The first thing to say about the British election is that the result is a staggering and historic defeat for both Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. Even Neil Kinnock—a Labour leader famed in the United States for being plagiarized by Joe Biden and in the United Kingdom for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory in 1992—didn’t lose so badly. The “red wall” of safe Labour seats in Britain’s northern industrial heartland—including Blyth Valley, which had never elected a Tory before, and Tony Blair’s former constituency of Sedgefield, held continuously by Labour since 1935—crumbled to dust.
The second is that Britain will now certainly leave the European Union, probably by the end of January. It is that certainty, more than any other factor, that explains both the fact and the scale of the Conservative triumph—and the stunning success of Boris Johnson’s transformation from a bumbling oaf without a mandate who couldn’t get a single bill through Parliament into a prime minister with a majority no other Tory leader has enjoyed since Margaret Thatcher. Johnson bet the House (of Commons) on this election—and won. Yet, while the scale of Johnson’s victory (and Corbyn’s defeat) is shocking, once the Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson betrayed Labour Remainers by lending her support to Johnson’s call for an early election, the outcome was never—despite a steady drumbeat of wishful thinking in the left press—really in doubt. Swinson’s loss of her own seat to the Scottish National Party was one of the few cheering moments on an otherwise bleak night.
While Corbyn fudged and fidgeted over Brexit, promising both to negotiate a new Brexit deal with the EU and then hold another referendum on that deal—in which he pledged to remain neutral—Johnson and the Conservatives offered clarity and closure. The Tory slogan “Get Brexit Done” might lack the pop-psychology punch of Brexit svengali Dominic Cummings’s previous masterpiece “Take Back Control,” but as a banner for co-opting and neutralizing Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit Party while also rallying the large swath of Brexit fatigue voters who cared less about the means than about putting an end to the country’s seemingly endless torment, it was pretty close to perfect.
The first duty of an opposition leader is to mount an effective opposition, and on Johnson’s signature project—dragging Britain out of Europe—Corbyn was never close to effective. Which isn’t to say that Labour would have done better as unequivocal Remainers. None of the Labour defectors who urged their constituents to follow them to the Liberal Democrats kept their seats. Nor did Labour’s persistence in trying to fight the election on its chosen ground of defending the National Health Service and opposing austerity break through. Part of that failure was doubtless due to a hostile media environment—the albatross around the neck of any Labour leader. But so were Tory pledges to increase spending on the NHS by £34 billion, build 40 new NHS hospitals, and fund 50,000 more nurses (partly by reversing a previous Tory government’s cuts).
It’s also true that Labour’s ambitious manifesto commitments to renationalize key public services, tax the wealthy, and finance a “Green Industrial Revolution” (the British version of the Green New Deal”) to ward off climate catastrophe read less like a program for political revolution than an ever-expanding wish list of promises that were never meant to be kept. The Tories, on the other hand, kept it simple.
One consequence is that while Johnson has five years in power if he wants it—his pledge to repeal the Fixed Term Parliaments Act means he can call the next election at a time of his choosing—his political mandate doesn’t extend much further than getting Brexit done. For the moment—as the election map reveals in stark detail—Johnson and the Tories have successfully pilfered much of Labour’s working-class base, especially in the north of England. But can they keep it?
Part of the answer to that depends on Johnson, who has once again demonstrated how dangerous it can be to underestimate him. A facile liar, serial philanderer, and shameless backstabber, Johnson’s personal qualities have never been as important as his firm grasp on political reality. He won two terms as mayor of London—one of the most racially and ethnically diverse cities in the world—despite his Balliol College arrogance and penchant for classical allusion. And though London—a redoubt of fervent Remainers—stayed mostly loyal to Labour this time (with the exception of Kensington and Chelsea, where the Lib Dems siphoned off enough Labour support to hand the Tories a 150-vote majority just two years after the Grenfell Tower disaster)—Johnson must know that holding on to his new working-class support will require him to avoid radical-right policies and keep his promises on the NHS.
Which doesn’t mean a Tory government isn’t going to be a disaster. Brexit will weaken an already faltering British economy, migrants will face an even more hostile reception, and the creeping privatization of Britain’s public sector—openly under the Tories, stealthily under New Labour—will continue. But Boris Johnson is not Donald Trump—though it will be interesting (by which I mean terrifying) to see how far Johnson will go to get that “massive” trade deal Trump promised this morning.
Meanwhile, Labour faces a terrible reckoning. The party’s left, anticipating catastrophe, got started on purges early, driving out Deputy Leader Tom Watson (meaning there is now no one to take the reins when Corbyn resigns) and even removing democratically selected candidates who were deemed insufficiently devoted to the Dear Leader. In Bassetlaw, where my old friend Sally Gimson was forced out by a kangaroo court presided over by my older friend Jon Lansman, the result was a record-breaking swing to the Conservatives, putting a Tory MP in a seat Labour had held for 90 years. But the centrists, who did their best to sabotage Corbyn from within before leading their own hegira to the Lib Dems, will doubtless return once Corbyn is gone.
It’s going to be messy, and ugly—but absolutely necessary if Labour is going to mount an effective opposition to Johnson’s brand of “One Nation” Toryism (a modern remix of the coalition of industrial workers and rural landowners pioneered by Benjamin Disraeli), let alone ever return to power. The northern white working class may be lost for now, but as Jon Cruddas’s knife-edge victory in Dagenham shows, a One Nation Labour that addresses white and minority workers on more than purely economic grounds can still win—even for a Remain MP running in a Brexit constituency. Indeed Labour’s Future—the coroner’s report Cruddas authored after Labour’s defeat in 2015—wouldn’t be a bad starting point for the debate about the party’s future that, once it elected Jeremy Corbyn as leader, Labour never had.
Finally, a brief word about Labour and the Jews. As I’ve written here before, unlike in the United States, the Jewish vote simply doesn’t matter in Britain. There is only one constituency—Margaret Thatcher’s old seat of Finchley and Golder’s Green—where Jews make up even 20 percent of the electorate. (Mike Freer, the Tory MP who held off a challenge from Jewish Labour challenger Sarah Sackman in 2015, easily defeated Luciana Berger, the former head of Labour Friends of Israel who defected to the Liberal Democrats in 2019.) Despite the oceans of ink spilled over Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to adequately address anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, the whole issue might have made a difference in three seats—at most. (One of them, sadly, was Hendon, where my son and his friends spent election day trudging through the rain in a doomed attempt to turn out Labour voters.) The chief rabbi’s ridiculous claim that Corbyn and Labour represented an existential threat to British Jews made the front page of Rupert Murdoch’s London Times, but most of Britain’s 250,000 Jews (who make up a smaller portion of the population than Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs) don’t go to synagogue—and even of those who do, only half belong to the chief rabbi’s denomination.
Corbyn’s longtime support for Palestine was always going to make him a target for supporters of Israel. And while he responded to the crisis with maddening incompetence, and with an insensitivity to Jewish pain in the face of a small number of truly horrifying incidents of anti-Semitism within the party, any attempt to paint Corbyn as a bigot has to get around his repeated denunciations of anti-Semitism (something that can’t be said for Hitler and his buddies, or Trump’s pals on the alt-right). As I told American friends, so long as the nuts in this country have easy access to guns, it will remain much safer to be a Jew in Britain than in the United States. For me, as I suspect for many Jewish Labour members, Brexit was far more important than Corbyn’s personal failings. Most elections, after all, come down to a choice of the lesser of two evils. Unfortunately, in Britain the greater evil triumphed.