In the aftermath of Labour’s crushing defeat in last week’s general election, much of the blame has been attributed to Jeremy Corbyn. Brian O’Boyle argues that the problems for the Labour Party go much deeper.
Labour’s result in last week’s general election was the worst since the 1930’s. The scale of the defeat has shocked and depressed millions of people who understood the stakes in what was the most ideological election in a generation. Britain will be harsher, more unequal and more reactionary thanks to Boris Johnson’s victory, and, as usual, it will be working communities that take the brunt of his toxic blend of nationalism and neoliberalism on steroids. The fact that the Tories won by taking seats in Labour heartlands—areas in North Wales, the Midlands and the Northeast of England—has merely compounded the demoralisation, particularly as Jeremy Corbyn’s election manifesto promised to end 40 years of neoliberal dominance.
A defeat on this scale calls for an explanation and many in the media, and on the right of the Labour Party, have been quick to blame Corbyn and his senior team. The narrative here is as well-worn as it is dishonest—Corbyn was too left-wing; Labour can never win unless it moves into the centre; Corbyn was toxic on the doorsteps; Corbyn was anti-Semitic etc. The truth is far more complicated than this and goes to the very core of strategies for challenging the brutality of capitalism today.
The Corbyn Effect
Let’s start with Corbyn the man. Over the last 40 years, Corbyn has proven himself a deeply honourable politician who has consistently taken the side of the exploited and the oppressed. Indeed, this is precisely why he is so hated by the Tory rags, the Labour Right and the wider political establishment. Corbyn’s project threatened the interests of the British ruling classes, so they subjected him to the longest continuous smear campaign in British history. According to the Independent Newspaper, more than 75% of media coverage deliberately misrepresented Corbyn, a fact confirmed by the London School of Economics in an independent analysis. The severity of this attack undoubtedly had an impact on people’s perceptions. A number of canvassers admitted that some voters they met on the doors had a vague dislike of the Labour leader without always being able to articulate why. Another portion found the promises made by Labour’s manifesto hard to believe, but it is important to remember that Corbyn faced similar challenges prior to the election in 2017. Corbynism was widely derided and written off two years ago, but still returned with the highest increase in Labour’s vote since Clement Atlee in 1945. Corbyn also polled well in the head-to-head debates with Johnson this time around—as can been seen in the table below.
Source ITV Leaders Debate Poll of Polls (19th November)
The radical nature of Corbyn’s project clearly had a polarising effect in British politics, with more people willing to vote for him than previous leaders, but also more people willing to vote for the main opposition. The right wing press would have you believe that Corbyn was a deeply unpopular leader who could never be elected. The truth is, his ability to win so many votes and reinvigorate the base of the Labour Party, is precisely why they had to smear him. Let us not forget that in 2017 Corbyn got the biggest vote for the party—more than 12 million—since Blair swept the board in 1997. That said, there was a major reversal this time around that must be explained. The most immediate part of this explanation is the way the Labour Party shifted on Brexit.The scale of the defeat is also likely to mask the fact that with 32.1% of the vote and 10.2 million votes, Corbyn did better than both Brown and Miliband on both these metrics, despite finishing with between 30 and 50 less seats. He also got more votes than Labour in 2005, when Tony Blair actually won the election with 9.5 million votes and 355 seats. Some of this is down to the vagaries of the first past the post system, but the real problem has been the surge to the Tories—up from 31% in 2005 to 43% last week.
The Brexit Effect
As much as Corbyn tried to make this election about the future direction of British society, Brexit was always likely to be the defining issue. The original vote had been very close, but for millions of Leave voters in the run up to this election, the most important fact was that parliament had failed to deliver their wishes on three separate occasions. This meant that anyone who could credibly promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’ was likely to get a favourable hearing. This became Johnson’s one and only strategy, requiring him to (1) get a deal that was capable of uniting most of his party and, (2) make it seem like he was synonymous with Brexit. Having insisted that they would never re-open negotiations, the European Union threw Johnson his all-important life-line by agreeing a deal that dropped the backstop for a Northern Ireland only Customs Union and made it easier for the UK to do neoliberal trade deals if, and when, they exit the EU. This sacrificed the DUP on the basis that Johnson wouldn’t need them any longer and satisfied the hard line European Research Group (ERG) with the promise of a neoliberal fairyland. The deal also satisfied the bulk of Johnson’s more traditionalist MP’s, with all but 25 deciding that their own careers—and defeating Corbyn—were more important than fighting to Remain. With the Conservative Party unified and voting repeatedly for Johnson’s deal in late October, this allowed the Tories to present themselves as the champions of the people—the ones who could get Brexit done—a couple of weeks before the election.
