There have been four great General Elections in Britain since the Second World War. Each marked a dramatic turning-point in British politics. First, 1945. It was the first time a Labour government was elected in Britain by a landslide, winning 393 seats, almost 200 more than Churchill’s Conservative Party, with almost half the national vote. Both the previous Labour governments, in the 1920s, were short-lived and the second, in particular, was a disaster, blown away by the Depression. Attlee’s 1945 government not only founded the modern welfare state and the National Health Service, it established Britain as a two-party democracy. Labour were to be in government for thirty of the next sixty-five years.
The second great General Election was in 1979. Margaret Thatcher remained Prime Minister for more than a decade, winning three elections, and decisively challenged the previous political and economic consensus. After Thatcher, no British Prime Minister set out to roll back her emphasis on the Free Market and privatization or her attack on the British trade union movement.
In 1997, Tony Blair won the first of his three General Election victories. Labour had been in the wilderness for almost twenty years, but now under Blair, Labour ruled for more than a decade. He moved Labour to the centre-ground of British politics and the Conservatives came to realise that the only way to defeat Labour was to stop being “the nasty party”, in Theresa May’s words, and to move to the centre ground themselves.
Boris Johnson’s victory in December was of the same kind of historic importance. First, it confirmed that after three years of often angry debate, Britain was going to leave the EU. Second, the scale of the victory was enormous, not because the Conservative vote had risen much but because the Labour vote fell by almost 8%. This barely captures the scale of Labour’s defeat. It was their worst Election defeat since 1935. The only comparable humiliation was in 1983, but then Labour was still the leading party in Scotland and retained its heartlands in industrial Britain: Wales, the Midlands and the North. What was so spectacular about Labour’s defeat in December was that they were driven from Scotland and Wales, and were defeated in their industrial strongholds. They lost seats which barely twenty years ago had majorities of more than 20,000, including Tony Blair’s old seat Sedgefield, in the North-East of England. Sedgefield had been a Labour seat since 1935. It is now Conservative. The same story was told throughout working-class Britain. The day after the Election, Johnson went to speak in Sedgefield. The symbolism was clear.
The statistics are astonishing. 12% of those who voted Labour in the North East in 2015 left Labour. In Yorkshire the figure was 10%. In the East Midlands it was 8%. Industrial Britain abandoned the Labour Party in unprecedented numbers.
Thirdly, Boris Johnson looks set to change British politics for a generation. He has been widely misunderstood as ferociously right-wing and a deceitful opportunist, a British Trump. It is more likely that he will be a one-nation Conservative, who will set out to win over working-class voters who had voted Labour for generations. Almost a decade of austerity will end. Public spending, especially on health, will rise. For the first time in years, money will be spent in declining industrial areas: on roads and railways, schools and hospitals, Broadband and restoring high streets in the centre of countless towns. The 2019 election will be a landmark in modern British history.
Why didn’t political commentators predict the scale of the Conservative victory? Primarily because so many misunderstood the 2017 election. The 2017 election was close but not because Corbyn’s Labour Party were popular or had won over middle Britain. It was close because the Conservatives fought the worst electoral campaign in modern British times. Theresa May fought a truly disastrous campaign. She failed to rethink austerity, the huge cuts in public spending that began under Cameron and Osborne in 2010. She had failed to deliver Brexit, had no exciting new vision of Britain and was an uninspiring leader, lacking in warmth or emotional literacy. Her Chancellor, Philip Hammond, was just as low-key and had to be hidden away for most of the campaign. And the third central figure, the Chairman of the Conservative Party, was feeble and uninspiring. Finally, the cabinet was worn out after seven years in power. Few British (or American) governments look in good shape after seven years. They are tired out by battling with events, economic crises and long days and nights poring over dense legislation. May’s cabinet were burnt-out and had no exciting new policies to offer.
The situation was very different two years later. Johnson was 55, but he had only been Prime Minister for less than five months and before then had only served as Foreign Secretary for two years. He was fifteen years younger than Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Perhaps more important, he was livelier, funnier, even appealing to working-class voters. The key figures of Johnson’s government were younger still. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid was 49; Home Secretary, Priti Patel, 47; Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, 45; Matt Hancock, in charge of Health, 41. Michael Gove, a key figure with a curiously unimportant post, was barely over fifty. They were young, the most ethnically diverse government in British history and they were committed to ditching austerity.
