The UK election of 12 December 2019: what can the left learn?

A picture of Westminister Parliament from the south bank of the Thames, it is just after sunset and the building is lit up with yellow and orange light reflected on the water. This is where the Tory part will hold a majority in the light of the 12 December 2019 general election.
The results of the 12 December 2019 UK election were a huge blow for socialist ideas. What are the main lessons for the left?

With the decisive victory of Boris Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn, the left needs to come to terms with what was a crushing defeat for a political agenda that on paper was much closer to a radical socialist one than anything that has been on offer to the UK electorate for decades.

In the immediate aftermath of the Tory victory in the UK election of December 2019, very many left groups rushed out an analysis. And often this analysis boiled down to one takeaway message: if only Corbyn had adopted our politics, he could have won. Thus, for those who favoured a ‘Lexit’, a left support for Brexit, the problem for Labour was that they moved away from a position that respected the June 2016 Brexit referendum result to one that argued for more negotiations and possibly a second referendum. For left parties that were for Remain (and Independent Left are among them) the analysis runs the other way. Labour would have done much better had it been clearly and unambiguously the party of Remain.

Thus, the pain of the defeat is eased and the old certainties of these parties continue undisturbed.

It could well be that had Labour caved in to the racism of the pro-Brexit side as figures such as Stephen Kinnock wanted, it might have done better. It could also be true that had Labour more firmly tried to rally the Remain population and say that it too would get Brexit done – by killing it off – Labour might well have improved its performance too (with Remain being the better option, both in terms of challenging anti-immigrant racism but also in electoral terms, as @johnross43 showed on his Twitter post).

A black and white table with four columns, on the left, a list of parties, arranged by whether pro-Brexit or Remain. Then their 2017 vote, then their vote in the election of 2019 and the final column being the difference.
Between 2017 and 2019, Labour lost approximately 2.58m votes to Remain parties and 0.35m to Pro-Brexit parties

How strange, that two positions in apparent opposition to each other might both be true. As is often the case with such conundrums, they represent half-grasped insights into a deeper dynamic that makes sense of them both.

What unites the two arguments (Labour should have been more for Brexit / Labour should have been more for Remain) is an electorate who desperately wanted an end to the protracted and painful divisions over Brexit. By trying to steer a middle course on Brexit, Labour offered months, if not years more, of a debate that to many was infuriating. Back to the EU for more negotiations, then a second referendum on the result of those negotiations. And no commitment to advocating for its deal in such a scenario. This was a line that could only be drawn mathematically: by finding the centre of gravity between competing forces and trying to balance them. Sometimes, this kind of politics, of finding a position that doesn’t alienate anyone too much, can work. De Valera was a master at it. But with Johnson knowing full well how disenchanted large swathes of the public were with the delay to Brexit, Labour’s position didn’t come across as far-sighted and statesmanlike, it seemed cowardly.

In hindsight, the parliamentary manoeuvres that prevented Johnson from crashing out in a no deal scenario do not look as clever as they appeared at the time. Yes, Johnson was boxed in, but all the time he was boxed in and being refused an election, he was gaining potential energy from massive discontent with further delays to Brexit, so that when the election came, he could spring forth, like a jack-in-the-box, crying, ‘get Brexit done’ and release that frustration.

My conclusion in regard to Brexit, the all important theme of the election, is that Labour, by half-moving to Remain took a very difficult position. To have won despite this sense that they were sitting on the fence would have required the public to be more concerned about other issues, such as the NHS than Brexit, which ultimately was not the case.

Was the Labour manifesto too radical in 2019?

Naturally, the right in the British Labour Party and the Irish too, have been quick to conclude that the December 2019 UK election proves that radical socialist policies are unelectable and that the UK Labour party should move back to the ‘centre’ ground of Blair and Brown. For ‘centre’, read neo-liberal, austerity politics.

The reality seems to have been a public – and especially working class communities — who much preferred Labour’s manifesto to that of the Tories. As one Labour canvasser wrote:

Once I had made common ground with people, I encountered no prejudice, and little rugged individualism. I did this by talking the language of class, which is something the left have not done well, even under Corbyn. When I asked them about public services, about the Labour manifesto and its promises, they were very enthused, and yes, even those people who had voted Tory or who were abstaining because they ‘hated all politicians’.

