The left is currently engaged in postmortems on Labour’s loss in the 2019 general election. Many of them focus on policy or leadership: but other factors need to be taken into account for an all-sided view of what the defeat represents. The most salient political difference between 2017 and 2019, it seems to me, was that the shock of Labour’s increased electoral vote galvanised the Tory right and its supporters in the international right to intensively prepare for a new election to overcome the hung parliament and give Johnson a clear path to “get Brexit done.” The avenues that enabled Labour to increase its vote in 2017 were ruthlessly closed off. The constant drumbeat of Brexit, from both the Tories and the centrist “People’s Vote” campaign, overshadowed Labour’s social message, and its compromise between Remain and Leave was unpersuasive.
How was this able to happen? I want to draw attention to cultural theorist Jeremy Gilbert’s epic six-part analysis in openDemocracy, “Labour’s defeat and the triumph of Johnsonism,” which attempts to make a comprehensive analysis of the various factors in the election defeat. He argues that exit polls show the most significant numerical voting shift from 2017 to 2019 was not the loss of leave-supporters, as many think, but was the desertion of “centrist Dads” for the Lib Dems, the Greens or abstention. At the same time, in the north and midlands, “a section of the ageing ‘traditional working-class’ population saw Corbyn’s commitment to implementing Brexit [in 2017] as sufficient indicator that he was ‘on their side’. There is no doubt that many of those voters becoming disillusioned with Corbyn’s leadership, and convinced that Brexit must be done at all costs, had a devastating effect on the 2019 electoral outcome.”
In those heartland seats, he says, older voters had been moving away from Labour for “hard economic” reasons since 1997: the erosion of the welfare state meant that the over-60s are concerned with “protecting their property wealth” against possible penury in their 80s. Corbyn’s support, by contrast, was based in the “emergent culture shared by young urban workers and older professionals, characterised by social liberalism, cosmopolitanism and an extremely-online lifestyle.”
Gilbert’s argument seems to infer the existence of discrete social groups from their political behaviour, then explain their political behaviour from the cultural attributes of these groups rather than making an effort to identify their ideology. “Protecting their property wealth” is not simply a rational economic response to the erosion of the welfare state but is an aspect of neoliberal thought that makes building “personal capital” the moral alternative to collective welfare. Likewise, the “emergent culture” of young urban workers is in fact created by neoliberal society, but it contains within itself an ideological opposition to the specific attributes of inequality and austerity that characterise the globalised economy, forming a large part of Corbyn’s support.
Gilbert makes the very valid point that Labour should have argued against the last 40 years of neoliberal governments, not the last ten years of austerity. Focusing on austerity did not resonate with those whose communities had never recovered from the industrial devastation beginning in the 1980s. Canvassers in “heartland” constituencies reported that “voters showed no clear awareness of the profound difference between Corbyn’s Labour party and Blair’s, and gave their disillusionment with the New Labour years as a reason not to vote Labour again.” However, he says, “a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party simply won’t tolerate any significant criticism of the New Labour policy regime.” This is certainly plausible, and indicates that Corbyn’s efforts to keep the PLP together hamstrung him from advocating policies that might have retained the support of heartland voters.
But it indicates more than this. What was the reason a large section of the PLP will not tolerate criticism of New Labour? There is an ideological reason, as well as the inability of the membership to effectively replace MPs. And that is they fiercely defend New Labour’s “third way” version of the neoliberal consensus against Corbyn’s challenge to the economic elites. They consider themselves guardians of Labour as a “responsible” party that accepts the economy should continue to be dominated by international markets sustaining financial speculation and real estate inflation.
According to Gilbert, it was Corbyn’s “unique decency, his sheer humanity, that enabled him to usher a movement into existence.” Yet this did not enable him to mobilise the working class electorate in 2019: his “intensely moral condemnations of the social consequences of austerity” did not voice working class anger at what they were subjected to – and that lost him support. There may be some truth in that explanation, but what Gilbert leaves out of it is that in 2017 Corbyn was perceived as a refreshing break from the professional political class that had been running the country for years. By 2019, after two years of parliamentary stalemate over Brexit, it was possible to portray him as yet another conventional politician. The anti-establishment aura that initially boosted his support had worn off, and voters were susceptible to the argument that “they’re all the same.”
