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The 2019 general election result in Britain represented a significant but not irreversible setback for the labour movement and the left. A clear majority of working-class voters aligned themselves with the politics of identity — British, Scottish or European — rather than class.
The scale of the defeat should neither be minimised nor magnified. Even more importantly, the reasons for that defeat must be understood and the correct lessons drawn from it.
Labour’s share of the popular vote in Britain fell from 41per cent (12.9m) in 2017 to 33.1per cent (10.3m). Even so, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour still won a bigger percentage than in 1995 (31.5 per cent), 2010 (29.7 per cent) and 2015 (31.2 per cent).
The biggest drop was in the number of seats won by Labour — from 262 in 2017 to 203, the lowest since 1935. Many of the party’s 60 losses were in constituencies that had been represented by Labour MPs for 60 years or more: 24 of them had never elected a Tory in their history.
A host of factors have been put forward to explain Labour’s defeat: the calibre of party leader Jeremy Corbyn; the unceasing media campaign portraying him as an unpatriotic, anti-Semitic, communist or Marxist who has supported Irish and Middle East terrorism and would strip Britain of its security and military defences; the content and presentation of Labour’s manifesto; the intervention of the Brexit Party, and the effectiveness of the Tory Party’s appeal and campaign.
The cumulative effect of this anti-Corbyn, anti-Labour propaganda offensive exceeded the level reached in 2017, yet far too many Labour candidates stayed silent when they should have defended their party and its leaders.
The ferocity of the offensive reflected the fear raised in ruling-class circles by the left and progressive measures contained in Labour’s general-election manifesto. It threatened to make deeper inroads into capitalist wealth and power than those in the 2017 manifesto, although the difference was a quantitative rather than a qualitative one.
Far too many Labour candidates stayed silent when they should have defended their party and its leaders
While Labour’s expenditure plans induced scepticism, many of the policies — renationalisation of the railways and energy utilities, massive state investment in public services and housing, a more progressive tax system, a job-creating “Green New Deal,” substantial increases in the minimum wage and social-welfare benefits — were individually popular.
The selective intervention of the Brexit Party in order to help the Tories cost Labour no more than a handful of seats. But there should be no doubt about the appeal of Boris Johnson’s main campaigning slogan: “Get Brexit Done.”
This exposed by far the biggest weakness in Labour’s own campaign and manifesto, one which explains much of the gulf between the party’s electoral performances in 2017 and 2019.
In the first of these elections, Labour had pledged to honour the decision made by 17.4 million referendum voters in 2016 that Britain should quit the EU. This could only mean that Labour would enable Brexit, after trying to amend the appropriate legislation.
Around four million Leave voters in 2016 went on to support Labour in 2017, many of them also attracted by Labour’s bolder manifesto under the new leadership of Corbyn. They comprised around one-third of Labour’s popular vote, helping the party to win 30 extra seats and increase its share of the poll by 10 points to 41% - one of its highest levels of electoral support in 50 years.
Yet far from honouring the Brexit result, most Labour MPs then proceeded to oppose and delay every effort in the House of Commons to pass Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU. This was despite the fact that neither this nor the accompanying political declaration contained any substantial clause which contradicted Labour policy.
In truth, many Labour MPs and a group around former prime minister Tony Blair had no intention of allowing Brexit to happen. They helped organise and supported the millionaire-funded “People’s Vote” movement for a second referendum to overturn Brexit.
Together with most “Eurosceptic” Labour MPs, they also failed or refused to vigorously defend the millions of working-class and Labour supporters of Brexit against a relentless barrage of slanderous propaganda labelling them as ignorant, aged, gullible bigots and racists.
Opinion surveys confirm that the main reason why a clear majority of voters opposed EU membership in the 2016 referendum was because they wanted to reclaim Britain’s sovereignty, in practice. The desire to take back full control over all immigration — whether motivated by xenophobic feelings or not — was a secondary reason, not the primary one.
Around four million Leave voters in 2016 went on to support Labour
in 2017, attracted by Labour’s bolder manifesto under the new leadership
By 2019, support for a second referendum had become official Labour policy as first rather than a last resort, with many of its advocates insisting that the options should exclude any exit from the EU single market and a customs union.
Prominent members of the party’s shadow cabinet made clear their intention to campaign against any type of EU withdrawal agreement in such a referendum, even one negotiated by their own incoming Labour government.
Corbyn’s announcement that he would be neutral as the prime minister in any future referendum only compounded the confusion and disarray.
In the light of all these developments, many Labour-inclined Leave supporters concluded that the party had shifted decisively to a “Stop Brexit” stance.
