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.