Sunday 15 December 2019

General Election 2019: the aftermath

In my previous post, the morning after the election, I discussed what the result is likely to mean for what follows with Brexit. Even in the short time since then we have seen the beginning of the contours of what was said there developing. In particular, as Tony Connelly’s assessment of the election implications spells out, the practicalities for the construction of the Irish Sea border will now have to be worked out. Agreed to by Boris Johnson in his almost indecent haste to get a deal done, possibly without even understanding what he had agreed to, it now has to be turned into a reality, with all the economic and political consequences that will bring.

We also see the beginnings of the row over transition period extension, with reports that the EU (rather than the UK) may propose such an extension, perhaps via a sequencing process in which some sectors are dealt with first and others deferred to an extended period. On the other hand, Michael Gove has repeated the promise that all the future terms negotiations will be completed by the end of December 2020. The only way I can see that coming true would be if, first, the UK effectively accepted whatever terms the EU propose or, second, if the deal done was so limited in scope as to be highly damaging to the UK.

But these and other issues will be the stuff of the future. This post is going to finish off the series concerned with the analysis of the General Election itself, by considering some of the causes of the result. Clearly there is already a mass of commentary about that, but here the focus will be mainly on the Brexit-related aspects.

What just happened?

The first thing that happened is that the Tory Party made a good fist of Brexit, in an electoral sense. The ‘Get Brexit Done’ theme was, as pointed out elsewhere, deeply dishonest and will set up many problems for the future. But, as a slogan, it had undeniable political cut through. They were also lucky in that Farage lost his nerve and did not stand in Tory-held seats. Yet, in another way, by standing in Labour held seats he deprived the Tories of an even bigger win and saved several Labour seats where the BXP vote was larger than the Labour majority. One side-effect of the campaign is that it should now see the end of Farage as a political figure, if only because the Tories have now embraced ‘Faragism’.

Even in the face of this, it is surprising that the LibDems did not manage to make some gains, even allowing for their longstanding disadvantage in the first-past-the-post system. When, before the election, they announced their ‘revoke Article 50’ policy I received a lot of criticism from some for writing that this was a mistake of both principle and tactics that would dog them if and when an election came. But on that it is pretty clear that I was right. In particular, it made it far less likely that they would attract the votes of Conservative remainers, and its partial abandonment late in the campaign was, simply, too late.

On the other hand, the criticism of the LibDems and Labour, made by Anna Soubry and many others, for having facilitated the election in the first place is probably unfair. It’s a difficult judgment, and we’ll never know if it was the right one, but I thought then and still think that – once the Withdrawal Agreement Bill had passed its second reading - the alternative would have been that it would eventually have passed and Brexit would happen. And there was no sign of a parliamentary majority for another referendum. In those circumstances, an election was the last hope but, clearly, it proved a false one.

Labour's disaster

As for Labour, they deserve some though not all of the criticism they are receiving. It is nonsense to claim as many, such as Len McCluskey, are that they would have done better, still less won, had they embraced Brexit and not had a confirmatory referendum policy. That claim ignores the fact that had they done so they would have lost support amongst the majority of its 2017 voters, who were pro-remain.

It also wrongly assumes that it would have been appealing to Labour leave voters. For it is very clear that, irrespective of Brexit policy, those were exactly the kind of Labour voters who were repelled by Jeremy Corbyn – seeing him not necessarily as ‘too left-wing’, but as unpatriotic and just plain alien. It doesn’t matter whether that perception is fair or not, or whether it was trumped up by the media or not. Whatever its cause, it was the case, and it would have been the case whatever Labour’s Brexit policy had been. The polling evidence is clear that Corbyn rather than Brexit was the main problem amongst those who ceased to support Labour.

What is certainly the case – and has been highlighted on this blog many times over the last three years - is that Labour’s entire positioning on Brexit since 2016 has been a disaster of oscillation, ambiguity, and shifts that came too late or with too little clarity. From Corbyn’s early call for an immediate trigger to Article 50, through to his belated acceptance of a confirmatory referendum, to his dithering over what side he’d be on in such a referendum to his, in my view reasonable but far too belatedly adopted, ‘neutrality’ stance, it has always been grudging, shifty and unconvincing.

Moreover, Labour were wrong to vote to trigger Article 50 – thereby being forever open to the accusation of having supported Brexit in principle – wrong to eschew single market membership as a compromise form of Brexit, if Brexit was to be done, and wrong to wait so long before endorsing another referendum. By the time they got to this election, they were still talking in the meaningless terms of single market access (or variants of that) which had been so misleading during the Referendum itself. Their ultimate ‘renegotiate and then refer to the people’ position made the best of a bad job given what had gone before, but it was too late to atone for what had gone before.

Much of the blame for all this can be laid at Corbyn’s – or his inner team’s – door. He never showed much interest in or understanding of Brexit, which would be bad enough given that it is the dominant issue of the day. But, worse, he did not seem to understand that delivering on his preferred terrain of anti-austerity policies could not be separated from Brexit itself.

In fact, polling evidence suggests that the actual policy platform was not unpopular with those former Labour voters who abandoned Labour. Things like rail nationalisation, for example, are vote winners. In that sense, despite being widely mocked for it, Corbyn’s claim about having ‘won the argument’ is not entirely risible. And it should be of some comfort to the Left were it not for the diversion of the personality cult around Corbyn as the person to deliver it: singing ‘oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ was never a substitute for serious politics.

