Labour suffered a heavy defeat on 12th December. Identifying the reasons for failure to unseat a Tory government presiding over nine years of austerity will rightly occupy some time. Reasons include Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn personally, the wrong time, an overfull manifesto lacking in clear priorities, a poorly organised campaign, a hostile media, Conservative lies and many more.
Labour achieved 10.5 million votes, more than Gordon Brown in 2010 and more than Ed Miliband in 2015. But the 80-seat Tory majority was the worst Labour loss since 1935. We lost in Leave voting areas and failed to achieve key target seats in Remain voting areas. One factor stands out: Labour lost significant votes in traditional working class heartlands—the North East, the Midlands and north Wales, not to mention a near wipe-out in Scotland, which raises the prospect of the break-up of Britain. Labour held votes among youth and those in cosmopolitan centres. The loss of numerous seats held by Labour for decades—Bolsover, Workington, Blyth, Sedgefield—illustrates that class can no longer be a sure predictor of voting intention.
Don Flynn looks at this factor and at how Corbynism energised a whole new generation while looking at ways to sustain and build allegiance. Paul Salveson explores in more detail the contrast in Tory promises and the reality for northern towns. Similarly, Bryn Jones finds opportunities for a Labour counter-offensive against Johnson’s economic populism. Ever since the deindustrialisation of the Thatcher years, areas of the north have suffered a slow economic and social decline. The Blair years did little to rebuild infrastructure and more importantly working class culture in these shattered communities. Young people migrated to the cities leaving an ageing population vulnerable to the siren calls of the Brexiteers with their scapegoating demonisation of Brussels and Europe and foreign migrants.
The years of neoliberal economic policies offered the concession to wage earners that there would be ‘British jobs for British workers’. Whatever Gordon Brown meant with this utterance it was understood to be a continuation of Blair’s promise to be tough on asylum seekers, while Ed Miliband underscored this with his ‘control immigration’ mugs. A platform has been built on which the Tories erected their hostile environment policies. The truth is free movement and migrant labour has benefited the country by sustaining the (admittedly feeble) economic growth of the last decade and providing the social and cultural diversity needed to stay abreast in the modern world.
Nevertheless what transpired from the general election was that however much Labour tried to refocus on a domestic policy agenda – on the NHS, on nationalisation, on ending austerity and boosting public services – the question of Europe and Brexit kept coming up. And Labour’s answer was ambiguous: a renegotiated softer Brexit, another referendum with a Remain option and a neutral leader. Johnson’s “Get Brexit Done” cut through as a simple mantra. Yes, more voters supported Remain parties (54% to 46%) but in the wrong places to shift the parliamentary arithmetic.
Labour’s shift to a People’s Vote was all too little, too late and too ambiguous. Earlier fence-sitting proved disastrous. As Julie Ward and Glyn Ford argue, highlighting the negatives of Brexit and framing our socialist alternative in Euro-internationalist colours should have happened much earlier with more vigour. Essentially Labour tried to ride two horses and got pulled off both.
Now we are in new territory. Barring a political miracle Brexit will happen on 31st January. But Brexit will not be done then. The transition period until the end of 2020 will see fevered negotiations to secure a trade deal and many other arrangements. The symbolic vote by parliament not to seek an extension is fantasy politics. Trade deals take years to negotiate and involve much more than tariffs, as Nick Dearden explains in a chilling unmasking of the threat to workers’ rights, food and environmental standards with privatisation and corporate free-for-alls. With Trump’s ‘America first’ policy we can be sure he’ll be giving no favours to Johnson.
Brexit and the election result also throw up huge questions on the constitution. Northern Ireland is set adrift with a sea border and a floundering devolved Stormont raising the spectre of a united Ireland, while Scotland’s overwhelming vote for the SNP pushes a further independence referendum up the agenda. Mary Southcott looks at the inequities in the election result that gave disproportionate numbers of seats to the Tories and puts the case for a broad constitutional convention to look at votes at 16, further local devolution, House of Lords and above all a PR voting system.
Duncan Bowie is more critical of Corbyn’s leadership and the role of his key advisers, pointing to his unpopularity among the wider electorate, including many traditional Labour supporters and the widely held view that he was unfit to be Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn is standing down and a leadership election process is underway. Chartist will be examining the merits of various candidates on our website and we urge readers to submit their thoughts to the Labour Together co–ordinated review of where Labour went wrong. Labour has a huge task to rebuild support. The consequences of this electoral defeat will be severe for British people and the Labour Party.
Elsewhere in this issue Ricardo Salva reports on the convulsions engulfing Chile with over 40 days of strikes and protest against a right-wing regime. In Spain, Brian O’Leary reports on the re-election of the Socialist Party under Sanchez with a smaller majority, and assesses prospects for the alliance with the radical Podemos. Paul Garver looks at Democrat presidential hopefuls and the battle to unseat Trump.
This is a reactionary Tory government. Don’t believe the one-nation hype. The only nation we’ll hear a rising drumbeat for is England. But it won’t be the best of England—its multiculturalism, social solidarity, creativity and culture. Rather it will be the narrow, nasty, xenophobic, divisive and democracy-threatening nationalism that characterised the Brexit campaign. Be prepared for much more of the same as the Boris Johnson show hits the road and starts to unravel.