I’m writing this months after the December 2019 General Election. In part, this is due to me being preoccupied with other matters. For instance, on the day of the General Election I was in hospital having surgery on my jaw. But it was also useful to get a bit of distance between then and now in terms of being able to process the events of the General Election.
It was a resounding and stonking victory for Boris Johnson. The night of the 13th of December. I was sat at home dosing up on paracetamol and ibuprofen and trying to find something to distract me from post-operative pain. I felt like I was watching Blair’s 1997 landslide in reverse.
My initial feeling as regards the result was that it felt deeply unfair. It felt like the Tories were being rewarded for severely mismanaging the British economy through the 2010-19 austerity era. As I’ve written on this website before, the economic recovery from the 2008 financial crisis was the slowest since the South Sea bubble more than a century previously. Why in the world would the British public reward the Tories for mismanaging the economy so drastically?
But perhaps that was the wrong feeling. Perhaps it was not the Tories being rewarded. Perhaps rather it was Labour and the left being punished for being out of touch.
The left in Britain has never really accepted the Brexit referendum result, or even really bothered to tangle up with the reasons why many people from Labour constituencies voted to leave. Instead, Labour and the left chose to make Brexit something to fight off, something to defend themselves against. Even Jeremy Corbyn who spent many years alongside Tony Benn in parliament voting against EU treaties was dragged along by his own party and shadow cabinet. Get Brexit Done, which was Johnson’s tentpole slogan, resonated with many people who were sick and tired of seeing lefties and centrists in parliament trying to prevent, delay, and dilute Brexit through a second referendum or even outright revocation. If it had been up to me, as leader of the Labour party (a position I will never fill) I would have taken a position blaming the indecision and dithering on Brexit on the Tories. Get Brexit Done, in other words, should have been Labour’s position all along, as it was in 2017 when Labour did much better. Would this have pushed people toward the Liberal Democrats? Well, to a certain extent. It would also have grabbed voters from the Tories and Brexit Party, which is where Labour haemorrhaged the most, particularly in the north of England.
Johnson, of course, very clearly understood how to win in the centre ground. That’s why he spent most of the campaign pandering on the NHS, to win over Labour voters who did not like Labour’s Brexit policy, or Jeremy Corbyn’s former associations with the IRA and Hamas.
Moreover, I think Labour’s failure on Brexit was underpinned by a fundamental cultural dissonance with the British public at large. Electing a leader who was perceived by the media and general public as being close to groups like the IRA and Hamas was a massive strategic blunder. Making campaign videos where Jeremy Corbyn tells us his pronouns are he/him was a massive strategic blunder. Everyone knows Jeremy Corbyn is a man, and it does absolutely nothing for LGBT equality to tell us that. He would have done much better had he been making campaign videos apologizing to the Jewish community for Labour’s general drift toward anti-Zionism and incidences of anti-Semitism.
Being in government, at the end of the day, is about governing. It is not about signalling about progressive or egalitarian values or internationalism. It is about making sure that the country is safe and secure, and economically prosperous. And it is most of all about listening to the voices of ordinary people. 52 percent of voters voted for Brexit. What percentage of voters support friendship with Hamas and Hezbollah? What percentage of voters are willing to vote for gender pronouns? Much less than 52 percent, I’d wager. Maybe I’m being overly harsh on Corbyn and Labour, but so were the general public.
There was fertile ground for Labour attacking the Tories on poverty, homelessness, austerity, and the Tories’ economic blunders, a battleground that the Tories have since 2010 won relentlessly by blaming the financial crisis on Labour, something Labour have never bothered to really fight back on very much even during the Corbyn years. But they couldn’t do much on these fronts while ignoring the will of the majority on Brexit. The British people chose to be an independent country, and not a European province. The view that that may lead to a loss in economic output may well be correct. But not everything in life is solely about economic output. A lot of decisions are about values. And the Tories, for all of their reputation as Old Etonian toffs managed to match up with a larger chunk of the British public on values, while Labour continue to flail around helplessly, winning woke millennials by a massive margin, but losing with older voters in the shires and their former heartlands.
Of course, a resounding election win does not solve the myriad problems Johnson will face in office. He will still have his work cut out to get trade deals for newly independent Britain. He still will have his work cut out to keep the British union together, as the public in Scotland and Northern Ireland become hungrier and hungrier for independence. And he still will find himself and his party encumbered by dodgy economic ideology, the same austerian ideology that led Cameron and Osborne to a stagnant economy with very weak productivity and a very slow and weak economic recovery. It’s all very well and good to talk optimistically about British infrastructure projects and the NHS, but drawing up plans for 5 percent budget cuts hardly bodes well for a fiscal renaissance, does it? Indeed, after 12 years of global economic expansion, and with the emergence of COVID-19 we may well be on the precipice of a very large and marked economic downturn, just when we are most vulnerable to it.
Remember that rates have not risen much since the financial crisis, so there is not a huge amount that monetary policy can do to relieve the economy in the case of a downturn. Throwing more quantitative easing at the problem is kind of effective, but fiscal policy is the elephant in the room in the coming downturn and austerian ideology is a major impediment to stimulative fiscal policy.
I doubt Johnson will thrive under these encumbrances. But I also doubted that he would win a majority against Corbyn, and he and Cummings exceeded everyone’s expectations. I am a big admirer of Dominic Cummings as an electoral strategist. He has proven himself far better attuned to public opinion than any of the Tories or their advisers were in 2017 during the May campaign.
But whether that will help Johnson in government remains to be seen. The Brexiteer vision of Britain booming as Singapore-on-Thames may well be an utter pipe dream, or at least may well be delayed by a period of severe disruption. Still, this is a democracy, and the will of the majority has triumphed. We will live with the consequences.