By this stage it was already too late for Labour, particularly as Corbyn was at the head of a deeply divided party on the question of Brexit. As a socialist, Corbyn was sympathetic to the idea of a Left-wing exit from the EU in 2016. He knew the European Union is a club for big business and understood that breaking from this club is essential to taking back control for the working classes. This explains why he was luke-warm when mandated to campaign for Remain in 2016, and why he was adamant that the Labour Party should respect the vote to leave in 2017. His grip on the party coupled with the fact that the vote to Leave had only happened a year before, meant that Labour went into the 2017 election promising to get Brexit done. The right in the party never accepted this position, however, and by 2019, they had succeeded in creating a disastrous positon that appealed to no one. When Johnson said “let’s get Brexit done”; Corbyn said “let’s renegotiate and have a second vote, if it’s a bad deal I won’t canvass for it, if it’s a good deal I will”. This made it seem like Labour was now committed to blocking the will of the original vote, particularly as the party voted to stop Johnson’s deal repeatedly in the run up to the election.
If Corbyn had been in a genuinely left wing party he could have made the election a contest between a ‘Workers Brexit’ and a ‘Tory Brexit’. Thereafter, he could have used his manifesto as the blueprint for a workers Britain outside the EU bosses club—ready to take on the bosses at home. This would have gone a long way to undercutting the toxicity of Johnson’s English Nationalist Brexit. But instead he was forced to make concession after concession to hold onto right wing MP’s in a way that proved fatal to his electoral prospects. Of the 60 seats that Labour lost in this election, 52 backed Leave in 2016. Labour’s overall vote share was down by nearly 8%, but by more than 10% in the strongest vote leave areas. Indeed, exit polling by Lord Ashcroft found that a quarter of those who voted Labour in 2017 switched their votes to the Tories or the Brexit Party. In a first past the post-election, this swing makes all the difference.
The Limits of Reformism
Although Brexit was the most immediate cause of Corbyn’s failure, there are deeper problems that must also be accepted. When asked in 2002 what her greatest achievement was, Margaret Thatcher replied the election of Tony Blair. It was one thing to drive the neoliberal revolution within her own party, but when the main opposition also adopted it, it created long-lasting damage to the organic link between working class communities and the party that was meant to represent them. Working people suffered under Blairism as they had under Thatcher. There was no revival of the Labour heartlands in 13 years of Labour government as Blair continued to implement neoliberalism at home and took the country into an illegal war abroad. When Thatcher came into office in 1979 there were 6.5 million British people in poverty, today this has grown to 13 million. This, in the end, is the seedbed of Labour’s latest reversal, particularly as Corbyn could never unify his own party in the way that Johnson was able to unite the Tories. For the first time in a hundred years the Conservative Party is pursuing an objective at odds with the interests of British business, but most corporate leaders still supported them because Brexit is less damaging than Corbynism and because Johnson is using right wing identity politics to drive through a pro-business agenda.
Tory MP’s might have had misgivings about the Johnson strategy, but their class interests are coherent when it comes to a contest with a genuine threat to the rule of capital. Tragically, the same can’t be said for a Labour Party packed full of Blairites, many of whom still hold the same neoliberal world view as their Tory opponents. The Labour Party has grown used to sacrificing the interests of its voters and this has made it difficult for any leader to win them back. That said, in his four years in office, Corbyn did a lot to try and achieve this. He more than doubled the party’s membership from 202,000 to 480,000, engaged wider sections of the public through monster rallies and created the idea that there is an alternative to the neoliberalism that has destroyed the lives of so many people. That he was also smashed in this most recent election, tells us a lot about the limits of reforming capitalism through structures that are set up to defend it. The British Labour Party accepts capitalism every bit as much as the Tories do, and this, in the end, was the biggest problem facing Corbyn. To successfully challenge the barbarity of capitalism today it is necessary to build a worker’s party that is every bit as coherent for our class, as the Tories are for theirs.