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Sat 15 August 2020
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Brexiters loaned Boris Johnson their votes in the 2019 General Election, which was dominated by the issue of Britain leaving the EU – can Labour win back its natural supporters next time around?


Brexit, Brexit, Brexit

What is it about exit polls that we refuse to believe? Recent elections have shown them to be remarkably accurate but at 10 pm on Thursday there were countless doubters and naysayers – surely Boris Johnson wouldn’t walk it with a 70-80 majority?

The 2019 General Election result was a horror movie combined with a car crash for Labour, which could be dubbed The Revenge of the Brexiters. Put simply, Johnson took a huge gamble which paid off spectacularly, aided by a hapless Labour opposition. 

Johnson and his advisors appreciated – perhaps better than anyone else – that the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit in 2016 felt completely robbed by endless parliamentary deadlock, talks of a second referendum and even the possible nullification of the Brexit vote as purported by the Lib Dems. The depth of betrayal felt by many Brexiters was hugely underestimated by Labour. 

The signs were clear early on that fateful election night, when solid Labour seats such as Middlesbrough and Stockton North were retained but with reduced majorities. Pretty quickly, one by one, constituencies such as Redcar went blue as did Darlington, Stockton South and Bishop Auckland. In other parts of the UK, double-digit swings occurred, meaning that the likes of Dudley, Bassetlaw and Great Grimsby all fell to the Tories. To add insult to injury, even Rother Valley – Labour’s longest held seat, which had been red for more than 100 years – went blue. 

Special mention, however, does have to go to Labour’s Faiza Shaheen and her incredible attempt (around 1,000 votes) to oust Iain Duncan Smith. She mobilised a team on a scale never before seen in Chingford and Woodford Green. Surely, in the absence of the Brexit factor, she would have prevailed.  

Corbyn and Labour made the error of entertaining a multi-faceted policy agenda when just one issue was destined to dominate. Had the General Election been fought on non-Brexit issues such as NHS, jobs, education, transport and more then Corbyn would undoubtedly have fared much better.

Boris Johnson and his advisors shrewdly wanted this snap election because they knew that a Brexit Election was their best chance of gaining any sort of majority. They then owned the Brexit narrative and put it front and centre in the campaign with the aid of the predominantly right-wing press. This left Corbyn helpless in shifting the agenda away from Johnson’s strongest suit. 

The Conservatives’ victory has breathed new life into a party which looked nearly dead to many analysts not so long ago. Critics said it had an ageing membership lacking black and ethnic minority members, LGBT people and the youth vote – yet Brexit has overridden all those concerns.


Brexit Anger Finds a Voice

Tory Remainers remained loyal to the Tories in this General Election, whilst Labour leavers jumped ship to Tory. Why? 

Because Brexiters felt a bigger betrayal over Brexit than Tory Remainers felt over what they believe Brexit will eventually look like – coupled with their deep desire to avoid a Jeremy Corbyn Government. 

We can all point to lies on the sides of buses, media moguls lying about the EU and the cost of false promises of post-Brexit ‘cool Britannia’ leading to countries lining up to do trade deals with us, alongside a hugely exaggerated perception of our economic bargaining position on the global stage. Many Brexiters do know much of this, but their rage over the betrayal they felt of Britain not immediately and clinically leaving the EU shortly after the EU Referendum simply overrides their rational thinking on the lies around Brexit and the merits of the EU.  

The north east, for example, has historically been religiously Labour but voted heavily for Brexit. The losses for Labour in this region were not unsurprising. But, these voters returning to Labour in a post-Brexit general election would be equally unsurprising.

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It was clear during the General Election campaign that people were prepared to potentially lose their jobs to “get Brexit done” – such was the scale of the obsessional thinking on this topic. Such uncontrolled anger was played on by the right-wing press. Few in the Leave camp are also likely to have researched the intertwined financial and media interests of those who peddled Brexit.  

So when the gallery is fuming, like Brexiters have been, the best thing to do is to give them what they want – or at least deceive them into thinking they’ll get it.  Johnson understood this much better than Corbyn and is infinitely more devious than the Labour leader. He worked his entire campaign exploiting this frustration by promising to “get Brexit done”. The economy, education and NHS all played second fiddle to Brexit. Johnson cunningly leapt upon Labour’s weakness on Brexit and the nation’s desire to end this perpetual purgatory – and he has now walked into power with a majority of 80.

The real conundrum for Corbyn was the combination of Leave and Remain voters in his constituencies, particularly up north in marginal seats such as Bolton West and Bolton North East. This was not of his doing, but the perpetual procrastination on what Labour’s position ought to be on Brexit what his fault. The British public only found out Labour’s position on Brexit three years after the referendum – when they learned that he would be sitting on the fence. All that time, trust was being eroded in Labour and Corbyn and right-wing parties were gaining political capital with an anti-establishment mantra. 

As the old adage goes: when faced with a difficult problem, the best thing to do is to make the right decision; if you can’t do that then make a good decision; and if you can’t do that then no decision is surely the worst decision. Corbyn and his clique learned this too late to their detriment.

There was other factors too.

