Labour lost votes to every other party and in almost every seat in this general election, and countless seats that have been reliable Labour territory for decades have turned blue. Mining towns across the north and the midlands who swore never to vote Conservative again in the days of Thatcher have become so frustrated that we have not left the EU and are so aggrieved by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party that they found themselves voting Tory. The constituency of North West Durham, for instance, which had been held by Labour for 70 years, has swung to the Conservatives, unseating Shadow Cabinet minister Laura Pidcock, who had been tipped for a leadership position in the very near future.
And it wasn’t just mining towns either. Scunthorpe, the home of British steel manufacturing. The fishing town of Grimsby. These are areas that were, until very recently, some of the most staunchly anti-Tory parts of the country, and now they are all represented by Conservative MPs. So why have they abandoned Labour in such great numbers? It seems that, as with everything in British politics at the moment, it all comes down to Brexit.
Throughout this election campaign, Labour has tried to avoid the subject of Brexit as far as possible. It is in the uniquely difficult position of having to balance huge numbers of Remainers and Leavers, so its solution was to not explicitly take a position for or against Brexit and try to drag the debate back to more comfortable territory, such as the NHS. The election results suggest they failed in that, as many Labour spokespeople have since acknowledged. The party line seems to be that this election came to be defined by Brexit, which is therefore the primary reason for Labour losses.
It appears that Labour are perceived by many Leave voters as being unwilling to carry out the result of the 2016 referendum. Their Brexit policy in this election was to renegotiate a softer Brexit deal and then put it to the country in a second referendum, along with the option to Remain. When Labour figures were asked about Brexit during the campaign, they deflected and dodged the question because whatever they said, they would end up alienating a sizeable chunk of their voter base.
Contrasted with the crystal clear Conservative promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’, along with a pledge to have us out of the EU within weeks, those frustrated Leave voters felt they had no choice but to abandon the party that many of them had voted for their whole lives in favour of the Conservatives.
With hindsight, therefore, it might seem at first glance that Labour were too pro-Remain and that if they had made it clear to Leave voters that they intended to carry out Brexit, they would have done better in this election. But because of Labour’s extremely precarious electoral position, that is not necessarily the case.
If, for example, they had promised to renegotiate our exit from the EU along Norway lines and then implement that new deal without a referendum, that would have been a shunt towards the Leave end of the spectrum because it would have eliminated the possibility of a Labour government remaining in the EU.
So if they done that, they may well have held onto some of those Leave seats in the north and the midlands rather than losing them to the Tories, but would probably have lost many in London and the south to the explicitly pro-Remain Liberal Democrats. This is the dilemma they were facing; Labour were walking a Brexit tightrope. For every Leave vote they could have held onto by edging towards the Leave end of the spectrum, they would have lost another Remain vote that dropped off the back and was scooped up by a more Remain-y party.
This is a nice illustration of electoral dilemma faced by left-wing parties as they seek to build a broad enough voter coalition to form and sustain a government. The only reason that Labour have been a truly competitive electoral force in Britain in recent decades is because of those areas with industrial heritage and the toxic Thatcherite legacy there. In other words, voters who would never otherwise be expected to vote Labour have been doing so for decades for cultural, rather than political, reasons. But even with those extra bastions of support, the only Labour leader to successfully be elected Prime Minister in the last 45 years is Tony Blair, who wasn’t left-wing at all.
In broader terms, this election fits the pattern of a seismic global political shift. I put it to you that voters no longer care about money. It seems to me that the reason for this political realignment, not just in Britain but all over the world, can be boiled down to a rejection of economic arguments in favour of social ones. Electorates are arguably voting against their own economic interests in favour of parties who are seen to reflect their social values. Voters care more about their sense of identity than the money in their pocket.
Brexit is, of course, the archetypal example of this. Every analysis shows that it is going to cause significant economic damage, especially to our manufacturing industry and with a strong disproportionate effect on the working class. And yet, those people vote for it to happen again and again. Voters are no longer asking who can offer them the greatest social mobility and present them with the best professional opportunities to improve their quality of life. Instead, they are voting for the parties and the people who they see as espousing the social values and national identity that they seek. Labour’s failure to offer anything to those who now entirely frame their political identity in terms of Brexit was their downfall in this election.
In the style of Benjamin Disraeli, Boris Johnson is successfully uniting the ultra-elite such as himself – the Etonian Tory who was born babbling in Latin and has been waiting his whole life to be Prime Minister – with the angry Leave-voting working-class masses, against the perceived middle-class Guardian-reading Remainer Twitterati. He has successfully built that broad voter coalition from the right which Labour have consistently failed to do from the left.
So, what happens next? In material terms, we will now have five years of Conservative government. That in itself is quite remarkable, since the Conservatives have already been in government for nine years. It also appears likely that they may stay in office for a further term after that, since Labour overcoming such an almighty deficit in vote share in a single electoral cycle looks very improbable, especially given the fact that the Tory share of the vote has been climbing consistently since 1997. It seems that we will leave the EU in January under Boris Johnson’s deal, kicking off what will likely be years of wrangling over our future trade relationship with the EU.
As for Labour, the party will soon come under new leadership. Jeremy Corbyn has already said he won’t lead the party into another general election, so the party will shortly be electing both a new leader and a new deputy leader. Top contenders include shadow ministers Rebecca Long-Bailey, Angela Rayner and Dawn Butler, all of whom are likely to broadly continue to espouse Corbynite politics.
There was talk during the campaign of Labour trying out a co-leader structure, where it could have two leaders, presumably with one appealing more to Leave voters and the other to Remainers. Perhaps that could prove to be the far-fetched solution to the left-wing electoral dilemma. Only time will tell.