Fifty-nine percent of Labour voters said they: “preferred the promises made by the party I voted for more than the promises of other parties”, the second most popular reason for voting Labour (the first being that they trusted Labour’s motives more). Whereas for the Tory voter, it was not about policy, it was about Brexit. Labour’s policies were not vote losers, in fact they were vote-winning, especially among younger voters. The graphic about this is extraordinary.

As @electionmapsuk on Twitter noted last year based on polls, the Tories would win no seats if the only voters were those aged 18 – 24 and the Ashcroft survey after the election of 2019 bears this out.

A map of the UK with constituency boundaries, which is nearly entirely red except for Scotland, mostly pale yellow, and a dot of green in Wales with some dots of orange. It illustrates the fact that if voters in the UK in 2019 had been limited to the 18 - 24 year old group, Labour would have won 600 seats.
The astonishing picture if voters had been limited to the 18 – 24 year old group is that the Conservatives would have been wiped out entirely by that generation.

What hurt Labour beyond Brexit, was not the policies as such, but the questions around them. How much would they cost and, especially, how would Jeremy Corbyn deliver them? Wasn’t he just making promises for votes, the same as all politicians do?

Here there was a difference between Corbyn versus May in 2017 and Corbyn versus Johnson in 2019 and the difference was not just a matter of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Tory leader. Corbyn had the better of both in terms of debating issues that working class communities care about. In 2019, however, he also bore the legacy of two years of parliamentary games, during which time the sense that he was different wore off.

Of course, there was a horrible smear campaign against Corbyn from the UK’s media. They were worse in 2019 than in 2017 and on the issue of anti-Semitism, utterly hypocritical given that anti-Semitism in the Tory party is far more prevalent than it is in the Labour Party. What gave Corbyn difficulty in resisting the media attacks this time around was in part that over the intervening months he became normalised as a politician. That’s something which is very difficult to avoid if you are the leader of the UK’s Labour Party. It is also fatal for someone whose main strength in resisting the Tory-controlled media messages is that of being the outsider, the anti-establishment figure, the person who actually is sincere about causes and willing to fight them.  In 2017, there was a sense that Corbyn was all these things and that rant and rave as the billionaire class might through its media channels, the people, and especially the younger people mobilised at massive, inspiring rallies by Momentum, could shrug it all off and sing his name with passion. Of course the media froth against Corbyn: he’s ours not theirs. He’s outside of the box.

In 2019, there were nowhere near the same levels of turnout for mass rallies to take Corbyn to heart and use alternative media to build a space for him that was free from control by the elites and one which could spread to politicise wider numbers. Corbyn had, by the logic of his role over the intervening months, to play the game of politics in the usual way, among the usual public schoolboys, in the usual chamber from where the voice of working class communities has largely been absent. He had become (and, of course, to a large extent has been all his life) that despised creature, a politician.

In 2019, Momentum played a magnificent role in terms of winning the battle on social media, even with a fraction of the budget available to the Tories. And one positive from this election result for all the left going forward would be to study Momentum’s productions and campaigns on Facebook, Twitter and Instragram. Yet the higher level of co-ordination and planning by Momentum activists in 2019 compared to 2017 was met by a less passionate response. Gone were the chaotic but electric mass rallies of the earlier election and in their place, much less inspiring events.

Labour’s 2019 manifesto was more left-wing than that of 2017 but the context of a weaker mass movement around Corbyn meant, with the exception of the promises around the NHS, it looked unconvincing. My second takeaway for the left from this election is that advocating socialist policies as a response to years of austerity is unproblematic. There’s no need to rush back to the centre. What matters are our connections to communities willing to be active participants in the process of winning the goals set out in manifestos. One demand arising from a politicised working class (e.g. abolish the Water Charges) is worth a dozen from a think-tank or 1930s transitional programme. And in the period between elections, if the left have not been focused on whatever options to campaign exist outside of parliament, then we do lack credibility if we suddenly promise a golden age of socialist policies come an election.

