British Elections – what just happened?
Updated: Dec 9, 2020
Phil Butland, joint speaker of the Berlin LINKE Internationals, tries to make sense of Boris Johnson’s landslide victory
The Conservative win in this week’s British election was not surprizing, but the margin of victory certainly was. On the day of the elections, I was confidently saying that it was too close to call between three possible results – a slight Labour-SNP victory, more hung parliament chaos or Johnson’s Conservatives limping in, depending on the support of the DUP and possibly the duplicitous LibDems.
These predictions were in line with pretty much every commentator and poll. Sure, the Tories were slightly ahead in the polls, but Labour were closing the gap, and we remembered that in 2017 the polls predicted that Theresa May would win the largest Tory majority ever1. So, we weren’t confident, but we also weren’t prepared for this.
In the end, the Tories increased their vote by 300,000, something almost unprecedented for a sitting government, particularly one that has presided over 9 years of austerity. I have yet to see an analysis that has fully explained the extent of Johnson’s victory, but here are a few thoughts from me that may contribute to us developing an understanding.
1. Brexit mattered
Whether we wanted it or not (and I did not), it was a Brexit election. Since 2015, the Brexit discussion has paralysed British politics. Just as the Labour Party elected a leader who promised real social change and a Green New Deal financed by taxing the rich, political discussion was diverted to what had started as a private discussion inside the Conservative party.
In the media discussion, the people allowed to make the case for Leave were swivel-eyed racists like Nigel Farage. At the same time, the case for Remain was generally accompanied by a smug assumption that EU membership had benefited “us” - an assumption that was derided by people struggling in the post-industrial wastelands in Northern England and elsewhere.
For a significant number of people, a vote for Brexit was a protest against the politicians who had systematically ignored them for decades. This meant that any attempt to impose a second referendum was seen as more of the same from career politicians. In such a situation, the old Etonian Boris Johnson was able to position himself as the anti-establishment candidate.2
This put Labour and Corbyn in an almost impossible situation. Support a second referendum, and you would be regarded as part of the old establishment. Push through Brexit and you would alienate your core support which has a justified fear of rising racism, which was being instrumentalized by Farage and full blown Nazis like Tommy Robinson (who has, incidentally, just joined the Conservative party3).
In the end, Labour found a compromise of acting as an honest broker, renegotiating Brexit then offering a second referendum on the new negotiated terms. At the time, it felt to many, including myself, as the least bad option. From discussions in the pub on election night to reading post-election discussions, this attempt to appeal to the 99% and not the 48% or the 52% did not convince enough people.
I’m not going to say more about this here, as I think that we genuinely lack enough analysis of exactly what happened and why. But any serious and honest post mortem needs to address this question.
2. The Tories didn’t win the election, Labour lost it
No direct criticism of Corbyn and the Labour campaign is implied in this statement. But it is simply not the case that millions of Labour voters went over to the Tories. The problem was that many Labour voters stayed at home.
What was noticeable in the first results was that the swings in the Labour votes were almost all between 10% and 15%. These losses were not transferred into similar rises in support for the other parties. For whatever reason, people who were prepared to vote Labour and Corbyn as recently as two years ago did not turn out to vote this time.
Perhaps we need one caveat here. For historical reasons, partly to do with the high percentage of “traditional Labour voters”, most of the first constituencies to declare are in North East England, where there is legitimate frustration about being ignored by London-based media and politicians. As other results came in, the swing against Labour was not quite so high, but is was still significant.4
This produced some peculiar results. Over 10 million people voted for Labour. This was the second highest number of votes for Labour in any of the last 5 elections (the highest was 2017, when the candidate was, er, Jeremy Corbyn). Nearly 14 million people voted for the Tories, but you didn’t get the feeling that most did so with any great enthusiasm.
3. The media onslaught against Corbyn had some impact
The personal attacks from all sections of the media in this campaign is, I think, unprecedented. This extends way beyond the right-wing Murdoch press. Every since Corbyn was elected, the supposedly liberal Guardian has been running a deeply personal campaign against him, spearheaded by the obnoxious Jonathan Freedland5.
It was only in the last few days of the campaign, when the Guardian editors seemed to realise that the alternative was a neo-liberal Johnson government that their vilifications temporarily died down, but this was too little, too late6.