The relentless right-wing media onslaught against Corbyn, a man of deep principle, persistently painted a picture of him in many minds as a Hamas-sympathising, anti-Semite. Corbyn is anything but an extremist or anti-Semite. Nonetheless, many Labour canvassers heard all too often on the doorstep that “we like Labour’s policies, but we don’t trust Corbyn”.

Then came the failure of tactical voting. In the early hours of Friday morning, Gina Miller decried that “there was tactical voting going on but it was all on the Leave side”. This was undoubtedly a problem.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was effectively silenced by the Tories by the withdrawing of his candidates where Tories had been incumbents. This definitely helped Johnson though, in light of the magnitude of his victory, perhaps not as much as one may have anticipated. Interestingly, this strategy has probably killed off the Brexit Party and will look hugely suspicious if Farage goes on to become a lord. The Remain side didn’t implement tactical voting, even though it would have deprived the Tories of victory. Had Corbyn entertained a formal pact early on, and Remainers actually tactically voted, the Tory majority could have been reduced.

Corbyn’s youth vote and the Momentum machine both came out in force. But, on this occasion, the Brexit betrayal factor was just too powerful for any Labour asset to nationally counter. 


What Now for the Tories?

The Conservatives must understand that their current 78 majority is in no small part based on loaned votes by Brexiters. One way or another, Brexit will now be resolved and it will not likely be an election issue next time around.

What then will happen to these loaned votes? Will those voters, particularly in Labour heartlands, return to Labour on issues such as equality, jobs, the NHS, welfare concerns and more? Or will the Tories somehow find a way to offer olive branches to segments of society whom they’ve hardly dealt with previously?

The easy, and ultimately less intelligent, decision would be for Johnson to pander further to the right, keeping his European Research Group (ERG) happy and appeasing the hard core Brexiters. But, this strategy is flawed as it won’t win him the centre-ground occupied by the party under David Cameron did. Moving towards the centre would annoy some on the right of the party but would be a price worth paying to lock Labour out of power for some time.

To borrow a fantastic phrase from the John Bercow book of literary gem, “Boris travels ideologically light” and, hence, he is not heavily ideologically anchored to either the right or left-wing of the party (indeed, there is a good argument to say he was a Remainer until not too long ago). This ideological lightness is a huge asset he can leverage when bringing the party closer to the centre – which must include cracking down seriously on things like Islamophobia. 


What Now for Labour?     

Corbyn has talked about the need for reflection, but I’m not so sure – purely because it’s really obvious what needs to change. 

Here are my suggestions:

A new leader. Jeremy Corbyn was propelled to power by the left; to many the extreme left. Labour’s membership rocketed but was heavily concentrated in a limited part of the electoral community and not generally reflective of the whole.  Corbyn should resign without delay (and definitely not install a similarly unsuccessful hard-left regime prior to his). Sir Keir Starmer would be my choice for leader as I think he has a maturity and appeal that Labour needs to have, far wider than a classic far-left candidate. Moreover, as a former Director of Public Prosecutions and a barrister, he’s from a serious organisational background and understands strategy and diplomacy.

A new vision. With a new leader will come a new vision, a fresh start and a chance to rectify the tactical errors of the past. Labour gained great traction with its part-nationalisation proposals, but less with some of its more deeply socialist rhetoric and ideology. There is balance to be had, which does not scare off enterprise yet ensures that our country’s infrastructure and healthcare runs well. 

A broader appeal. Even in these depths of despair, Labour polled just more than 200 seats and the Tories 365. Around 80 seats would level the playing field. It sounds huge but a combination of the right leader and right message would inevitably attract enough of the right audience. This, coupled with some of the Brexit voters currently deserting Labour coming back in the future, would definitely win back some of the 80 seats needed, perhaps even the majority of them. Beyond this, a coalition is well worth consideration. 

The key to winning any political beauty parade is to win over those not on your side, not to keep pandering to an already (largely) satisfied gallery. The middle ground is usually where victory lies. Tony Blair did this brilliantly leading up to 1997 General Election, keeping old Labour on side with relentless investment in education and the NHS whilst simultaneously adopting business-friendly policies.

Much has also been said of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, but there has been at least as much Islamophobia in the Conservatives. For whatever reason though, much of the right-wing press has adopted a hierarchy towards covering hate, with Islamophobia in political parties receiving a tiny fraction of the coverage anti-Semitism has.     


The Future 

The night is always the darkest before dawn and Labour should take heed of this just as the Tories did when Blair took power with an incredible 179 majority in 1997 – when things really only could get better. Labour finds itself in a similar place now. This is no bad thing, but it needs to finds a new leader, its true soul, it’s direction and its way back to power.   

What an awful world we live in when a man of morality and principle like Jeremy Corbyn, who fought against apartheid and in favour of just about every human rights struggle and oppressed peoples in living memory, is now perceived as the enemy whilst an Eton and Oxford University-educated Bullingdon Club boy who is a serial liar and Islamophobe has become many people’s hero. 

As Al Malik Al Shabbaz (also known as Malcolm X) said about the press: “The media is the most powerful entity on earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.”

Sufyan Ismail is the founder of MEND (Muslim Engagement and Development)


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