Saturday, 14 December 2019


The general election has changed the political landscape in three ways. First, the remain cause is now dead. The metropolitan professional classes and pro-EU elements of British industry will make peace with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats will face a funding crisis and may also see a pushback by activists against the Orange Bookers. Second, the Labour left has been checked. However, the idea that the right will now recapture the party and purge the left (in particular Momentum) is implausible, given the attitudes of the membership and the unions. There is more likely to be a rapid (and frankly overdue) evolution in the left itself. The passing of Corbyn and McDonnell is not just generational; it will probably mark a shift from electoralism to a broader social movement, which will inevitably play to the strengths of the left and exacerbate the weaknesses of the right. David Miliband isn't coming back. Third, the Union will be changed irrevocably. At the very least, Northern Ireland will become semi-detached and mentally closer to unification with the Republic. Full Scottish independence may not be any more likely than it was in 2014, but it's hard to see the current constitutional relationship surviving the next five years unchanged.

A number of political commentators have claimed that the scale of the Conservative majority means that Boris Johnson can and will govern from the centre, marginalising the party's right on social and economic policy and the ERG on Europe. This is unlikely. The Tories have decisively shifted to the right both in terms of membership and the composition of the parliamentary party. Brexit will grind on for years and there is no desire to open up another opportunity for Nigel Farage on the party's flank. I think we can be confident that the Tories will govern from the right for the next five years. Ironically, it would be in their interest to keep Brexit running as a live issue, in the form of tantalisingly close new trade deals and complaints about the EU's intransigence. For their part, the EU27 are unlikely to change their strategy, which means they will leverage the British desire for a quick trade deal in 2020 to pursue their own interests in areas such as fisheries and regulatory alignment. The result will either be a rupture leading to a damaging, minimalist deal or a further extension to the transition period.

The related idea that the Tories will have to offer more generous social policies and state-led economic stimulus because of the interests of their new "blue collar" seats in the North and Midlands is also dubious, just as it was in 1983 when they first won Darlington and Birmingham Northfield. It ignores that the Tories haven't won over lots of former Labour voters committed to state intervention so much as consolidated the reactionary vote and suppressed Labour's turnout through their relentless focus on Brexit. Their new voting bloc isn't going to be demanding the abolition of Universal Credit or the revival of the steel industry. What we can expect are gestures towards areas of vulnerability like the NHS, but these will be very much in the style of the pledge of 40 new hospitals that turned out to be merely 6 refurbs. Given the reactionary nature of this voting bloc, there will probably be more culture war initiatives than fiscal stimulus, hence the enthusiastic backing of the likes of Tommy Robinson and Katie Hopkins.

There are two fundamental reasons being offered for Labour's defeat: Brexit and Corbyn. We can say with confidence that the former was decisive for two reasons. First, the Tories were never less than clear that "Get Brexit done" was their sole substantial offer, and they proved correct in their assumption that their remain-supporting voters would mostly stay loyal whereas enough Labour leavers would defect or abstain to swing target seats. Second, the Conservative Party vote share since Cameron's decision to commit to a referendum on the EU has gone up in each election. While 2017 was a failure for Theresa May, she actually increased the Tory vote by a substantial 5 points to 42%, despite her all too apparent limitations as a campaigner and the self-inflicted wound of the "dementia tax". Johnson has now inched that up to just under 44%. Given the 36% level of support for the Tories in the first half of the decade and the party's monomania in the second half, it seems reasonable to conclude that 8% of the vote is attributable to Brexit and that this was decisive.

The claim that Labour lost chiefly because of Corbyn has merit only if you believe that charismatic, credible leaders really make that much of a difference. For centrists this is an article of faith, hence the emotional investment in the likes of Blair, Macron and Trudeau, not to mention 2010's "Cleggmania". But the reality is that leaders make little difference, as Jo Swinson has now discovered. Electors may cite negative or positive qualities in a party leader, but these seem to be largely post-hoc rationalisations of more fundamental sympathies, hence the nebulous "Don't like the man" comments about Corbyn, which rarely coalesced into anything more substantial on doorsteps than his supposed support for terrorism. Likewise, centrists who still insist that Corbyn personally lost the 2016 referendum remain in denial about their own culpability. The most obvious counter to the claim that elections are won or lost by the skill or virtue of party leaders is that the country has just elected as Prime Minister a man who spent the campaign comically avoiding scrutiny, unashamedly lying and generally proving to be a moral void.

