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  • Writer's pictureThe Full Brexit

More on Why Labour Lost: A Failure of Leadership

In explaining Labour’s election defeat, much is being made of Corbyn’s poor leadership. But that is inseparable from the party’s disastrous handling of Brexit, writes Lee Jones.

In my election-night commentary I explained why Brexit had been the decisive issue in the Labour Party’s disastrous defeat by the Tories. Predictably, a vitriolic debate has begun within Labour’s ranks in which the causes are bitterly contested and even those citing Brexit are misunderstanding the point.

Much has been made by enemies of Jeremy Corbyn how badly he personally went down “on the doorstep”. An Opinium poll seems to show this was indeed decisive. This is highly convenient for those who have never accepted the party’s direction under Corbyn, would like to purge the party of Momentum and other Corbyn supporters, and either return to Blairite centrism or turn towards Blue Labour social conservatism. Corbynistas, meanwhile, see the negative sentiments towards Corbyn as a sign of intense media bias and, by implication, the stupidity of the electorate in being duped by a hostile media. That Brexit came a distant second in people’s reasons not for voting Labour is also convenient for those who wish to deny that the party’s drift towards Remain was significant.

However, notable even in this poll is the implied popularity of Corbyn’s radical economic policies. This confirms swathes of earlier polling data showing that greater state intervention in the economy, including the nationalisation of key utilities, are widely supported. Moreover, the Conservatives won a large majority on the basis of pledges of higher public spending, infrastructure investment and state aid to the regions.

Concern about “the leadership” also needs to be unpacked, and not just dismissed as an effect of media bias. The evidence suggests that these concerns cannot be separated from Labour’s Brexit policy. As early as January 2019, pollsters were finding that Labour’s Remain drift, and Corbyn’s clear inability to resist it, were the top three reasons behind Corbyn’s plunging personal rating – which had fallen by 45 percentage points from the 2017 general election. Issues like anti-Semitism, links to terrorist organisations, etc, barely registered.

Tory focus group analyses in September 2019 found the same story:

Jeremy Corbyn’s deep unpopularity is not because of his past and his links to unsavoury characters. His background did not register with voters in the 2017 general election, nor does it now. Instead, voters dislike Corbyn because they think he is fundamentally a bit useless. Time after time, they have seen him struggle to control his party, fail to take clear positions, and handle Brexit haplessly.

Similarly, on the eve of the election, a YouGov pollster confirmed:

the most important [reason for Corbyn's unpopularity is] what the public perceive is a wishy-washy position on Brexit. Because he’s trying to balance between his Leave and Remain voters, he often hasn’t been forthcoming in saying what he thinks about the most important issue facing the country.

This is obvious enough when we compare the image of Corbyn most voters had in their minds in 2017 compared to 2019. In 2017, Corbyn had won an insurgent campaign for the Labour leadership as an anti-establishment outsider, promising to return Labour to its roots and stand for “the many not the few”. Voters had seen him fight off a coup within the parliamentary party after the referendum, winning through a democratic campaign. The idea that Corbyn was like them, on their side, and would stand up for and through democracy was intuitive. By 2019, though, the anti-establishment candidate had become a typical machine politician: triangulating between positions to try to maximise his party’s vote share, unable to say what he really thought, trying to remain neutral on the biggest political issue of the day, mouthing platitudinous soundbites. He had prioritised maintaining the unity of the parliamentary party – most of whom, as is now clear, continued to absolutely despise him – over his principled commitments to left Euroscepticism and his promises to voters in the 2017 election. He had not faced down the arch-Remainers in the party, who instead steered Labour back towards Remain, leaving Corbyn looking increasingly like a useless figurehead who could not even discipline his own shadow cabinet, let alone lead a “green industrial revolution”.

Corbyn’s inability to lead was not merely about his own character and choices, of course; it reflects the nature of the party he was seeking to lead. Labour’s transformation into a party of the urban, liberal middle classes explains the parliamentary party’s relentless hostility to his leadership and why he was forced to rely on such a shallow pool of talent. Corbyn was not just personally ineffective; to fill key positions, he was forced to rely on Blairites like Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, and late converts like Richard Burgon and Rebecca Long-Bailey, who lacked any serious political experience or nous. The glaring inadequacies of the current field to replace Corbyn speaks to a sclerotic party, unable to refresh its leadership cadre. This reflects Labour’s long-term ossification as it retreated from its social base in the labour movement, which historically had supplied a steady stream of working-class leaders. Momentum, a movement of primarily downwardly mobile, south-eastern, middle-class millennials, was no substitute, and in any case was rapidly absorbed by internecine struggles for the control of local party branches, rather than campaigning among the people.

