. Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold | Ceasefire Magazine

Notes from the Margins | Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold

Last week's shocking defeat is a national tragedy. We now need a Labour Party that is the sum of its parts, rather than a party in which one faction defeats the other, writes Matt Carr.

New in Ceasefire - Posted on Friday, December 20, 2019 15:06 - 0 Comments

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A week on, there is no way you can really look on the 2019 General Election that makes it feel any better than it did on the night. The bare facts speak for themselves. The single greatest concentration of conmen, chancers, fanatics and incompetents in British political history have been given a majority by the British electorate beyond their wildest dreams. An amoral, pampered charlatan whose entire career trajectory from journalist to politician is based on telling the Tory Party the lies it wants to hear, crushed Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in Labour’s own heartlands, sweeping up seats that have remained stolidly Labour for decades.  

The Lib Dems also paid a price for their hubris and opportunism, and for an astonishingly misconceived ‘presidential’ campaign which raised the hapless Jo Swinson to a position she had done nothing to deserve and did not even begin to justify. But it is in relation to Labour that Johnson’s victory is most humiliating and difficult to swallow, because this was not just a triumph for the worst British politics has to offer; it was  a brutal and unequivocal repudiation of Corbyn and the Corbynite project in precisely those parts of the country that Corbynism most hoped to reach.  

As shocking as it was, this result should not have come as a complete surprise. For weeks – and months – polls had indicated persistently that Corbyn’s personal ratings were plummeting. Some of this was not his fault. There is no doubt that Corbyn was subjected to one of the most vicious and sustained campaigns of vilification ever inflicted on a British politician, much of which was grossly unfair, manipulative and dishonest.

But the result cannot be blamed on a largely hostile right-wing media that will always seek to destroy any left-wing Labour politician. They should not be given more ammunition than they already have, and Corbyn and his team often gave them too much – and missed opportunities to rebut and challenge their assaults. It’s also true that Corbyn received little support from his own party. Once again that is not entirely his fault but, in the end, it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. If every opinion poll is telling you that your leader is tanking in the polls, and you want to win elections, then you must replace the leader.

Had Corbyn stepped down after the 2017 election, Labour might possibly have been able to unite the party and turn its unexpectedly good election performance into something more promising. But too many of his supporters seemed to behave almost as if Labour had won – or at least as if a victory was the logical next step, and interpreted a result that was largely due to tactical voting and May’s stunningly inept campaign, into a justification to tack even further left and continue with the leader even as he continued to plunge new depths of unpopularity.

Too often rallies seemed to act as a kind of feel-good substitute for negative polling, without actually doing anything to reverse it. This time around, Johnson’s team did not make their predecessor’s mistakes. Instead they set out to compete with Labour in precisely the areas where Labour was strongest, such as the NHS. Where May was wooden to the point of near-death, Johnson cultivated a faux-persona of a ‘loveable buffoon’ which made Corbyn seem fusty and headmasterish by comparison.

As clunky and dishonest as these efforts might have been, they were supported by consistent ‘Get Brexit Done’ messaging that any comms team would envy. Unwilling or unable to challenge Johnson’s slippery bluster and chronic dishonesty, Corbyn failed to attack him in debate with the kind of sharpness and passion required.

As many commentators have noted ad infinitum, Brexit was a crucial element in Labour’s defeat. Labour’s offer of a three-month ‘jobs-first’ Brexit deal, followed by a confirmatory vote, was often ridiculed during the campaign. But within the available range of options, it was by no means the worst, and was certainly a more democratic and realistic position than the Lib Dems’ disastrous ‘revoke Article 50’ pledge. The problem is that Labour came to this position too late, after more than three and half years of dithering and ‘strategic ambivalence’, and the leadership never put forward a coherent and compelling case for it, either to Leavers or Remainers. Brexit weariness favoured Johnson’s simplistic fantasies, so that the promise to get Brexit ‘done’ – however delusional – appeared to be optimistic, final and decisive, whereas Corbyn’s offer failed to convince either Leavers or Remainers that it took their concerns into account.