Above all, they had a clear position on the key issue of the election, Brexit. Johnson and his government were committed to leaving the EU. “No ifs, no buts”, in his famous phrase. He had driven out the pro-Remain rebels during the Autumn. They weren’t just forced out of the government. Many were expelled from the Conservative Party and most of them lost their seats in the December election.
Once it was announced that there was going to be an election, it was clear that it was going to be a Brexit Election. The British media, the intelligentsia and political class understood this, but misunderstood one major implication, just as they had misunderstood the EU Referendum in 2016. Because they were pro-Remain and thought the British electorate were fools for voting to Leave, they failed to realise how many British voters were still passionately opposed to the EU. Look at BBC news programmes, broadsheet op-ed articles and the views of countless liberal academics from the past few months, and you will see that they all overrated the strength of pro-Remain sentiment and underrated the scale of pro-Leave opinion. The Conservatives entered the 2019 election as the only major party completely committed to Brexit.
Britain’s intelligentsia expected a close election because they live in a bubble, an echo chamber where they constantly hear and reflect each other’s opinions. Crucially, they are massively concentrated in London and the South-East. In America, California is the centre of digital culture and entertainment; New York is the centre of finance; Washington is the centre of politics; Boston is a major intellectual centre with great universities and hospitals. In Britain, London is the centre of everything.
Britain’s intellectual, cultural and political elite are remarkably separate from the rest of the country, especially the Brexit heartlands: the south-west of England, the east coast, Wales, the Midlands and the North. They might as well be from a different country.
Future historians will marvel about the failure of anti-Brexit politicians to play what seemed like a winning hand. They had Johnson tied up in a corner. He was completely powerless, the head of a minority government who couldn’t defeat the Labour, Scottish Nationalist and Lib Dem coalition gathered against him. He couldn’t pass a single piece of legislation without their say-so just as his predecessor, Theresa May, had not been able to pass any of her Brexit legislation. If the other parties had agreed amongst themselves they could have passed a second referendum which would have reversed the first. They could have killed Brexit. However, they couldn’t agree amongst themselves; and second, some genuinely thought they would do well in another General Election. The SNP thought (correctly) they would sweep Scotland and establish, beyond doubt, their claim for a second Scottish Independence referendum. The Lib Dems, under a bright, young leader, Jo Swinson, thought (disastrously) they would do as well as they had in the European and local government elections in the summer. Labour were totally divided over Brexit, between the left-wing London MPs who wanted to stay in the EU and the MPs from the working-class heartland of the North, Midlands and Wales, who knew their voters were opposed to Brexit. Out-voted by the SNP and the Lib Dems, Labour were sucked into a General Election which they were never going to win. With one leap, Johnson was free, allowed to hold a Brexit Election he and his advisers knew he could win.
They were right. According to one survey, the Conservatives had a 73% to 15% lead over Labour among Leave voters, representing an 8.5% swing to Boris Johnson’s party since 2017. Among Remain voters, just under half (48%) voted Labour, 21% Liberal Democrats, and 20% the Conservatives. The Leave vote went Conservative; the Remain vote was split. It was Labour’s worst nightmare come true.
Labour, under Jeremy Corbyn, the most inept leader in its history, thought they could win if they turned the Election into a vote not on Brexit but on Conservative austerity. So why didn’t they? Corbyn was the most left-wing leader in Labour’s history. He has learned nothing since the 1970s. Corbyn and all the key figures in the Parliamentary Labour Party – John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Dawn Butler, Emily Thornberry, Sir Keir Starmer and Barry Gardiner – all represent ethnically diverse constituencies in poor, inner London. Most were pro-Remain. Most were from the Far Left. The dominant figures were formed in the 1970s New Left: working for the trade unions, they were pro-Irish unification, anti-Zionist, anti-war, anti-Thatcher (and later anti-Blair).
