After four decades of neoliberalism, Britain’s political geography has changed for good. The enduring result of last night’s general election is that there is no longer such thing as a “traditional Labour seat.” The old pattern in which working class voters unthinkingly voted for a Labour Party that was their only realistic choice was reduced to a Welsh rump last night. Instead of the old idea of a north-south divide in which the Tories held onto most of the south (outside London) while Labour held the north, leaving the Midlands as the key battleground, a more nuanced geography has emerged. Amplifying this change, of course, is the Brexit crisis which has dogged the UK since 2016.
Scotland is lost. The union is over. The SNP were the clear winners of yesterday’s election; and one way or another they will engineer a second independence referendum which they will win. The only question left to be resolved is whether an English-based Tory Party is prepared to allow Scotland to leave the union or whether something akin to Catalonia ensues. Certainly, New Labour’s fallacy of believing that its “traditional Scottish heartlands” had nowhere else to go was repaid last night when Labour became the fourth party in Scotland; holding onto just one seat.
More worryingly, Labour’s so-called “red wall” across the north of England turned out to be a rather rickety old fence that the Tories could easily crash through with the duplicity of their Faragist allies. Seats where Labour used to weigh the votes rather than bother counting them – including Blair’s old Sedgefield constituency – fell to the Tories last night; largely due to big vote swings from Labour to the Brexit Party. Labour MPs from both wings of the party were unceremoniously unseated across the pro-leave constituencies of the north and the midlands.
Northern Ireland, too, is on a different trajectory. Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal deal establishes a border down the Irish Sea – something the DUP were punished for last night – leaving Northern Ireland economically wedded to the EU single market and excluded from whatever post-Brexit trading arrangements emerge in England and Wales. Most likely, Northern Ireland will have to become a semi-independent devolved country politically part of the UK but economically unified with the Republic.
Even in Wales, where traditional voting prevailed across the ex-industrial valleys regions, Labour’s share of the vote was down significantly. For example, in pro-leave Blaenau Gwent – once the safest Labour seat in the UK – Labour saw a nine percent fall in its share of the vote against a four percent increase for the Tories and a 20 percent increase for the Faragists.
The vote share and turnout figures are the key to understanding what went wrong yesterday. In the ex-industrial regions of England and Wales that used to form the backbone of Labour governments, turnout was down significantly compared to the 67 percent UK average. In some former Labour seats, turnout was less than 50 percent. Put simply, Tory voters in these constituencies turned out, while former and anticipated Labour voters either stayed at home or switched to the Brexit Party. On the other side of the equation, the Labour vote and turnout in seats in the London-Oxford-Cambridge triangle and the archipelago of top-tier university towns held up as the pro-remain middle classes and younger voters began to flex their political muscle.
It is a quirk of the First-Past-The-Post electoral system that much of the energy behind the Labour campaign and the effort of the party’s massive membership was wasted on winning additional votes in metropolitan constituencies where Labour had already won. Meanwhile, local parties in pro-leave seats in the Midlands and the North struggled to find enough activists to knock on doors and turn out the vote.
This wasn’t helped by a Tory campaign strategy straight out of the Donald Trump playbook. The Tories understood that their best chance of winning was in turning the election into a quasi-second referendum on Brexit. This was aided, of course by Labour’s Brexit dilemma which I explained in January last year:
“Put simply, in order to form a government in the UK parliament, Labour must win back its traditional working class support in those constituencies that delivered the biggest margins in favour of leaving the EU. However, the activists that Labour needs to get out on the doorsteps to win these constituencies tend to be fervently pro-EU. To come out in support of either position is to lose the supporters of the other, and thus to cede power to the Tories; who will inevitably deliver the worst Brexit settlement of all. Labour’s only hope is to fudge their Brexit policy until the next election is won.”
