UK General Election 2019: Reflections on the Labour Defeat

Ananya W-B, South Asia Solidarity Group

THE recent UK general election on 12 December saw the Labour Party lose 59 seats,securing only 203 seats, the least it has held since 1935. While the party actually polled more votes than in elections in 2005, 2010 and 2015, and the Conservatives overall 14 million votes were not significantly higher than when they lost their majority in 2017, the significant swing to the Tories in the previously impregnable so-called ‘red wall’ of Labour seats in the ex-industrial Midlands and North of England led to a dramatic Labour collapse.  But to understand how such a result came about in the current political climate, several crucial factors must be considered.

The Labour Party has sought to re-promote its core social democratic values, which had been lost in recent decades, over the past four years since veteran leftwing MP and staunch anti-racist and anti-imperialist campaigner, Jeremy Corbyn, became leader in 2015. The Party’s ‘For the Many Not the Few’ Manifesto sought to reverse the effects of austerity and tackle chronic poverty, inequality and climate change through taxing the super-rich and revitalizing state provision. Many commentators are seeing this defeat as a historic defeat for the left in the UK, as a sign that such policies, despite being far from radical in relation to existing policies in many European countries, are not viable, or not palatable to the British public. But the reality is inevitably more complex.

An unprecedented media campaign against Corbyn, spearheaded by select right-wing newspapers owned by corporations allied to the Conservative Party, and taken up enthusiastically across the mainstream media and notably by the BBC, had been going on since the start of his leadership and intensified severely in the six-week election campaigning period. Corbyn was targeted on a number of levels, but one of the most insidious, and ultimately most powerful, media narratives against him, and one in which the Labour right also colluded, was of his alleged anti-semitism. This was despite his long history of defending the Jewish community against racist attacks. This notion arose solely from his explicit support for Palestine, a central aspect of his anti-imperialist politics which has consistently set him apart from other progressive politicians in the UK.  Corbyn’s long-term advocacy for Palestinian rights ensured that the Israeli state was determined to prevent him ever becoming Prime Minister and it played a central role in the campaign against him.  

This media smear campaign worked alongside the Conservatives’ own campaign, which focussed heavily on personal demonisation of Corbyn, whilst simultaneously attempting to win voters over with an empty promise to ‘Get Brexit done’. As far-fetched as this tagline may have been, it served the Conservatives surprisingly well in Northern seats which had historically voted Labour, many of which swung to the Conservatives in this election for the first time in decades. Many of these seats had also been heavily ‘Leave’-voting constituencies in the 2016 EU referendum. The far-right Brexit party, led by Nigel Farage, in fact won a significant proportion of the vote in several constituencies, increasing their vote share and mainly attracting previously Labour voters, thus facilitating Tory gains. In some Remain-voting areas, the Liberal Democrats also made gains to the advantage of Conservatives, as seen in the deeply economically polarized constituency of Kensington, where the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire took 72 lives, which swung from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019 by just 150 votes.

This has led to a focus on Labour’s Brexit policy as its major weakness, with some on the left arguing that a straightforward Leave position would have been preferable to the belatedly adopted and somewhat complex Labour policy of negotiating a deal to leave the EU which preserved workers’ and environmental protections and freedom of movement and then holding a ‘Final Say’ second referendum based on a choice of this deal or remaining in the EU.  Many on the Left, including Corbyn, had historically opposed membership of the EU as a neoliberal institution which constrains radical transformation of the economies of its members. However, pre-Referendum the Left argument for Brexit (or Lexit) became very rapidly sidelined and rendered untenable as the right successfully mobilised a wave of anti-migrant, racist and xenophobic sentiments and objectives which became inextricable from the notion of Brexit. Brexit became an almost insoluble issue for Labour, but not because, as some commentators suggested, it divided relatively affluent middle class Labour voters in big cities, particularly London from working class Labour voters in the deindustrialised poverty-stricken smaller towns in the Midlands and North. In reality, whilst there was undeniably a North/South divide in the referendum voting patterns, this was not primarily along class lines. Labour strongholds in London like Corbyn’s own constituency, Islington North, are some of the poorest in the country while also being some of the most diverse. The urban, significantly Black, Asian and minority ethnic working class in such areas are strongly pro-Remain, less because of any particular attachment to the EU and more because they recognise correctly that Leave from the outset became a proxy and conduit for far-right racist and anti-migrant ideologies. These groups, as well as the youth from all communities across the country who were inspired by the Corbyn campaign, (figures show that young people aged 18-24 voted would have almost exclusively elected Labour MPs across England had they been the only voters) had begun to be alienated by the earlier perceived Leave position of the Party.

There is also a need to recognise the very deep seams of British racism which have been mined in the last few years. The response in white working class communities of blaming migrants and other working class people of colour rather than those responsible for the suffering brought on by austerity is not only a result of desperation or even the very real decline of collective organisations such as trade unions. The fertile ground for today’s far-right message has been created by a very long history going back to the very construction of imperial Britishness and the inclusion of working class people within it. Boris Johnson’s apparent personal popularity reflects this deeply entrenched racism within many communities across the country, particularly in largely white areas. His comparison of Muslim women to letterboxes, description of Africans as ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’ and numerous other racist, misogynistic and homophobic remarks in recent months have legitimised - and thus directly fuelled - the rise of far-right activity, particularly racist hate crimes. Aside from this appeal amongst sections of the white working-class, Johnson’s campaign was consistent with the ‘post-truth’ approach of far-right leaders across the world, making entirely false claims around Labour’s manifesto. Most prominently, the Conservatives claimed falsely that the majority of voters would be worse off under Labour’s plans to increase taxes, which in fact were concerned only with the top income bracket (those earning above £80k a year). This scaremongering took the form of highly personal attacks on Corbyn, including a campaign poster with his picture and the words ‘would you trust this man with your children?’ referring to Labour’s alleged plans to increase inheritance taxes for the population at large. These tactics inevitably contributed towards swaying those not well-informed – across the class spectrum - as to the details of each party’s manifesto and wider political approach.

One common thread in political analysis, in the wake of the result, of the reasons behind Labour’s defeat has been the notion that UK working-class affiliations have shifted away from the left, and that socialism is now the domain of the metropolitan (London) elites – an idea often weaponised by the far-right in their claims to represent the working class. But this argument is deeply misleading. Whilst Labour has sustained their hold on the majority of London constituencies – London undoubtedly remaining a Labour ‘heartland’ – this is not largely due to the votes of the ‘metropolitan elites’. Rather, a large proportion of Labour voters in London are working class – but not necessarily white, or British. Many are from Black and other ethnic minority communities, including South Asians – many being Muslims – and migrants from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. As is the case with Brexit discussions, these voters are largely ignored by commentators on all sides of the political spectrum, and are generally not included in dominant narratives around the British working class, despite being among the most exploited.  

Moving forward, it is crucial to bear in mind the roles of racism and anti-racism in this election. Corbyn’s anti-imperialist and anti-racist commitment, which is unique even within the Labour Party leadership, prompted many on the left to join the Labour Party for the first time in 2015 with hopes of bringing anti-racism to the forefront of the ongoing fight against the Tories. As Labour activists reflect on the need to rebuild long-term left-led grassroots movements, it is critical that they keep the fight against structural and 'common sense' racism at their centre and elect a new leader committed to these goals.