There is a key fact in the history of the Labour Party since 1974. Only one Labour leader, Tony Blair, has won a General Election in 45 years. He did so because he moved from the Left to the mainstream of British politics. Corbyn, McDonnell and the others from the London Left had no intention of moving to the centre. They had never been near the political centre in their lives, they had never had positions of power in their entire careers and they put together the most radical party manifesto in Labour history: nationalise key utilities, increase public spending to huge levels, tax the rich to pay for it, and refuse to acknowledge the certainty of capital flight, meaning that many companies and individuals would simply leave Britain rather than pay huge taxes. No one outside the Left believed this economic programme. Crucially, even traditional Labour voters didn’t believe the promises.
The 1983 Labour manifesto was described by one Labour politician as “the longest suicide note in history”. The manifesto in December 2019 was much, much worse. The Labour vote fell by almost 8%, more than two and a half million votes. Boris Johnson received almost 14 million votes, the highest Conservative vote since 1992. There was another significant statistic. From its low-point in 2001, when the Conservatives received barely 8 million votes, their vote has risen, election after election, till Johnson’s landslide in 2019. By 2019 the Conservative vote had almost doubled in twenty years. The Labour vote remained almost entirely static during the same period. In 2001 it was almost 11 million. In 2019 it was half a million less. The only exception was the great anomaly of 2017, when the Labour vote rose significantly against Theresa May to levels only exceeded in the great Blair landslide of 1997. But it was an anomaly. It wasn’t just Corbyn’s policies and it wasn’t just Brexit. And it certainly wasn’t Labour’s antisemitism, controversial though that was. What lost Labour the 2019 election was that too many Labour voters didn’t believe in their high-tax, high-spend policies, thought too many of their preoccupations (Palestinian rights, South American politics, anti-Zionism) only spoke to college students and old leftists from the 1970s like Corbyn.
And then, above all, there was the Corbyn problem. In an opinion poll published the day after the General Election, people were asked the main reasons they did not vote Labour. 17% said Brexit. 12% said their economic policies. 43% said Corbyn’s leadership.
Corbyn was too humourless. Worse, he was considered unpatriotic, not someone voters could trust with national security. He had been associated with terrorists for decades, especially the IRA. In a TV interview during the 2019 election campaign, Corbyn was asked if he, as a republican, would watch the Queen’s Christmas message, broadcast every year. Yes, he said. In the morning. It has been broadcast at 3 pm ever since it was first broadcast in the 1930s. Corbyn had clearly never watched one of the main TV rituals of the year. In 2015 Corbyn famously did not sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral, his first ceremonial event since being elected Labour leader. These were significant symbolic moments. They didn’t matter to Corbyn’s left-wing followers but they mattered hugely to middle Britain. The British working class thought Corbyn was an unpatriotic crank. And they were right.
For decades, the British Left has assumed that working class voters are motivated primarily by material self-interest. This has always been untrue. Inflation and unemployment matter, but so do issues of cultural and national identity. Tony Blair knew this. That’s why his most famous slogans were “tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime” and “education, education, education”. His most famous speech was his tribute to Princess Diana, the morning she died. Corbyn never understood that patriotism and the monarchy matter, that most British voters are disgusted by terrorism and that a sense of humour matters, being able to laugh at yourself matters. Johnson was more popular among Labour working-class voters than Corbyn was. A key part of his campaign was turning up in Labour towns and baking pies in a bakery, delivering milk, selling fish at a fishmonger’s. A posh Tory, educated at Eton and Oxford, where he was a member of the exclusive Bullingdon Club, and yet he could connect with ordinary people.
Johnson created a unique public persona: a posh likable chump, something out of PG Wodehouse. It was deliberately cultivated. The ruffled hair, the rumpled shirt sticking out of his trousers, the posh vocabulary, full of Latin phrases. Throughout the 2019 campaign his opponents constantly called him a liar, an opportunist, a scoundrel, not someone you could trust with the National Health Service or with complex negotiations over Brexit. He had been fired from so many jobs, he had had so many affairs. No one seems to know how many children he has. And yet twice he was elected Mayor of London, a hugely pro-Labour city, and in December he received almost fourteen million votes, more than Blair in 1997 and more than Thatcher in 1979. Two million more than Attlee in 1945.
These are the short-term causes of Johnson’s victory in December 2019. What of its long-term significance? Why does it matter?
