Friday, December 13, 2019

Election 2019 : The failure of politics

I haven't really been writing politically here.

I've been writing more on Quora, where at least there's some kind of audience.

But this started as an answer today, and wandered so far away from the original question, that I realize it needs a different home.

So here it is, my take on the disastrous UK elections of December 2019.

Originally launched as an answer to the question : How damaging is the general election defeat to Jeremy Corbyn?

Corbyn himself is gone.


That’s the rules of the game. No leader survives this. I don’t suppose he thinks any differently.

The fight is about what the defeat “really means” and what it implies for Labour.

And how much of his legacy is going to be preserved vs. jettisoned.

How damaging is this defeat to, for want of a better word, “Corbynism” within Labour?

The defeat doesn’t change the underlying fact that the Labour “coalition” is fragmenting into increasingly distinct factions with fewer interests and even less “consciousness” in common. In fact, this defeat simply re-emphasizes that.

I’d hoped - and I admit that in retrospect this was wishful thinking - that Labour’s policies like the neutral stance on Brexit, and the bold promises to redistribute wealth to the poorest people and regions, might have held that coalition together sufficiently to at least force a draw with the Tories in this election.

But I was wrong.

The collapse of the “red wall” is pretty strong evidence that the Labour coalition HAS collapsed.

People rejected Labour for all kinds of reasons. And undoubtedly perception of Corbyn personally and his history were part of that. But it’s clear that a whole tranche of people in those crucial Northern seats abandoned Labour because they wanted to see Brexit “done”. They gave their votes either to the Brexit Party or Tories. Relatively fewer switched Lib Dem or Green, which is what you might have expected if it was largely an anti-Corbyn vote by people otherwise sticking to their political compass. No, this was a pro-Brexit vote.

The original Brexit referendum had allowed those people to see Boris as on the same “team” as them; which obviously made them feel warmer towards him than they had felt to someone like Theresa May. And then Labour’s perceived bait-and-switch (campaigning as committed to Brexit in 2017, to advocating a second referendum in 2019) discredited Corbyn with those Leavers. And once that had happened, other negatives they read about Corbyn in the Tory press resonated with them too.

Hold on … even as I write this, I realize that I’ve wandered off the point …

There are many narratives about why Corbyn failed. But the real issue is not which one is “right”.

The real issue is that each speaks to a different fragment of the disintegrating coalition.

The story I gave above makes sense to me. And people in my faction. But there’s a story that makes sense to those people who said from the start that Corbyn is a disaster.

There are people who didn’t like Corbyn because he was too Brexity. And people who didn’t like Corbyn because he was too Remainy. There were people who didn’t like Corbyn because he was a throwback to old Labour of the 1970s. And people who had enthusiastically voted for that old Labour in the 70s but didn’t like him because he was a middle-class London metropolitan who was “out of touch” with working people.

Whichever of those problems you had with Labour, they are really a reflection of which fragment of the disintegrating Labour coalition you are part of.

And those different factions aren’t coming back together just because Labour replaces Corbyn with a different leader. They increasingly dislike each other.

The Leave working class and the Remainer middle class in London don’t just disagree. They are antagonistic. They think the others are “the problem”. They will reject a politician who they associated with the other side.

This is the culture war which has been bubbling away within Brexit.

I supported Corbyn.


Because I thought that at least he was trying to address that problem. He was aware of the factions coming apart. And his policies and stances were explicit attempts to hold the Labour coalition together. (Whereas his critics rarely seemed to acknowledge the issue at all and were happy just to push for their particular faction’s politics.)

Nevertheless, Corbyn failed; he couldn’t manage to be all things to all these different groups. And the rules of the game are that he now has to go.

That’s fair.

But I don’t see how any other Labour politician can pull those parts back together either.

The debate is already kicking off about whether another politician from London fits the bill. Or whether it needs to be someone from the North. Because … identity, I suppose. The pro-Corbyn faction will insist that the momentum of the Corbyn swing to the left is kept up. Because what’s the point of Labour winning power if it doesn’t do anything useful with it? And the right-wing of Labour will insist that Labour pulls back to the right, because what’s the point of a “magnificent manifesto” if you never get near implementing it?

Is there a right "solution" to that problem? Can all these factions be brought back under a single umbrella?

Aditya Chakrabortty had a good column yesterday in which he points out that from the perspective of Pontypool “The Westminster lot were all “liars” and London was a leech, always hungry for more … This is what decades of distrust produces. Not magical thinking or unstinting belief in posh-boy fairytales, but a deep and sullen resentment. A nihilism that neither party nor any other democratic institution can even get their hands around, let alone find a response to.”

People are sick to death of politicians. They don’t believe their vote can do any practical good. So they might as well vote for “symbolic” things like sovereignty or “Britishness” which at least look like something that “belongs to them” and they can participate in. Whereas the jobs are never coming back and the new hospitals will never get built, despite all the promises in the manifestos, so why vote on those issues?

That’s what really did for Labour in these elections. Apathy and despair. Some of the collapsed “red wall” seats, turn-out was down at 52%.

Corbyn is not just damaged, he’s destroyed by this failure. But he failed because of a much deeper damage. The destruction of faith in politics.

This is what is deeply depressing today. Say what you like about Corbyn’s Labour project. However much you thought Corbyn came across badly. Or had dodgy connections. Or that Labour’s plans were unrealistic. This was a real political project, noting real problems, and offering real solutions to them.

Boris Johnson produces a good upbeat impression of politics. But even the people who voted for Johnson don’t actually believe it or trust him. They voted for the spectacle of of a bumptious toff offering fake solutions (an “oven-ready deal”) to a fake problem (the EU).

And as vox-pop after vox-pop shows. The people who voted for him against Corbyn don’t even believe that he’s telling them the truth or will actually do anything for them.

They voted for the spectacle itself.

Obviously, I find that bewildering. And maybe you do too.

But you should realize that if your focus is on Jeremy Corbyn, and what this election means for him. Or what it means for his faction within Labour, you’re missing the bigger picture.

This is our real problem. The destruction of the belief that a political party can do anything at all.

No comments: