Sun Tsu wrote “In the absence of strategy, an argument about tactics is the noise before defeat.” He might have gone on to note that after a defeat, there is a tendency for people to hunker down back into default tactics and console themselves with self soothing myths. These set a course for future defeats. Here are some of the most potent and popular.
Myth 1. Boris Johnson won an overwhelming mandate for a hard Brexit.
No he didn’t. Winning a majority of seats in parliament is not the same as having majority support in society. A majority of seats in parliament means a government can ram through whatever legislation it likes, but, without majority support in the country that cannot be done with impunity – or sparking resistance. Given this government and who its leading figures are, there aren’t enough fridges in the country for them to hide in when the going gets tough – as it is bound to do. Here are the figures.
- The total votes in the UK cast for the Conservatives and Brexit Parties in favour of a hard Brexit was 47%.
- The total votes cast for parties opposed to hard Brexit was 52%. Essentially, this is the 2016 referendum in reverse, but, as with the last US Presidential election, the side with the lower popular vote winning.
However you look at this, the blue slice isn’t even a majority, let alone an overwhelming one.
This matters because the end of 2020 is crunch time to decide if the UK stays in regulatory alignment with the EU or not. Johnson is already signalling that it won’t. The EU will not agree to this. So we are looking again at no deal and the rapid implementation of deal with Trump that has been being negotiated quietly behind our backs – and remains mostly redacted – for the last couple of years while the charade in Brussels has played itself out and occupied everyone’s attention. Resisting this from day 1 and getting the truth out as it unfolds is an imperative. Whatever the theoretical merits of a “Left Exit” from the EU in the eyes of those who support it – the Brexit we’re going to get has nothing in common with that and should be resisted by the whole Labour movement.
Myth 2. “The British Lion Roars for Boris and Brexit” Daily Express Headline 13 December 2019.
Not in Scotland, Ireland or Wales it didn’t. For the Express and a lot of its readers, “Britain” is basically Greater Little England. Given the figures, perhaps it was the idea of “Britain” that was roaring. But if that was the case, that idea is revealed to be only alive and well in small town England.
- In Scotland the combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 26.6%, while the combined vote of the SNP Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 74.4%. Pretty overwhelming. The Scottish Lion was roaring “no”.
- In Wales they did better, but were still a minority. The combined Conservative, Brexit Party, UKIP vote in favour of a hard Brexit was 41.4%, while the combined vote of Labour, Liberal Democrats, Plaid and Greens – opposed to hard Brexit – was 58.8%.
- In the North of Ireland the combined DUP, Northern Ireland Conservative and UKIP vote favouring hard Brexit was 30.8% while the combined vote of Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance, UUP, Aontu, People Before Profit and the Greens was 68.5%. This overstates the support for Johnson’s deal, because the DUP, although in favour of a hard Brexit in principle, are opposed to this one and any other that would lead to a border between North and South or in the Irish sea – i.e. any deal that might actually exist in the real world.
I was going to make a joke about Johnson being “a one nation Conservative” in that he only represents one of the nations in the UK; but he doesn’t even do that. Even in England, hard Brexit did not win a majority. A damned close run thing, but the combined vote for the Conservatives, Brexit Party and UKIP was 49.3% while the combined votes for Labour, Liberal Democrats and Greens was 49.4%.
So, Johnson’s huge majority in Parliament represents a minority in every country in the UK.
This matters because the attempt to implement his Trump Brexit will exacerbate the national tensions within the country and accelerate centrifugal tendencies.
- At the moment there is no majority for independence in Scotland – because separation from the rest of the UK would be even more of a wrench than separation of the UK from the EU – but support for IndyRef2 is likely to be one form of resistance as Johnson tries to drive his deal through: in the same way that support for devolution reached tipping point when the Conservatives used the Scots as the guinea pigs for the Poll Tax in the 1980’s. Depending on how much this grows and how stiff necked and effortlessly offensive Johnson is – and he is, after all, a man who can’t resist making provocative “jokes” to see how much he can get away with – we could be seeing a dynamic like the one in Catalonia and “the British Lion” might find itself biting its own tail off.
- Similarly in the North of Ireland. The current deal would see a tax border of sorts in the Irish Sea – with an inevitable depressing effect on the Northern Irish economy and letting it remain in orbit around Brussels even as the rest of the UK disengages. The geo-political logic of this is obvious. Going out with no deal would reopen the issue of the border in Ireland and there would be stronger support for a border poll to unite the country. In this election, for the first time ever, there are more nationalist MPs (Sinn Fein and SDLP) than Unionist. Johnson might find himself having to take the St Patrick’s cross out of the Union Flag quicker than he thinks.