Can the left revive after the UK election of 2019?

Easily.

On the night, the UK election result felt like a terrible blow for the left. And it was. Once again, the right and especially the anti-immigrant racist feel triumphant. This is no light matter. Yet an election should be understood as a snapshot of feeling rather than a fundamental change in the social landscape. By which I mean, for example, that the defeat of the miners in 1984 – 5 was a far worse defeat than this election result. When the best-organised, most economically strategic group of workers are crushed and eventually laid off, it’s no wonder that in industry after industry, the axe subsequently comes down on workers’ incomes and rights.

An election result, even this one, where it was so polarised, changes very little in terms of the capacity of workers to mount campaigns and strikes. And when you consider that Labour was way ahead among voters aged 18 – 44 even in purely electoral terms, that indicates a comeback in the future.

Moreover, there are features of Johnson’s victory that mean his position is not as stable as having a big majority of MPs suggests. On his right, there is Nigel Farage. There is enormous mistrust and outright anger from the hardline Brexiters towards Johnson. Tactically, they had to retreat from challenging the Tories or split the vote and let Labour into government but they hated doing so and will be seeking ways to ‘reapply pressure’ on the Tories, as Farage put it soon after the election.

On Johnson’s left, within the Tory party, are those who do not want to make a dash out of Europe at the cost of severe trading penalties. In 2018, 45% of the UK’s exports were to EU countries (and 53% of imports). This means there is a sizeable number of people in business — the natural base for the Tories — who hate Brexit. They have come to terms with it, though, as judged by the bounce in Sterling and the UK’s stock market after the election. Given a divided consensus among the Tory party’s business network and a UK population who will experience all kinds of unexpected hardships once Brexit is concluded, there’s no doubt at all that the left will bounce back. And it doesn’t have to be a matter of waiting five years until the next election. Not only are there no shortage of issues for the left to campaign on right now in the UK, the frustration of the younger worker and of trade unionists as a result of this election mean that significant strikes and protest movements are very likely to spring up in 2020

Brexit: What Should Irish Socialists Say?

Short version: Independent Left advocate Remain.

At the time of writing, there is still a lot of uncertainty around whether and under what conditions the UK will leave EU. On Saturday 19 October, it seemed possible that Boris Johnson would just about get a Brexit deal through the UK parliament, only for him to be caught by surprise by an amendment (the Letwin amendment) that postponed a vote on Johnson’s Brexit package until a Withdrawal Agreement bill (WAB) was first agreed. The point being that MPs did not trust Johnson: so long as WAB was not passed, there was a danger of a No Deal crash out on 31 October.

Currently, even if Johnson does have the slender majority he needs to deliver Brexit in line with his agreement, there is still opportunity for UK MPs to amend the WAB, including by adding the idea that a second referendum has to be organised to endorse the deal. A new referendum was the demand of the huge (possibly as many as one million people) march in London on the same date.

What is certain is that if Brexit takes place – and especially if it’s the Johnson version – the UK leaving will be harmful for working class communities. In the UK itself, including Northern Ireland, Brexit would mean a rise in unemployment, a food and medicine crisis and an economic decline that some analysts anticipate will be worse than that of the 1930s. In Ireland, there are likely to be similar, if much less severe consequences. Here too, however, we are also going to face a government that will use Brexit, like it has used every crisis before now, as an excuse to strike down on working class people.

Remember how the Universal Social Charge was introduced by Fianna Fail’s Finance minister Brian Lenihan in 2010 as ‘a temporary measure’ to help Ireland cope with the financial crisis? Well, Brexit will be used in exactly the same way: even now Fine Gael are raising Brexit to justify their failure to properly fund essential services. The most recent budget is just the latest example of this approach.

For this reason alone, socialists in Ireland should advocate Remain. Moreover, there’s another way that the position of workers has already worsened as a result of the Brexit vote and that is because it has been accompanied by a rise in racism. Racists of all hues in the UK, including out-and-out fascists, greeted the result of the Brexit referendum with delight and there was an immediate upsurge of attacks on immigrants (a rise of 41% in what the UK police term ‘hate crimes’). In Ireland, we only experienced a ripple of this, but any growth in hostility to immigrants harms our ability to stand together and make progress on all the pressing issues that face us.