The party needed to hold “centrist-leaning voters”, says Gilbert, who he describes as those who spent their 20s-30s “in the halcyon days of New Labour, who were the very last cohort to benefit from the long property bubble.” They voted Labour in 2017, but by 2019 many of them were driven back into the arms of parties who they felt represented their Remain views more unambiguously. Labour’s 2017 coalition “had fractured and shrunk” by 2019, while the right had regrouped behind “Johnson’s new type of anti-political nationalism.” For Gilbert, then, the key factor in the fracturing of Labour’s coalition was pro-Remain centrism.
“Labour’s electoral base was split, and the section of that base that was numerically much smaller than the other happened to be in a strategically crucial position because of the iniquities of the electoral system. … a large constituency of middle-class cosmopolitans in their 40s and 50s deserted Labour precisely because we seemed too concerned with pandering to this ageing, conservative section of their traditional base.” Labour, Gilbert says, must bring middle-class liberals into its voting bloc. “It was losing their support that cost Labour perhaps more dearly between 2017 and 2019 than anything else.”
There is a good case to be made for proportional representation – and Gilbert makes it at the end of his series of essays – but no need to exaggerate the significance of the Liberal Democrats and Greens. Indeed, the Brexit party had a greater impact on the election result, without gaining a single MP. More important was the fact that Labour had allowed the right-wing press to dominate the narrative on immigration and Brexit. “We inhabit a political system that is not only designed to prevent the socialist left of the Labour party from taking power. It is now clearly biased against every force other than nativist ‘platform nationalism’ … it makes no sense not to try to build as broad a coalition of anti-Tory forces as possible – from anarcho-communists to liberals – to try to challenge its and change it.”
While there may well be a good justification for purely pragmatic, tactical alliances with anti-Tory forces, Gilbert confuses this with recruiting them into an ideological campaign against right-wing nationalism. Labour, he says, “must start campaigning in communities … explicitly against the ideology of conservative nationalism that has cost it so dearly in this election. … But if we’re going to launch an ideological campaign against right-wing nationalism, why on Earth wouldn’t we try to enlist the liberals into it, given that favouring a liberal immigration policy would be one of the few positions that almost all Labour radicals would share with almost all Liberal Democrats?”
This is the key to his argument. Although references to ideology run through Gilbert’s account, he doesn’t attempt to define it. Instead, he bases his strategy on winning support from specific constituent blocs, based on their programmatic positions. But the ideology that needs to be confronted is the way that the rationality of the market has been internalised by many in the electorate and by politicians after 40 years of neoliberal governments: the ideology of conservative nationalism builds on this ground, which is why it is so hard to overcome. Since ideology has had such a powerful effect in history, Gilbert’s neglect of it is a significant omission.
In short, I think the 2019 loss marked an ideological defeat for Labour at the hands of an extreme right current in the Tory ruling elite (assisted by generous financial support from billionaire oligarchs). But this would not have been possible if there was not already a nationalist strain in the electorate, amplified by neoliberal messaging, that resonated with Johnson’s propaganda. Acceptance of neoliberal rationality, what Thatcher called “winning the soul” of the nation, has morphed into a strain of nativism.
How did the Tories establish an electoral coalition that aligned both “highly affluent and ‘left behind’ areas”? Luke Cooper, co-author of a report from the London School of Economics on the election, commented: “Brexit has created a really tough situation for Labour. By making values and identity the central questions of the day it has broken the party’s traditional electoral coalition.” He adds: “If the economy becomes the most important issue then Labour can break up this potentially fragile Tory coalition.” In other words, the new Tory alliance is held together by a nativist redefinition of values and identity through Brexit rhetoric.
To break up this alliance, Labour needs a renewed socialist ideology underpinning a new common sense that rejects neoliberal values and redefines patriotic identity as pride in taking care of people’s basic needs and giving communities opportunities for control of their future. It requires a change in political practice – putting down roots in communities and participating in existing struggles to regenerate them – and building from the bottom up rather than relying on alliances with the tops of other parties. This would not be just an intellectual endeavour, but must rest on the sharing of an accumulation of experiences of alternatives to neoliberal society, such as cooperatives and community-owned assets, or building collective economic power through trade unions or groups of consumers. This would be the foundation of a movement to overturn the legacy of neoliberal governments.