Mike Wayne takes stock of Labour's election defeat
Labour’s relative victory in the 2017 General Election when Theresa May lost the majority bequeathed to her by the former Prime Minister David Cameron, was a shock to the anti-Corbyn majority inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. They had hoped that an electoral setback would be their chance to seize back control of the party leadership and instil a dose of ‘realism’ into a membership that had had the temerity to support a left winger. All those crocodile tears they are now shedding for the people who will be harmed by the Tory success in 2019 had to be locked away in 2017. Their evident anticipated pleasure in the predicted defeat in 2017 turned to bewilderment on election night – captured on camera in the case of Stephen Kinnock when the results came in.
Yet that relative victory for the Corbyn project in 2017 helped sow the seeds for defeat in 2019. It gave a new tactical advantage to the liberal currents within the anti-Corbyn leadership inside the PLP to force a change in the party’s Parliamentary manoeuvrings to frustrate any Brexit deal. Previously May’s small majority made that unlikely or extremely difficult. Now blocking Brexit became very feasible. This in turn also opened up the possibility of the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP and beyond to rebuild their relationship with the Labour party membership after a chasm had opened up between the ‘centrists’ (really neoliberal extremists) and the membership over the election of Corbyn in 2015 (and his re-election a year later).
Whereas in 2017 people who had voted to Remain largely accepted that some form of leaving the EU would take place, the destruction of May’s majority and the spectacle of internal Tory party division and votes against the Government after 2017, hardened into demands for a Second Referendum and for Labour to nail its colours to the mast that it should become officially a Remain party.
The tragedy for Labour was the strength of liberalism inside the membership and not just inside the Parliamentary Labour Party. In electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader twice, the party membership had definitively rejected the Blairite neoliberal policy agenda. They no longer wanted continuity with Thatcherism and inspired perhaps by the rise of anti-neoliberal sentiments in Scotland, demanded change.
But on the EU the membership remained in thrall, as did many in the trade unions, to the liberal appeal of the EU. Ever since Jacques Delors, then President of the European Commission wooed British trade unionists with a speech to the TUC conference at Bournemouth in 1988, with the promise that the construction of an internal EU market would be coupled with a social market offering EU-wide workers’ rights and protections, the evident trade advantages our relationship with the EU has, also acquired a stronger set of moral-political investments. And not just for trade unionists, but across the Labour party membership, the EU came to represent a sort of Hegelian epitome of Absolute Reason, incarnate in its inter-governmental, co-operative, multinational structures that protected prosperity, peace, security and democracy.
Although not in the Eurozone, the UK remains a partner to the Stability and Growth Pact which commits member states to a fiscal policy aiming for every country to stay within certain limits on government deficit (tax and spend), i.e. 3% of GDP and accumulated historic debt, i.e. 60% of GDP. After the global financial crash, most EU member-states breached these rules and the EU opened up what it calls ‘excessive deficit procedures’ against them. The UK only left these procedures in 2017 after years of cuts to government budgets. As the EU noted: ‘Fiscal consolidation has been largely expenditure based.’ Indeed, the neoliberal character of the EU has been disguised by the fact that all British governments from Thatcher onwards, have been even more economically neo-liberal than the EU and so even in the aftermath of the global crash, British governments were always good neo-liberal subjects that needed monitoring but no sanctions or threats of sanctions.
The true political character of the EU was recognised by the neoliberal leadership inside the Parliamentary Labour Party (including its role within NATO) but its real value was the way it could act as a wedge issue between Corbyn and the otherwise Corbyn supporting membership.
I am afraid to say that while the membership gave us the Corbyn project, they are also significantly responsible for destroying the Corbyn project.
While the hostility towards a Corbyn leadership from the PLP is a given, the membership should have been Corbyn’s base on the question of the UK’s relationship to the EU. There’s little point in voting in a left-winger and then siding with the right on the most contentious (but not the most important) issue of the day.
