Anti-globalization, Brexit and the Labour Party Meltdown

Labour shellacking and SNP domination

The UK general election results are in. And, for me, the most striking feature of the outcome is the absolute thrashing the Labour Party received. With only 201 seats of 650 constituencies in parliament, a net loss of 57 MPs, it was even worse than the 209 tally from 1983 under Michael Foot. In fact, it was Labour’s worst result since 1935. In many respects, it was a worst case scenario for Labour.

There were a number of factors that came together to crush Labour. They include the lack of a Brexit Party vote to split the pro-Brexit camp, the split in the pro-remain camp between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the unelectability of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the unpopularity of Labour’s election manifesto. But the big tell was the lower turnout, with most of those sitting at home being Labour supporters.

The upshot is that – despite receiving only marginally more votes in 2019 than in 2017 – Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party now have an absolute majority in parliament. And that means he has a relatively free hand both to execute Brexit as well as to shape and dominate UK policies for the next five years. The Tories will not be beholden to the DUP for anything now.

This was the third general election in 4 years in the UK because it is a nation in turmoil due to Scottish independence and Brexit. And turnout was a key factor. Even though the Conservatives increased their vote percentage for the third election on the trot, they did not get a ton more voters; instead many Labour voters stayed home or switched allegiance, leading to the meltdown in Labour support. And the likelihood of another snap general election in the coming years is incredibly small given the large majority the Conservatives now have.

For the Conservatives, that means the question now is about defining priorities in terms of extracting the UK from the European Union, but also in terms of negotiating free trade agreements and setting a domestic policy agenda. Due to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, I don’t see them being dislodged. Thus, they have five years in which to completely alter the landscape in Britain for generations to come. And there is nothing the opposition can do about it.

For the Scottish National Party, the election was an unalloyed success. Look at SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction to Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson’s demise. They dominate the north now. And that likely means a second Scottish independence referendum down the line and a breakup of the UK. Sturgeon is already calling for it. Today’s vote tells you that, if she gets the referendum, she will win it.

A fuller analysis follows below.

The numbers

Here are the latest numbers on the election:

  1. Conservative Party: 13,941,086 (43.6%, up 1.2%) versus 13,636,684 (42.4%, up 5.5%) in 2017
  2. Labour Party: 10,292,354 (32.2%, down 7.8%) versus 12,878,460 (40.0%, up 9.6%) in 2017
  3. Liberal Democrats: 3,675,342 (11.5%, up 4.1%) versus 2,371,910 (7.4%, down 0.5%)
  4. Scottish National Party: 1,242,380 (3.9%, up 0.9%) versus 977,569 (3.0%, down 1.7%) in 2017

The first thing to notice is that the Conservative Party has gone from 36.1% in 2010 and 36.9% of the votes under Cameron in 2015 to 42.6% in 2017 under May and 43.6% under Johnson. That’s an increase three times in a row. And they have received more total votes for the third election in a row (10,703,754 in 2010, up to 11,334,226 in 2015, up to 13,636,684 in 2017 and up to 13,941,086 in 2019). So, they are clearly doing something right.

But absolute turnout was down just under 1.6% to 67.3% from 2017’s 68.8%. And that says, despite the historic nature of what was on offer, a lot of people stayed home in protest. To me, that points to someone doing something wrong. And that someone is Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn’s Unelectability

Take a look at these personal polling numbers:

Corbyn is off-the-charts unpopular. Now, I have seen many Corbynites point to the British media as responsible for that unpopularity. But that’s just sour grapes. A media campaign is not going to be enough to drive this level of unpopularity.

My view:

Here’s the Guardian:

There was an incredible amount on offer in Labour’s 2019 manifesto It’s Time for Real Change. From free care for the elderly, free university tuition fees, reducing the voting age to 16 and payouts for Waspi women, the party attempted to speak to every sector of society. Some candidates reported that they had so much to rattle through on the doorstep that when new policy ideas dropped halfway through the campaign – such as slashed rail fares – they shied away from discussing them so as not to overload people with commitments. A Labour source said: “It wasn’t that people didn’t like the policies, people thought there was too many of them. The free broadband was really unpopular. We hadn’t spent two years making the case for it and we just dumped it on them … so people thought ‘this is a weird luxury, why on earth are we being offered this?”

The Guardian is putting it politely. All of these freebies, the pledge to nationalize utilities, telecoms and the railway system, and Labour’s promise to ban private schooling was way too much change. It’s easy to disparage this manifesto as ‘too far left’. The way it was sold smacked of statism, of Soviet-style socialism. And for many it was frightening.

These policy views may have sold Labour activists on Corbyn. But Corbyn deputy John McDonnell was completely mistaken for being confident this would appeal to Leave voters. It didn’t. And this policy platform was much more aggressive than in the 2017 election. I see it as a major reason Labour lost. Voters were spooked. Many saw Corbyn as basically unelectable. And so they either stayed home, held their nose and voted Conservative if they were a Leave voter or voted Lib Dem if they were remain.

That’s my take here. It wasn’t all about Brexit. The data from these tweets tell you that.

Exit polls show Labour votes falling under every single demographic group in the UK. That tells you.