The break up of the country is a worst case scenario from the point of view of anyone who wants to keep it together, but it follows the logic of taking back control at smaller and smaller levels. Whatever happens, it means trouble, not a return to calm or “normality”.
Myth 3. Johnson’s majority means that he can “face down the ERG”.
This piece of wishful thinking appeared in a number of places in the immediate aftermath of the election, not least the Guardian. The fraction of the ruling class opposed to Brexit but more worried that the only viable vehicle to stop it was a left Labour government, and poured more money into the Liberal Democrats than they knew what to do with, churned out some articles, possibly to keep their own hope alive and console themselves for the damage that’s coming. The measures in the Queen’s speech should have put paid to these delusions. Here they are in case anyone was in any doubt about where Johnson is heading.
- The pledge to keep workers entitlements and rights up to at least EU standards has been discarded.
- All out strikes in public transport and other services are to be banned.
- The pledge to raise the minimum wage was dropped.
- Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
- Britain is to be given the power to strike down EU protection on holiday entitlements.
- British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on sick leave.
- British judges are to be given the power to strike down EU protection on working hours.
- Ways are to be sought to limit the right of the courts to limit government actions.
- Even Lord Dubs amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill to continue to give refugee children sanctuary post-Brexit has been dumped.
Clear enough I think. This matters because Brexit is not “done”. The UK will leave the political structures of the EU at the end of January but still be inside the economic arrangements until the end of the transition period. The damage that will be done by a no deal exit is real; so this argument will continue. The extent to which it spills out from behind closed doors will indicate the extent to which any fraction of the ruling class is prepared to make a stand on the question of regulatory alignment. I wouldn’t hold my breath, but these articles are a sign that they haven’t entirely given up the ghost.
Myth 4: This was an unprecedented defeat for Labour and this is all Corbyn’s fault.
If we look at the results for the six General elections we’ve had this century, the graph looks like this.
Its quite clear from this that Corbyn led Labour to its best (2017) and third best (2019) result this century. More than Blair in 2005, Brown in 2010 and Miliband in 2015. In 2005 far fewer Labour votes led to a majority government.
This matters because Labour’s stance in the next five years will determine whether it has any chance of toppling Johnson in 2025 – or possibly before then if things get bad enough – which they might. Corbyn’s politics – against austerity and for significant state investment to regenerate the economy, create an inclusive and more equal society, make the green transition we need and distance ourselves from wars of intervention – are all needed if we are to resist and organise against the impact of Johnson’s Brexit.
Myth 5: the defeat is entirely down to what Labour did or did not do.
This is not usually stated as such, but seems to be a premise for a lot of the soul searching that has gone on since Friday the 13th, which has tended to look inwards at the Party, its leadership, policies and campaign. This is missing the bigger part of the picture; which is not just about how Labour lost but how the Conservatives won. Its a bit like if Napoleon’s Marshals sat down for a post mortem on Waterloo and paid no attention to anything the Duke of Wellington or Marshal Blucher had done.
it is a truth universally acknowledged that Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign was a bit of a car crash. But this judgement needs nuance. May increased the Tory vote over Cameron’s 2015 score more than Johnson did over hers this year. See graph.
However, what May’s campaign failed to do was neutralise the threat from Labour – which put on a spectacular increase in support during the election campaign which destroyed her majority. In 2017 the Conservatives were over confident. They believed that their initial 20 point lead was unassailable. They thought that they could get away with saying some of the unpopular things they would actually do before they did them – like the punitive social care policy which blew up in their faces. They hadn’t quite reached their current state of shamelessness and had the decency to look awkward when they ducked debates. They also thought that Corbyn’s “old fashioned socialist” ideas were sufficiently discredited that all they had to do was give him enough rope. which just shows how wrong you can be,
This time, knowing that their own vote was not going to go up much beyond the hard leave tribe, they played a cannier game to hold back a Labour surge.
- They adjusted spending policy just enough to be able to talk about what looks like significant sums of money going into areas that they have been running down to destruction for the last ten years – while claiming that the previous policy had nothing to do with them guv – even though they were in Parliament (and sometimes the cabinet) voting for it. That these sums of money would still leave these services underfunded (and in the case of the NHS are a pre-emptive move to cover the costs of the increased drug bills it will be paying as a result of their pending and half negotiated deal with the US) passed most people by. This had a significant impact on people who previously might have come out to vote Labour to get any increase in funding for the health service. or their children’s school. In 2017, the NUT (now the NEU) waged a huge school gate campaign – without endorsing any party – on the impact of school spending cuts, which is credited with shifting 700 000 votes in Labour’s direction. In 2019 a similar campaign was waged by the NEU – with even more people taking part – but had nothing like the same impact. The Tories did just enough to innoculate themselves against this issue.
