Labour Lost Because it Failed to Grasp the Democratic Opportunity of Brexit
12 December 2019
The left lost the 2019 general election for a simple reason: it was on the wrong side of a popular revolt against the status quo.
At the time of publication (22:46), an exit poll forecasts that the Conservatives are on course for a majority of 86 in the 2019 general election. This has crushed the hopes of many activists, who managed to convince themselves that one last push could narrow the gap and claim the (dubious) victory of a minority government. But even before the campaign ended, the excuses were being prepared, with people lashing out against “stupid” working-class voters being “duped” by the “billionaire media”. True to form, Paul Mason has already declared “a victory of the old over the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet.” This attitude is a large part of the reason why Labour lost: three years of abusing the electorate, demeaning their intellect and devaluing their vote, does not encourage working people to support you.
The shift of working-class voters to the Conservatives is one of the most striking aspects of the election. Several polls showed the Tories ten points ahead of Labour among poorer, “C2DE” voters. Although the left has tried to delegitimise these findings by highlighting problems with equating “ABC1” with “middle class” and “C2DE” with working class, the truth is that this realignment has been happening for decades, even if one uses subjective measures of social class. The reality is that the Labour Party abandoned the working class in the 1980s, shifting towards the aspirational, university-educated, urban middle classes, a trend has only accelerated under Corbyn. Many working-class voters disengaged from politics, while others angrily turned to right-wing populists (see Analysis #12 - When the Left Abandons Workers, They Are Easy Prey for the Right). UKIP, and more recently the Brexit Party, have been a gateway through which traditional Labour voters have eventually transferred their support to the Conservatives. The latter’s victory is largely due to its success in hoovering up the UKIP vote in 2017, followed by winning back support from the Brexit Party. The Conservatives were predicted to hold around 70 percent of Leave voters, whereas the Remain vote was fragmented across Labour and other parties. Although Labour drew some Remainers away from the Liberal Democrats, it was nowhere near enough to win.
Accordingly, short-term explanations about media bias or Boris Johnson duping gullible voters just won’t wash. Few working-class voters backed Johnson because his clownish behaviour fools them into thinking he is “one of them”. Few even expect the Tories to solve their problems – they know whose side the Conservatives are really on. Nor can anyone have been enthused by the Tories’ vision for post-Brexit Britain, because they do not have one: they merely promised to implement Brexit then “get on with” the normal business of government, adding a bit more public spending.
Rather, many working-class citizens have temporarily lent their vote to the Conservatives because they promise to respect the EU referendum result and, in the words of the only slogan that cut through in the dreary election campaign, “get Brexit done”. Despite Labour’s attempt to convince everyone that this was not a Brexit election, the choice was clearly between a Conservative majority government that would implement Brexit, and a Labour-led minority government that would negotiate a Brexit In Name Only deal and hold a second referendum clearly intended to overturn the first. Confronted with a choice between a party that honoured their vote, and one that did not, many people held their noses and voted Tory, despite the gargantuan spending pledges that Labour dangled before them in the vain hope that they would trade democracy for better public services.
Two weeks before polling day, Labour Remainers suddenly woke up to the fact that this would not work. In an article betraying a stunning lack of self-awareness, Owen Jones symbolised this belated realisation, calling on Labour to reach out to Leave voters. But two weeks of spinning Labour’s de facto pro-Remain position in Leave-supporting areas was never going to compensate for the three and a half years in which Labour Remainers had systematically demeaned these citizens, questioning their intelligence and fitness to participate as political equals in the governance of this country, and branding them xenophobes, racists and fascists. Jones – who initially supported “Lexit” in 2015 before bottling it prior to the referendum – even had the gall to posture as a brave speaker of truth to power, for standing up to ultra-Remainers.
Labour cannot say they were not warned. Prior to the EU referendum, The Full Brexit’s Richard Tuck lamented the left’s failure to provide a British Bernie Sanders, someone capable of channelling the anti-establishment sentiment of Brexit, abandoning the task instead to… Boris Johnson. For Tuck, the reason of that failure is
Britain’s membership of the EU itself. Resisting the TPP [Transpacific Partnership], or even annulling NAFTA [North American Free Trade Area], are simple tasks compared with the difficulties of extracting Britain from the EU. Faced with that, a generation of Labour politicians have lost their nerve. It then becomes a vicious circle as, with no one on the Left willing to defend Brexit, the cause looks as if it is (to put it in American terms) purely Trump – and then the politicians, and most party members, feel ashamed at being associated with it. Consequently there is no way of recovering Labour’s lost working-class support: as in Scotland, the party drank from the poisoned chalice of the EU, and it may be too late to find the antidote.
And so it proved.
Assuming the exit poll is correct, the Labour Party lost because it has spurned the democratic opportunity offered by Brexit. It was on the wrong side even before the Leave vote, having thrown in its lot with the EU following a series of defeats in the 1980s (see Analysis #7 - Why Does the British Left Love the EU?). This cemented the party’s growing estrangement from the working class – who were seen as too right-wing to support radical policies – and its growing reliance on paper-thin international institutions, not organised labour and class struggle, to protect the remnants of the welfare state and workers’ rights (see Analysis #13 - The Chimera of Workers' Rights in the EU).
