By Gwydion M. Williams
The following article appeared in February 2020 Labour Affairs, and remains relevant. But some digressions and out-of-date comments have been removed.
Corbyn is being blamed for “the worst result since 1935”.
1935 wasn’t that bad, if you think about political outcomes. If you don’t see Labour existing just to give nice jobs to ambitious MPs.
Labour’s 1930s policies of clear opposition to Hitler and in favour of Welfare were vindicated in the struggle against Hitler. The expected 1940 election being postponed till the war was won, Labour got a dramatic victory in 1945.
Labour in 2019 certainly lost some traditional Labour voters by being clearly in favour of welfare and public ownership. But it gained millions more, by being clearly ready for radical change.
Blair’s timid performance after his 1997 triumph must have put off many voters. When he twice got re-elected, he still got far fewer votes than Corbyn did in 2017. Blair’s 2nd and 3rd victories were won against an unimpressive and unpopular Tory Party. Had they been led by someone like Boris Johnson, it might have been another story.
Labour lost old voters, particularly in 2019. It also picked up millions of young voters.
Labour perhaps lost some of those elderly voters by being clearly for racial and sexual equality. But do they really want those votes? Will they cater to the most prejudiced part of the working class? Or should they leave it to the Tories to say ‘if you want a nigger neighbour, vote Labour’. Which is exactly what Tories did in 1964 to win Smethwick, a seat that was normally Labour.[A]
The official Tory candidate denied that this was racist. Just like today’s Tories, with their much more subtle workings of widespread racist and anti-immigrant feeling…
The dear little moderates who dominate The Guardian don’t accept that Corbyn needed to shift public opinion, and in fact did shift it. Boris Johnson is now saying things that sound to the left of anything that Labour dared say before Corbyn. We may doubt his sincerity, but just to have him junk much of the rhetoric of Thatcherism is a victory. But most Establishment Leftists are certain only a Labour leader ashamed of Corbynism can win a future election.
They are not seeing the real picture.
In France, there are two large rival socialist parties, plus a strong remnant of the once-mighty French Communists. The traditional French Socialists got over 30% in the 1980s, and over 20% more recently. Fell to a miserable 7.44% in 2017.
Against them, still small but rising fast, is an alliance called La France Insoumise. Translatable as ‘Unbowed France’, ‘Unsubmissive France’, or ‘Untamed France’: I’d go for Untamed.[B] (Just as I’d translate Hugo’s Les Misérables as The Underclass: calling them The Miserables would certainly miss the point.)
France also has destructive rioting. Long-running with the Yellow Vests, and more recently over an attempt to seize the pension rights of ordinary workers.
Similar things are happening elsewhere in Western Europe. Tamed Socialists losing out. Right-wing populists gaining. And riots by people who mostly don’t then vote for a party that might help them.
Western liberalism is widely despised, and deservedly so. But socialists cringing before liberal power share the bad reputation.
Labour reverting to Tamed Labour would lose far more than it gained. And set a bad example for the rest of the world.
The more extreme believers in ‘Tamed Labour’ split from the Labour mainstream in 2019. They tried standing on their own, and got a derisory result.
The previous split, the Social Democrats, were justly ridiculed as ‘keep politics out of politics’.
They were absorbed into the old and corrupt Liberal tradition, leaving nothing behind except half of their name in the current Liberal-Democrats.
Who achieved very little in 2019.
If Keith Starmer wins the leadership, and then takes the Labour party back to the Blair / Brown pattern of Tamed Labour, he will be yet another political failure. Blair did manage some good social-liberal reforms: far more than the Liberal-Democrats ever managed. This included making politics safe for open gays and lesbians – there were always plenty of the undeclared sort. But his vote slumped after his 1997 triumph. He won elections, only because the Tory vote was also very weak. It was a brief triumph for ‘keep politics out of politics’, with many citizens thinking that voting did not matter.
If you look just at England, Corbyn’s Labour got more votes even in 2019 than pre-Corbyn Labour had got since Blair’s first win in 1997. A better percentage of the vote than any since Blair’s third victory in 2005.[C]
|Year||Turnout||Tory Vote||Percent||Seats||Labour Vote||Percent||Seats||Liberal-Democrat Vote||Percent||Seats|
It is correct to look just at England, because Labour in Scotland declined massively in 2015. The Scottish Nationalists jumped from 19.9% to 50%. From 6 seats at Westminster to 56. Labour slumped from 40% to 23.4%, and lost 40 of its 41 seats.[D] Corbyn won back 6 seats in 2017 but lost them again in 2019, with increasing hopes of an independent Scotland that could remain in the European Union.
Scottish voters saw that a Scotland free of England might return to the moderate Welfarism and Mixed Economy that is normal in Continental Europe. The system that actually won the Cold War:[E]all the New Right did was sound militant and then abandon their doctrine to stave off an economic crash in the half-forgotten crisis of 1987.
You get the same picture if you look at the actual voting in the seats Labour lost. In Scotland, the Scottish Nationalists returned. In England, the fall in the Labour vote was always much larger than the Tory gain. And both shifts were more drastic in constituencies that were stronger for Brexit. I’ve got a detailed analysis for each seat posted on the web, for those who want to check in detail.[F]
Blair’s 1997 victory was based on a promise of real change. A promise that was not delivered, and his vote slumped. But so did the Tory vote – people by then had lost faith in them. Total voting slumped, and he won in 2001 and 2005 almost by default…
Yes, some former Labour voters switched to Tory, or failed to vote. But Labour also picked up many young people who failed to vote before. And by 2024, the expected date for the next General Election, many more young people will have the vote.