In the 1970s and ‘80s Britain underwent a series of major social and economic changes. Globalisation, of course. Britain’s industrial society disappeared: steelworks, coal mines, shipyards, factories, the whole landscape of industrial Britain closed down. British industry couldn’t compete with China, Korea, India. This led to huge levels of unemployment in the 1970s and ‘80s, levels unknown since the Thirties. Trade unions and the Labour Party suffered crushing defeats during this period, most famously the great miners’ strike of 1984-5 and Labour’s electoral defeats of 1979-92.
What passed almost unnoticed were two other huge changes during the same period. First, the transformation of British middle-class life. Doctors, teachers, university academics, white collar workers, had to work longer hours, could no longer afford large homes or send their children to private schools. They lived through an earthquake in their life expectations. The public sphere around them became impoverished. Public libraries, hospitals, town centres became less welcoming. Railways were shut down. The ties that bonded communities weakened. People did not serve in the armed forces together, compulsory national service stopped, fewer people went to church or sang in choirs, state grammar schools were shut down and the upper middle class opted for private schools while the middle class had to send their children to comprehensive schools.
If I think of the quality of life my parents’ generation enjoyed in the 1960s it was entirely different from my generation’s experience. Fathers worked from 9-5. In the Sixties there was high employment. People who had never been to university sent their children to university. The public sector exploded. People who had never owned cars, washing machines, indoor toilets, central heating, eaten in foreign restaurants, gone on overseas holidays, began to live lives of unimaginable comfort. Take the historian EJ Hobsbawm. During the 1950s and ‘60s he and his wife bought their first car, bought a house together with the writers Alan Sillitoe and his wife, Ruth Fainlight, and then bought their own house in Hampstead and a holiday home in Wales. These were golden years.
Then came the Fall. Jobs became more unpredictable. More and more people became freelance, casualised. They worked longer hours. The generation who came of age in the 1980s could afford good homes and a private education. Their children could not afford either.
One way of making sense of Blair’s victories between 1997 and 2010 is that Labour tried to offer an alternative to Thatcherism, which had rejoiced in these changes and the privatization of public life. But Labour had no answer to globalisation, to the financial crash of 2008-9, to the casualisation of middle-class life and the destruction of working-class communities. A decade of Conservative governments also failed to provide solutions to these long-term problems.
The greatest analyst of this social revolution is the British political philosopher, John Gray. In a series of essays written over the past few years, mostly for The New Statesman, he has written of “the collapse of the postwar British settlement.”
There was another set of cultural changes during these years. Immigration, both from the new EU countries of central and east Europe and from outside Europe, reached unprecedented levels during the 1990s. The most resonant slogan of the 2016 Referendum was “I want my country back”. Important to try at least to understand those words from the perspective of those who embraced it. Those who thought of Britain as white, Christian, a nation of small towns and country villages, no longer recognised the nation around them. John Major, Prime Minister between Thatcher and Blair, famously said, “Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pool fillers, and as George Orwell said – ‘Old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist;’ and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in schools.”
It is easy to mock this vision of cultural continuity but Major won more votes than any other Conservative leader since Thatcher. His vision of Shakespeare, Orwell, a green, pastoral, unchanged Britain, white, culturally homogenous, safe, conservative, Christian, still speaks to people whose lives have been subjected to huge social and economic change.
Political leaders who could speak to these anxieties and offer economic optimism, security, safety from crime, a sense of national identity, but could also embrace change, speaking to a new generation of immigrants, new sexual freedoms, new kinds of diversity, would reap huge rewards. The secret was to offer nostalgia and security, on the one hand, and to embrace change (Broadband, diversity) on the other. Blair, Major and Johnson did this.
They seem to have nothing in common. But these three leaders have one crucial thing in common. All three were the only Prime Ministers since Thatcher to come close to the magic number of 14 million votes. 14 million for John Major in 1992, 13.7 million for Blair in 1997, and now almost 14 million for Johnson in 2019. It’s not just a question of numbers. Winning 14 million votes means you have conquered the middle ground in British politics, you have created a vision of Britain which has won over Middle Britain. Labour has come nowhere near this since Blair in 1997. Johnson is the first Tory leader to come near this figure in almost thirty years.