A month before the election, I was chatting to my father, who’s been in the Labour party for decades. Like many, he liked the manifesto but repeatedly said “well, Corbyn’s his own worst enemy”. When I pushed him, he couldn’t exactly explain what he meant – I’m not sure that he knew himself. He just thought there was “something” about Corbyn.
I think this is the main impact of the constant sniping. The Tories ran a big social media campaign, painting Corbyn as a terrorist sympathiser, a Communist, and of course an antisemite. I don’t think that too many people believe the insinuations that Corbyn is as bad as Hitler, but I did sense a general feeling, even from my dad, that there’s no smoke without fire, and there must be something sinister about him.
4. Accusations of Antisemitism
And then there is the antisemitism question. Shortly before the election, the Simon Wiesenthal centre erroneously claimed that “'No one has done more to mainstream antisemitism into the political and social life of a democracy than the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party … Members and staff who have dared to speak out against the hate were purged, but not those who declared 'Heil Hitler' and 'F*** the Jews.'”7
Similarly, as the Jewish Voice for Labour reports of the BBC “In more discursive formats such as the Today programme or Newsnight, presenters have consistently adopted a negative, attacking stance towards anyone who questions the basis of the allegations. In complete contrast, those making the allegations, usually based on hearsay rather than personal experience, are supplied with leading questions and softball follow-up.”8
These are just two from endless (and usually baseless) accusations of Labour antisemitism. Of course, there were a few isolated cases, but these were depicted as a symptom of something called “Labour antisemitism”, which was seen as being something greater and more pernicious than normal antisemitism9, It was also insinuated that Corbyn himself was either antisemitic or at the very least soft on antisemitism10.
The drip-drip-drip effect of these attacks had an impact. When pollsters asked the British public what share of Labour members faced complaints of antisemitism, the average guess was 34 percent — over three hundred times the real total11.
Yet, even John Bercow, the Jewish former Conservative MP and Speaker of the House of Commons, said “I myself have never experienced anti-Semitism from a member of the Labour Party ... I don't believe Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic. I've known him for the 22 years I've been in parliament. Even, actually, when I was a right-winger we got on pretty well.” 12
Of course the Labour party contains antisemites as it exists in a society that tolerates antisemitism. However, the idea that “Labour antisemitism” is a specific and particularly dangerous phenomenon is a malicious and erroneous argument put forward by our political enemies, which trivialises much more horrific instances of modern antisemitism.
As Jewish socialist David Rosenburg commented: “The populist right and far right in Poland, and other countries central and eastern Europe, have been drawing support from right wingers in Western Europe including Britain’s Tory Party. Those elements in Britain that are leading the false charge against Jeremy Corbyn, as if he were some sort of threat to Jews in Britain, need to stop playing dangerous factional political games and face up to where the threats are really coming from.”13
The response from many in Labour was to repeatedly apologise, thus giving credibility to the idea that “Labour antisemitism” was a thing. Any response would have led to a backlash by the right, but the constant timidity ended up giving credence to the thought that there may be some substance in the claims, thus adding to the “no smoke without fire” argument.
5. Where Corbyn was responsible and where he wasn’t
It has become a commonplace argument to say that Jeremy Corbyn was responsible for Labour’s defeat. Many reports say that doorstep campaigners were met with potential voters criticizing Corbyn14, saying that he was a terrorist sympathiser, unpatriotic and not statesmanlike. With the personalised media onslaught against him how could it have been otherwise?
Yet we should distinguish between three different types of argument used against Corbyn’s leadership. First, and most despicable, are the MPs who refused to accept that the party had changed and longed for the Blairite days of an imperialist neoliberal Labour party. On election night they were wheeled onto the media to say that it was all Corbyn’s fault15 although they had spent the past 3 years undermining the party. They do not deserve to be taken seriously.
A second belief says that the manifesto was fine, but there was something about Corbyn’s personality that made the party unelectable. This belief owes a lot to the “no smoke without fire” argument, and says that maybe with a different leader, Labour could have won.
Let’s be clear about this. Any leader supporting a socialist platform would have received the same level of abuse endured by Corbyn. And few would have been less vulnerable. Corbyn was widely understood to be a politician with integrity, the man whose expense claims were the lowest amongst all MPs16.
Just contrast Corbyn’s treatment at the hands of the press (including the Guardian) to the free ride given to the racist, élitist Johnson and you can see that this was not about Corbyn’s personal failings. Even the decidedly non-threatening Ed Miliband was torn apart by the press when he stood in the election with a much less radical manifesto than Corbyn’s17.