After the 2017 General Election pressure began immediately on Corbyn to change the party’s position on Brexit which at that time accepted the 2016 Referendum result and rejected a Second Referendum on a final deal. Now, however, with Labour in a real position to frustrate Brexit in Parliament, supporters of remain from across the political spectrum began to mobilise in earnest. The 2017 party conference season saw the launch of the Labour Campaign for a Single Market backed by right-wing openly anti-Corbyn MPs such as Chris Leslie, Chukka Umanna, Stella Creasy and pulling in wider support from MPs such as David Lammy. The threats of a split within the PLP were ramped up from this time on and needless to say, as Corbyn gravitated towards their position they in turn demanded that it was not enough.
By the 2018 Labour Party conference, Labour’s leadership was flooded with 150 motions on Brexit, 84 of which specifically called for a people’s vote. These motions were drawing inspiration from a plethora of organisations such as Another Europe is Possible (a cross-party ‘stay in Europe but reform’ outfit), Love Socialism, Hate Brexit (around which soft left Labour MPs coalesced such as Clive Lewis, Anniliese Dodds and Chi Onwura), Labour for a Socialist Europe (driven by Labour grassroots organisers) Open Labour (another soft left pro-Remain and reform organisation) as well as organisations of the liberal elite such as Best for Britain backed by George Soros and People’s Vote run by Open Britain Chief Executive James McGrory who was chief spokesman for Nick Clegg during the Demolition government of 2010-15, which did more for the Brexit cause than anything Nigel Farage ever managed.
At the 2018 Labour Party conference Keir Starmer chaired a five-hour meeting with party delegates to craft a compromise composite motion which stated that ‘If we cannot get a general election Labour must support all options remaining on the table, including campaigning for a public vote.’ It was unclear whether that included a Remain option as opposed to a vote on Leave option as John McDonnell at that time stated or whether as Keir Starmer declared in an off-script line – to a roaring standing ovation from the conference floor – that “no-one is ruling out Remain”.
There was little doubt where the centre of gravity was inside the Labour party membership – Corbyn’s support base without which he would not have survived. On the eve of the September 2018 conference, a YouGov poll found high levels of support for a second Brexit vote amongst trade union members. Unite members supported a second vote by 59%, Unison members by 66% and GMB members by 56%. These levels of support indicate the political hegemony of liberalism within the trade union wing of the labour movement.
YouGov also found that 86 per cent of Labour members wanted a second referendum and only 8% were opposed to a people’s vote. This higher majority for a second referendum from the Labour party membership is likely explained by the fact that Labour party membership is now skewed towards the middle class and skilled worker with 77% of the membership falling into the ABC1s categories for social class identification. Today, the social class composition of Labour Party members is only a little less middle class than it is for the Conservative Party and the Lib Dems, a fact that is not insignificant when trying to understand the political and cultural class chasm growing between membership and working class voters in the North.
The PLP’s chief stabber in the back, former Deputy Leader Tom Watson was gleefully quoted in the Financial Times:
‘If the people’s party decide they want the people to have a final say on the deal, we have to respect the view of our members. That’s what happens when you return the party to the members.’
By May 2019, Corbyn announced that now only going back to the people, either in a General Election or public vote on any deal agreed by Parliament could lead to a resolution of the Brexit crisis. But this left many questions unanswered, such as whether Remain would be on any future ballot and what the Labour Party’s position would be if it was?
After the European elections in May 2019, where Labour’s remain vote migrated to the Lib Dems leaving Labour with only 14.6% of the vote, Corbyn conceded more ground. Now he explicitly backed a second referendum whatever deal was negotiated by whatever government (including Labour). Kier Starmer and Emily Thornberry were pushing him hard in this direction but now also his close political allies, such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell were also on board with this position.
