As Soon as the scale of Labour’s shattering defeat began to emerge on the night of December 12 night, pundits began to push the line that this was not just about Brexit but about Jeremy Corbyn, and more broadly the Labour Party’s significant shift towards socialism under his leadership.
No election is just about one issue—but the evidence backs up the argument strongly made by Labour MPs like Ian Lavery and Richard Burgon that Brexit was the defining factor. Labour’s collapse was overwhelmingly in Leave-voting areas: the Midlands, Wales and northern England. The dynamics in Scotland were different, and equally disappointing, but it is a fact that Labour’s collapse there happened at the 2015 election—this week’s result marked a failure to recover more than a sudden reverse.
Political has-beens like Alan Johnson, loudly demanding that Corbyn take responsibility for the defeat and hasten his departure, cannot be allowed to obscure the central fact: Labour was perceived as a Remain party, going into the election promising a second referendum and with many of its shadow cabinet promoting an unambiguous Remain message over months and months.
Labour had various reasons, some good, some bad, to oppose Brexit deals put to Parliament by the Theresa May and Boris Johnson governments, but the impression these parliamentary antics gave the public— not inaccurately—was of a party seeking to frustrate Brexit entirely.
Labour was warned that this approach would be disastrous in the two-thirds of British constituencies that voted to Leave the EU in 2016; tragically, some of those who sounded that warning are among MPs who lost their seats in Thursday’s terrible rout, and include some of the most impressive socialists in the country—Laura Pidcock, Dennis Skinner, Laura Smith.
The Brexit vote was above all a vote against the Establishment, against the status quo, and it was a simple, two-option question with a very clear answer. The refusal of the political class to accept that answer was clearly the final straw, and engendered the bizarre illusion that an Eton-educated Tory offering more of the same policies we have seen for a decade was the “anti-Establishment” candidate.
There is a strong risk, with swathes of traditionally Labour constituencies going blue, that England and Wales could move towards a “culture war” politics akin to that of the United States. The eclipse of class politics by the identities of nationalism and unionism in Scotland is a step along that road, though the support for genuine social and economic change among many independence-backing Scots should not be underestimated.
The narrative that Labour lost because its manifesto was too far to the left is a false one. Big majorities support nationalisation of public transport, water and utilities and a tougher stance on corporations. Canvassers confirm that Labour’s policies were popular—the problem is that few voters trusted the party to deliver them. That lack of trust was inextricably connected to the party’s position on Brexit.
Twinned with that narrative is the idea that Corbyn personally lost the election. There are reports of hostility to Corbyn on the doorstep, though most canvassers report Brexit as a far bigger problem.
The idea that four years of character assassination by the print and broadcast media of a politician with smears and slanders almost every day, could be connected to a lack of personal popularity was sneeringly dismissed by BBC attack dog Andrew Neil. “Is that the best you can do, the media?” he jeered at Burgon on election night.
Corbyn’s decision to step down may have been inevitable, but the left must resist all calls for the process to be sped up. A period of reflection is essential if the party is to learn the right lessons from defeat.
The left needs to keep its head. Labour’s 10.3 million votes were more than the party received in 2005, 2010 or 2015, though far less than in 2017. Its vote share was higher than in 2010. This cannot mask how comprehensively it has been beaten, but it is important because it can inform strategies to resist the savage attacks on working-class people we know will be in the pipeline now that Boris Johnson has a large parliamentary majority.
A mass membership Labour Party will be a huge part of that resistance, as will many on the revolutionary left and the trade unions. Its growth and its clear socialist message are significant achievements for which Corbyn’s leadership deserves immense credit.