The Conservatives triumph. Yet Boris Johnson faces tough challenges over Brexit—and much else
GRIMSBY SUMMED UP a fantastic night for the Conservatives and a terrible one for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Although Great Grimsby had been a Labour seat for 74 years, supporters of all parties were conceding in the pubs by mid-afternoon that the Tories had won there. Even before hearing at 3.39am that she had lost, Melanie Onn, the Labour incumbent, was saying she wanted a break from politics—or at least the weekend off.
By then the story of the night was clear. Boris Johnson had pressed for an early election to end the purported deadlock in Parliament and “get Brexit done”. And voters across the country agreed with him. After three-and-a-half years of squabbling ever since their referendum vote to leave the European Union in June 2016, they chose to back Mr Johnson. By early on December 13th it looked as if his Tory majority would be around 80 seats. His strategy of relying on a simple slogan, proposing a cautious and eminently forgettable manifesto and, as far as possible, avoiding potentially awkward press or television interviews seemed entirely vindicated.
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His slogan also proved tactically astute, not least because it enabled him to unite Leave voters behind the Tories. The most important moment in the campaign may have been the decision by Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, not to run candidates in Tory-held seats. This signalled to hardline Brexit supporters that they could vote for the Tories instead. During the campaign the climb in the Conservatives’ poll share precisely mirrored the collapse in that of the Brexit Party. The Conservatives won some Labour-held seats where the Brexit Party put up candidates. Mr Farage’s party took Labour votes from people who could not bring themselves to back the Tories.
In contrast the Remain vote stayed split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems, whose leader Jo Swinson helped to bring forward an early election, had a wretched night. They may have picked up a few seats in London and the south-east but they were roundly defeated elsewhere. Many Lib Dems who were bent on stopping a Brexit-flavoured Tory victory decided to switch their votes to Labour instead. Ms Swinson lost her own Scottish seat to the Scottish National Party.
Labour’s disappointment was no less crushing. By the early morning of December 13th the party was on course to win only about 200 seats, its worst result since 1935 (see chart). Once again it had been all but wiped out in Scotland. But even more humiliating was its performance across the “red wall”, a clutch of seats from north Wales to Yorkshire, most of which it had held for decades. From Wrexham in Wales through to Wolverhampton in the West Midlands and Ashfield in the East Midlands to Grimsby, the night saw red turn to blue as the Tories hoovered up seats that they could once never have dreamed of winning.
Senior Labour figures blamed Brexit, and by implication their own party’s ambivalence over whether to accept it or try to reverse it. Yet although the wish to get Brexit done was undoubtedly a big reason for the Tories’ success, it was not the only cause of Labour’s woes. Right across their red wall, Labour candidates reported that previously loyal voters were dismayed by the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This was not only because Labour had put forward a far-left manifesto, which it did, but even more because traditional Labour voters felt out of sympathy with his weakness for foreign dictators, terrorists and anti-Semitism.
Yet even though the story of the night was one of Tory triumph and Labour and Lib Dem disaster, not everything went Mr Johnson’s way. The surge of support for the Scottish Nationalists bodes ill for his desire to thwart any talk of another independence referendum. The early Northern Irish results also point to losses by the Tories’ erstwhile allies, the Democratic Unionist Party. And against gains in the Midlands and the north of England, the Tories failed to make gains in and around London, suggesting the capital and its immediate hinterland are out of sympathy with the increasingly pro-Brexit Tories.
Indeed, the divisions in the electorate thrown up by these results may not always help the Conservatives. Their support among older voters is rock-solid. But the under-30s are almost as strongly pro-Labour. Women now vote Labour more than men do. The old splits by class and education have also shifted markedly. In the past middle-class voters and graduates tended to support the Conservatives. Now they are as likely to back Labour. And the Tories have made new inroads among non-graduates and working-class voters, who support the party in greater numbers than ever before.
This realignment was crucial to Mr Johnson’s big win. Yet it is a fragile one based largely on Brexit and a visceral dislike of Mr Corbyn. Suppose that Brexit is done and Labour replaces its leaders, after losing four elections in a row. Voters from the Midlands and north who have backed Mr Johnson or the Brexit Party this time round might by the next election be suffering from the Brexit fallout. If so, they could easily return to Labour. And that risk may constrain his freedom of action in office, especially in relation to how he deals with the next round of Brexit negotiations.
After his triumph Mr Johnson can be confident of forcing his renegotiated withdrawal agreement through Parliament in good time for Britain formally to leave the EU by the current deadline of January 31st. But the country will then move into a transition period during which its membership rights and obligations will, in effect, continue. And though some are suggesting that a big majority will enable Mr Johnson to soften his terms for a future trade deal with the EU, and to embrace a new liberalised and free-trade agenda, others are pointing out that the need to retain his new Brexit-backing voters will inevitably steer him in a direction that is more protectionist and less keen on immigration.
It will also become harder for Mr Johnson to break his manifesto promise not to extend the December 2020 deadline for ending the transition period. Yet all trade experts say that a comprehensive deal with the EU of the sort that he advocates cannot conceivably be negotiated and ratified in such a short time. Trade deals typically take several years, not several months. So unless Mr Johnson is ready to ask for an extension, the risk of Britain leaving the EU with no trade deal in place at the end of next year will be significant. The result would be high barriers to exports and severe disruption to trade.
Both business and the financial markets have welcomed the majority that Mr Johnson has won this week, not least because it has killed off the spectre of a Corbyn-led, far-left government. But they may find that a year with a rampant Mr Johnson in charge of negotiations with the EU is not all that comfortable either.
