General Election 2019, A Tale of Contempt: How Corbyn’s Labour Showed It and Why Boris Knows He Must Avoid It | Bradley Goodwin
For the past three years, the core of this country’s politics has been uncertainty. From the moment the shock Leave vote of 2016 was declared, every step the politicians took to take us forward only seemed to fan the flames of uncertainty. The result itself, the disastrous 2017 General Election, the countless attempts to pass a withdrawal agreement of some form under two consecutive Prime Ministers. The politicians had crafted uncertainty…Yesterday, the people smashed that uncertainty to pieces.
The 2019 General Election was an astounding (and I think largely unexpected) landslide for the Conservatives, and in hindsight the result the country deserved. For the past three years and certainly since 2017, the politicians treated what voters wanted as up for discussion, “the referendum was based on lies”, ”the election was a victory for Remain parties”. Many from all sides had allowed the voter’s expression of the Europe issue to be just an afterthought, people whose minds could and should be changed. Well now, any attempt to do seems incredulous.
The metaphor of the collapsing of the ‘Red Wall’, Labour heartlands in the North and Midlands, is ever so apt as the cause for the defeat of not just Labour, but the entire political order that sought to make the path to Brexit impossible. A contempt had arisen that they, the political order, could not possibly be abandoned by the voters. That contempt was smashed.
And contempt, more than anything else, summed up what Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively had shown the voters at this election.
For Labour’s detractors on both the Left and Right, the problem had always been the man at the top. And I think this election did him no favours, even for those who may have shown a bit of a sympathy for his passion and conviction. I, myself, admit to being in this camp. Many like myself always knew his plans for government were going to be a disaster in practice, but at the very least believed his passion for the poor was genuine.
I think in part, this played well for Jeremy Corbyn in 2017 when he was the underdog, the man nobody believed could actually win an election. But in 2019 the story was different, in the mindsets of not only Labour but also of everyone else, Jeremy Corbyn had a chance of achieving the Premiership beyond a pipedream. That, I think, is where Jeremy Corbyn failed in his personal strategy, the underdog he could play very well, the potential Prime Minister, not so much.
If you look at any interview of Jeremy Corbyn in the last few months compared to 2017, his whole demeanour seems to have changed, and it didn’t suit him. The notorious interview he made with Andrew Neil during the campaign was for me the watershed of the Corbyn problem. The constant refusal to answer direct questions from anti-Semitism to paying for the WASPI women, the standoffish body language, the rude “Can I finish?” interruptions. Corbyn portrayed a dangerous mix of cluelessness and contempt. It seemed as if he had nothing to say to those who didn’t have time for him and his ideas already. And as anyone quite obviously would know, if you can’t convince new voters to your cause, you aren’t going to gain new support and new representatives where it matters.
Even upon the declaration of his personal result in which he was re-elected as MP for Islington North, he struck a tone of attack and not remorse. In his speech, we didn’t get any apologies the campaign wasn’t good enough, no remorse or shame for the disastrous outcome he had inflicted upon his party. Instead, he chose to attack the intrusion of the press as ‘disgusting’. The tone was one of contempt for those who dared to criticise him, he revelled in being the epitome of a sore loser.
The ‘Red Wall’ collapsing on Corbyn was the extent to which the exposure of the contempt that Labour had shown on the B-word: Brexit. What these places have in common is that these traditional Labour heartlands were prominently Leave supporting areas. Yet what Labour had to offer to these kinds of in these areas who would be very much of the “Labour till I die” philosophy was nothing other than a completely contemptuous position on the EU question. A second referendum (regardless of the piffle of a new and improved deal supposedly being achievable) was nothing other than a spit in the face to their view and decision.
A second referendum with Corbyn in a neutral advisor position was nothing than an attempt to appease the kind of voter that the ‘red wall’ voter was not. Even if a Brexit was on offer, the message to them was that Brexit wasn’t going to be respected by Labour, and neither were you.
As if this wasn’t enough contempt, there was more to go around, although in a yellow tinge rather than in red. The Liberal Democrat campaign from the start exuded contempt not only for Brexit (a message that couldn’t have been clearer in all fairness to them), but for the serious arena of politics itself.
The “B******s to Brexit” mantra and Jo Swinson’s fanciful statement that she was a ‘potential candidate for Prime Minister’ showed such utter disconnection from reality that Jo Swinson losing her own seat is the symbol of their campaign the Liberal Democrats deserved. The Liberal Democrat disaster really is that simple and doesn’t really need further explanation. Their campaign didn’t show any real seriousness to the situation, and the analysis hence doesn’t deserve that much seriousness or time devoted to it.
On that note, I think Boris should be congratulated on achieving what most thought was impossible. Within six months, Boris Johnson has done what most of us believed was impossible. He achieved a new Brexit deal, and got the public to follow him, and being the ultimate ‘Heineken politician’ he got those who had never considered voting Conservative to join us in getting the job done and smashing the roadblocks the opposition had presented.
It was good to see from Boris a promise that he would not make the same mistake as his opposition. In acknowledging the many voters of the ‘Red Wall’ who would have voted Conservative for the first time, his promise not to take them for granted was exactly the response he needed to give. The tone he needed to strike. What we have to consider is that the ‘red wall’ voter who moved to the Conservatives this time around may have done so with much discomfort. A vote for the Conservatives was probably of necessity for many, and not one out of an absolute support for the Conservative message and vision beyond Brexit.
However Boris chooses to proceed, if I were him I would take much care and much caution. Votes always have to be earned and not depended on at any point in politics, but for these new constituencies that adage couldn’t be any more apt. The tradition of seeing Labour as the natural party of support is still going to run deep in the ‘red wall’. If that is going to be kept at bay, not only is Brexit going to have to get done at long last, but the notion of the Conservatives having nothing to offer the North or refusing to care about them will have to be radically overcome.
Looking at the scene, I think what will need to emerge from this Conservative government will have to be one much more willing to invest in terms of public spending, but also one that seeks to protect these communities socially speaking. As Heidi Allen and Justine Greening rightly expressed it during the results coverage, the voter in these places sees a lack of opportunity. And yes, opportunity may come by public investment sometimes, but to say that more money will solve the contention would be a huge mistake. What needs to happen is a ‘social investment’ needs to take place. My suggestion would be that this ‘social investment’ needs to be one that promotes a certain degree of social conservatism. I think it would have to be radical too. A few suggestions would be that the Conservatives must be a law and order party that punishes crime and that must promote rigorous education by the means of grammar schools as only the tip of the iceberg.
Whatever happens, the Conservatives must now find a way to fulfil his promise never to take these voters for granted, the next five years must be an exercise not in sitting comfortably with the majority now at Boris’ disposal, but in real reflection and genuine empathy to their new supporters concerns. This above all else will be necessary for the government’s future beyond 2024.