Nonetheless, it was still theoretically possible for Labour to have accepted the referendum result and devised a left-wing Brexit project. The party leadership, particularly the lifelong socialist Eurosceptics Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, could have emphasised the contradiction between the EU’s neoliberal constitutionalism and their socialist revivalism, the cause of much popular enthusiasm for the party (see Proposal #2 - Quit the Single Market; Analysis #33 - Nationalisation and the fraud of “Remain and Reform”). They could have refused the attempt to traduce and delegitimise Leave voters and instead emphasised the common interest of most citizens, Leavers and Remainers, in breaking from neoliberalism. They could have set out how Labour would exploit the freedoms and policy space created by leaving the EU to transform British society (see Proposal #12 - Moving Towards Socialism: Economic Reform, Popular Sovereignty and the Nation-State). This vision would undoubtedly have been more attractive to voters than the feeble, barren alternative proposed by the Tories: a lame notion of “global Britain” focused on free trade deals. The hard-right vision of “Singapore-on-Thames” never attracted support from more than six percent of the public. Brexit was the left’s prize to seize.
But instead, the Labour Party, and the wider British left, sank immediately into an identitarian understanding of the referendum result. This was neatly summarised in an October 2016 Observer editorial, which framed the Remainer cause as
A battle for equality, justice and tolerance, for the proud liberal principles of individual freedom, openness and inclusion. It is a struggle between the forces of reaction, prejudice, ignorance, dogmatism and self-interest and the universal vision of progressive societies in which the rights of all men and women are respected and advanced.
Similarly, Laurie Penny described the vote as a “referendum on the modern world”, in which those with a “frightened, parochial lizard-brain” had triumphed. Polls showing that Leave voters tended to espouse conservative social values, and vice-versa, were immediately seized upon to provide a cultural explanation of the result. Academics fuelled this further, arguing that Brexit had been driven by racism and imperial nostalgia, or a “cultural backlash” against progressive, modern values.
In an era where moralism has replaced political strategizing, this identitarian reading of Leave voters had disastrous implications for the possibility of uniting people across the Brexit divide around a shared vision of the future. For why would virtuous Remainers want to work alongside such vile people as Leavers, whose “lizard brains” caused them to hate everything good about the world? Why should they seek to understand their grievances and build solidarity with them, when the “explanation” for their vote was so obvious: they hate foreigners? What political relationship can one have with such people except one of rank hostility? The result was an utterly contemptuous treatment of the majority of the electorate – a nightmare scenario for any party seeking power in a democratic system. And, unsurprisingly, the hardening of “Leave” and “Remain” as political identities, to the point where these are now twice as strong as identification with political parties.
This is not simply a personal failing of Corbyn, who did exert some effort, however inadequate, towards respecting the referendum result. Corbyn did call for the immediate invocation of Article 50, successfully pressed Labour to pledge to respect the Leave vote in its 2017 manifesto, and tried to recast the Leaver/ Remainer divide into one of “the many versus the few”. But he nonetheless abandoned his longstanding principled opposition to the EU before the referendum and since. Instead of fighting for the democratic possibilities that lay in the Brexit earthquake, Corbyn preferred to “maintain party unity” by prioritising the perspectives and interests of middle-class left-liberals over those of the working class.
The 2017 manifesto represented an unstable compromise between these forces, promising to respect the referendum result and yet with so many caveats that it actually incubated a policy of Remain. By childishly demanding that Brexit preserve the exact same benefits as EU membership, Keir Starmer’s “six tests” effectively made it impossible for Labour to back any Brexit deal (see Analysis #17 - Labour Stands Exposed on Brexit). After defeating May’s Withdrawal Agreement, the Labour right pressed home its advantage, agitating for a full shift to Remain. Ironically, they were aided by many grassroots Corbynistas who had bought the identitarian narrative of the EU referendum. A full endorsement of Remain at the 2019 Labour Party conference was only averted by Corbyn’s personal appeal to them to defer a final decision until after a Labour government had renegotiated Brexit. Nonetheless, deserted even by McDonnell, Corbyn’s feeble authority was broken, as shadow cabinet members lined up to confirm they would campaign for Remain.
The 2019 manifesto confirmed that Labour would negotiate a Brexit In Name Only deal that would negate the whole purpose of leaving the EU, resulting in a referendum that could only produce a majority for Remain. But it was already clear in June 2019 that Labour’s policy shift would be electorally disastrous, and that Corbynism was effectively dead (see Analysis #34 - Labour’s Brexit Capitulation is the End of Corbynism). The 2019 election campaign was merely the candle burning brightest as it finally gutters out.
Labour lost this election because it failed to grasp the democratic mantle of Brexit. The vote to Leave was a democratic moment, but it is not expressed in a democratic movement capable of truly taking back control. Labour has found itself on the wrong side of history, blindsided by a popular revolt it did nothing to direct or even, belatedly, to harness. This has sacrificed the cause of democracy to the right, and the role of anti-establishment tribune to the charlatan Boris Johnson. The best opportunity to revive the British left since the end of the Cold War has been missed. This is a disaster of historical proportions.
There will be plenty of “lessons learned” type reflections in the days to come, advising Labour on what to do next, and no doubt most will involve dumping Corbyn and returning to “sensible”, Blairite politics. But those of us on the left have a different lesson to learn, about the nature of the Labour Party itself. Corbyn’s leadership has been a natural experiment in whether the party can be used for socialist – or even modest social-democratic – ends, and the results are conclusive. The rot is too far advanced. The Labour Party is not the party through which the working class will seize power and transform their lives; it is a party of the public-sector middle classes and the trade union bureaucracy, deeply committed to a paternalistic, welfarist, statist outlook. The British state’s transformation into a member-state of the EU entails Labour’s commitment to the EU: the party’s imaginative horizon is of welfare bureaucracies, backed by EU protections, administering to the vulnerable victims of neoliberal capitalism. As the last three years have shown, many of Labour’s leading lights and spokespeople are instinctively hostile to the working class when they relinquish the role of grateful welfare recipient and instead take matters into their own hands.
About the Author
Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.