No one can say whether a different leadership would have handled Brexit any better. Unwilling to acknowledge the extent to which Brexit was another battleground in the populist ‘culture wars’, Labour’s attempts over the last three and a half years to transcend the bitter polarisation with its ‘for the many not the few’ class-based messaging failed to resonate with voters on either side of the divide.

Labour critics of the confirmatory vote option – both on the left and right – have argued that Labour should have ‘respected the referendum’ from the start. But these arguments touch on a wider failure of Britain’s political class, which was in such a hurry to ‘respect’ the result that it committed the country to a time-limited process without any consensus on what form of leave was possible. 

In effectively going along with this, Corbyn failed to show the kind of national leadership that might have established Labour as a cautious, sensible and statesmanlike opposition that took the interests of the whole country into account, compared with a succession of recklessly opportunistic Tory governments that viewed Brexit only through the narrow prism of their party’s interests. Labour also missed the opportunity to show leadership on one of the crucial moral issues of Brexit; the status of the 3.4 million EU nationals who faced being ‘windrushed’ and turned into ‘bargaining chips’.

Having allowed itself to be drawn into what was effectively a Brexit election on Johnson’s terms – Labour looked vacillating, ambivalent and uncertain on Brexit, and had little to say about it beyond the threat of Trump buying up the NHS in a trade deal. As a result, Labour drained support from both Leave and Remain, and presented a polarised and bitterly-divided country with a manifesto that – despite many admirable policies – read like a blueprint for utopia.

Whether it was free Broadband or a four-day week, at times Labour simply seemed to hurl policies at the electorate which there had been no preparation for, which only undermined its electoral credibility. Corbyn’s insistence, in the aftermath of the defeat, that Labour ‘won the argument’ is objectively meaningless, because the result makes it clear millions of voters did not care about the NHS, homelessness, austerity or climate change – they only cared about Brexit, and Johnson offered them a fantasy vision of an ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, which has very little practical possibility of implementation.

Corbyn’s many enemies will no doubt revel in his defeat, but this Boris Johnson victory is a defeat not just for the Labour Party, but for the very idea of a political opposition. It is also a tragedy for a country that desperately needs a left-of-centre government to repair the damage inflicted on it by successive Tory governments. Instead the British electorate, assisted as always by its electoral system, has given a majority to a government cut from whole Trumpite cloth; a self-styled ‘people’s government’ that holds parliament, the courts, and the media in contempt; that is fanatically and recklessly wedded to Brexit, and now has the ability to impose whatever form of Brexit it chooses to.

Given the experience of the last decade, it is very difficult to imagine that even a majority Tory government can do anything to make this country a better place, and it will most likely make it worse. If, as many experts have predicted, this radical right-wing ‘revolution’ fails to produce the results its architects have promised the electorate, then we may be in for some very rocky times ahead.

Faced with such dismal prospects, we need a left-of-centre opposition that can hold this truly awful government to account at every step as it seeks to impose a Brexit it now owns completely. We need an opposition both inside and outside parliament that can stand with the migrants and other minorities who are likely to be scapegoated if – when? – the Brexit bubble bursts.

To get to that point, we need a Labour Party that is the sum of its parts, rather than a party in which one faction defeats the other – a party capable of responding to the multiple crises bearing down on us, and building difficult coalitions that reach beyond the left’s comfort zone. 

And if we don’t get this, then Labour may not have a future, and our collective future will also look grimmer, as Britain’s dangerously reckless and incompetent ruling classes continue to lead the country deeper into a swamp of their own making.

Matt Carr

Matt Carr is a writer, blogger and freelance print and radio journalist. He is the author of My Father's House, Blood and Faith: the Purging of Muslim Spain, and The Infernal Machine: an Alternative History of Terrorism. His book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent was published in autumn 2012. His latest book 'Savage Frontier: the Pyrenees in History', has just been published in the UK by Hurst. He has lectured in a number of UK universities, schools and cultural institutions. He blogs at www.infernalmachine.co.uk.

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