The world Corbyn embraced– ethnically and culturally diverse, young, radical– was completely different. It was left-wing, committed to high taxes and big spending, championing ethnic and sexual minorities, touting fringe passions from the IRA to Palestinian rights (at the 2019 Labour Party conference delegates waved Palestinian flags). Corbyn had nothing but contempt for Blair or Major and their attempts to win the middle ground or for their nostalgic visions of British culture. He knew nothing about Britain beyond north London. He was the first Labour leader to represent a constituency in London in 1955. Every other leader since represented a constituency in the Labour industrial heartlands.
Again, John Gray has been one of the devastating analysts of Corbynism. In late October he wrote, “Labour has also abandoned any small-c conservative disposition and become a vehicle for anti-Semitism and a version of Marxism that deems working-class values of place and community racist when they are expressed as concern about continuing mass immigration.”
One fascinating set of statistics about the 2019 Election was the generation gap between old working-class voters and the young. If you take thirteen of the northern working-class towns which moved from Labour to Conservative, they all have one thing in common. In all of them the population over 65 had increased from 8.9% to 41.3%. In nine of them the percentage had risen above 27%. In the same towns, the change in the young population, between 18 and 24, had fallen between 7.3% and 28.4%. They had moved to big cities and college towns. Corbyn won the youth vote. Johnson won the old vote and in town after town across northern England there were more older voters. It was exactly the same pattern as the 2016 EU Referendum.
Labour won the big cities: Bristol, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff. They won three quarters of the constituencies in London. But they were wiped out in the small towns.
Other statistics tell the same story. In 2015 the Conservatives won 29% of lower working-class and unemployed voters. In 2019 this had risen to 49%. No Conservative leader has been as effective in winning over the poorest voters.
Only Gray has pointed out the paradox of Thatcherism which has haunted Britain’s Prime Ministers for forty years since Thatcher was elected. She was a Conservative, but no British institution has the authority it had in the 1970s. And it wasn’t just the industrial working class that suffered in the Thatcher years. Gray wrote, “The bourgeois life of the 1950s – an idealized image of which she aimed to re-create: a middle class world of secure livelihoods, dutiful families, and prudent saving for the future – has vanished without trace, along with the working-class communities that underpinned British industry… The free market that Thatcher promoted actually worked to undermine and to dissolve middle-class values.”
Thatcher is just a name we give to the whirlwind which destroyed British working-class communities from Scotland to South Wales, undermined middle-class values and transformed British life over the past forty years.
The paradox is that Thatcher destroyed the Conservatives for a generation. Since Thatcher, no Conservative government has ruled with a significant majority in Parliament. Until now. Boris Johnson has a majority of eighty seats. He is the least likely successor to Thatcher, personally and politically. No commentator thought that Johnson was the right person to change Britain. Many predicted that a coalition of cross-party Moderates was more likely. But the big story in British politics over the past four years has been the complete defeat of Moderates in the two main political parties. Not because they were not decent, but because they never made coalitions and they never understood the anger out there after years of huge social change.
Curiously, it is the opportunist chump, Boris Johnson, and his political advisers, who have a real vision of Britain which attempts to deal with the contradictions and unintended legacies of Thatcherism. It is hard to think of a Prime Minister more reviled by the liberal-Left intelligentsia. But might it just be that this unlikely coalition of working-class voters and Conservative politicians will start to heal Britain’s wounds?
The lessons for American Democrats would seem clear. Move to the centre ground. Address the grievances generated by globalisation and social and economic change. Talk about issues that matter to city dwellers and minorities, by all means, but also address the concerns of people in small towns and the white working-class voters that supported Trump in 2016. Be relevant. Be mainstream. When I came to see friends on the East Coast just before the 2016 election I told them about the lessons of Brexit. They said these were irrelevant to America. Hillary would win. The lessons of Brexit in 2016 and Johnson in 2019 are the same. If the Democrats don’t learn them, the Republicans will.
DAVID HERMAN is a freelance writer based in London. His work regularly appears in The Jewish Quarterly, The Guardian, The Independent, Salmagundi and Prospect, where he is a contributing editor.