How time flies! The UK general election’s shocking result, in which Boris Johnson, the upper crust Etonian, snatched the working-class heartlands from Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party, is already receding in the rear-view mirror. Johnson has wasted no time, enshrining in law both Brexit and NHS spending; attempting to consolidate the Conservative’s gains. Meanwhile, Labour is still searching for answers, under the beady-eyed glare of a very glum-looking Mr Corbyn. Less a period of reflection, as the dear leader had hoped, more like vultures feasting on carrion.
Labour seem locked in the first stage of grief, as the joke goes, denial is not just a river in Egypt. As the exit poll heralded defeat, Corbyn’s lieutenant John McDonnell had his excuse ready “Brexit dominated the election,” he said. “I think people are frustrated and want Brexit out of the way.” Corbyn quickly agreed, Labour had “won the argument”. But, considering this was Labour’s worst defeat since 1935, I’d hate to see them lose one.
McDonnell was partly right. As Corbyn sought to change the record, Johnson obdurately set about capturing the Leave vote, hammering home the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, ad nauseam. It worked.
At the last election, 55% of Remainers voted Labour and 65% of Leavers voted Conservative. But under Johnson, the Tories locked down 74% of the Leave vote. The Remain vote split, with Labour (49%) losing Remain support to the Liberal Democrats, who increased their vote share amongst Remain voters to 21%, up from 12% in 2017.
The biggest moment of the night, occurred when for the first time in electoral history, the Tories took the former mining community of Blythe Valley from Labour. By dawn, the entire Red Wall — Labour’s heartlands — had crumbled; this had been unimaginable. Thatcher had taken an axe to such communities in the ’80s, turning them into a post-industrial rustbelt. Now, it seemed, they’d buried the hatchet.
Surprisingly, amongst Tory voters, only 37% mentioned Brexit as the most critical issue. Yet, when voters answered what they feared most about a new Conservative or Labour government, for Labour the top of the list was ‘Jeremy Corbyn being Prime Minister’.
Many saw an extreme left-winger with terrorist sympathies, anti-British tendencies, and an uncanny ability to find himself in anti-Semitic situations. Even a manifesto, chock-full of giveaways (such as free internet) was seen as a transparent bribe. As one voter remarked “It’s trying to go after first-time voters because, for teenagers, wi-fi is everything. So, for people who haven’t looked into it and haven’t paid taxes, if they’re going to have something like that for free, it’s a vote winner.”
Labour dominated amongst younger voters, with age and not class becoming the new dividing line in British politics. For every ten years older a voter gets, their chance of voting Tory increased by nine points; and the age at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour continued to trend downwards to 39, from 47 in the 2017 election.
The anniversary of ‘A Christmas Carol’ recently passed, the Dickensian novel, in which the miserly Scrooge has his cold and bitter heart thawed by the warmth of Christmas spirit. Corbyn was the story in reverse, transmogrifying from a rosy-cheeked grandfather into a grumpy and scowling visage. The Labour party played the part of the ghost of Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s dead business partner, doomed to spend eternity in chains. Scrooge snapped the manacles of fate, following the visitation of three ghosts: of past, present, and Christmas yet to come.
The Ghost of Elections Past, had Labour listened, beckoned towards a happy time, 1997 when the party won a landslide. Politics is a lot like geology; the metaphors are everywhere. First, there are the initial tremors, which people neglect, the pressure slowly building, until eventually the ‘big one’ hits, and shakes us to our core.
In 1997, the fault lines lay amongst the middle-class. Blair embodied an aspirational spirit, after over a decade and a half of Tory rule, the cosmopolitan middle wanted change. The unionised working-class were a dying breed in the new service-orientated globalised economy. Blair just admitted the new reality. Borrowing from Clinton, he used focus groups and policy triangulation with laser-guided precision, targeting swing voters in the suburbs.
But Blair failed to reverse the industrial decline in the Labour heartlands, continuing Thatcher’s neoliberal economics. In a 2005 conference speech, he asserted communities could not ‘resist the force of globalisation’. Progressive politics existed only to ‘prepare them for it’.
However, these were empty words, emblematic of the Blair era. A study of Labour policies for deprived regions under the 2005–2007 Labour government found that funding cuts, privatisation, and contracting out employment services were the ‘dominant policy models.’
