I won’t be trying another election prediction any time soon. For the third time in four years, I found myself turning in at 4:30am despondent after a seismic result which realigns the Conservative party formally as the Brexit party. This outcome sadly vindicates the brazen opportunism and duplicity of Boris Johnson. Labour has collapsed in response to the exodus of Northern blue-collar voters for whom the Conservatives’ “Get Brexit Done” mantra resonated far more than the indefensible dithering of Jeremy Corbyn. From Tony Blair’s Sedgefield to Andy Burnham’s Leigh, the famed “Red Wall” has collapsed; “Workington Man” has truly embraced the Tories. For all his flaws, one cannot underestimate how impressive this achievement is for Prime Minister Johnson. With 365 seats, he has accrued the largest Conservative victory since Margaret Thatcher in 1987.
This election was, unlike 2017, finally about Brexit. Johnson’s campaign was tightly managed – to the extent that he preferred to hide in a fridge rather than face media scrutiny – but his message of the unavoidable election called to prevent Parliament’s continued opposition to Brexit cut through in heavily Leave-supporting areas. Had Nigel Farage’s all-but-redundant Brexit party not split the vote in Labour seats such as Barnsley Central and Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North, we might be looking at a Tory majority closer to 120 than 80. Labour’s equivocation on Brexit, calculated to assuage Leavers in the North that the party could negotiate a “softer” deal, but to satisfy Remainers in the South that any deal would be put to a second referendum (in which most of the North London clique running the party would vote to Remain), failed spectacularly to dupe the former group. Labour Leave voters evidently felt that their declining fortunes since the Great Recession were a secondary interest to a metropolitan socialist experiment which targeted its resources in London, aiming to unseat such heavyweights as Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and the PM himself. Labour ended up with one gain (Putney) and not a single scalp.
More importantly, the election was dominated by personality in the manner of an American presidential election. Voters in key marginal seats in North Wales and Northern England trusted in Boris Johnson to complete Brexit – and therefore overlooked his personal history of deception and insult – while they baulked at the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn anywhere near Number 10. Indeed, as Ruth Smeeth, Gareth Snell, Caroline Flint, and other unseated Labour MPs have judged, Corbyn was Labour’s Achilles heel on the doorstep. An Opinium poll this afternoon suggests that the leadership was the largest deterrent to former Labour voters – 43% of the total polled, to 17% blaming their Brexit position and 12% their economic policies. This explains the overall 8% fall in the Labour vote (rising to approximately 12% in strongly Leave areas), even while the Conservatives only gained 1.5% nationally from their 2017 totals. It was the Corbyn push factor rather than the Johnson pull factor which decided this election.
One might query why Corbyn, the same leader who in 2017 oversaw a Labour surge, is so unpopular this time. The reasons are manifold. Labour’s radical but complicated manifesto, which precipitated an unclear central message and was overshadowed by Brexit considerations. Corbyn’s utter lack of political nous against one of the weakest Prime Ministers of our time, Theresa May. His equivocation over Brexit. The National Executive Committee’s authoritarian party management underpinned by a messiah complex (“Oh Jeremy Corbyn”), built by the leader’s supporters in Momentum. His condescending manner with journalists which suggested an inflated sense of his own moral rectitude such that explaining and defending his policies was unnecessary. His inability to give a straight answer to a question (yes, that also describes 90% of British MPs). But the greatest concern must be Corbyn’s reticence and exasperation when asked to apologise for institutional antisemitism in his party, which has now become the subject of an independent inquiry. He habitually conflates antisemitism with “all forms of racism” and has created an atmosphere of such severe anxiety that 47% of British Jews would consider emigration were he to become Prime Minister. Last night, Ken Livingstone had the temerity to blame Jews – less than 1% of the British population – for Labour’s plummeting vote share. And yet for Corbyn, lip-service to investigating Labour’s antisemitism crisis has come only after repeated questioning.
The exclusive, London-centric Corbyn mission must end immediately if Labour has any chance of regaining its working-class base. That is not to say that many of Labour’s 2017 and 2019 manifesto policies should not be retained and admired: Green New Deal climate proposals; proper investment in the NHS; raising the minimum wage; building affordable housing. But the main progressive party in this country cannot continue to espouse an atmosphere of enmity based on morality and identity, where anyone who questions the socialist project is an “entryist”, “Blairite”, “Thatcherite” and general obstacle to advancement. Opposing Labour – or failing to use one’s vote tactically for the party – does not make one complicit in a Conservative government, but some would have progressive voters tarnished as morally suspicious for doing so. As Alan Johnson argued of Momentum activists on ITV’s election programme, ‘the culture of betrayal goes on… they have messed up completely, and it’s our communities that are going to pay.’
The delivery of Brexit is a huge step into the unknown; the notion that Boris Johnson can make trade deals on a schedule negotiated with the European Union and end the transition period for our withdrawal on 31st December 2020 seems utterly fanciful. The risks of a No Deal Brexit are still high. This result makes another Scottish independence referendum – officially sanctioned or otherwise – more likely with the resurgent SNP under Nicola Sturgeon doing everything possible for Scotland to remain in the EU. Nationalists have been elected to a majority of Northern Irish Westminster seats for the first time ever, so perhaps an Irish reunification poll will join the political agenda in 2020. I say good luck to both causes. Boris Johnson, with his serial neglect of Scotland and Northern Ireland, deserves to preside over the break-up of the United Kingdom. But those who will suffer from this Conservative government the most, with or without Brexit, are likely the communities Alan Johnson speaks of – traditionally Labour, working-class, industrial heartlands in the North of England. Still, rather than lamenting “turkeys voting for Christmas”, we should grieve for Labour’s failure to give these voters any alternative if they vehemently wanted to “get Brexit done”.
To win again, Labour must ditch the hard-left stranglehold on the party and its antisemitic blight. It’s never been good enough to say, “yes we have problems but look at the Tories…” Labour needs a moderate, passionate and self-aware leader (Wes Streeting, Jess Phillips and Keir Starmer spring to mind) who will consider the policy ideas of the Corbyn experiment, but disown the toxicity it has created inside the party. They must accept Brexit and reclaim a good reputation on issues like national defence. They must champion electoral reform and compromise in Parliament as issues like the climate emergency and economic inequality become increasingly pressing. Whether this sort of leader is possible with such a pro-Corbyn membership is uncertain, but the ultimate power to nominate a new leader lies with MPs who have just witnessed this bloodbath and have time to consider its lessons.
As Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson concluded in a dignified resignation speech after losing her seat to the SNP, after next week’s shortest day, prospects can only get brighter for Britain. The Brexit deadlock is finally solved, even if our future relationship with the European Union remains contested and precarious. The Conservatives may be dominant now, but I very much dispute that Boris Johnson can bring the “closure” and “healing” he pledged on Downing Street this afternoon. Now that Labour’s long Corbyn nightmare is over, they must take advantage.