Corbyn’s isolation on the Brexit issue was almost total. He could not even populate his shadow cabinet with genuine loyalists. Just two days before the 2019 Election a leaked conversation between a Tory activist and Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth, in charge of advocating on behalf of Labour’s most beloved state institution, revealed Ashworth to be something less than a Corbyn fan. In the conversation, Ashworth suggested that Corbyn was a potential threat to national security which the civil service machine would need to neutralise if Labour won and that the attempt to overthrow Corbyn in 2016 was ‘fucked up’ because the MPs ‘went too early’.
Ashworth also gave an interesting and prescient analysis of what was happening in Labour party strongholds just days before the result.
"Outside of the city seats, if you are in small-town Midlands and North, it's abysmal out there. They don't like Johnson but they can't stand Corbyn and they think Labour's blocked Brexit. I don't think they are long-term gains for the Tory Party but I can see them going Tory this election and if Labour ever got its act together they presumably would fall back."
Here Ashworth acknowledges what many in the PLP and the liberal commentariat now will not admit – that Labour’s shift to a second referendum position was making the party’s position in small towns in the North ‘abysmal’ (and Corbyn’s own personal ratings were inextricably connected with that shift). Yet in March 2019, Ashworth enthusiastically endorsed the Kyle/Wilson/Beckett amendment which pledged to put any Brexit deal May negotiated to a public vote (something which she could not agree to). In a Facebook post he wrote:
“Huge numbers of my constituents across Leicester South have contacted me calling for a second referendum. Tonight in the Commons I’ve voted for the Beckett/Kyle/Wilson amendment calling for a confirmatory public vote.”
Like many, Ashworth is not about to admit his share of responsibility for the damage that position would have on Labour’s seats in its Northern heartlands. Nor were the liberal commentariat who had championed a remain position for the Labour party about to admit that their strategy was responsible for defeat. Writing in The Guardian, which did so much to amplify and solidify the Remain pressure on Labour, Peter Kellner claimed that a You Gov poll showed a collapse in support for leaving the EU. This, according to Kellner, made it a no-brainer that Labour should become a fully signed up Remain party with little in the way of a downside amongst its Leave-voting backers. How hollow that promise of electoral calculation now looks.
Meanwhile Paul Mason, also writing in The Guardian the day after the May 2019 European elections, declared that while he would ‘enthusiastically circle the wagons around Corbyn’ his director of strategy, Seamus Milne, and chief of staff, Karie Murphy, along with party chair Ian Lavery, should be sacked from their positions for apparently fighting against turning Labour into a Remain party. ‘The officials who designed this fiasco and ignored all evidence that it would lead to disaster, must be removed from positions of influence’ cried Mason. Now we are in a position to see that there were no easy tactical solutions to the dilemma Labour was in by that point, perhaps a period of quiet reflection from Mason as a voice of influence would be in order?
But no, immediately after the election result Mason was out of the traps with an analysis entitled ‘After Corbynism’ of what went wrong, and it wasn’t the brilliant strategy of fighting for remaining in the EU. According to the data he was drawing on (from Datapraxis) the Lib Dems gained at least 1.1 million votes from Labour while a maximum of 800,000 Labour leave voters switched to the Tories. So, based on merely the quantity of voters lost to each side, Labour’s slide towards a second referendum was justified Mason argued. The available data is actually conflicting. For example, You Gov suggests that Labour lost 11% of its vote to the Tories and 9% to the Lib Dems.
But as many have noted, the key point is that the geographical distribution of the loss of leave votes to the Tories resulted overwhelmingly in the loss of seats that actually decided the outcome of the election. Fully 52 of the 54 seats that Labour lost to the Tories were in Leave-voting areas. In Kensington and Chelsea, a Remain-voting area, Labour’s MP Emma Dent Coad lost to a hard Brexiteer thanks to dodgy polling data and tactical voting advice promoted by the Guardian which told voters that she was trailing behind the Lib Dem candidate (former Tory Party MP Sam Gyimah). Nice one, Guardian.
