) developed the theorem of the median voter, based on the logic that rational voters will prefer a policy closer to their desired outcome rather than one further away from it. For example, Voter A may desire increased public spending, even if this means a tax rise, while Voter B may desire tax cuts even if this means reduced public spending. However, a median policy of maintaining the status quo might be acceptable to both. While this policy does not give either voter their ideal outcome, for Voter A it would be better than a public spending cut, while for Voter B it would be better than a tax increase. Given this, both may be willing to vote for this compromise policy. This logic may be applicable to the Brexit issue as well. At the poles of the spectrum, die-hard Brexiteers may accept nothing less than a hard Brexit, while hard Remainers may accept nothing less than cancellation of the UK’s Article 50 notification. Between those two extremes, though, lie the more moderate Remainers and Leavers who may well be willing to support a compromise policy in the shape of EFTA / EEA membership.

The EEA option would, of course, mean accepting continued freedom of movement. This would be a problem for a section of the Leave camp. However, the BES data suggests that immigration was not the overriding issue for the majority of Leave voters. The EEA option would address most of the sovereignty concerns by removing the UK from EU political institutions, while simultaneously protecting the economy – the primary concern of many Remainers – via continued membership of the single market. While this option gives neither side their preferred solution, for most Leavers it would be preferable to remaining, and for most Remainers it would be preferable to hard Brexit. The median voter model suggests that this compromise solution may be one towards which moderate voters in both the Remain and Leave camps can gravitate in large enough numbers to form a majority.

That, at least, might have been true in 2016. Given the acrimony of the last three years, it may be that positions have hardened to an extent that makes compromise less likely. Even so, for the rational voter, the EEA option still represents a sensible compromise solution that is preferable to their respective worst-case scenarios. As such, it may be the most realistic way of finally settling the issue. A full Brexit is likely to leave the Remain camp campaigning for re-entry, while a cancellation of Article 50 would provoke enormous anger from Leavers. Either course of action would keep the issue festering for many years to come. A compromise solution acceptable to a majority of people in both camps might take the sting out of the dispute and finally allow British politics to move on.

Labour have, of course, proposed a customs union and a large degree of regulatory alignment. However, the party’s stance is highly confused, and also includes promises of a second referendum together with the possibility of negotiating a new deal then campaigning against it in that referendum. If the leadership had adopted a clear and unequivocal EEA position from the outset, the party might have been able to avoid alienating both Leave and Remain voters. In doing so, Labour might have been in a far stronger electoral position than appears to be the case at present.

 

References

Black, D. (1958). The Theory of Committees and Elections. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

British Election Study (2016). ‘What mattered most to you when deciding how to vote in the EU referendum?’ Retrieved 18 November 2019, from http://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-findings/what-mattered-most-to-you-when-deciding-how-to-vote-in-the-eu-referendum/#.Wo2S36jFLIW

Human Trafficking or Modern Slavery?

Politics and International Relations students packed out the room to participate in the debate about human trafficking and modern slavery today, with Guest Speaker Dr. Rose Broad from the University of Manchester, in her talk ‘From Human Trafficking to Modern Slavery: Policy development in the UK’. Rose laid out the emergence of “modern slavery” as a term and invited students to consider the efficacy of the term to accurately describe the actions that come within it. Drawing on international legal mechanisms as evidence, she then demonstrated how modern slavery covers a diverse range of activities which can be difficult to conceptualise under one coherent framework. Rose presented students with case studies from her ESRC funded project entitled ‘Perpetrators of Modern Slavery’ to help draw out the complexities of identifying victims and perpetrators. These real-life narratives were illuminating and encouraged the audience to confront some of their own views about those that participate in processes of human trafficking.