In many close-knit communities hard hit by industrial decline since the 1970s, people saw this as another, more grievous, example of neglect and even betrayal by their own party, its leadership and a London metropolitan “elite.”
They demonstrated their disaffection in the May 2019 English local elections, when higher than usual levels of abstention cost Labour its control of councils such as Bolsover, Bolton, Burnley, Darlington, Hartlepool, Middlesborough, NE Derbyshire and Stockton-on-Tees.
Three weeks later, the Brexit Party heavily outpolled Labour in every region except London to win the EU Parliament elections, with higher than average levels of abstention contributing to a collapse of the Labour vote in traditional Labour-supporting areas.
These danger signals were ignored, particularly by anti-Brexit campaigners who highlighted LibDem and Green advances and claimed — with no substantive evidence — that public opinion was turning substantially in favour of a second referendum and against Brexit.
The almost total silence of the “Eurosceptic” left in the labour movement — with a few honourable exceptions — also played a significant part in allowing the shift towards a “Stop Brexit” position to take place. Many anti-EU socialists ceased all public criticism of the EU after Corbyn’s election as party leader in 2015.
Any hope that this would conciliate intransigent pro-EU elements in the Parliamentary Labour Party and create unity around the party’s left leadership proved futile. Furthermore, it meant that idealist illusions about the EU could grow without serious challenge among many young and new party members.
Throughout this period, the Communist Party maintained its policy of opposing EU membership on left-wing, internationalist and anti-imperialist grounds. We sought to explain that the EU is not a model of international cooperation in order to promote economic and social progress, democracy and peace.
Powerful elements in the Labour Party attached more importance to stopping Brexit than to winning a general election
Rather, it is an alliance of Europe’s major capitalist states. Its treaty-based laws, institutions and processes protect and promote the interests of Europe’s major monopoly corporations through policies of austerity, marketisation, privatisation, labour flexibility and the free movement of capital and commodities.
The 2007 Lisbon Treaty explicitly aligned the EU’s foreign and security policy with Nato, rearmament and the establishment of new EU military structures.
Moreover, the Communist Party warned repeatedly that powerful elements in the Labour Party attached more importance to stopping Brexit than to winning a general election. This was alienating many supporters in Labour’s industrial and post-industrial heartlands, reinforcing their conviction that voting — for Labour or anybody else — changes nothing.
At the same time, the CP continued to put the case strongly for voting Labour everywhere in the forthcoming general election on the basis that its domestic programme, in particular, would serve the interests of the working class and peoples of Britain.
The Communists take no satisfaction from being proved right on December 12, when up to two million people who had voted Leave in 2016 and Labour in 2017 deserted the party in 2019. A very big YouGov survey indicates that many of them abstained, while some voted Tory or for the Brexit Party.
Of the 54 seats lost by Labour to the Tories, 52 had voted Leave in 2016. In Britain as a whole, the Tory vote exceeded Labour’s in every social category.
In Scotland, Labour lost six of its seven seats to the SNP, who now demand a second referendum on independence. While the nationalists won 48 of the 59 Scottish seats, its appeal to non-nationalist and anti-Brexit electors still left the SNP short of a majority mandate for a repeat referendum, with 45 per cent of the poll.
The Communist Party reiterates its support for progressive federalism and labour movement unity, for a Scottish Parliament with sufficient powers and resources to challenge capitalist market forces.
In Northern Ireland, Irish republican and nationalist MPs now outnumber pro-UK unionists for the first time since the province was carved out of Ulster by the British in 1921. The Communist Party of Britain maintains the position it has held since then, for the peaceful reunification of Ireland and its working class north and south.
Boris Johnson now has enough Tory MPs to take Britain out of the EU no later than January 31 next.
The CP will expose and attack major weaknesses in the new Withdrawal Agreement Bill, notably the £30bn divorce settlement and any alignment with the EU Single Market rules which inhibit state aid to industry, comprehensive public ownership, state borrowing for investment, controls over capital, public procurement reform, labour market regulation and the restructuring of VAT.
Prime Minister Johnson will now face intense ruling-class pressure to keep Britain closely aligned with the pro-market, pro-big business rules of the EU Single Market during and after next year’s transition period.
Labour MPs should seek to challenge this where possible, but attempts to delay or defeat the Brexit Bill could prove as counter-productive as they will be futile.
The sooner the question of Britain’s formal exit from the EU is settled, the better it will be for all who want to pay more attention to other serious issues facing our society.
MONDAY: Part two considers how the labour movement should respond to the new political situation.
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