The Elephant Trap Election of 2019

Image from YouTube

This is an attempt to summarise everything I’ve read. Almost none of it is original. I’ve added links and thoughts where I can remember.

Was this the Elephant Trap election? Anyone who tells you this wasn’t foreseen, please take a look at this speech by Tony Blair at the IFG back in September 2019. Here’s a phrase my 21 year old self wouldn’t ever have imagined my centrist dad self-muttering: why didn’t we all listen to Tony Blair?

There’s two remarkable things about this speech. Remarkable thing one is that Blair predicted almost exactly what happened. The combination of Brexit and Corbyn, he warned, was dangerous for Labour. It was, he said, risky for Johnson but more so for Corbyn. He then sketched out the scenario. Scotland would be difficult (you can say that again, Tony). The Brexit party was a chimera, and would fade away. Johnson would mix Brexit and Corbyn as an issue, and use it as a battering ram against the Labour party (not even Blair foresaw Johnson’s deal). Then the seemingly irresistible Remain vote would split, broken apart against the immovable barrier of First Past The Post.

Remarkable thing two is that Blair said it at all. If I say ‘Blair and Corbyn didn’t get on’ you may feel I’m understating it slightly. Corbyn called on Blair to resign in 2005, after winning his third election. Blair called on Corbyn to resign every 12 minutes since 2015 and wasn’t exactly the supportive ex-PM this time around . For those of you who like historical ironies, Blair did step in to stop Corbyn being de-selected back in the 2000s.

So, this is Tony Blair as Admiral Ackbar, warning it’s a trap. He was right. The Death Star was operational. I have plenty more Star Wars jokes, including an awe-inspiring Ewok analogy, but I’ll try and stop there.

It’s probably best to set out my view of Corbyn, which I’ve made clear before. I was never convinced he would be a Clement Attlee, but much more an Arthur Henderson or George Lansbury (exactly). My horror set in when he went ‘on holiday’ during the Brexit referendum, and I use the inverted commas because it seems it’s still a hot topic, and he was keen to describe it as a ‘short break’ (try it with your line manager). As I wrote in 2017:

For me personally, a red line was his lack of enthusiasm in the Brexit referendum and his later whipping of MPs and Peers over article 50. The only time I felt slightly pulled towards him was when he confessed he didn’t know who Ant and Dec were.

Since then I’ve swung between admiration at how he behaved at Grenfell, and deep despair when Johnson came dangerously close to a vote of no confidence-and could have been removed. In December 2019 I hoped he could fight the Tories to a stalemate.

It Wasn’t Corbyn’s Fault

Most of all for his supporters, argument number one in mitigation is that Corbyn and his party faced an extraordinary media attack. It’s true that there was, and still is, an organised fake news propaganda machine, amplified by journalistic failure to challenge or question spin. Corbyn, on this reading, was a decent, simple, un-spun, socialist facing a barrage from the mainstream media. There is something to this. Peter Oborne wrote just before the election of how:

Downing Street or government sources have been spreading lies, misrepresentations, smears and falsehoods around Fleet Street and across the major TV channels. Political editors lap it all up… This compliance is part of a pattern. Political editors are so pleased to be given ‘insider’ or ‘exclusive’ information that they report it without challenge or question.

Peter Oborne is ex-Daily telegraph and writes for the Daily Mail. Corbynite, he is not. This tips into a different discussion on voters and information. For what’s it is worth, this is about attention an interest, not education. Most people don’t think about politics most of the time.

It was also Brexit. Before looking at Corbyn, remember Brexit is a mincing machine for British Politics generally. So far, Europe has chewed up four Tory Prime Ministers since 1990. Brexit itself has taken out two so far since 2016 (he said warningly/optimistically). It has also destroyed or undermined several parties. UKIP and BXP are nearly gone. The DUP seem lost. The Lib-Dems didn’t do any game-changing. The Conservatives appear to have survived only by becoming a TAN party (listen to Dermot Hodson on our podcast here). It is Britain’s new Home Rule.

Just to make things even more complex, it has upset and scrambled voter identity in all four nations of the UK. The Scottish Independence referendum in 2016 showed how lifelong Labour voters could ‘switch’ identities to justify their move to the SNP, which in turn make them less attached to their old party as they justified said move. Take a look at this paper. One off events like a referendum caused a kind of gap between their belief and their old party-so they switched party not belief. And didn’t look back. For Brexit, this had only begun happening in 2017 but had really taken root by 2019.

In one sense, it’s also true Corbyn didn’t ‘lose’ the north. The ‘Red Wall’ seats lost were being lost long ago. They’ve been seeping away since 2005, and the loss of Mansfield in 2017 was a loud and clear warning. In fact, being from near there, I said ‘MANSFIELD’ in an incredulous voice for some time after, like that Roman Emperor lamenting his lost legions in Germany (I don’t know which bloody one, they were all slave-owning imperialists-go ask Boris Johnson). He didn’t ‘lose Scotland’, either. He failed to claw back what was being lost, certainly, which is a different criticism.