Labour won’t win again until it works out why it lost
By Gary Younge – The Guardian
not enough to blame Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit or the media. The
picture is far more complex than that
This changes everything. The fourth national vote in four years has broken the parliamentary logjam with devastating effect. It was a rout. Labour’s vote in its traditional strongholds finally collapsed. The demographic, geographic and social ties that bound its coalition together have unravelled. We have yet to see if they can be put back together again. Britain has elected the most rightwing government for decades, handing the least principled leader in living memory such a massive majority that it could take a decade to get rid of him. Last night was bad. The worst is yet to come.
The left must now find the space to grieve and think simultaneously. Because it’s not about us. It’s about the more hopeful society we want to create, the people we want to create it with, and the dystopia that the Tories are in the process of creating. And we won’t be in a position to win again until we work out why we lost. The easiest answers here are also the least adequate. To blame it all on Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, the media, the manifesto or a failure of tactical voting is to deny a bigger, more complex picture. Of course Brexit played a significant role. Labour had three years to come up with a coherent offer to counter Tory bluster and failed. Given that its biggest losses were in leave areas, the notion that it should have cast itself as an unequivocal party of remain and a second referendum makes no sense. That certainly didn’t do the Liberal Democrats any good.
Labour knew Brexit would dominate and aimed to shift the conversation to public services and the environment. It failed there too. The problem was not the manifesto. Labour’s plans for nationalisation, public spending and wealth redistribution were popular, achievable, and would not have left Britain in a radically different place from many other European nations. But if you’re going to promise something that ambitious, you have to first of all prepare people politically for it and then reassure them you can actually do it. Labour did neither effectively, instead promising more things each day, displaying a lack of message discipline that felt like a metaphor for potential lack of fiscal discipline.
Corbyn was deeply unpopular. On the doorstep most couldn’t really say why they didn’t like him. They just didn’t. Some either thought he was too leftwing, antisemitic or the friend of terrorists. Obviously the media, which did not come out of this election well at all, have a lot to do with that. How could you like someone when you never hear anything good about them? The rightwing-dominated press too often framed the narratives for television and radio, which fed them back on a loop that could be broken only by events.
But they did not invent it all. Corbyn was a poor performer. Time and again he had chances to nail Boris Johnson for his lies and duplicity, but he refused to do so. He’d say it’s not his style. But his style wasn’t working. His refusal to apologise to the Jewish community for antisemitism when interviewed by Andrew Neil was baffling, not least because he had apologised several times before – and did so again afterwards with Phillip Schofield. And the media are not going anywhere soon. They attacked Gordon Brown, Edward Miliband and Neil Kinnock too – though never as ferociously – and whoever runs the party next will have to deal with them.
Those who think that Labour’s leftward shift was just about Corbyn frankly never understood it. Corbyn was simply the unlikely, unprepared and in many ways inadequate vessel for a political moment that is not yet over. He emerged in the wake of wars and at a time of austerity when social democratic parties across the western world were failing and flailing. His election did not produce the crisis in the Labour party; it was the product of it, and this election result has now exacerbated it. His strong performance in 2017 is why we are not further down the Brexit path already, and why the Tories have promised to increase public spending and effectively end austerity.
There are ways of contextualising this result that could provide solace in a moment of despair. Labour, under Corbyn, won a higher vote share than both Miliband and Brown. He lost fewer seats than Brown and has more than the Tories did in 2005, from which they bounced back to form a coalition government in 2010. Such rationalisations should be avoided. We lost, and lost badly. Self–criticism does not come easy from a defensive crouch. In the words of the great African American writer and activist WEB Du Bois: “Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasised that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side. In all sorts of ways we are hemmed in.”
Corbyn is right to announce his departure. His decision to stay and lead a discussion about the future of the party makes no sense. He cannot lead a conversation that is in no small part about him. His presence will be a diversion from the task at hand. The left should not fetishise this position. It matters who runs the Labour party, but it’s not the only thing that matters. For the past four years nearly all of the left’s energy has been poured into defending it. Given Johnson’s majority, many of the key struggles to come will take place outside parliament.
Corbyn’s departure creates a problem for centrists. They have been predicting this moment since before he was elected leader. When events failed to comply – when the party reelected him with a greater majority or the country gave him more seats and votes – they waited for the next event. Even a broken clock is right twice a day. The trouble is, with him leaving they will now have to produce an agenda and a candidate of their own, and then offer those up to a party that has grown in size, even if it is momentarily diminished in confidence.
They will have to face the fact that the electorate did not abandon Labour for the centre. They went either to the far right, in England and Wales, or to the social democratic nationalist alternative, in Scotland. They did not go to the Liberal Democrats or back Change UK. Chuka Umunna, Dominic Grieve, David Gauke, Anna Soubry, Jo Swinson and Luciana Berger all lost.
I did not hear a single voter ask about Owen Smith or pine for Yvette Cooper. Whatever comes next, it won’t be a return to abstaining on the welfare bill or backing the hostile environment policy. They will want Labour to be more effective in opposition, but they will want it to mount an opposition.
The centrists will have to face the fact that the thousands of people who travelled the country during these past few weeks to canvass in the cold and rain are not about to abandon their ideals or the party. And those who invested so heavily in this particular iteration of Labour will have to face the fact that their conviction alone was not enough to convince others of their ideals.
• Gary Younge is a Guardian columnist