In the end, it seems that for both the membership and that 800k or so switchers, Brexit (Leave or Remain) became more important (for different reasons) than the priority of getting a Corbyn led Labour Party into power. For Remainer die-hards, identification with the EU trumped every argument that wealth needed to be redistributed. Collapse beckoned and there would be nothing to redistribute they cried, if we left the EU.
Those 800k switchers, similarly, rejected a policy programme that really would have made their lives better in favour of a Conservative Party Brexit that is guaranteed to make their lives worse. Until I see evidence showing me otherwise, my hunch is that those 800k or so voters who have given the Tories a comfortable majority do not represent the most class-conscious vanguard of the working class. They represent less than a third of Labour Leave voters but the third most vulnerable to conservativism’s historic strengths on national identity, national sovereignty, national borders and nation before class.
For those on the left who were enthusiastic promoters of a ‘full Brexit’ there was a tendency to conflate their arguments for leaving the EU with the heterogeneous and contradictory reasons why millions of people voted to leave in 2016. While the Leave vote was not the homogeneous bloc of racist intent that remain/liberal thought typically cast it as, neither did it have the mainstream leadership in the debates to make even a significant minority of that vote an expression of the anti-capitalist critique that small groups on the left mounted against the EU (quite justifiably). But conflating their critique with the popular vote led to an unwillingness to compromise around a soft Brexit position (although the marginality of the left critique on the EU was such that this hardly mattered). There was no figure of the stature of a Tony Benn for example to make the left case.
By 2019, there was no tactical solution to the problem of Brexit for Labour, only least worst options. We now know that Labour could either have gone full remain earlier and stronger (as the Remainers now argue) to turn around the opinion of Labour leave voters. Or, the Labour leadership could have stuck with a soft Brexit position and tried to win its membership round to that position, providing Corbyn some basis to resist the PLP’s attacks and liberal establishment pressure.
Going full Remain represents the position Labour ended up most closely approximating. It proved to be a disaster. Would it have been different if it had adopted that position earlier? It seems incredibly unlikely. The 2016 vote itself had become totemic for leave voters and for the very good reason that it was a democratic vote that should have been respected in some form or another. The debate should have been: in which form, not giving Remain another roll of the dice. The more the liberal establishment proclaimed that Leave got it wrong, the more Leave voters clung to that vote and the Conservative Party that was offering it. But despite the democratic legitimacy of the Leave vote, it becomes a (Conservative) fetish if the choice is between a Conservative Brexit and a Corbyn-led Labour government.
Had the Labour party membership supported Corbyn then it would have made sticking to a soft Brexit position and refusing a Second Referendum possible. The Labour party may well have lost enough votes in Remain areas doing this to have again lost the election. We will never know. But at least it would have lost doing the right thing than lose doing the wrong thing and the class composition of the electoral vote would not have looked so skewed towards the middle class.
Ultimately the crisis that opened up between conservatism and liberalism over the EU was a displacement of the economic crisis of neoliberalism which both support. And conservatism has won over liberalism and the left. Liberalism helped defeat its own strategic goals and was the midwife to a hard mid-Atlantic Brexit. But liberalism also helped defeat Corbyn. Its hegemony over the membership was crucial in this. If Sir Kier Starmer wins the leadership of the party, the left inside the party will be finished once more for a very long time and the membership will have settled for quiet subordination to the PLP, bullied and intimidated back into line as if it were in an abusive relationship. Its flirtation with a radical break from a dying paradigm snuffed out.
More articles from this author
- Don’t mention 2017: Labour, Brexit and last week’s elections
- The revolutionary right: the threat remains
- When Liz Truss speaks a truth, beware
- Where next for the left? - Mike Wayne
- Made in the US: the coup in Chile
- Now is the time: the prospect for a new mass party of the left
- New horizons during Covid-19: beyond the limits of capitalist realism