Britain: People power needed to resist Johnson

December 16, 2019
Boris Johnson as the joker. Detail of an artwork by James Mylne.

The British General Election, held on December 12, resulted in a huge victory for the right and a sweeping defeat for the left. Boris Johnson, a close ally of United States President Donald Trump, topped the poll with 43% of the vote for the Conservative Party.

While this was a modest increase of just over 1% since the 2017 General Election, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party fell by 8% to 33%. In a complex election in an increasingly complex Britain, the result was a gain of 47 Members of Parliament for Johnson, with Labour losing 59 seats to take just 203 places in the 650-strong House of Commons.

Johnson fought a mistake-ridden campaign and was widely ridiculed for episodes such as taking a journalist’s phone and hiding in a fridge. His victory has made the British a global laughing stock, but a victory it was.

Britain will now exit the European Union (EU) and attempt to strike a close relationship with Trump. Moreover, Johnson is keen to revolutionise the British political system to cement his power. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Indian President Narendra Modi and other right-wing leaders, who have used xenophobia and sectarianism to cement their power, have a new best friend.

Corbyn, fighting on an essentially green-left manifesto, is resigning as Labour leader, having failed to match his 2017 General Election result, where significant gains were made.

It is difficult to think of a greater contrast in personalities, Johnson as a chaotic, amoral leader, notorious for episodes of lying, compared with Corbyn who has spent decades supporting environmentalism, human rights, workers’ and anti-war causes.

Why did Corbyn lose? What should the left in Britain do next?

In the midst of the gloom, there are some slender rays of sunshine from the election. Corbyn has inspired hundreds of thousands of people to join the Labour Party; these activists, firmly on the left, are not going to disappear.

In the North of Ireland and Scotland, results were very different from England and Wales.

In the North of Ireland, the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two members of parliament, meaning their majority has disappeared, and the possibility of a united Ireland looks far more likely. In North Belfast, Sinn Fein beat the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. Their candidate John Finucane is the son of Pat Finucane, a lawyer killed by Loyalist paramilitaries in collusion with British forces in 1989.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 48 out of 59 constituencies. The possibility of a united Ireland and an independent Scotland have both grown, something that many on the English left also applaud.

There seem little else to be optimistic about and everyone on the left is discussing what went wrong. It seems straightforward to me. Brexit allowed Johnson to win, and the long-term assault by the British media damaged Corbyn.

In 2016, British voters narrowly voted to leave the EU, and Johnson’s simple call to complete an exit from the EU was a relatively easy sell. While Britain remains polarised on the EU, most voters have become weary of the whole thing; the “remain” campaign has failed to persuade “leavers” and a simple call to exit has its appeal.

Labour held on to nearly all its seats with narrow majorities in the south of the country, which has tended to be pro-remain. Most of its losses were in solidly working-class constituencies in the north of England and Wales, which had returned Labour MPs with large majorities for decades. It seems particularly bizarre and tragic that such stalwarts of the Labour left as Laura Pidcock in Durham and Denis Skinner in Bolsover were replaced by Conservatives.

Brexit has had huge symbolic currency. Britain’s role as a powerful global player has been collapsing and leaving the EU appeals to those on the right as a way of asserting British sovereignty.

On the left, a strong but minority anti-EU sentiment has continued. In turn, with the shock of austerity and poverty, voting against the EU has been a form of protest against an establishment.

Labour ran on a policy of recognising the referendum result and did well in the 2017 General Election. The pressure from Remainers for a “peoples vote” – essentially a new referendum – which resulted in Labour shifting position, accounts for much of the defeat. Passions are so intense, however, that supporting Brexit would have lost Labour more seats in remain areas. These divisions over Brexit probably made a Labour win impossible.

Attacks on Corbyn

In turn, Corbyn has been perhaps the most smeared politician in British history, and this, together with attacks from a disloyal and right-wing parliamentary Labour Party, pushed his standing amongst voters down. Of course, any left candidate will be attacked energetically by virtually all of Britain’s largely right-wing newspapers.

Corbyn and his close ally John McDonnell are stepping down from party leadership. As they do so, a variety of suggestions for defeating the Conservative Party have been made.

Calls from the media and many Labour MPs, past and present, to move Labour towards the political centre are deafening. They look to the electoral victories of Labour’s most right-wing leader, Tony Blair.


While Labour suffered a devastating defeat, the centrists beloved by the British media were virtually annihilated. The centre ground Liberal Democrats, who, at one point, were thought likely to pick up hundreds of seats, returned a tiny number of MPs – just 11. Their leader Jo Swinson lost her constituency to the SNP.

The centrist Change UK group, formed by ex-Labour and Conservative MPs, and hugely supported by the British media, gained just 10,000 votes. Every Labour MP who had resigned in protest at Corbyn’s leadership, lost when they stood under a new ticket.

Britain is hurting and a return to some kind of centrist politics is unlikely to deliver victory for Labour.

Long-term trends of deindustrialisation and destruction of working-class communities are part of the picture explaining Labour’s defeat.

However, the party has majority support amongst voters under the age of 45, whereas the Conservative victory is based on their strong support amongst the over 60s, and their long-term success looks less certain

The Conservatives suffer from other weaknesses. The promise of Brexit looks likely to be empty; while Johnson has hegemony in Britain, his power to bend the EU to his will is illusory. He is likely to be forced into a position of “Brexit in Name Only” (BRINO). This is because a hard Brexit will lead to tariffs on British goods and damage corporate and financial interests.

Brexit is inspired on the right as a symbol of British strength, but Britain is weak. Therefore, Johnson is likely to deliver either a continuing trade relationship with the EU but in a subservient position, or a one-sided trade agreement with the US.

Brexit is the subject of great passion but the practical gains of leaving the EU seem entirely illusory. Equally, working class leave voters are likely to have only a shallow attachment to the Conservatives.

Johnson’s attempts to permanently change the electoral landscape in favour of the Conservatives look challenging at best.

A recession or other economic problems would also seriously damage his government. However, for the time being, Johnson is in charge, Labour have lost, and Britain is leaving the EU.

While nobody is really certain of how Johnson will govern, the UK is now on the side of Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and other populist right-wing governments. Resistance is going to be both vital and difficult.

What now?

An immediate task is to work to elect a new left-wing leader for Labour and to defend all that is good in Corbyn’s vision.

Those of us outside of Labour, for example, in the Greens or the SNP, need to work to support a broad left challenge to Johnson.

While Labour has built a mass membership on the left, long-term community building in working-class communities is going to be vital. Politics is about power, so unless counter-power to the rich and powerful is built, any political solutions for the left will fail.

None of this is easy, and any tactic must involve patient, long-term work. Given the challenges of the climate crisis, time is – sadly –  something we don’t have.  All we can do is to keep thinking strategically, keep going and act.

[Derek Wall is a former international coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales.]

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