Labour’s only chance of forming a government depended upon turning the election instead into a referendum on a decade of Tory domestic policy. To do this, however, demanded that Labour campaigners focus on two or three key issues and refuse to be distracted. As with the 2016 (and 2020) Trump campaign, the Tories worked to derail the Labour campaign by antagonising Labour activists. The result was that too much energy was expended debunking Tory lies and criticising Johnson’s character and behaviour in a manner that drowned out Labour policy proposals. When the dust settles, I will not be surprised to find a highly targeted Tory social media campaign focused on “getting Brexit done” will have been conducted in around 50 leave-voting Labour seats; while people in seats outside the target areas will have been served adverts and posts designed to distract, antagonise and waste energy.
In any case, Labour failed in its key objective to make the election about domestic policy. Conversely, the Tories succeeded in making it about Brexit; and in the process gave us a taste of just how bitter, underhand and divisive the Leave campaign in a second Brexit election would have been. Indeed, the collapse of the LibDem vote and the Labour failure in pro-leave seats suggests that the entire “buyers’ remorse” narrative about Brexit was false. In fact, the polls have remained more or less where they were on the eve of the June 2016 referendum; so that the best that the second referendum lobby could realistically have hoped for was a narrow victory.
That possibility was squandered by the clinically insane antics of the now deposed leader of the LibDems anyway. Following Johnson’s election to the Tory leadership and in the wake of the expulsion of grandees like Kenneth Clarke and Oliver Letwin, there was the possibility of a Labour-led national government whose sole aim was renegotiating Brexit and then putting it to a confirmatory in v out referendum. As Lewis Goodall at Sky News explained at the time:
“Jeremy Corbyn has quietly committed the Labour Party to everything Remainers wanted and were calling for only a few months ago: a government which would extend Article 50, then go to the country pledging a referendum on Britain’s exit deal, with Remain on the ballot paper.
“Mr Corbyn had no end of political slurry deposited on his head for refusing to make such a commitment hitherto. You might think that those same people who were pouring it would be jubilant. Yet their response was curiously muted.”
Unfortunately, at this point Swinson had become drunk on the result of May’s European election and had convinced herself that the LibDems were poised to win the next election on a pro-Remain ticket. Far from embracing the “people’s vote” which the LibDems had previously campaigned for and which Corbyn, the SNP and the rebel Tories were promising; Swinson opted to dispense with a second referendum entirely; choosing an early election rather than a Corbyn-led interim government.
Rather than the coronation of a pro-remain LibDem prime minister, we now have what is in all but name a UKIP 2.0 government that will likely blunder its way into the very worst trading relationships with both the EU and the USA – not least because beyond financial fraud (which the USA is even better at) and a handful of niche industries, Britain long ago gave up producing anything that anyone else wants to buy. Even the oil and gas that kept the party going in the 1990s and early 2000s is drying up fast.
Johnson’s victory may yet turn out to be Pyrrhic. He will not “get Brexit done.” Rather, Britain’s inability to reach a deal with the EU27 by December 2020 will likely result in the UK having to trade on WTO terms. Once in this position, UK trade negotiators will be more or less obliged to accept whatever terms the rest of the world dictates. That is, terms which favour them to Britain’s cost. Certainly, Donald Trump has no incentive to offer a favourable deal at America’s expense in the year he will be campaigning to win a second term. Nor does the EU have reason to compromise with a UK that will likely be begging for access to the Single market once the economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit are realised.
To add to the coming woes, there is another global crisis brewing (in reality a continuation of the unresolved 2008 crash) for the early 2020s. As Tim Morgan wrote recently:
“The first of the two narrative-shaping issues that I’m anticipating for 2020 is a marked slowdown in the emerging market (EM) economies.
“We can say what we like about the advanced economies (AEs), where monetary adventurism seeks to disguise (since it cannot reverse) an economic stagnation that has morphed into a gradual (but perceptible) deterioration in prosperity.