Those young people would not vote for a Labour Party that was a lukewarm copy of Tory policies. If Labour is foolish enough to reject Corbynite radicalism, it will gain a few votes from the Timid Centre. But lose far more from people who know that many things are seriously wrong.
Labour lost in 2019, because about 45% of the population wanted Brexit no matter what the cost. For them, what had gone wrong since the relatively pleasant 1960s was Immigration and ‘Brussels Bureaucrats’.
Some of these voted Tory, who would not normally do so. Some would not, but did not vote Labour. It all added up.
Brexit would probably have lost had its opponents rallied behind the demand for a Second Referendum. It would have been a just demand. The original vote was won on the false promise that Brexit would be soft and easy. That it would release vast sums to spend on the NHS.
The vote was won with 51.9%, which I’d guess to be a combination of 45% Brexit-at-any-cost and 7% ‘Soft Brexit’. Polls indicated that a second vote would have chosen ‘Remain’.[G] But sadly, there was never a clear parliamentary majority to ask the people if they were still set on Brexit. Ask if they were confident now that the rest of Europe had held firm and refused to let Britain have the benefits without the cost.
Quitting on the terms accepted by Johnson is likely to be very nasty. Likewise those offered by May. So I am very glad that Labour repeatedly refused to abstain and let either deal be carried through. It certainly got Labour mauled in 2019. But from now on, the guilt will be entirely Tory.
It may not be so bad in the long run. With Britain gone, the European Union might get more serious about integration and welfare policies. I am 69 and may not live to see it, but I like to think long-term and for the general welfare. Anything else I would find unbearably squalid.
I am also sad that Labour failed to draw the correct lesson from the Crisis of 2008. The Tories said it was down to excessive government spending. Labour was weak in saying that it was speculators. Went along with policies of Austerity for most people and a vast bail-out of banks that should have been allowed to collapse. The gibberish name ‘Quantitative Easing’ was used, but it was a bail-out for rich speculators. The wealth of the rich was protected, with Obama doing just the same thing in the USA. So the Tories revived, and Labour slumped in 2010 and 2015.
2015 also saw the collapse of the Liberal-Democrats. Foolishly, they had not demanded a fairer voting system after 2010, when it would have been impossible to form a government without them. They agreed to a referendum on a possible reform, and lost it. Lost most of their voters and seats in 2015, and have not really recovered them. They picked up some dedicated Remainer votes, but still fewer voters than before they made themselves doormats to Tory policies in 2010-15 coalition.
Certainly some former Labour voters refused to vote for Corbyn. But that is mostly the elderly: Baby Boomers who opted for Thatcherism and are now offended by the modern world they helped create. My generation, and I remember well that a majority of them were only interested in radicalism when it served their selfish interests. They were greedy then, and as they aged they have got worse.
Millions of young people voted Labour who had not voted before. And they are the future.
The world’s future. The future for Labour, only if Labour’s next leader insists that Corbyn was basically correct. If Labour does not scuttle back to the policies of weak acceptance of injustice that led to a falling-away in 2001 and 2005, followed by defeat in 2010 and 2015.
Blair won the second and third election victories almost by default. Turnout slumped dramatically, from 71% to 59% and 61%. The Tories before Cameron had a string of unpopular and unimpressive leaders. They tried to tap into right-wing Populism, but were not convincing as demagogues.
Cameron managed to present himself as sensible and safe, though he was neither. But Boris Johnson represents a Populism that can win voters not tied to the classical left-right spectrum.
In the USA, polls for the 2016 election showed that Bernie Sanders had a better chance of beating Trump than Hilary Clinton did. Hilary actually got more votes, but lost because these were translated into Electoral College votes that favoured small US states that preferred Trump. But there were many discontented voters whose first choice was socialist Bernie Sanders, but whose second choice was anti-Establishment Trump.
The Saunders-to-Trump voters should have been asked, ‘do you really think that a very rich man is going to look after the poor and ordinary, rather than look after his own sort?’ Because that is what he has mostly done.
Yet people still get fooled. We’d probably get the same in Britain, if Labour’s next leader is someone rejecting Corbyn and moving back to re-gather elderly unhappy voters. No doubt they would win some, but they would lose enormous numbers of young people who want something different. Labour would slump again.
Elections are a funny business. Labour won big in 1945 and lost in the elections of 1950 and 1951. But Labour got a majority of the votes in both those elections, and far more than they got in 1945. Attlee in 1951 got more than 200,000 more votes than Churchill, but the oddity of constituency boundaries meant that Churchill got the parliamentary majority.[H]
Labour in government had agreed to a redrawing of constituency boundaries that satisfied some abstract notions of justice, but had the predictable effect of allowing the Tories to win more seats with less votes. Playing things much too clean, which the Tories never would.
Tories also know that the media are often deluded, and commonly corrupt. Will howl about ‘bias’ when the bias is not as strongly in their favour as they would like. Managed to tame the BBC that way. Much louder protests are needed, tapping into the large body of the discontented.
You can read the whole of the original article on Page 12 of the PDF.[I] Or a shorter on-line version on our archive website.[J]
I also published a much more detailed analysis in April. Available at our archive website,[K]and as a PDF.[L] This shows in detail that most of Labour’s losses were where the Brexit vote was large.
[C] All figures from the Wiki, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:General_elections_in_England_to_the_Parliament_of_the_United_Kingdom.
It does not show separate English data before 1982. And in 1982 and 1987, the Liberal-Democrats were still the Liberal / Social Democrat alliance.