Anyway, over Brexit, Corbyn’s views were always crystal clear. Corbyn spent most of his life in favour of leaving the EEC and then the EU. As the Daily Mail helpfully pointed out ‘Of Labour’s 247 MPs, Corbyn is in the top 10 for most votes against the EU’. Labour members knew that when they elected and re-elected him. And, if you’re so clever, what else was he supposed to do? Drive away his Leavers or drive away his Remainers? That circle probably couldn’t be squared, and definitely could not be by him, as Rob Ford points out here.

Finally, it’s also true that the system (man) was against him. He was running within a First Past The Post system that makes things complicated and vastly uneven. The whole rigged system vastly rewards winners and punishes losers.

It Was Corbyn’s Fault

So to take the onslaught point first, all Labour leaders face attack. Ramsay MacDonald had Zinoviev. Wilson faced a full blown right-wing coup with prison ships and Mountbatten as PM. Miliband had his sandwich. Nor was Corbyn the first decent, simple, un-spun man (and it is men cough cough) to lead Labour. Arthur Henderson, George Lansbury. Michael Foot. I’ll give you a minute to Wikipedia them.

And in explaining away Corbyn’s loss to structural factors, leaders do matter. Voters use leaders as a short cut to understand parties and positions. This is even more the case as leadership becomes, in rhythm at least, more presidential, and voters become more volatile and uncertain. So going into an election with the worst ratings of any leader since 1977 was a risk. Never tell me the odds, Corbyn may well have replied, but they were stacked against him.

It’s a leader’s job to persuade and communicate policy, where he wasn’t always particularly good or well briefed. How could a leader with such poor ratings persuade? This is where Blair’s point about Corbyn and Brexit came in. From this view, the Brexit compromise was bad, and badly put across, by someone who many voters saw as a bad leader. That’s several levels of bad.

And there were other options. Someone [I don’t remember who wrote this but if someone tells me and I’ll put their name HERE], had a suggestion. This was, from very beginning, to denounce Brexit as a ‘right wing coup’ and have nowt to do with it. It would have seemed hire wire back in 2016 but every time Trump opens his mouth he confirms it now, when he’s not heaping praise on fellow white supremacists. Here Corbyn would have been perfect-as a pro-Leaver un-masking a Tory plot. Nixon goes to China. Corbyn goes to Brussels.

It’s also the leader’s job to shape the strategy, within the system they get. So celebrating how many he votes he won compared to Blair misses the point quite dangerously. Blair won because he spread his fewer votes geographically better. It’s no good piling up wasted votes in Hampstead but losing them in Hull, to borrow Faisal Islam’s characterisation.

Finally, it’s a leader’s job to know what’s happening to their country. Churchill once said a leader’s job was to predict the future and then spend the next few years explaining why it never happened. They need to see around corners, over hills and over dales. Academics like those above or Will Jennings or Jane Green have been shouting again and again about the social/political gaps and divisions opening up within England since 2016, while others such as Professor Awan-Scully have pointed to how the UK is de-uniting. This thoughtful piece from 2016 is usefully entitled ‘The conditions for Labour’s previous successes are falling apart. Where do we go from here?’ All of this was knowable and should have been known by the leader. If Tony Blair, who has spent years palling around with all sorts of war mongers, unsavoury autocrats and plutocrats, can plonk himself back here and see this all, why couldn’t Corbyn? Or why wouldn’t Corbyn?

So what?

And so what now, you ask? You quote Margaret Thatcher and ask me not to bring you problems, but solutions.

So one thing is to recognise how Labour leaders win. Now is definitely not 1997, 1966 or 1945. But Labour leaders have always had to build broad, awkward, sometimes contradictory coalitions. Back to Hampstead and Hull. This is the progressive dilemma of keeping your base while not frightening off the centre. Wilson faced it. Blair faced it. And now the new leader will, in a different guise.

And don’t Clement Attlee me, please. Clem was a Monarchist and vehement anti-communist who developed nuclear weapons while keeping it secret from his own Cabinet and helped create the Israel/Palestine problem that is Corbyn’s passion. That’s before I get onto my ‘how the hell did Attlee get away with not being blamed for partition’ rant. Read his memoirs (no, do, they’re ace). He was constantly undermined and attacked by the left, who even tried to coup him. He too built a progressive alliance, as this piece by Steven Fielding shows.

This leads me onto my second point, before I shut up, which is PR. Labour have thought about it and rejected it since Ramsay MacDonald. It seems they should do it. Yes it means compromise but that’s politics (man). Make a proper progressive alliance to get in, with a pledge of PR (see this discussion with Caroline Green and Lisa Nandy where I should have brushed my hair). If you have to make progressive alliances anyway, make a system which makes it easier (and fairer).

And that’s it. While we witness the firepower of the fully operational battle station that is Johnson’s government, also remember than climate change threatens us all, in our out of the EU. And Corbyn’s manifesto was the only major one to mention climate change first. We may remember that long after we forget everything else.

I’m an academic at Birkbeck College, University of London. All views and thoughts my own.