Does supporting Remain mean supporting the EU?

On the whole, with the important exception of Bernadette McAliskey, who quite rightly said, ‘politically the Right wing of British and European politics along with anti-immigration and naked racism has been strengthened by the Brexit victory,’ the Irish left were pro-Brexit at the time of the first referendum. It is understandable why. We shocked the establishment in 2001, when we were a successful part of the campaign against the Nice Treaty (opposing it largely because the treaty undermined Irish neutrality). The Irish conservative parties had to spend a lot of time and energy in pushing through the re-run in 2002. Again, the Lisbon Treaty of 2008 was rejected, with the left in tune with working class communities who mistrusted the proposed changes as likely to favour business over workers’ rights.

Given the EU had bullied Ireland into taking on the debts of their banks after the crash of 2009 and then tried to insist on us having water charges to pay for these massive debts, it’s no wonder that the Socialist Party, People Before Profit and many others on the left assumed that being in favour of Brexit was the natural continuation of an approach that – rightly – characterises the EU as being dominated by big business.

They were mistaken and deeply so.

Every referendum has to be judged on its merits and understood to be taking place at a particular moment in time. The UK one on Brexit had a very different dynamic to Nice and Lisbon. It was rapidly taken up by the anti-immigration UKIP and small parties even further to the right and then became all about immigration, particularly after the murder of Labour’s Jo Cox. Jo Cox was a prominent activist against Islamaphobia who was campaigning for Remain. She was killed by a man with fascist connections, who shouted “Britain first”.

Socialists who had a vote should have voted Remain, primarily in order to stand with the anti-racists.

There is no contradiction at all in advocating Remain for these reasons and still holding to a view that the EU is driven by big business. Because Brexit too is all about a big business agenda: the Conservative Brexiteers can hardly wait to tear up EU regulations protecting workers’ rights. They think realignment with the US and the far-east will prove more profitable than staying in the EU.

The old Socialist Workers Party that was, had a slogan, ‘neither Washington nor Moscow’ to indicate that in the Cold War it did not see it necessary to pick a side, when both sides were racing to oppress and exploit their populations. That’s the approach that socialists should take when the rows among a divided elite spill over into a referendum. The Irish version runs: feck ye both.

We don’t have a side between the EU and British businesses who think they are better off facing towards the US. But we do take sides against racism and we are rooted in communities that are going to suffer when Fine Gael wield the hammer, shouting ‘sorry, but Brexit’.

So Remain it is.

What should socialists do now about Brexit?

The Brexit vote is not a defiant working class refusing to be pushed into a Lisbon-type treaty. It’s the opposite: an anti-immigrant, right-wing vote. On the other hand, the Remain vote had as its largest component exactly the kind of people who make up the natural constituency for socialist parties: trade unionists, community activists and especially anti-racists.

The Ashcroft exit poll to the Brexit referendum was the most comprehensive poll at the time (12,000 people sampled). It shows that two out of three Labour voters voted Remain. A majority of people in work voted Remain. 67% of Asians voted Remain and 70% of Muslims. True, there were traditional Labour regions that voted leave, but no one argues that they did so for any other reason than being anti-immigrant. Their champion within the Labour Party, Stephen Kinnock, thinks Labour has to emphasise, ‘the value of place’ and the legitimacy of raising concerns about immigration.

Trying to appease racism never works. The more divided a working class community, the less able we are to win campaigns on all the issues affecting us.

Probably, the penny has begun to drop among Irish socialists that they have the wrong approach to Brexit and they are alienating themselves from core supporters.

Hopefully these parties change their approach. Although they have no culture of doing so, it would not harm these parties to acknowledge that supporting Brexit was a mistake but now, in the light of developments, they are for Remain. No harm at all. In fact, you win respect by honesty instead of evasive, never-wrong, politician-speak. We need to have the humility to acknowledge when we make mistakes, learn from them and move forward. No one is all-knowing, so we shouldn’t pretend to be so.

For our part, we are unambiguous. Independent Left are for Remain.