Whole towns and regions, once populated with well-paid, skilled jobs gave way to call-centres, welfare and government admin. Apprenticeships and training schemes prominent in the ’90s evaporated under the heat of mass immigration. It’s cheaper to hire the educated than to educate. To paraphrase Theodore Dalrymple, whole swathes of Britain had ossified, becoming ‘the Soviet Union with takeaway pizza’.
Over twenty years the working-class vote ebbed away — drip drip drip. The party ignored the few Labour politicians who talked seriously about fixing the leak. As the brutal miners’ strikes of the ’80s receded from memory, people re-evaluated their options. Politics is a fickle game. Loyalty can never and should never be reliable. If you don’t use it, you lose it.
The BNP briefly snared some voters in its claws, others went to UKIP, and even more eased into a nihilistic apathy trapped in low-wage employment and welfare, unable to escape their dying towns. But it wasn’t hand-outs these people wanted — the crumbs from the table of globalisation. They had subsisted like that for years, humiliated and stripped of dignity. They wanted jobs, opportunities, a chance to fulfil their aspirations.
Slowly, the geography of the electoral map shifted under the tectonics of globalisation. ‘Two England’s’ drifted apart: the growing ‘cosmopolitan’, educated urbanites; and the shrinking ‘backwaters’, which were predominated by older, whiter and less educated populations. These were the left-behind.
In 2014, front bench Labour MP Emily Thornberry personified the divide when she tweeted a picture of a terraced house with three England flags, and a white van parked outside. Thornberry was promptly thrown under the bus and branded a ‘snob’ by Labour party grandees with plum English accents pretending to be culturally at one with the working-class, but sounding more like a youth worker who’s ‘down with the kidz’.
Thornberry is now a contender for the Labour leadership, her campaign already marred by allegations she called Tory voters’ stupid’. The more things change, ey.
When Brexit finally came along, the divide was locked in. It’s little surprise Corbyn a lifelong Brexiteer backed Remain, whereas Theresa May who had quietly voted Remain became an apostle of Leave. Both were dinosaurs, antediluvian fossils, relegated to museum pieces. Forced to dance one last time for parties they no longer represented.
Ironically in 2019, Corbyn completed Blair’s vision. In 1997, upper-middle-class and middle-class voters still mostly back the Conservatives. Two decades later, the pattern was reversed — Labour’s last refuges in the affluent university towns. The further out you went, the more Conservative the nation got. The map told it all — islands of red, a liberal archipelago — amongst the sea of blue-collar Conservatism.
Labour clung on amongst some in the lower socio-economic classes. The precariat — a modern phenomenon — characterised by an informal ‘gig’ economy, unable to unionise like the working class of old, but without the salary of the middle-classes, overwhelming voted Labour. Indeed, the young precariats formed the backbone of Corbyn’s support via groups such as Momentum — mirroring Bernie Sanders in the US. Additionally, impoverished ethnic minorities in the inner city still backed Labour, sharing a cultural outlook.
But this is not an election-winning coalition. Blair, appearing like a mosquito sent to cure malaria, warned ‘The far left that has taken over the Labour party … If they’re in charge of the Labour party going forward, then I think the Labour party is finished.’ Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson declared ‘I want Momentum gone. Go back to your student politics and your’ little left-wing.’ But is the damage already done? And can Labour afford a civil war?
In ‘A Christmas Carol’, Scrooge is shown a vision not of his death, but the moments after. A cold, indifferent world, in which he dies alone and forgotten — bankrupted by his meanness. What does the ‘Ghost of Elections Yet to Come’ foresee for the Labour party?
One Labour MP questioned, ‘if we don’t represent these people, what is the point of the Labour party?’ But this hides the dirty truth, how can Labour win back people it doesn’t even like. People who are anathema to their values. People branded patriarchal and misogynistic, racist and bigoted, stupid and ignorant — take a glance at Twitter. But as David Cameron proclaimed: ‘Britain and Twitter, they’re not the same thing’.
As Scrooge arrives finally at his redemption, the Ghost points his bony finger at a grave, his own. ‘Good Spirit… Your nature intercedes for me and pities me. Assure me that I yet may changes shadows you have shown me, by an altered life.’ Scrooge awakens changed; generous and kind to his common man. Labour must do the same. It must speak to the working class or die. If not, someone else will talk to them — politics abhors a vacuum.
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