U.K. Election: More Than Johnson's Conservatives Won, Corbyn's Labour Lost Britain

Results are food for thought for other center-left parties in the West. Has the fascination with young, digitally connected activists pulling parties in a more radical 'progressive' direction been exaggerated?

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigns in Middlesbrough, Britain, December 11, 2019
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn campaigns in Middlesbrough, Britain, December 11, 2019Credit: Gonzalo Fuentes / Reuters
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

LONDON — It’s much too easy to draw a clear-cut conclusion from Britain’s general election, which ended in a landslide victory for the Conservative party and a dismal result for Labour. Some will optimistically view it as a total rejection by the British people of Jeremy Corbyn and his dogmatic views, tainted with anti-Semitism and a deep disdain for Western democracy. Others are rightly fearful of a rise of xenophobic and populist nationalism in the shape of reelected cynic-in-chief Prime Minister Boris Johnson. There is some truth in both views.

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At Conservative party campaign HQ in central London, there was much disbelief as results of the television exit poll filtered in. They had been cautiously optimistic that they would win by a much smaller margin of around 20 seats. So imagine their surprise as the poll (which as usual turned out to be almost completely accurate) pointed to a win by 86 seats (it was slightly less in the end), the Conservatives' best result since Margaret Thatcher’s glory days in 1987.

Not far away, at Labour HQ, Jeremy Corbyn’s loyalists could not believe it either. They knew the polls were against them, but they still had their hopes pinned on a “youthquake” — a wave of young voters, motivated by social media, voting in their masses for the 70-year-old leader promising radical change. They didn’t expect to lose so many seats and crash-land into the party's worst electoral result since 1935.

It came as less of a shock for most of Labour MPs and activists. Those actually connected to Labour’s old working-class strongholds with personal ties, not through Twitter or Facebook, had known for weeks and months. They knew since Corbyn became leader in 2015, because they were hearing so many Labour voters telling them over and over again that they found it extremely difficult to vote for a party led by Corbyn. Voters didn’t like his radical views and couldn’t connect to his dogmatic personality. Above all, they couldn’t see him as prime minister.

While all eyes are on the dozens of seats moving from Labour to the Conservatives in the Midlands and north, and to the Scottish National Party north of the border, much can also be learned from the share of the vote. Johnson has won big, but in actual vote share his Conservatives went up only by a couple of points from the last election in 2017 — from 42 to 44 percent. Labour, on the other hand, lost eight percentage points, from 40 to 32 percent. Corbyn’s Labour lost much more than Johnson's Tories won.

The Corbynist proxies in the television studios were sent to argue that it was all due to Brexit. That the party simply could not satisfy its voter base, those who had voted to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum, as well as a significant minority who had chosen to leave. In this situation, they claimed, some would always be disappointed.

There was, of course, some justification to their argument. Johnson ruthlessly exploited the pro-"leave" areas formerly controlled by Labour and his relentless slogan “Get Brexit Done” has proven devastatingly effective.

But they were conveniently ignoring the fact that the campaign had not been just about Brexit. It was a deeply personal election pitting the two leaders — Johnson and Corbyn — one against the other. If a Labour laboratory had created the ideal political rival to run against, it would have looked very much like Johnson: A privileged, narcissistic product of Britain’s most exclusive schools and colleges. A man detached from the daily realities most British people face and with only a very fleeting acquaintance with the truth or any basic values. A man who can’t even say how many children he has. Against him, they placed Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s almost impossible to find a British voter who believes Johnson. Not even in the staunchest Tory-voting shires. But Corbyn still managed to be wiped out by him. Corbyn did not only lose an election by a landslide. He lost one of the pillars of Labour — its working-class heartlands in northern England and Wales.

Labour is the party of the metropolitan intelligentsia and of public servants, two middle-class groups who largely overlap. They have traditionally come together with those who once worked in the abandoned factories and shuttered coal mines of northern England, with the workers who are the very reason for Labour’s existence. And those are the voters Corbyn lost.

A look at Britain’s political map now shows that Labour’s northern “red wall” — the band of constituencies the party controlled, in some cases for as long as a century — has now disappeared. England and Wales are wide expanses of Tory blue, with a few red enclaves in the cities of London, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff.

