Jeremy Corbyn
Jeremy Corbyn (Image: PA)

Apples and pears, knees up m- oh, forget it.

The resounding election of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party in the UK, and the no less dramatic defeat of Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, has had exactly the aftermath you’d expect; a fusillade of hottakegasms from the rightariat, a series of miserable self-justifications from the Labour left, and various shitty Cassandrades from the Labour right and the Marxist/post-Marxist ultra left.

I pretty much intend to add to all of these, and then some.

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It’s one measure of the significance of this election and result that every forecast was measured, on both left and right. The right’s braying contempt for Corbyn before the upset 2017 result had been replaced by seething hatred.

Despite all their bluster about terrorist, traitor, etc, there was no confidence the public would reject him. The left, fearing the worst, predicted a Boris win and then hedged with the possibilities that this might might not happen. 

The wariness revealed much about each side (yes, yes meself included) because in the end it was exactly as you’d expect from not only the polls, but the situation.

The Tories were offering Brexit above all else, whose incompletion much of the public found painful; Labour were offering an extension of the pain, in a complex process. That it was the more rational approach — line up the best possible deal, then vote it up or down — was irrelevant.

Many British people, both Leave and Remain, wanted Brexit done, not simply because it had been voted on, but because the endless finagling of it simply reminded them of their powerlessness in relation to institutional politics of both right and left. They wanted to stop thinking about “politics” because politics ain’t politics anymore. That was sufficient to guarantee that sections of Labour’s northern vote would come across and that not enough Remainers would go the other way.

The result is consequently being taken as epochal, not merely in terms of the changes to what the UK will now be, but also as regards the shape of politics. That’s true, but not in the simple manner in which it’s being expressed.

Like all first-past-the-post votes, the result telescoped, the Tories getting 56% of the seats on 43% of the vote. But that said, any attempt to second-guess the result, by slotting the raw figures into proportional or preferential frames, falls short.

What are Lib-Dem voters in marginal Labour electorates thinking, killing a good chance at Remaining, by legging the Tory up? Ditto Greens etc. Why didn’t some form of grand tactical trade-off emerge? Because they’re pretty much impossible to arrange and hold down, that’s why.

It’s two-party systems for FPTP or you’re in trouble. Did Labour make any attempt to corral one, or did hatred, etc, take over? We’ll find out in the postmortems I guess.

But FPTP is also more rubbery than other systems. Labour hasn’t had as bad a result as this since 1935. But the Tories have, twice, in 1945 and 1997, the latter seeing 418 Labour MPs elected, the Tories down to 165. There was no Brexit in those elections — no cause lying skew-whiff to left-right politics — and they were explicit votes on program.

On the numbers alone, the idea that Labour is out for a generation, or even in 2024, is not a given. Perversely, one can add that Labour’s campaign was so bad, so unfocused, so divided, that getting 33% is a testament to the relative strength of the brand.

A lot of the northern losses are very small Tory majorities, made possible by the Brexit Party shaving off a thousand here and there. One round of layoffs at the grittling factory in Little Scunging, and the new Tory north’ll get wise. 

But sure, right, yeah. On the numbers alone, etc etc. Of course it is much worse than that. Johnson and his leadership group will now set about transforming the Tory party into one spruiking a mix of Promethean development and patriotism, essentially offering a deal to worker supporters, to get something rather than not much at all, as others surge ahead of the old “workshop of the world”.

It’s quite different to the old “one nation conservatism” which relied on duty and abnegation to enforce modest expectations.

That won’t be easy. If only the appearance of it is done, the backlash will be fierce. Implementing the reality means going up against the business lobby, which will want to crush wages as they rise due to falling immigration numbers.

We will see if Boris and team have more than bluster, to take this fight on. But if they do, well that might be it for Labour in its current form. The Tories have an inroad into Labour heartland; the Tory shires that turned out for Tony Blair in ’97 will not go the other way. Labour is still in the hands of the left.

Paradoxically, Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest achievement has been keeping it in one piece, while retaining parts of the heartland vote, given a party bisected in two dimensions (south: remain; north: leave; MPs and members: remain; base: leave).

Corbyn will not get credit for that, or for anything he has done, of course. He had a near-impossible task; he did not have the superhuman political skills to overcome it.

The hatred that attaches to him is in part because he was an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation by the actual democratisation of the Labour Party. What was wanted instead was myth, and a cartoon hero to deliver it, ye gods and monsters.

More on all this tomorrow, if someone doesn’t slap me out of writing about Labour. Apples and pears, eyes down… ah sod it.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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