Deeper roots

However, asking what happened in this election is, in a way, the wrong question, in that some of what happened has been building for years, if not decades. There’s always been a tension between working-class and middle-class Labour, between nationalists and internationalists, and between class-based and identity-based politics. In particular, the decline of Labour’s traditional vote reflects the long-term decline of the regional, industrial, unionised working-class. Similarly, the tension between the remnants of that and the middle-class, public sector worker and London-centred parts of its base has been going since at least the New Labour years.

But Brexit and its aftermath have inflected, sharpened and perhaps finally cemented these divisions. Immediately after the Referendum I wrote an academic analysis in the Socio-Economic Review of how it had clarified a new politics of ‘cosmopolitans and locals’. Many others have made a similar diagnosis, even if using different terminology (e.g. ‘nativists and globalists’) to make essentially the same point. I speculated that in due course the two party structure of UK (or, at least, English) politics would come to reflect that.

Arguably, that has come half-true in this election, with the Tory Party having emerged as the ‘local’, or English nationalist, party. If so, and assuming that there will be no change to the first-past-the post-system, then what now needs to happen is the construction of the other, ‘cosmopolitan’ party – reflecting the cleavages of age, education, social liberalism that are already in play. Tactical voting is not, as we have just seen, going to be the answer. That implies not the reconstruction of the Labour Party but the wholesale merger of Labour and LibDems with, in the process, a redefinition of each of them.

A new party?

This would not be the ‘remain party’. Painful as it is for remainers to accept, remain is now a dead cause. Pointing to the fact that 52% of voters backed ‘remain parties’ in the election is as much of a dead end as the ‘only 37% of the electorate voted to leave’ rabbit hole. In the medium to long-run it might become a ‘rejoin party’, but for the time being it would be pushing for the least damaging Brexit deal, developing a wider policy programme within the confines of the fact of Brexit, and opposing what is already emerging as the populist agenda of the new government.

Nor would it be a ‘centrist party’, because the very notion of centrism is predicated on a politics that has now disappeared. It would be on one wing of this new local-cosmopolitan landscape. One reason to think it could emerge is that it is already clear that the ‘Local Party’, despite Johnson’s talk of “healing divisions”, is going to humiliatingly grind its victory into the faces of what that horny-handed son of the soil Dominic Cummings (Durham School and First Class degree from Oxford) sneeringly calls “educated remainer types”.

It’s a strange, Pol Pot-like, move for the Tories to turn on the educated in this way but it reflects the peculiar mix of Maoist and Silicon Valley disruptor thinking which has now captured that party. It's no longer the party of business and the professions. It's not even the party of 'grammar school aspiration' in the way it was under Heath or even Thatcher. Rather, it's a bizarre melange of public school entitlement and the resentment of those with no post-compulsory schooling. This new positioning can only have the effect of cementing the new divide, since the more it asserts a new ‘them’, the more it creates a new ‘us’.

However, calls for a Liberal-Labour rapprochement are almost as old as the Labour Party itself and so it’s probably unlikely to happen now. Even so if, as many now think, the break-up of the United Kingdom is not very far away, and if, as is at least possible, Labour suffer another crushing defeat in 2024 then it’s perhaps not impossible in the not too distant future. It would be a vehicle for, as Timothy Garton Ash wrote this weekend, a ‘European England’ that might still eventually emerge from the wreck of Brexit.

The future of this blog

Coming to the more immediate future, and to less weighty matters, several people have asked me if this blog will continue now that Brexit is a certainty (and been kind enough to suggest that they hope it will). The answer to that is ‘yes’, for two reasons.

One is just because, to repeat a point made ad nauseam, Brexit will not end with Britain’s departure from the EU at the end of next January. It will continue for many months, and very likely years, to come. Over that time, it may become (even) more difficult to separate out Brexit per se from British politics more generally. Still, the blog will continue to focus primarily on Brexit-related issues. Some of these may be highly technical, for example on trade and customs issues, but my approach will continue to be one of trying to place these within a wider political analysis.

The second reason is the original rationale for this blog. At the time of the first post in September 2016, when of course there were very few readers, I wrote that “the blog will not attempt to re-argue the case for remaining in the EU or for the reversal of the decision, as I do not think that this is in prospect. Instead, I will analyse the unfolding consequences”.

In the intervening years, there have been many times when I thought that the decision might, in fact, get reversed. This was partly because of the total incompetence with which Brexit has been pursued, but mainly because of the extraordinary resilience and ingenuity of the remain campaign. That campaign has made some mistakes but, overall, has done far more than could ever have been expected. It nearly won - and may yet be the springboard for a future movement.

So now that it is once again the case that there is no prospect of Brexit being reversed, the rationale for the blog remains as it was from the beginning. So too does my original sentiment in that first post that Brexit is a national catastrophe. But that does not take away the need to provide an ongoing analysis of it which, whilst clearly and avowedly partisan, aspires to be based on evidence, logic, and fair and rational argument.

If nothing else, there may be some value in creating a more or less continuous record of what Brexit has done to our country, not least as a reminder that this is so very different to what, in 2016, Brexiters promised. So it can make its own very small contribution to holding them to account for what they have done.

Note: I am aware that in the last few days some people have been having problems reading the blog, with a large yellow box covering over most of the text. It seems to only affect Android devices. I’m sorry about this but I do not know the reason or the solution, though some people have reported that it also depends on what browser you use.

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