Jamie – Year 12 Student
Editor’s Note: Writing for the GSAL Humanities Journal, Jamie explores some of the issues pertinent to Labour’s sizeable defeat in the General Election held in the UK in December 2019. This is Jamie’s second essay to be published in the Humanities Journal: his first piece, entitled Genghis Khan: A Dastardly Villain, is also a worthy read. CPD
In 2019, Boris Johnson delivered the biggest conservative victory for 32 years. This triumph came despite the Conservatives losing 54% of their Scottish seats and winning no Northern Irish seats: this was a victory delivered in England and Wales, with Labour voters defecting in their droves to the Conservatives and the red wall crumbling. Were these disenchanted voters right to abandon the party they had backed for decades? Could the Conservatives really better represent the working class people of a mining constituency like North West Durham better than the Labour Party?
To answer these questions, what must be understood is what made these voters change their vote, and then consider the validity of their reasoning. It is impossible to know the true impact of each factor in an election, but the critical themes can be identified.
The Labour Party itself believes this was the “Brexit election”, that it was a repudiation of a second referendum and Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence on a neutral stance on the issue. This perspective clearly carries a lot of weight: the Conservative Party focused on Brexit in their campaign, Brexit is of course a historical event of enormous import that was effectively decided upon this election and therefore it will have hugely affected people’s voting. The fact that Labour losses were concentrated in leave voting seats like Blyth Valley would also indicate that Labour leave voters were willing to accept Conservative governance for five years to see Brexit. This calculus is hard to dispute as a valid reason to vote Conservative: for someone who wants to see the UK leave the EU and believes this will deliver lasting benefits to the UK (especially given that leaving the EU is exceedingly unlikely to be revoked for decades), but also believes in the superiority of a Labour government, the more short term effects of a national government, which can be voted out in five years time and is therefore far easier to reverse the effects of, are likely to lose out to their Brexit allegiances if the two clash. For Labour leavers in this position, the decision made is entirely rational: the effects of Brexit will be far more pervasive, longer lasting and harder to reverse than anything else the parties do, and as such they vote for the Conservatives to see Brexit happen, despite dislike of their other policies.
But this narrative lacks nuance: if Labour could not hold the 32% of its voters who voted to leave , how could the Conservatives hold their remain voting seats so effectively? Putting aside Scotland (where the issue of Scottish independence creates a different dividing line and debate beyond the scope of this article), the Conservatives lost just three seats, out of the 304 they were defending from 2017 , despite 25% of those seats being estimated to have voted to remain in 2016 . To an extent, it can be surmised that the attractiveness of the Conservative offering lay not just in offering to leave, but in offering a resolution to the Brexit process while Labour offered yet another referendum and the prospect of the Brexit debate continuing long into 2020 and beyond. That the other party offering a quick resolution, the Liberal Democrats who offered to just ignore Brexit and essentially forget the whole thing, saw an increase in vote share of 4.2% would indicate voters were voting for resolution rather than to leave specifically. Even for many remain voters, the desire to see the issue moved on from – to focus on other national challenges; because the debate is toxic and divisive; for some other reason – may have led them to back the Conservatives. This again is an eminently rational decision – the unrelenting focus on Brexit has arguably led to neglect of other issues and for a voter who feels this way, they had only the Conservatives to vote for of the two major parties, even if they would have preferred to remain. It is even clearly valid to feel that even as someone who usually votes Labour, and is presumably left of centre, the best way to effect the change such a voter is likely to desire is to accept a Conservative government for a term in order to allow for politics to revert to the kind of debate such a voter is likely to desire e.g. over public services or infrastructure investment; given that a Labour government would have meant another Brexit deal, another Brexit referendum, and as such no foreseeable cessation of the interminable Brexit process that distracts from many voters’ other priorities.
The party leaders and candidates for prime minister were obviously a huge factor in this election, as in any other election, and to only focus on Brexit is to create an incomplete image. Anecdotally, many Labour voters and MPs have cited Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity as a huge factor in the election result, with many saying he was why they voted Conservative and many Labour candidates finding him hugely unpopular when they were canvassing in the campaign. His movement of his party to the left is undeniable, and this appears to have left behind many of the party’s voters: although he is hugely popular with the Labour membership, this constituency is far to the left of the nation as a whole and it would appear of Labour voters as well. While it is hard to quantify this kind of comparison, the peak satisfaction with Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2019 is 20%, with a low of 15% in October  – the last set of data before the election. While this may stem from Brexit issues – it is noticeable that Corbyn reaches peak unpopularity at the end of October as it becomes clear the 31st October deadline will be missed – it is clearly untenable to expect to win an election if doing so means a prime minister who only satisfies 15%, especially as such a low figure indicates significant unpopularity even among his own voters. In addition, that no New Labour leader (Blair, Brown, Miliband) ever had a rating as low as Corbyn’s 2019 peak rating would appear to be fairly conclusive evidence that Corbyn’s changed Labour party was being rejected in this election, not just the promise of a second referendum.