- They were vague and bland about what their plans are. Beyond the mantra of “get Brexit done”, there was little concrete in their manifesto and they sold themselves on a false prospectus.
- They fully embraced “post truth”politics. Having had Labour run rings round them online in 2017, they bought up space on websites so that whenever anyone searched for a Labour related item they were directed first to Conservative supporting sites attacking them. They were controlling the gateways to any narrative anyone wanted to find online as well as in most of the established mass media. Its amazing what money can do. They have picked up lying rebuttal techniques from sites with fake ids characteristic of the US Republican Party. So, the story about the little boy waiting on the floor in hospital – which was completely substantiated and documented by the Yorkshire Post and Daily Mirror, was rubbished online by anonymous sites claiming to be or know a nurse in the hospital who said it wasn’t true and then put around as fact by Tory supporters, or dupes. Moreover, 88% of Conservative online advertising was found to be at least “misleading”. The comparable figure for Labour was 0%.
- They ran a tag team operation with other Parties. Most obvious was the role of “the Brexit Party” which withdrew from Tory marginals after being effectively instructed to by Donald Trump on a phone in to Nigel Farages’s LBC show. Farage blustered about second order issues as a bit of face saving but followed his master’s voice and did the deed.
- The role of the Liberal Democrats bears deeper examination and they were essential to the Conservative win. They were dragged kicking and screaming into the alliance to stop no deal because it was being led by Corbyn. They blocked a transitional Corbyn government to block no deal, renegotiate with the EU to stay in the customs union and single market then put that back to the people, because keeping Corbyn out of No 10 was more important to them than stopping Brexit. At a ppoint that Johnson’s deal was about to be subject to scrutiny that would tear it apart, they and the SNP went behind Labour’s back to give Johnson the election he wanted, on the issue he wanted at the time he wanted it. One interpretation is that, lush with cash and the hubris of their rapid revival during the EU election campaign, they actually believed that they could win up to 100 seats and be in a position to hold the balance on a hung parliament or even provide a coalition Prime Minister. Another is that they were playing the role the ruling class – even their fraction of it – needed them to play; which was to split the vote against no deal Brexit and damage Labour in remain leaning marginals. This was built up throughout the campaign by “tactical voting” sites that initially advised voting Lib Dem in seats in which they’d been a distant third in 2017. Candidates who stood down to try to stave off a Tory win in Labour Tory marginals were slapped down and replaced by Jo Swinson. On polling day in London, the Evening Standard was covered in a wrap round advert calling for “Remainers” to vote Lib Dem – even though by this stage they were a busted flush almost everywhere and the effect of a Lib Dem vote would let in a hard Brexit supporting Tory. This was also behind the split in the People’s Vote campaign between those who saw it as a vehicle to stop Brexit and those – like Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell – who saw it as a vehicle to damage Corbyn. The logic of this was spelled out during the campaign by Lib Dem Deputy Leader Ed Davey, who said that in a choice between Corbyn and a hard Brexit, it would be a hard Brexit every time.
Myth 6. The leave vote is the voice of the working class.
Only if you believe
- that there are no working class people in Glasgow, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, London or any other big city.
The leave vote is a vote from small town England. Ashcroft’s poll after the referendum concluded that a typical leave voter was an ageing middle class white man who lived in the South of England and voted Tory.
Myth 7: Labour lost because it pledged to allow a second referendum on any deal negotiated with the EU.
There are a number of problems with this argument.
- It only looks at the seats Labour lost; which were all in regions in which there was an overall shift in votes to leave, not at the whole picture – including the marginal seats that Labour would have to gain to win an election in every other region – in which the overall shift to remain parties was substantially greater than the shift to Brexit supporting parties.
- It discounts any shift in voting intentions between 2017 and 2019 to make the false assertion that the primary potential damage to Labour was by leaking leave votes to the Conservatives. This is to turn Maths on its head. The Labour vote in the referendum was 37 leave to 63 remain. The damage done by losing remain votes was always going to be greater. And so it came to pass at the time of the EU election. Up to that point Labour had been level pegging with the Conservatives in voting intention polls. At the election there was a colossal hemorrhage of votes to the Lib Dems and- to a lesser extent – the Greens. Labour polled 14% and went down in national voting intention to the low 20s and didn’t recover.
This matters because a shift towards “winning back traditional voters” has led to the nostrums of “Blue Labour” rising like a zombie waving a “controls on immigration” mug. Maurice Glassman’s slogan of “family, faith and flag” has some horrifying echoes that we could do without and would destroy Labour as any kind of progressive force.