Of all people, it was Corbyn the radical, threatening to break down the old establishment and promising a new era of socialist equality, who lost the working classes. In some parts of London, his party actually did a bit better, and even took one seat away from the Conservatives in the relatively affluent constituency of Putney.

Boris Johnson returns to 10 Downing Street after meeting with Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, London, December 13, 2019Credit: Matt Dunham / AP

This is the hollowest of consolations, only emphasizing how far Corbyn, a London-dwelling middle-class man, also privately educated, has taken the party away from its roots. That cannot be blamed only on Brexit, especially as Labour did badly in most remain-voting areas as well.

To do well against Johnson, Labour needed a different leader, more connected to voters, not a dogmatic Marxist tainted with associations to terror organizations, anti-Semites and Holocaust deniers. A different leader than Corbyn, who was at best indifferent to the EU during the campaign and in the past downright hostile to it, would have at least articulated a clear position on the issue. A different leader may have lost most of the "leave" votes as well, but he would have at least rescued those lost to smaller "remain" parties like the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, and would have saved dozens of Labour seats.

In fact, 52 percent of British voters voted yesterday for "remain"-supporting parties. The Conservatives won by monopolizing nearly all of the 48 percent who voted for pro-"leave" parties. Corbyn lost by splitting the "remain" vote.

It’s impossible at this point to gauge just how damaging the consistent anti-Semitism crises under Corbyn were to the party. The disgraced former mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, was only one of many in Corbyn’s quick camp to blame the Jews, whom he said in an interview were “unhelpful” to Labour. But the small Jewish community had an effect only on no more than three or four seats, not on the rest of the 59 seats Labour lost. Yet anti-Semitism was mentioned by many voters explaining why they felt “there’s something wrong about Corbyn.”

A protester outside Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn's final general election campaign event in London, Britain, December 11, 2019Credit: Henry Nicholls / Reuters

There is retrospection in store for Labour now that Corbyn has said he will step down in the near future. And a lot of food for thought for other center-left parties in the West. Has the fascination with young, digitally connected activists pulling the parties to more radical “progressive” positions and supporting leaders like Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, once unimaginable as candidates, been exaggerated?

Will the center-left now reflect on the fact that the real voters are not those on Twitter and Instagram, but real people who actually turn up to vote? People who may not be networked, but seek moderate and gradual social change, and are looking for a social democratic leadership much closer to their centrist views?

In a decade or two, these young activists, if they don’t change their positions as they grow up, may become a majority. Until that happens, some of them will continue to try to drag their parties to the margins, insisting on ideological and revolutionary purity. But for the good of Western society, the center-left cannot allow itself to spend the time until then in opposition. Because the alternative is Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

It’s too easy, however, to portray the Conservative victory in Britain as just another victory for the new wave of populist nationalism in the West. The Conservative party is one of the oldest political parties in the world and was in power in the United Kingdom for most of the past century. Even in its current nativist pro-Brexit evolution, it is not a new creation and not all its members, certainly not all its voters, are narrow-minded nationalists filled with hate for minorities and immigrants. Just like not all Labour voters are anti-Semites.

Johnson has without a doubt cynically taken advantage of a xenophobic atmosphere, but now he has won a large majority and is no longer held hostage by the relatively small group of hard-core Brexiteers in his party, there is room for hope that he will prove more moderate.

He is not an ideologue like Corbyn. He is an opportunist. With him at the helm, Britain will almost certainly be out of the EU by the end of January, but as the two sides get down to negotiating their future relationship, Johnson may seek less of a “hard” Brexit and a clean-break as some Tories desire.

Brexit is not the main story of this election. Neither are its winners. The story is about the opposition and Labour at its center. This is about a party that had a historic opportunity to win back government after a decade of unpopular Conservative rule and miserably failed to do so by electing as its leader a hopeless candidate.

The Corbynists will not recognize their failure. They are already blaming the Jews, the centrists in their party, the media and especially the voters. They seem intent on continuing the damage they and Corbyn have wrought on Labour and the left — not just in Britain, but across the Western world.

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