Assessing the UK Electoral Avalanche of December 2019

By John Weeks

On 12 December the UK Conservative party scored a stunning victory as it buried the opposition in an electoral avalanche.  As I venture some thoughts on that outcome and its implications for US politics, transparency requires that I make it clear that I supported the Labour Party and publicly endorsed its policies and disparaged its critics.  My disappointment will surprise no one.  How should I interpret this disastrous electoral loss by a party advocating a range of policies that I consider appropriate and essential for our country?

As is the case with many complex events, I find it useful to begin with simple, even simplistic, explanations, when inspect those simple narratives for their flaws.  I seek to avoid seizing on explanations that conveniently support my predilections.  Defeats (as well as victories) call for humility and introspection rather than definitive convictions.

The “Labour critics narrative” goes as follows.  In retrospect we see that the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party in September 2015 was a mistake.  The new progressive, social democratic focus of the party did not appeal to most UK voters.  His surprising gains in the election of June 2017 resulted from the party’s ambiguous position on EU membership, which attracted “remain” voters to the Labour Party.  Over the subsequent two years, as the position of the party on the EU clarified, voters concluded that the Labour leadership, especially the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, represented a narrow radical faction (stated in extreme form by McFaddin, Guardian 29 December 2019).  The election disaster was the predictable outcome.

The “Labour loyalist narrative” unfolds the same facts differently, along lines stated succinctly by shadow chancellor John McDonnell to the BBC’s Andrew Neil immediately after announcement of the exit poll that showed Labour had lost.  The election outcome resulted from the vote-attracting power of the Tory’s “get Brexit done” message.  The public had grown weary of the parliamentary deadlock over an exit agreement and wanted the issue resolved quickly.  No quick resolution is possible, but the Tory promise to act immediately and decisively crowded out all other issues, especially in face of a mainstream media overwhelmingly hostile to progressive social and economic policies.  Labour’s relative success in the 2017 election showed the public popularity of many of those policies when not obscured by the Brexit issue.

The table below provides the election results from 2017 and 2019 to assess the two interpretations of the outcome.  My division of votes among the centre, right and left requires a brief explanation.  The first I identify with the Liberal Democrats and the tiny Alliance Party of Northern Ireland.  The right consists of the Conservative Party, the United Kingdom Independence Party, Brexit Party, and in Northern Ireland the Democratic Unionists and Ulster Unionists.

While the Conservatives retain many from the centre-right, under the leadership of Boris Johnson its shift to the right has been dramatic, drawing support from extreme reactionaries (article by Townsend Guardian 28 December 2019).  Designating the Labour Party as on the left should be uncontroversial.  While at the local level the Green Party displays mixed practice, I judge its only MP, Carline Lucas, as one of the most progressive in Parliament, consistently anti-austerity.

A fourth category includes “nationalists” who do not fit neatly into the centre, right and left categories.  Plaid Cymru (Wales), Scottish National Party and the Northern Ireland parties representing the catholic community include a range of political views, though generally advocating progressive policies.

On the basis of this four-fold division, we find no evidence of a shift of voters to centrist parties.  While the centre gained 1.3 million votes compared to 2017 (+4.2%), its total share remained quite low, 12.1% — almost 88% of UK voters cast ballots for the right, left or nationalists.  The election did not reflect a substantial shift of voter sentiment to the centre left and centre right.  If one reallocates the Greens to the centre my conclusions remains valid.

The table also allows an assessment of whether despite the large conservative win, the election outcome indicates a possible majority for remaining in the EU.  Several commentators put forward this interpretation (for example, Hutton and Keegan, Guardian 29 December 2019).  The interpretation carries the policy implication that Brexit remains in political contention.  It is consistent with the Labour critics narrative that attributes the Conservative victory primarily to the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the allegedly extreme policies associated with him.

Numerically, the remain majority hypothesis views the 47% share of the right as an accurate approximation of the leave vote, and contrasts this with the 51% gained by the combination of Labour, Green, Liberal Democrats and Scottish Nationalists (and higher with the Welsh Nationalists and Northern Ireland parties).  This hypothesis is consistent with arguments for some form of proportional representation such that the 51% would have won a number of MPs consistent with their popular vote.

   UK General Election Results, 2017 and 2019

Votes thds Percentage Change MPs
Party 2017 2019 2017 2019 Thds Prcnt 2017 2019 change
Right 14,607 14,969 45.4% 47.0 362 1.7 324 373 +49
Conservatives 13,637 13,967 42.3 43.9 330 1.5 314 365 +51
UKIP, Brexit 594 665 1.8 2.1 71 0.2 0 0 0
DUP, UU (N Ireland) 376 337 1.2 1.1 -39 -0.1 10 8 -2
Centre 2517 3840 7.8 12.1 1,323 +4.2 12 11 -1
Liberal Democrats, others 2517 3840 7.8 12.1 1,323 +4.2 12 11 -1
Left 13,399 11,135 41.6 35.0 -2,264 -6.6 267 203 -64
Labour 12,874 10,269 40.0 32.3 -2,605 -7.7 266 202 -64
Green 525 866 1.6 2.7 341 1.1 1 1 0
Nationalists 1381 1696 4.3 5.3 315 1.0 46 62 +16
Scottish 978 1242 3.0 3.9 264 0.9 35 48 +13
Welsh 164 153 0.5 0.5 -11 0.0 4 4 0
N Ireland Catholic 239 301 0.7 0.9 62 0.2 7 10 +3
Others 301 190 0.9 0.6 -111 -0.3 1 1 0
Total 32,205 31,830 100.0 100.0 -375 -1.2 650 650 0

Note: Numbers refer to general election results, 8 June 2017 and 12 December 2019.

References: 2017 Guardian 9 June 2017; & 2019, Financial Times 28 December 2019.

The remain majority assertion relies on assuming that the entire Labour 32.3% reflects remain voters.  While many people who previously voted Labour shifted to the Conservatives because of their support for Brexit, until more detailed statistics and analysis are available it would be arbitrary to presume that all Labour voters were pro-EU.   One should not rule out the possibility that the 2019 election showed a split between remain and leave not significantly different from the outcome of the 2016 referendum (48:52).

Further research is also required to assess the extent to which the 2019 represented a rejection of the Labour manifesto as too left wing, as many argue, or, alternatively, that “Labour won the argument” (McTernan in FT 20 December 2019), and lost  due to Brexit.  At this point it is difficult to move beyond the obvious inferences that “get Brexit done” swayed the electorate, with no substantial shift of voters to the centre.

One possible implication of Labour’s defeat for US politics follows from the voting results.  No shift from the political left to the center occurred.  It appears that Labour lost almost eight percentage points of the electorate, 2.6 million votes, because of its neutral policy on remaining in the European Union, and to some extent the unpopularity of its leader Jeremy Corbyn.

However, any implications for US politics should be reached with great caution, because the electoral systems in the two countries are so different.  British voters do not vote directly for the equivalent of a president.  Rather, they vote for the parliamentary candidates in their constituency, the equivalent of members of the House of Representatives.  The elected MPs then select the country’s government.

At the time of the 2019 election, the UK private polling company YouGov found that 21 percent of those surveyed held a “positive” view of Jeremy Corbyn and 61% a “negative” opinion.  This may seem a devastating balance, minus 40 percent on the negative side, caution is required.  The Scottish National Party won 48 of the 59 MPs from Scotland, yet the YouGov survey for its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, showed a negative-positive outcome of 23:49, minus 26 percent.  The popularity or lack of it by the party leader is but one of many influences on voting behavior.

Labour suffered a devastating defeat in December 2019.  That defeat did not result from a shift of the electorate to the center.

 is a London-based member of the Union for Radical Political Economics (URPE), one of the founders of the UK-based Economists for Rational Economic Policies, and part of the European Research Network on Social and Economic Policy.