Corbyn’s left wing policies were of course not the only issue or even the main one – by definition, someone who usually votes Labour is at least amenable to movements towards the political left. The anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, that he at the very least failed to adequately address or condemn and the links with organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah were damaging skeletons in his closet, and of course the anti-Semitism can be assumed to have driven away many Labour voters concerned about tolerance and minority rights, which are often issues of particular concern to the left wing voters Labour relies upon.
A further effect of Corbyn was that his unabashed socialism  created intense dislike of him among Conservative voters, who saw him as representing the antithesis of the economic liberalism they believed in. This likely helped to hold together the Conservative coalition – the aforementioned ability to hold remain voting seats arguably stemmed from the fact that for a remain voting Conservative, the prospect of a hard left Corbyn government was more unpalatable than Brexit, and so Conservative voters not supportive of Brexit or Boris Johnson will not have left the party, who may have done if Labour had produced a more centrist ticket that (to such a Conservative voter) would not be so damaging to the country.
The opposite effect was observed with Boris Johnson, who made an effort to move to the centre and present himself and his party as a viable option to disaffected supporters of the opposition party. He promised a movement away from traditional conservatism, offering spending on public services and infrastructure investment to address the north south divide to complement issues like a tougher stance on crime and Eurosceptism that the Conservatives are traditionally strong on. By holding the right of his party with a hard line stance on brexit and wooing the left of centre with spending promises he struck a balance that could build a coalition, while Labour moved to the left and confined themselves to a smaller portion of the electorate. This meant Labour voters could defect without seeing a set of policies that entailed the conservatism they had rejected for decades, making defection a far easier decision to make even for loyal Labour voters.
A final issue worth considering is that of patriotism. A majority of people are patriotic, with 32% describing themselves as “very patriotic” and a further 35% as slightly . Given that this varies by region, it is reasonable to assume this figure is higher in the leave voting seats that Labour lost in this election. Corbyn and Labour were perceived as unpatriotic, a perception they didn’t exactly disavow with policies like teaching about the injustices of the British empire or Corbyn’s refusal to take the side of British security services against Putin’s Russia in the Salisbury poisoning. By contrast, Johnson sought to portray himself as a patriot – in his manifesto, he refers to Britain as a “great country” numerous times and talks of “Britain’s potential”. This contrast was a further issue that likely helped the swing in votes among these 32% “very patriotic”, a voting decision that makes perfect sense: if you are patriotic, it is natural to assume a fellow patriot’s policies and views will better reflect yours.
What does all of this tell us? It tells us this election was a repudiation of Corbyn as an individual and of what he represents, a repudiation of further Brexit debate and delay, and a reflection of British patriotism and a desire for change and improvement. Very little of this is new.
Was the right choice made by the voters who swung this election? For those who supported Brexit, as I have outlined, the calculus was clear. For those who rejected Labour anti-Semitism, or Corbyn’s links with terror organisations, it is hard to say: a measurement of such issues against other preferences is an inherently subjective one depending on the individual voter’s own priorities. However, it is hard to condemn such a reason for not voting Labour. For those who were left of centre but felt Corbyn had gone too far left I contest this was indisputably the correct vote – the leftward movement of the Conservative party under Johnson meant that he was likely to be closer to many Labour voters (albeit slightly to the right of them) than Corbyn was (given how far to the left of them he was likely to be). It is impossible to know how much each factor affected how people voted in an election, but it is hard to dispute any of the reasons espoused.
To claim this election reflected a failure of Labour voters to vote in their own best interests is clearly false. It is also false to chalk the result solely up to Brexit as the Labour Party has sought to do since the election – this election was the result of a complex set of factors that led to a lot of Labour voters making eminently rational decisions to abandon a party that no longer represented their interests or beliefs as well as the Conservative Party.
One thought on “Why Labour’s voters deserted the party, and why they were right to do so”
It is interesting that you suggest that Labour Leavers may have chosen to vote Conservative into a five year term to ‘Get Brexit Done’ in the long term, yet Conservative Remainers may have seen five years of Corbyn as too high a price to pay even to potentially avoid Brexit altogether. Corbyn’s role in facilitating Brexit, intentionally or otherwise, will no doubt be studied by students of history and politics for many years to come!