Nothing sharpens the mind like defeat, the historian Eric Hobsbawm once claimed. While winners may think of their victory as inevitable, those who lose are forced to confront the reasons why events did not come to pass as they hoped. Hobsbawm was speaking from his own experience. As a communist, the majority of his life had been devoted to a cause which had ‘plainly failed.’ Hobsbawm had been on the losing side of the 20th century. While history may be written by the victors, he surmised that the gains in understanding came from the defeated.
Last Friday, the Labour Party suffered its worst defeat in a British general election since 1935. It now falls to their members to grapple with the reasons why it has suffered such a bad loss. As it stands, Labour is left on 203 seats in the UK Parliament (out of a total of 650). Meanwhile the Conservative Party under Boris Johnson’s leadership have 365 seats. Constituencies in the Midlands and the North East of England went from red to blue for the first time decades; in some cases, for the first time since their creation. North of the English border, the Scottish National Party dominate: there are currently more pandas in Scotland than there are Labour MPs. What remains for Labour are, for the most part, English cities, South Wales and small red islands across the Midlands. By any definition, this was a damaging defeat.
So far, however, attempts to understand the results have generated far more heat than light. The election and the bruising campaign, that preceded, have just finished, and passions remain, understandably high. Nevertheless at this early stage, two competing explanations have emerged from within the Labour Party. The first has been Brexit, the single word which has dominated British Politics since 2016 like no other. This was, some Labour politicians claim, the Brexit election – one centred on the act of leaving the European Union. All other issues were drowned out. Brexit has indeed become a toxic issue in British politics. It has moved from the realms of arcane policy to a cultural dividing line. Others have chosen to fix the blame on Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party: a man who many within his own Party have judged as unsuitable for high office. His failure to address antisemitism in the Labour Party, racism directed against Jewish people, spoke not only to his judgement but also to his competence. If he was unable to deal with this problem in his own party, it is unlikely that enough of the electorate would trust him to run the country. This coupled with his stance on various foreign policy issues led to accusations that he was somehow unpatriotic.
The focus on these problems should not hide the fact that there were more structural problems that led to the Labour loss. This is, after all, Labour’s fourth consecutive general election defeat. Labour’s loss of votes in towns in England has been a steady decline since 2001. De-industrialisation and the diminishing of trade unions have played its part, weakening the institutional underpinnings of Labour support in parts of the country. There were also strategic mistakes during this campaign. The rallying cry of the Brexit referendum was for people to ‘Take Back Control.’ In response to this, Labour proposed a radical manifesto that set out that the state should be expanded into more parts of people’s lives. While the individual policies may have been popular, put together in a manifesto many voters doubted Labour’s ability to implement it.
Boris Johnson was undoubtedly the victor of this election. His Conservative Party picked up it biggest majority since the days of Margaret Thatcher. Whether out of conviction or to attract attention, Johnson has always used language which any reasonable person would describe as racist. In the course of his career as a journalist and then politician, he has described Africans as ‘piccaninnies’ with ‘watermelon smiles’ and veiled Muslim women as resembling ‘bank robbers’ and ‘letter boxes.’ He has mused that the problem with ‘Africa’ is that ‘we are not in charge any more.’ When challenged on this language he has attempted to brush it off as ‘wholly satirical’ or rhetorical. Even when Barack Obama offered his opinion on the Brexit Referendum, Johnson urged voters not to trust him as his ‘part Kenyan’ ancestry made him hostile to Britain. This must have been news to the millions of UK citizens who have ancestors from the Commonwealth. The question the 2019 election raises is whether his history of these types of remarks was to his electoral advantage. Is Boris Johnson simply Donald Trump ‘with better hair?’
The Conservative Party under Johnson have appealed to a form of white English Nationalism. Just days before polling day, Johnson claimed that he would introduce a point based immigration system that would stop migrants being ‘able to treat the UK as though it’s basically part of their own country.’ It imagines England as a victim of immigration and globalisation. Its invocation of the Second World War and its imperial past is a reminder that Britain, or more specifically England, can be great again, extend a global reach, and look after its own. Johnson himself summarised this best when, during the referendum campaign, he wrote:
‘It’s time to take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the Lion roar again.’
Brexit was the revolutionary tool to achieve this. With the devastatingly effective slogan ‘Get Brexit Done,’ Johnson has won a significant Conservative majority, based on a strong performance in England, to carry this through. But at what price victory? The Conservative Party now owns ‘Brexit.’ A strong majority in Parliament means that they are in charge of Brexit. Britain will now almost certainly leave the EU by the end of January 2020 and afterwards will begin negotiating the crucial future relationship with the EU. Any consequences, negative or positive, will be their responsibility. Although, it has to be said, it is easy to imagine a situation where negative effects are blamed on the EU. How Johnson manages this dynamic will determine whether he is able to keep his new electoral coalition, of Midland and Northern Towns and Tory Shires, together.
Perhaps the most significant result of the night, for both the future of the United Kingdom and its relationship with the EU, was found North of the English border. The Scottish National Party won 48 out of possible 59 seats. The SNP are a passionately pro-EU party, whose raison d’être is Scottish Independence from the United Kingdom. Scotland overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU in 2016, but now finds itself being forced out of primarily because of voters in England. With an overwhelming SNP majority in Scotland, it will be increasingly difficult over the course of this Parliament for Johnson to turn down a second Scottish Independence Referendum. Likewise, a storm may be brewing in Northern Ireland, where for the first time Irish Nationalists have a slender majority over pro-Union parties. The cost of keeping both countries as part of the United Kingdom in the long term may be a closer relationship with the EU: an arrangement that Johnson has ruled out many times. It should be remembered that the full-name of the Prime Minister’s party is the Conservative and Unionist Party; the integrity of the United Kingdom is supposed to be one of its core beliefs. So either Johnson will go back on his word (not for the first time) or the case for the breakup of the United Kingdom will grow. One way or another, something will have to give.
Already Johnson has wasted no time in branding his ministry ‘the People’s Government.’ He has previously invoked ‘the people’ as some mythic entity whose will only he can interpret, thereby attempting to silence opposition. The core conflict of the last three and a half years in British politics has been between popular sovereignty and parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament has traditionally been a place where a cacophony of voices has been represented. The result of the referendum was used to bully many parliamentarians into doing something that they thought was against the national interest. Now with a Conservative majority, it is clear that Brexit will happen, although there is less clarity how the future relationship with the EU will be. For all of Johnson’s triumphalism, parties that advocated a second EU referendum or remaining achieved 52% of the national vote. Britain now has multiple political parties, but a decrepit first past the post system that crushes some of this diversity. In some parts of the country, the pro-EU vote split between three parties, while the Conservatives were able to be the sole party advocating leaving. This election was not a good advert for British democracy, the contest between Corbyn and Johnson led to many voters holding their noses as they voted. To paraphrase Henry Kissinger, it was a shame they could not both lose.