The criticism of Labour's manifesto as being too busy, too focused on "giveaways" and inadequately heralded over the last two years does have merit. It was inspiring but not sufficiently persuasive. As James Butler noted, "it was a document presented as if to allies, rather than to a sceptical electorate uneasy with its trust". This highlights both the slow progress of the left in achieving hegemony beyond the party over the last four years, beset as it was by wreckers and bad faith arguments around antisemitism and Brexit, and its own crippling proceduralism - the belief that conquering the manifesto was a victory in itself. However, much of the criticism directed at the manifesto on tactical grounds is clearly antipathetic to its scope and ambition. The jibes at "broadband communism" revealed a belief that any attempt to empower people through public services would be met with incredulity by the electorate. That may not be wrong today, but it is a damning indictment of the political imagination of the country that such a modest proposal was considered incredible.

The funk of the political centre in England and Wales continues. The Liberal Democrats improved on their vote share but ended up with a net loss of one seat and another broken leader. That 4-point gain will have been a mixture of protest votes and tactical votes, but the hopes of the party that this would lead them to picking up Conservative-held seats in heavily pro-remain areas proved illusory. In the event, their signal contribution was to tip Kensington back to the Tories, an emblematically awful outcome to a deceitful campaign. The remnants of Change UK were predictably swept away, as were the Tory independents, Dominic Grieve and David Gauke. One lesson we should take from this is that the priorities and interests of the liberal media are not those of the electorate, but to judge by the speed with which old Blairites infested the TV studios on Thursday night there will be no change in behaviour. Until the centre comes to terms with the causes of 2008 and admits its error over austerity, it will fail to develop a distinctive case against either left or right that goes beyond hysterical virtue.

Though election post mortems inevitably focus on the altered prospects for parties and the termination of once-promising careers, perhaps the most notable casualty of this one has been the BBC. That the Tories felt sufficiently emboldened to raise the prospect of abolishing the licence fee during a campaign where they otherwise avoided either hostages to fortune or controversial kite-flying is telling. That the corporation was so defensive in response to criticism that its "human errors" consistently favoured one party was equally revealing. Beyond the structural bias that the BBC displays in its deferential treatment of the government of the day, it is clearly terrified of the Tories, and probably with good reason. For many Conservatives Auntie is one of the last remaining bastions of collectivism in society. While the NHS can be gradually sliced and diced until little more than the logo remains public property, the corporation can only be satisfactorily reformed by market logic when the prop of the licence fee is removed. Given its parliamentary majority, and the likely demand for culture war scalps as Brexit continues to confound, I suspect the Johnson administration may well do the deed.


  1. Was Labour's pivot to a de facto Remain position especially devastating in the North East because that region (due to poverty) has an above-average number of military families, to whom Corbyn was already toxic due to his history with the Stop the War Coalition?

    1. I don't see much of a connection between the two - most NE voters have never heard of the STWC - but it's undoubtedly true that the squaddie vote will have deserted Labour because of Corbyn's infamous membership of the IRA.

    2. Didn't Lenin embrace anti-imperialism because he felt that the best way to get the proletariat (in rich countries) to support the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, was to deny the capitalist class the ability to buy off their domestic proletariat with colonial loot?

      This suggests that anti-imperialism would be tactically beneficial for revolutionary leftists but not for electoral leftists...

  2. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 December 2019 at 13:43

    This article is built on the premise that the electorate are utterly moronic and will be keep being moronic.

    I am not saying this is unreasonable but just pointing that out.

    I mean you believe basically that the Tories will keep playing the electorate for fools.

    Incidentally if they do get rid of the BBC then that would be wonderful.

    So I will have a bet with you,

    Labour will shift to the right

    The Tories will never ever get rid of the BBC (it is a conservative institution where the 'respectable' Middle Classes find employment)

    Labour can win next time if they find the right suit (in other words style is far far far more important than substance in electoral politics, especially in these passive consumerist times)

    The Tories will not keep getting away with blaming Brexit stalling on everyone else.

    1. I'm not assuming the electors are moronic or that the Tories will continue to play them for fools. Many who voted Conservative this time despise the party & do not trust Johnson, but they wanted Brexit "done". That may be a triumph of hope over experience, but it isn't moronic.

      I'm also not suggesting that the Tories will get rid of the BBC, but that they will subject it to market discipline. This won't make it any more conservative, but it will make it more deferential to the interests of capital for fear of an advertisers' strike.

  3. Herbie Destroys the Environment15 December 2019 at 18:02

    "I'm also not suggesting that the Tories will get rid of the BBC, but that they will subject it to market discipline"

    Oh no, they might start making shit programmes is that happens!

    "This won't make it any more conservative, but it will make it more deferential to the interests of capital for fear of an advertisers' strike."

    It is already deferential to what matters to advertisers, its why advertisers are so keen to get a slice of its cake!

    But I doubt the business friends of the Tories will be delighted by the fact that the BBC will suck up all that advertising revenue!

  4. The way I'm looking at this is the Tory party is two pounds of sh** in a one pound bag. The bag won't hold for five years. Something will happen. I know it's not a sophisticated analysis, but it has some merit.