Unlike the Blairites, Corbynistas have been quick to cite Brexit as the reason for their defeat – but they also misunderstand the nature of this challenge. McDonnell, Corbyn and others speak about Brexit as if it was an external shock or a force like the weather – a “black swan” event, utterly extraordinary, completely beyond their control, a freak event that Labour could have done nothing about. This speaks to a machine politics way of thinking about the issue, which is found in many political scientists’ treatment of Labour’s Brexit dilemma. It is true that Brexit divided Labour’s constituency. Roughly speaking, two-thirds of Labour voters backed Remain, mostly middle-class urbanites, while a third, mostly in the working-class “heartlands”, backed Leave. Corbynistas are arguing that, whatever way Labour went, it would have lost many votes. Corbyn tried to balance between the two factions, but Brexit overrode his brave attempts to “bring the country together”.

This account speaks to a bizarre sense of helplessness on the part of individuals who ought to have been exercising political leadership. It’s worth remembering that the Conservative vote was even more badly divided in 2016: a substantial majority – 58 percent – of Tory voters had defied the Tory prime minister’s direction to vote Remain. The Conservatives were badly shaken, but they accepted the result, regrouped, and began reconstructing their base. The task completed by Boris Johnson last week was initiated by Theresa May, who immediately pitched to the “left behind” and those “just about managing”, and picked up many working-class votes in 2017, even flipping some “Labour heartland” constituencies like Northeast Derbyshire and Stoke-on-Trent South. This should have been a warning siren for Labour, but they treated 2017 as if it was a victory, rather than their third straight defeat. When the Tories faltered, and lost voters to the Brexit Party, they did whatever was necessary to reconstitute their support: confronting the Remainer parliament, trying every possible manoeuvre to show they were on the side of the majority who had voted Leave in 2016. The result is that the Tories held 73 percent of the Leave vote, while the Remain vote was split across several different parties.

This was important for a very simple reason: the 52/ 48 split of 2016 is not evenly geographically dispersed; two-thirds of Britain’s electoral constituencies voted to Leave, including 61 percent of seats held by Labour MPs. To win a parliamentary majority would therefore be exceedingly difficult for any party backing Remain.

This gives the lie to those Blairites and deluded “remain-and-reformers” who say that Labour should have backed Remain more forcefully or was doomed regardless of the position it took. Accepting the referendum result was not only the right thing to do in principle, it was also objectively rational for a party seeking to win power in the British political system.

It would undoubtedly have been harder for Labour than the Tories to constitute a pro-Leave coalition, given its starting position. But this only reflects the party’s historical shift away from working-class voters and towards the EU. Brexit, and the 2019 election, were not simply a one-off “shocks” but part of a long-term transformation of the party (see Analysis #7 - Why Does the British Left Love the EU?). Nonetheless, arguably the majority of Remain voters are democrats, who would have accepted the result and could have been won around to a left Leave platform, had one been developed. But this was not even seriously considered at any point.

The obvious question is why the Labour Party was unable to see all of this and behaved so irrationally for the last three years. Expressed another way, as my Full Brexit colleague Anshu Srivastava puts it, Labour should stop trying to understand the Leave vote and try to understand why it cannot understand the Leave vote.

There is something deeply irrational about the way Labour has handled Brexit. The whole issue has been viewed through the prisms of moralism, emotionalism and identity politics, such that Leave and Leave voters were simply viewed with horror and disdain by most party grandees and indeed by many Corbyn supporters. This seemed to create an insuperable barrier, such that collaboration with these people – appealing for their support, catering to their interests, building a coalition with them – was seen as anathema. The very best Corbyn could achieve was to try to hide from the issue entirely and shift the conversation onto other issues. This was, indeed, a colossal failure of leadership, but also of the Labour Party’s entire model of politics.

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