Other Casualties

Here are a few tweets showing where damage was done:

Remain (split between Labour and Lib Dem)

The Liberal Democrats

Party Defectors

Other Losers

Labour’s next steps

In terms of post-mortems then, I see the problems with Corbyn as fully front and centre.

But, from what I have seen and heard, Corbyn has no intention of resigning straight away. His goal is to delay until he can make sure someone who is similarly-minded can take the reigns of the Labour Party to ensure that Blairites don’t use this opportunity to take power. That’s going to create problems. As to the way forward, I think Gary Younge’s take in the Guardian is interesting:

This changes everything. The fourth national vote in four years has broken the parliamentary logjam with devastating effect. It was a rout. Labour’s vote in its traditional strongholds finally collapsed. The demographic, geographic and social ties that bound its coalition together have unravelled. We have yet to see if they can be put back together again. Britain has elected the most rightwing government for decades, handing the least principled leader in living memory such a massive majority that it could take a decade to get rid of him. Last night was bad. The worst is yet to come.


Labour knew Brexit would dominate and aimed to shift the conversation to public services and the environment. It failed there too. The problem was not the manifesto. Labour’s plans for nationalisation, public spending and wealth redistribution were popular, achievable, and would not have left Britain in a radically different place from many other European nations. But if you’re going to promise something that ambitious, you have to first of all prepare people politically for it and then reassure them you can actually do it. Labour did neither effectively, instead promising more things each day, displaying a lack of message discipline that felt like a metaphor for potential lack of fiscal discipline.

Corbyn was deeply unpopular. On the doorstep most couldn’t really say why they didn’t like him. They just didn’t. Some either thought he was too leftwing, antisemitic or the friend of terrorists. Obviously the media, which did not come out of this election well at all, have a lot to do with that. How could you like someone when you never hear anything good about them? The rightwing-dominated press too often framed the narratives for television and radio, which fed them back on a loop that could be broken only by events.

But they did not invent it all. Corbyn was a poor performer. Time and again he had chances to nail Boris Johnson for his lies and duplicity, but he refused to do so. He’d say it’s not his style. But his style wasn’t working. His refusal to apologise to the Jewish community for antisemitism when interviewed by Andrew Neil was baffling, not least because he had apologised several times before – and did so again afterwards with Phillip Schofield. And the media are not going anywhere soon. They attacked Gordon Brown, Edward Miliband and Neil Kinnock too – though never as ferociously – and whoever runs the party next will have to deal with them.

Message for Democrats in the US

Younge is on the left. So he likes Corbyn’s policy views. He doesn’t see the basic message as flawed, but the messenger and the preparation Labour made in preparing voters for that message.

I’m going to disagree here. Sure, these freebies could be popular if they are enacted one at a time with adequate time to see what the impact is on society. But I think the message was flawed. It’s too much change. You can never message that level of change without creating fear.

For me, it’s a warning to Democrats in the US about issues like Medicare for All, wealth taxes, and decriminalization of the border. Those are hot button issues that when taken on individually can be effective. As part of a sweeping policy prescription, they can and will be frightening. People don’t like change. And lots of changes, even ostensibly good changes, are overwhelming.

Look at Medicare for All as an example. It’s being sold as something that will 1. be enacted based on a (massive) increase in taxes for the wealthy and corporations 2. be a forced option giving people no choice to keep their existing health insurance plan. That’s a mistake. As Democrats like to say “no one in America likes their healthcare plan”. But tell someone you’re going to take that plan away and give them something they are unfamiliar with, and then, suddenly, they are gripped with fear.

Telling people you are going to take something away from them – something of vital importance like a healthcare plan – is not how you message change – even if you’re convinced it’s change for the better. What Corbyn’s election disaster tells us is that, if you want to effect massive change, don’t tell voters in excruciating detail. It will grip them with fear.

Alienation and Division

Take a look at these two charts from an election night Twitter thread by Sky News’ Will Jennings.
Demographics in UK Election 2019.png Regional demographics in UK Election 2019.png I see these charts showing the same message as this one by John Burn-Murdoch from the FT…. Demographics 2 in UK Election 2019.png …and this one from Ian Warren. Regional demographics 2 in UK Election 2019.png There is an increasing divide between cities on the one hand and towns and countryside on the other, and between higher-skilled laborers and the working class. Labour is losing votes among the working class and in towns and in the countryside. Their message is just not resonating there. Labour’s Red Wall has been destroyed:

Rather than explore why this is so, I would like to suggest that this division and alienation mirrors what we’re seeing in the US as well. And my experience in Germany and understanding about the Netherlands tells me the same division of electoral priorities is happening in those two nations.

The upshot for me, then, is that we are likely to see a continued pullback from multilateral, global institutions and frameworks – led by blue-collar workers and voters in less densely-populated areas. Globalization has crushed the economic prospects for these individuals, has upended their social structures, and has led to an epidemic opioid crisis. Until these issues are resolved, expect these voter groups to support anti-global policies and parties.

I’m going to leave it there for now.

The bottom line is that the British election is another sign that the backlash against globalization and everything connected to it will continue – and not just in the UK, but everywhere in the Western world.

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