UK election 2019 – why the left lost

The left was roundly defeated in Britain’s general election, the one that was supposed to settle the matter of Brexit. The first lesson is clear: Labour should have supported a soft Norway-style Brexit from the beginning. Having a vision for Brexit, and a better one than the Tories, would allow the left to gain the upper hand in the process and hopefully press a better outcome. Instead, a loud middle class refused to accept the result of the referendum and pursued various fantasies: an insulting second referendum, parliamentary obstruction, independent Scotland, and the like. Turns out, Brexit was the people’s mandate for whatever good or bad reasons. The middle class has been out of touch throughout the process and now finally lost.

As an aside, the reasons the middle class has been cheerleading for Europe are not particularly inspiring. Scotland sees the EU as an ally and a better master than England, and if events unfold in that direction Scotland may be disappointed. London is full of ambitious professionals for whom Europe is their oyster. These are selfish reasons that small-town England can’t identify with. If the story was that the EU is a bastion of democracy or inclusivity or the welfare state that would be something to believe in, but the EU has some time ago stopped being for these things. 

Second, the parties of the left should have formed alliances to win seats in the first past the post system. Elections are not opinion polls. They’re procedures to appoint candidates to positions. The right understands this, but on the left we have to thank the LibDems and the Greens for wasting people’s votes. The LibDems actively undermined Labour with their “anyone but Corbyn” campaign, all to facilitate a Tory win. I think the Greens are well-meaning idealists, but also damaging. If you add up the Labour, LibDem, Green, and SNP votes they’d be a majority. I’d like to check seat-by-seat what difference vote splitting made, but remarkably the UK doesn’t publish detailed election data until months later.

The narrative that Labour should have adopted an unambiguous remain stance doesn’t match the facts. Labour lost seats in traditional labour strongholds who voted Leave, while the LibDems and outspoken Remain politicians outside of Scotland did poorly. We can assume that among Labour’s 10 million vote share was a substantial fraction who wanted Leave but just couldn’t bring themselves to vote Tory. If Labour had taken the advice of Guardian columnists to turn Leave into Remain it would have been obliterated. In short Britain voted wrong today but not in the sense that some of us don’t like the outcome. Those who voted Conservative did it right by their choice. The left voted wrong because it doesn’t know how to use the electoral system to achieve collective decisions.

Third, the shift to the left was necessary but should have been done a different way. In the current media climate of sharp messages and limited attention the left ought to focus on 1-2 rallying policies and a unifying vision. Towards the end of the campaign Labour got it right with the message “save our NHS”, but in the run-up it seemed that they were promising more free stuff every week. That comes across as fake or clientelistic, not least in deprived areas where people voted Brexit out of conviction. A left alliance should have run with a clearer platform like “public health, public education, and no time for racism or prejudice of any sort” like the SNP’s successful messaging in Scotland.

The threat of economic intervention spooked people too. It’s necessary to make housing affordable, health and education once again free, and transport a public good. But how to turn these principles into policies in the era of hyper-capitalism? It’s a longer discussion but I think the left needs to focus less on redistribution or protecting things of the past, more on preventing rises of inequality, more investing in the long-term future. Instead of threatening landlords, tax touristification and AirBnB. Nationalizing rail isn’t a terrible idea but it may be more relevant today to electrify road transport and make it free. Scrap universal credit and tuition fees so people don’t start in debt. Offer education and quality of life, instead of undercut wages, as an attraction to businesses.

The last lesson is that the politics of outrage is a losing strategy. The trouble with declaring that things like Brexit or Trump are “unacceptable” is that they get accepted and then you have no leg to stand on. Time and again the left was sure that voters couldn’t possibly support a clown or a bigot, but it didn’t seem to stop them. The right understands, even celebrates, that real people have flaws and accepts them as leaders. Meanwhile the left is busy calling each other out for being behind on LGBT rights, or whatever is the identity issue of the day. The sad fact is elites don’t care. They care about the larger gender, race, and class divisions which affect the economic pie, and they oppress minorities as a form of hostage taking to exhaust and divide us. Don’t play that game. Fight for equal pay and minority rights will automatically follow.

The left will continue to lose elections until it faces up to electoral results it doesn’t like and offers a better alternative. As for the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, I think he did as well as one could expect and that wasn’t good enough. Corbyn was head and shoulders above others in character and ethos, despite the slander against him, but he didn’t command attention or convince the electorate. I’m guessing the magic that Corbyn didn’t have is the backing of his party. Voters sensed he wasn’t in command of his organization and went for the strongman elsewhere. Too bad. We did not deserve Jeremy Corbyn I guess.

Also, turnout was unremarkable. Slightly lower than the last election. So much for this being a last chance to stop Brexit, avert catastrophe, etc. Clearly despite what you and I might think lots of people simply didn’t care. That must be a good thing, because by definition non-voters are easy to please. If you don’t vote it means you’re content with either outcome.