And yet there was one sense in which Corbyn was a victim of his own humanity. A genuinely decent man, his instinct is to avoid conflict. Yet as the press was neglecting to point out Johnson’s many feelings, we needed someone to stick the boot in. Corbyn was not emotionally suited to be that person.
Similarly on Brexit. With his party as divided as the electorate, Corbyn made a valiant attempt to appeal to everyone. This was, in principle, a good idea. He needed the support of both people who voted Remain against racism and those who voted Leave in attempt to get out of their desperate conditions.
And yet the perception on many doorsteps was that Corbyn was weak and that his position on Brexit was unclear. This meant that he failed to command support from either Remain or Leave supporters, both of whom accused him of secretly supporting the other side.
Compare and contrast with Boris Johnson, who ruthlessly kicked out many of his anti-Brexit MPs18. At the time, Johnson’s act was seen by many as being suicidal, but it somehow gave the impression that he was a strong leader who would “get Brexit done”.
As voters begged for easy solutions, however crazy, Corbyn’s position was seen as being the continuation of Tony Blair’s unprincipled triangulation19. In the end Corbyn was unable to avoid conflict, instead his opponents were allowed to set the political agenda.
6. The Dogs that didn’t bark – the LibDems and the Brexit party
There has been very little coverage of the things that the media got spectacularly wrong, most noticeably the idea that two-party politics was dead. For quite a while, the egregious LibDem leader Jo Swinson was posing as a prime minister in waiting20, and there were Cassandra calls that Nigel Farage’s Brexit party would receive massive support21.
In the end, the LibDems got 11 votes, 1 fewer than last time, with Swinson losing her seat22. The Brexit party got none at all. For all that this was a Brexit election, it was not a Remain election, partly because enough people who were worried about the sell off of the NHS remembered the 2010 LibDem support for the Tories23 (when they were, incidentally, under far more left wing leadership than in 2019).
The pre-election period saw a proliferation of “tactical voting” websites, which often advocated LibDem votes in constituencies where the Labour Candidate was the only viable alternative to the Tories24. The main effect of this – and the candidatures of MPs who had left the Labour Party – was to split the anti-Tory vote. None of the former Labour MPs won their seat25.
Similarly, the results of the Brexit party were well below the expectations at the start of the campaign. This was partly – but only partly – to do with Nigel Farage’s decision not to put up candidates against Tory MPs, thus increasing the chance of a Johnson victory26. Added to this, many racist Brexit Party voters, including 4 of its MEPs27, recognised that Johnson was one of them.
The truth is, though, that in most constituencies, the votes won by the LibDems and Brexit candidates were not significant enough to affect the result. Any electoral challenge to Johnson in the near future is going to come from Labour.
7. Scotland and the North of Ireland
The analysis so far has concentrated itself on England and Wales. Scotland and Ireland experienced quite different results. I think that some people overestimate the inevitability of independence referenda following these results, but it is clear that in Scotland and Ireland the balance of power has changed in a quite different way.
With 48 MPs, the SNP is the clear winner in Scotland. The main reason is the different way in which the Brexit discussion panned out in Scotland. There is still a large degree of naiveté about the real nature of the EU, but the Scottish debate was much less tainted by the self-entitled xenophobia that predominated South of the border.
This meant that the SNP was able to reach out to the people who felt left out of society. Even the strength of Corbyn’s programme was unable to compensate for decades of arrogant Blairite Unionism by Labour Scotland28.
I also found Corbyn’s response to Scottish independence inadequate. He quite rightly said that a Labour Britain would benefit people both sides of the border, but was too weak on accepting the right of Scottish people to decide whether they want to be part of this29.
Now that Johnson is in charge, the drive for independence will be even stronger. There is a vague possibility that Johnson could see an independent Scotland as an opportunity to deepen the Tory majority in England, yet his instinct will probably be to preserve the imperial union30.
In these circumstances, the demand for Scottish Independence is progressive. It would be absolutely wrong for people in England to insist that Scottish people suffer under a Tory government for which they didn’t vote. But we should be wary of thinking that the SNP or the EU offer any real hope to Scotland, or even that an independent Scotland would be accepted into the EU31.
Similarly in Ireland, which for the first time ever has more Nationalist (generally speaking Catholic, leftist) MPs than Unionist (Protestant, reactionary)32. Real worries about the Irish border after Brexit may just have created the conditions for a vote on a united Ireland and a further break up of the imperial Union33. Again, this is something to be desired.
