The British Labour Party tried to storm the heavens in the December 12 general elections and instead finds itself at the gates of hell. It was crushed by the Conservative Party, which won its biggest majority since the time of Margaret Thatcher and will have in Boris Johnson the U.K.'s own version of Donald Trump, but only with fewer checks on his powers.
Though there was ample warning of widespread unpopularity of the Labour Party and specifically its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, the mood among the tens of thousands of ordinary members who campaigned on the doorsteps was a combination of denial and defiance. They thought the media and the polls would be proved wrong; they felt that the party's left-wing policies would defeat public hostility; and more than anything they told themselves that the youth vote would force a hung parliament, if not an outright victory for their side.
It was Brexit, stupid
The Conservatives ran the 2019 general elections as a re-run of the 2016 Brexit vote when a narrow majority (52%) decided in a referendum that Britain should leave the European Union. The majority for Brexit was around two million votes in England itself and around 400 of the 650 seats voted for the leave option. This time, the results were a near repeat of the Brexit vote: Labour lost 59 “leave” seats in its total loss of 62 compared to 2017. It also lost around three million votes: an estimated two million of its voters abstained while a million or so defected to other offers. The Labour membership is now overwhelmingly middle class, and they demanded that the party back calls for a second vote. Corbyn tried to hold out but his hand was forced by the 2018 party conference when it took the position that it would negotiate an exit deal with the E.U. but would also put an option to remain in a second referendum. Its traditional working class voters saw this as denying the validity of their democratic choice, causing their final rupture of its trusted vote bank.
The other major fault line was age: Labour won by wide margins in the 18-49 age group but lost by equally large margins among the older voters. The young in Britain are asset-poor: they hold precarious jobs with few working rights, they live in rented homes at the mercy of unscrupulous landlords, they are losing out on educational opportunities in a system that charges them hefty fees and they have lost almost all the benefits of the welfare state. They responded to a vision of a fairer society but Labour's policies of reinvesting in social and infrastructure projects terrified their parents and grandparents who thought it would bankrupt the country. Many of those on survival wages too shared the dread of a coming economic collapse if the Conservatives were voted out.
Long time coming
This was a perfect storm that sank the Labour boat, but the roots of the defeat go right back to Thatcher's victory of 1979 and her social re-engineering after the defeat of the miners' strike in 1984-85 which marked the defeat of organised labour by big capital. The thirteen years of Thatcherite rule after that destroyed the old industrial base of Britain and restructured it into an individualistic dystopia where only the ruthless prospered and where the idea of common good disappeared. It created conditions for the Labour Right to argue that electoral victories would be impossible in the future by appealing to the working classes and instead the party needed to shift from its northern industrial base to the more middle class southern counties of England. The party lost its organic links with the working poor and became home to the liberal professional classes, while its leaders were technocrats who were polished media performers and friendly with the dominant press owner of the United Kingdom, Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair was that version of an anodyne Labour leader who shifted membership from the wage earners to the aspirational classes. The north of England sank into economic decline without decent jobs for those who could not migrate, festering hardships as social benefits were cut and a political vacuum that was filled by the xenophobic Right who shifted blame to the others, first to the brown migrants and then to the white Europeans. Jeremy Corbyn's unforgivable sin among the Little Englanders, wealthy and poor, was to reject the notion of white British lives as being more valuable and superior to that of the others. His cosmopolitan personality offended their most cherished belief, that whatever the individual circumstances, to be born British was to be a winner in the great lottery of life.
The four years of Corbyn's leadership did not even begin addressing the electoral and moral slide among the northern working class base. He was constantly undermined by his own members of Parliament and faced savage attacks from the mainstream media, including the BBC which in good times passes itself off a neutral public service broadcaster but in a crisis for the ruling class turns into a state broadcaster, as it did this time. Neither he, nor a majority of the Left, foresaw that the ugliness of a class war would seep in as the threat to the system came closer. They believed, as they have done so all their lives, that the decency of British parliamentary politics would prevail and that the establishment would grudgingly accept the rules of fair play. The party fought a clumsy election campaign as it had done in the past while the Conservatives crafted a ruthless election machinery, made use of the dark propaganda arts and enforced message discipline in the party. Corbyn was a moral leader, the like of whom Labour Party never had before, but an ineffective battleground strategist who fought heroically to the end, only to be trounced.
Britain will shed its liberal, welfare state European skin and adopt a ferocious privatised economic and anomie social model. The British establishment will try and neuter the Labour Party without destroying it if possible, and smash it to bits with the help of its many ambitious leaders if it cannot. The threat of democratic socialism has been contained for the moment but they will not want the threat to come as close the next time. Inducements, threats and punishment will be used to demoralise the dissenters. If the new Labour Party is to survive all that, it will need an iron will and strategic cunning. An evil blond king has swept to the English throne and while the mist of defeat hangs heavy for now, the outlines of an epic battle might just be taking shape somewhere in the northern hills of England.