Six reasons why the Left need not despair

Boris Johnson has routed Labour. But his victory could turn out to contain the seeds of its own destruction

December 13, 2019
Corbyn at his Islington North count. Photo:  Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images
Corbyn at his Islington North count. Photo: Joe Giddens/PA Wire/PA Images

Yes, I know. For “progressives,” liberals, leftists or anyone else less than keen on reactionary nationalism, this has been an abject defeat. Boris Johnson has blustered his way to a commanding majority, and Labour has been routed in dozens of seats while the Liberal Democrats went nowhere at all. We’re in for a dose of nasty authoritarianism, with more lives squandered in failing jails, and perhaps more attempts to bully the media too. Truth-telling in public life will fall further out of fashion, and as I wrote in the first hour after the ballot boxes closed, there is reason to fear the ground rules of politics being rigged. It is, then, entirely natural that a very dark mood has descended over progressive Britain.

And yet. These are mercurial times, in which nothing stays frozen for long. Indeed, a number features of this result make it feel more like the product of surface currents, rather than deeper tides. Most obviously, it was a case of a new prime minister shrewdly seizing his moment of novelty to define himself against everything his party has done in office for a decade. Beyond that, in the embers of election 2019 I can spot several glimmers of hope for those who dream of a world beyond Boris Johnson.

1- Labour’s biggest problems look easily fixed. The opposition went into this election after four years of near-continuous civil war, offering a candidate for prime minister who had the worst personal ratings of anyone who has ever auditioned for the job. Jeremy Corbyn has been utterly unyielding in his sometimes-fringe views, and yet can sometimes sound hesitant, unsure and indecisive in putting them forward. The party machine built below him has been needlessly sectarian, and was shamefully indulgent of anti-semitic cranks. On the other side were too many Labour MPs who never gave Corbyn the chance to fail on his own terms, and never paused to reflect on how bankrupted the Blair project had been by ruinous wars overseas and the bankers’ crash at home. If the party can only find a leader who is remotely cut out for the job, and if its MPs can learn to direct their energies against the Conservatives rather than within their own tribe, then its position would immediately be greatly improved, if not transformed.

2- Meanwhile, the Conservatives now have one almighty and immediate problem that can’t be fudged—Brexit. Johnson showed remarkable skill in cobbling together a unified Conservative position. It got him through the campaign handsomely. But remember how he did it. Stage one was to bring his ultras into line, by demonstrating that he was one of them—a zealot prepared to crash out of Europe with no deal, ready to expel several of his most distinguished MPs and even shut parliament down. Stage two was then very rapidly to concede, more or less, to the original deal which the EU had offered Theresa May but she had rejected, because it carved Northern Ireland off into a separate economic unit. But now a man who was once so uncertain on the whole Brexit business that he had a ready-to-print OpEd making the case for Remain is finally going to have to decide once and for all whether he is a zealot or not. London has only six months to give notice about whether it wants to breach the Conservative manifesto by staying longer in the single market while a trade deal is negotiated, or crash large parts of the economy by dropping out of Europe before a comprehensive trade deal can be agreed. I cannot see how Johnson’s winning Christmas coalition within his party and the country beyond can survive either choice.

3- The dramatic result is more about the way the vote split than any dramatic lurch to the right. If you look at the popular vote, Labour has done very badly, but not exceptionally so by the often-dim standards of its modern record. A 32 per cent vote share is 9 points down on Tony Blair’s second landslide, and indeed eight down on Corbyn’s own splendid defeat in 2017. But it is appreciably more than the 28 per cent score the party had in its 1983 Waterloo, and also up on the 29 per cent Gordon Brown scored in 2010, Ed Miliband’s 30 per cent in 2015, and Neil Kinnock’s 31 per cent in 1987. And it is only three points less than the 35 per cent share which produced the third Blair government in 2005. Now, of course, seats are what matter in a parliamentary system, and Labour now has fewer than at any time since the war. For their part the Liberal Democrats have piled on over a million votes but will be returning to Westminster with fewer MPs than they had before. It is certainly a disaster, but my point is that it didn’t have to be. The combined forces of the right this year (the Tories plus the Brexit Party and a smattering of headbangers in continuity Ukip) scored 46 per cent, which is up on the combined Tory/Ukip score of two years ago, but down on the 49 per cent that Nigel Farage and David Cameron together notched up in 2015. The main “progressive” forces by contrast—Labour, Lib Dems, SNP and Greens—stand at a combined 50 per cent, less than the 52 per cent of two years ago, but more than the 47 per cent of 2015. If the anti-Conservative forces had acted with less of the sectarianism that has often dogged the left, but this year infected a liberal centre that also dug in against any co-operation with Labour, things could have been very different. And herein lies an opening for the future.