8. The support for Johnson is broad but not deep
Following facebook discussions on the pages of old school friends is an imprecise science, but it does take you out of the old leftie bubble. Here I met people who genuinely thought that Johnson was on the left of the Conservative Party, an anti-racist, and that the reports of his intended sell off of the NHS was fake news.
Equally, “get Brexit done” does not mean the same thing to everyone. It is clear that for many it is a banality like “Make America Great Again” intended to shore up white supremacy. But here’s the thing about white supremacy – for all their prejudice, poor white people are not materially better off. If you take away their health service, you risk losing their support.
Also, to some people “get Brexit done” had less to do with racism than a desire to make this whole thing stop. And when it looked increasingly unlikely that Labour was going to win a majority, even with the backing of the SNP, some people may have been tempted to vote Tory to make it all go away. Such people may be disabused of this belief very soon.
Remember as well that Johnson ran a terrible campaign. From avoiding interviews34 to hiding in a fridge when confronted35, he did not win much personal support. Whenever he visited schools and hospitals he was jeered36, and cancelled many personal appearances for fear of protest37.
At best, people fell behind the image of the lovable buffoon38 who has been indulged too long by a media which has been largely unwilling to take on his insidious racism, sexism and class privilege39. His mistakes have been excused as “gaffes” or as “Boris being Boris”40. Now he has to deliver.
Many people voted for a vision of a Britain that Johnson is unable to realise. It is possible that he will still be able to push through a massive shift of wealth from the poor to the rich, but resistance is also possible. Two years ago, Benoit Hamon’s Socialist Party won just over 6% of the votes in France41. Now, the agenda is being set by the Yellow Vests and a mass strike42.
Resistance depends on what happens inside and outside the Labour Party. If the Blairites regain control of the Labour leadership, this could demoralise the hundreds of thousands who joined Labour because of Corbyn and let them sink into passivity. I am already having conversations of friends who are asking whether they should give up on politics43.
And yet the sheer fact of Corbynism – inside and outside the Labour Party, means that the victory of the right is not inevitable. The massive rallies really happened. The mass climate movement is still a thing. And loyalty to the NHS and our public services is such that any attacks will meet resistance.
The election results were terrible, and we should not pretend anything else. But the potential to stop Johnson still exists. This means not waiting 5 years till the next election but getting involved in politics now. If you live in Berlin, the LINKE Berlin Internationals would love to meet you44. Elsewhere I’m sure you can find other like minded people and work with them to change the world.
Don’t mourn, organize.
2 For more on the original Brexit vote, see https://www.theleftberlin.com/post/brexit-in-the-time-of-corbyn-what-s-going-on-in-britain
5 For a selection of Freedland’s contributions, see https://www.theguardian.com/profile/jonathanfreedland. From 2014-2016, Freedland was the executive editor of the Guardian’s opinion section, with significant influence on which articles were published.
6 See for example https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/11/boris-johnson-destroy-britain-conservative-revolutionary-sect. After the election, the Guardian reverted to type with a series of invectives against Corbyn such as the following: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/jeremy-corbyn-labour-manifesto-antisemitism-brexit, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/13/corbynism-labour-left-party, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/dec/14/working-class-voters-didnt-trust-labour-jess-phillips
14 See, for example, https://twitter.com/lukepagarani/status/1205487970897342464
19 “Triangulation”, developed by Blair and Peter Mandelson and adopted by Bill Clinton, among others; was the idea that if you appeal to the “political centre” you can win new voters while maintaining your radical voters who have nowhere else to go. This strategy has since been largely discredited, See for example https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/politics/the-myth-of-centrism
30 Since I wrote the first draft of this article, both Johnson and Michael Gove have indeed ruled out another referendum in Scotland https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/michael-gove-second-referendum-scottish-independence-indyref2-election-results-a9247446.html
31 This is part of a longer discussion, which includes the Spanish state’s fear of an independent Catalonia and deserves a separate article.
42 https://www.theleftberlin.com/post/macron-s-attack-on-pensions-fuels-strike-wave-in-france, https://www.theleftberlin.com/post/victory-to-the-french-strikers-update-from-paris. For more information about the protests in France, follow the regular reports from Paris by John Mullen on the LINKE Berlin Internationals Website https://www.theleftberlin.com/john-mullen
43 You know who you are :)
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