Labour Party Leadership:  Fight for Policies Not Souls

By John Weeks

A Yawning Divide

Those following the internal conflict in the UK Labour Party repeatedly read that  it is a fight for the “soul” of the party.  This metaphysical reference to the contest between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith comes as part of the concerted campaign to depoliticize and divert from the basic issues at stake.  It may be that some or most of Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents within the party believe that the unfolding leadership contest involves something analogous to religious conversion.  The use of this evangelistic metaphor consciously to avoid policy debate is considerably more likely.

As I wrote is my last post, “the Corbyn Phenomenon”, the deep division in the Labour Party results from one major fissure, social democracy on the left of the crack and neoliberalism-lite on the right.  Initially narrow enough for a few politicians to straddle, over the last year the crack widened to breech and now a deep chasm for which the famous US union song “Which side are you on” applies in spades.

Almost thirty years ago Tony Blair and his supporters undertook a spectacularly successful conversion of official LP policy to neoliberalism.  Why, suddenly it seems, can a social democrat lead the party he made his own and none dare speak his name except to denounce him?

Therein lies the explanation for why the center-right of the Labour Party refuses to debate its political differences with the social democrat progressives, focusing instead on allegations of Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of leadership qualities including incompetence, lack of charisma and being “out of touch”.

A serious and frank discussion of policies would destroy Corbyn’s opponents within the party.  The social democrats at the party base that Blair disenfranchised have reasserted control of party policy.

How the Labour Party got here

Until quite recently the Labour Party (LP) functioned in a strictly hierarchical manner.  For decades LP members of Parliament selected the party leader.  A change in rules that assigned MPs, trade unions and members at the constituency level each a one-third share brought the victory in 2010 of the more progressive candidate (Ed Miliband) over the center-right candidate (his older brother David, now living in the United States).

Ed Miliband’s parliamentary party (PLP) had supported his opponent by a considerable majority and set out consciously to undermine his leadership.  He proved unable to shift the PLP toward social democratic policies.  This was obvious in the general election of May 2015 when official party policy endorsed a balanced fiscal budget.  However, he achieved one change that would undo the power of the center-right in the party.  He introduced one-person-one-vote for the party’s leaders.

The failure to block this change indicates out out-of-touch was the center-right with the grass roots.  However, the Miliband voting reform still required that a leadership candidate obtain the endorsement of at least 35 MPs.  So marginalized were the social democratic MPs that the late-day Blairites assumed that 35 would be an insurmountable obstacle to a progressive leadership challenge.

In every leadership contest for a generation the “far left” (aka committed social democrats) of the party put forward a candidate.  In May 2015 this small group of social democratic insurrectionist MPs (no more than a dozen) faced a serious constrain.  Their most prominent members had either served as the sacrificial lambs previously or were not available (one that I had the honor of knowing, Michael Meacher, would soon die of a sudden illness).

Jeremy Corbyn received one more than the minimum endorsements, making the cut literally at the last minute before the deadline.  At least two of his endorsers came from the center-right after much pleading from progressive MPs that the contest should have at least the appearance of inclusiveness.  The campaign proved remarkably policy focused.

Corbyn opposed austerity, and his three opponents endorsed it with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  Corbyn opposed renewing the UK nuclear program; the other three endorsed renewal.  Corbyn advocated renationalization of the railroads and eliminating university fees.  His opponents ridiculed both policies.  Corbyn endorsed union rights without qualification, while his opponents adopted various degrees of equivocation.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.  At a meeting in September 2015 the results were announced.  Corbyn came first among four candidates with 59.9%, far ahead of his runner-up at 19.5%.  The most blatantly Blairite candidate came last with less than 5%.  Over 400,000 voted, three-quarters of the membership.

The Labour Party, social democratic at the base, elected a social democratic as leader for the first time in over thirty years with overwhelming support from unions and working class members.  The PLP remained overwhelmingly center-right.  The social democratic MPs had begrudgingly, if passively supported the party leadership under Blair and his short-lived successor Gordon Brown (even as the purge of progressives continued).  The leaders center-right quickly made it clear that Corbyn would find no loyalty or even civility from them.  The intra-party war began immediately upon Corbyn’s election.

Deposing Corbyn without an Election

Corbyn’s overwhelming victory among Labour Party members left center-right opponents with no obvious strategy for deposing him.  They did not accept his leadership, but they could not remove him through established party procedures.  By necessity they sought a combination of strategy and tactics that they hoped would force him to resign.

They could not force his resignation through debate over political issues because his policies reflected the views of the grassroots.  This left the anti-Corbyn MPs with only one tactic, to discredit Corbyn personally.  The tactic would prove an extremely difficult to implement successfully.  While Corbyn has faults as all humans do, like Bernie Sanders he suffers from none of those flaws that usually discredit a politician.

He lies modestly without a hint of corruption.  The closest his enemies have come to a case of corruption was the revelation that Corbyn supporter t-shirts were made by sweatshop labor, which he quickly denounced.  In one of those ironies no one could make up, Britain’s most right-wing newspaper burst with outrage over “poverty-stricken workers” (the support group distributing the shirts quickly changed supplier).  Try as they might, Corbyn’s opponents have found no evidence of sexual misconduct, that other variety of politician-slaying scandals (except in France).

The discrediting campaign shifted focus to allegations of “unelectability”.  This proved ineffective across the Labour grass roots, because electoral outcomes during the Corbyn months have been sufficiently ambiguous to produce no clear message.  However, the aggressiveness of the person attacks took a quantum leap after the English and Welsh electorates (but not the Scots or the Northern Irish) voted “out” in the referendum on EU membership.

Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who had bolted the Labour Party in the 1980s as part of a right-wing exodus, denounced Corbyn as “dismal, lifeless, spineless”.  A few days later prominent economist and editor-in-chief of the Guardian Sunday edition (The Observer) Will Hutton informed his readers that Corbyn was not a social democratic, but an ideologue committed to the overthrown of capitalism, not to its reform.

Various decisions by Labour Party’s politically split National Executive Committee make it unclear as to the number of eligible voters in the unfolding leadership contest.  None-the-less, polling suggests that Corbyn will achieve re-election with a strong majority.  Whether this is true, his opponents appear to believe it a strong possibility.  In response a major donor to the Labour Party funded a court case to have Corbyn excluded from the leadership race, a case being heard as I write (see discussion on the putatively neutral website of Labour MPs).

End of an Era?

The current leadership contest is not a re-run of 2015.  During last year’s leadership contest no one in the Labour Party realized the revolutionary impact of the Miliband voting reforms.  The surge of enthusiasm for Jeremy Corbyn and his overwhelming victory came as surprise to opponents and supporters.

For an early campaign appearance his major strategist (John McDonnell now his shadow chancellor) urged booking a small room of less than 50 chairs to avoid embarrassment should few arrive.  Over 500 Labour Party members appeared at the provincial university venture, which required Corbyn to speak outdoors with a megaphone.

This time both sides come prepared for the conflict that will solidify in the Labour Party the new era of resurgent social democracy, or re-establish center-right leadership of the Blair period.  Should the later occur, on the surface British politics will return to a neoliberal consensus across the parties of England and Wales (but not Scotland where the social democratic Scottish National Party rules like a colossus).

On the assumption that legal challenges do not exclude Corbyn from the contest, the center-right campaign will be slanderous, venal and petty.  The fundamental source of this political degeneration is not the character failings on the anti-Corbyn forces (though these are many).  The center-right campaign will take this form because it cannot on peril of certain defeat enter into political debate, its fatal weakness.

In contrast, the Corbyn campaign will take the cliché-ridden “high ground”, stressing policies, not personalities.  Many of Corbyn’s devoted supporters have and will launch savage tweets against his opponent Owen Smith.  Corbyn himself and those in his campaign will avoid such trivialities.

Corbyn has the winning card and will play it repeatedly: that he and his shadow cabinet are social democrats.

John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London and author of The Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Serves the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy. Follow him Twitter: @johnweeks41.