“But, all along, we’ve known that our trading partners in the EM countries have been ‘doing stuff’ – churning out widgets, building infrastructure, ‘going for growth’, and doing a quite remarkable job of improving the economic lot of their citizens.
“This positive trend is, in my analysis, starting to top-out and then go into reverse…
“The second critical issue is financial disequilibrium, and the ‘devil or the deep blue sea’ choice that it poses.
“Here’s an example of what this ‘disequilibrium’ means. In nominal terms, the value of equities around the World increased by 139% in a decade (2008-18) in which nominal World GDP expanded by 33%…
“This divergence is, of course, a direct result of monetary policy. But the effect has been to stretch the relationship to a point from which either surging inflation (by driving up nominal incomes), or a crash in asset prices, is a necessary element of a return to equilibrium…”
Underlying all of this is the stark reality that British politics became a zero sum game back in 2005 when the UK became a net importer of oil and gas. The false prosperity between 1995 and 2005, built upon a mountain of debt underwritten by the export revenues from the North Sea was bound to come to an end, even if the entire western financial sector hadn’t imploded in 2008. In many respects, Britain is not dissimilar to any other failing oil state.
The harsh consequence of this is that the post-war orthodoxy and neoliberal conceit that poverty could be overcome and prosperity restored via productivity gains and economic growth no longer holds true. The only growth that the UK has experienced in decades is in population and financial chicanery. Real growth in productivity and per capita GDP has come to an end. This is something that people in former Labour voting “left behind” communities understand full well; because it is the reality they have been living with for decades. Too many have indebted themselves to purchase educational qualifications from second-rate universities and colleges in the hope of finding jobs that never could and never will materialise. Too many have been the victims of economic development scams that amount to little more than corporate welfare programmes and that somehow never manage to succeed in developing the ex-industrial economy. Wales – Labourism’s last redoubt – for example, has been receiving economic development aid for decades; and yet it is poorer in real terms today than it was when Thatcher was prime minister.
Exactly how and when the next stage of the crisis unfolds is uncertain; although it is difficult to imagine the central banks keeping the game going much beyond Trump’s re-election next year. In any case, as we crash headfirst into the physical limits to growth, it is a crisis which is baked-in and is guaranteed to explode during the tenure of the new majority Tory government. It is a crisis that will certainly blow out of the water any claim of Tory economic competence or that Britain will be better off outside the European Union.
In the end, politics is little more than superficial theatre designed to brush over the deep structural decline of former empires that refuse to die gracefully. As I argued a year ago, choosing a government in our current circumstances is akin to choosing which shoes to wear on a mountaineering expedition:
“Ideally you want to choose a pair of stout climbing boots; but nobody is offering those. For now the choice is between high heels and flip-flops to climb the highest mountain we have ever faced. If we are lucky, the political equivalent a half decent pair of training shoes might turn up, but while the world is focussed on economic growth; that is the best we can hope for… and we still have to climb the mountain whatever shoes we wear.”
The economic crisis documented by Tim Morgan and others is not going to go away just because a bunch of faux-populist right wing spivs and chancers are being elected around the world. Nor are our even greater resource-depletion and environmental problems going to be resolved by a retreat to nineteenth century nationalisms (although energy and resource depletion will force us to relocalise anyway). In the end, the false hope of a left wing green new deal is no more likely to reverse the collapse into a new dark age than nationalistic promises to take back control and to make countries great again.
Personally, I would have preferred a Corbyn-led government to a Johnson-led one only because they have a (slightly) better grasp of the economic and environmental components of our predicament; and because they are (slightly) less likely to support the elite against the people when the SHTF again. But let us be clear here; the collapse and break-up of the UK that Johnson’s Tories will now preside over was going to happen whoever won yesterday’s election. And as things continue to fall apart, the scope for a government of any persuasion to take action will all but disappear.
The best we can say about yesterday’s result – to paraphrase John Michael Greer – is that at least Britain is getting its collapse in early to avoid the rush.
As you made it to the end…
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