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
|DUP, UU (N Ireland)||376||337||1.2||1.1||-39||-0.1||10||8||-2|
|Liberal Democrats, others||2517||3840||7.8||12.1||1,323||+4.2||12||11||-1|
|N Ireland Catholic||239||301||0.7||0.9||62||0.2||7||10||+3|
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.
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