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.

New Issue! Focus on Europe

0517cover--huge-for-blog

 

We have just sent our May/June 2017 issue to e-subscribers, and print subscribers should find the issue in their mailboxes soon. (Not a subscriber? You can subscribe online here.)

You can find the full table of contents for the issue here. Here is the page 2 editors’ note for the issue:

The Resistible Rise of the Far Right

We could be forgiven for feeling like we are living through a replay of history.

The last epic wave of capitalist globalization—whether we think of it as ending in 1914 or 1929—gave way to spasms of war, depression, and reaction. It’s not a coincidence that we see similar menaces again today, for key underlying factors leading into the two crisis periods are similar—the strength and directness of owning-class control over state policy, the growing concentration of income and wealth, and the defeat of working-class movements (especially due to their failure to overcome nationalistic impulses).

The articles in this issue tackle the current situation—the weaknesses of reformism today, the menace of far-right “populist” movements, and the necessity for clear alternative politics. Two focus on the United States; three, on Europe.

John Miller tackles the Border Adjustment Tax (BAT) proposal—a combination of import tax, export tax exemption, and corporate tax giveaway—championed by House Republicans. The design of the policy suggests a political aim, appealing to U.S. workers on the basis of “economic nationalism”—the view that U.S. workers are being ruined by foreign competition, that workers in China and Mexico are “stealing” their jobs, and that boosting the trade balance is good for jobs, the economy, and American “greatness.” But at its heart the big winners would be giant corporations—they would get a big export subsidy and an enormous corporate tax cut.

In this issue’s interview, UMass Amherst economist Gerald Epstein makes the case for a new critical response to the presidency of Trump and the menace of a “proto-fascist” regime. Progressive economists have become accustomed to doing garden-variety policy analysis: What will be the effects of a proposed policy on economic growth, employment, income inequality, and so on? “Trumponomics,” Epstein argues, calls for an approach more clearly focused on questions of political power. Progressives cannot be distracted by, say, the potential growth impact of increased infrastructure spending, when the real aim of the policy is to cement support for the proto-fascist regime.

John Weeks takes us across the Atlantic, to the UK and the situation in the wake of the Brexit vote. The result was fueled by a vile and mendacious xenophobia. It also, however, owed to the failure of “remain” proponents to make a case for what was good about the EU—protections for human rights and labor rights that restrain European capitalists. Always lukewarm toward the European project (except the supposed economic benefits), the Labour Party did little to combat the right-wing campaign against the “bureaucrats in Brussels.” With the Brexit result irreversible in the short run, Weeks argues, the task at hand is to muster resistance to a new business offensive against human rights and workers’ rights.

Marjolein van der Veen looks at the recent electoral outcome in the Netherlands, where the right-wing xenophobic-Islamophobic “Party for Freedom” finished second in a crowded field. Observers around the world, fearing that the country would be the next “domino” to fall to an ascendant far-right politics, may have breathed a sigh of relief. Van der Veen cautions, however, against a too-sanguine conclusion. The main outcomes were the collapse of the center-left Labor Party, punished by voters for its embrace of austerity policies, and the overall rightward shift of Dutch politics—a big business party being the election victor (in part due to embracing more anti-immigrant politics itself). The question now is how the left parties can confront racism and xenophobia and craft an appealing alternative program.

Finally, we have the concluding third installment of D&S co-editor Alejandro Reuss’ series on social democracy and the crisis of Europe: “Reform or Revolution?” Reuss both assesses the overall political trends of the European left—including cases where there are signs of a break from compromising “Third Way” politics and a revival of traditional social-democratic reformism. He does not, however, end there—pointing instead to the possibility of a new revolutionary anti-capitalist politics and a plausible vision for a new egalitarian, cooperative, democratic, and sustainable society.

All our authors call on us to remember that—while events today may echo those of the past and why we need to apply historical lessons to our present problems—we are not living through a replay of the past.

History does not follow a preset script. It is ever written anew, in words and in fire.