4- The new Conservative coalition in the country now includes Bassetlaw, Blyth Valley and Bolsover. It is an extraordinary thing, but as a result it is surely also frail. People in such places have lent a vote to the Tories, often for the first time in the democratic age, because they feared that their vote for Brexit was being thwarted by an anti-democratic elite. And they had a reason to be suspicious about that. But in the pit towns, just as much as in the Westminster village, the practical hopes for the change that Brexit might usher in are hazy. A country taking charge of its own destiny is a noble ideal in the abstract, but communities will not feel empowered in practice if trade ends up depressed, and the Exchequer responds by serving them up with more cuts and painful choices from on high. Economists disagree about the scale of the coming Brexit reckoning, but—as Adam Posen wrote for us a while ago—nearly all agree on one thing: namely, that there is no economic upside. If they are right, this truth will soon enough sink in. Voters don’t do gratitude at the best of times, and there will be no retrospective glory in many of last night’s stunning Conservative gains for having “got Brexit done” if its practical effects turn out to disappoint.

5- In contrast with the last chunky Conservative wins, in 1983 and 1987, there is no sense of the party riding the tide of ideas. Whereas Margaret Thatcher made the unthinkable the inevitable with breathtaking speed, as she sold off industries and deregulated finance, Johnson has spent the election campaign pretending that the thing that gets him out of bed in the morning is a passion for the police forces that Tory governments have spent years cutting and the public hospitals which they have long squeezed. A few months ago in the Conservative leadership campaign there was excited chatter about how cutting corporation tax would unleash enterprise and bring in more revenue, and a specific promise to cut income taxes for higher earners. The second was summarily dropped, and the first went into reverse at the start of the campaign, when the PM announced he was cancelling a pre-planned corporation tax reduction in order to find resources for a public spending splurge. Sound money is forgotten, along with all the old free market nostrums of the party Johnson joined. They have been replaced by crowd-pleasing moves to raise the minimum wage and grip energy prices. And the crowd is indeed pleased. But there is no sense of any coherence, or even direction.

6- Most fundamentally, Johnson has triumphed by playing to the past, as opposed to the future. This is true at the level of campaign messages—that significant “back” in “take back control”—but also at the level of sociology. Number crunchers will soon give us estimates for which age group backed which party, but we can already see from the electoral map that there is a deep generational divide. The Conservatives cleaned up in the sorts of communities which, as the Centre for Towns has been highlighting, are aging and often shrinking; places where people often have good reason to wish they could go back to the olden days. Their opponents, by contrast, did better in the big Remain-voting cities which are younger and increasingly bustling. Locked out of the housing market, and educated enough to ask searching questions about why, the rising cohort is unlikely—even as it ages—ever to be won over to recreating a lost world of more sovereignty, humming factories and fewer migrants which it has no memory of.

On a day like this, I realise all these arguments for hope on the Left and Centre may sound naïve at best or deluded at worst. But recall how all-conquering Thatcher was when she won a slightly bigger majority in 1987; she was gone in a little over three years. Labour was said to have blown its last ever chance in April 1992, and yet within the year the victorious John Major was ruined. And as recently as 2015, the David Cameron/George Osborne duo was said to have locked-in a new majority for modern Conservatism, and yet a year later both were crushed by the Brexit vote. Progressive Britain has been routed by nostalgia this week, but nostalgia will not provide a recipe for navigating the future forever.