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Politics in 2019: What went so badly wrong?

By Louis Shankar

Dec 24, 2019

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First came the exit poll: a sudden, devastating blow to Labour. Then, the results trickled in, and Blyth Valley’s early declaration—it swung Tory for the first time in history—set the mood for the night. Conservatives and Brexiteers up and down England were jubilant; the SNP won big in Scotland, although uncertainty lies ahead north of the border with Johnson in No. 10.

In the lead-up to the election, many polls thought it would be close: either a small Tory majority or another hung parliament. I, for one, remained hopeful of the latter right up until the afternoon of election day, when I went to vote. I certainly wasn’t expecting a Tory landslide, their best election performance since Thatcher. Over the weekend, there was a profound sense of mourning. Then, the autopsy of Corbyn’s Labour began.

I was reminded of the feeling after Trump’s victory in 2016—a comparison that is more than just superficial. Many left-wing voters could not bear to see the left-wing candidate take the highest office, with doubts fuelled endlessly by an unchecked right-wing media. Both winning campaigns had simple messages: build the wall, get Brexit done. For many voters, the victor could do no wrong, unapologetic racism and divisionism had no effect on the polls. Both elections came down to disenfranchised, post-industrial communities—the ‘red wall’ and the ‘rust belt’—and a relatively small number of swing votes.

The dust has settled, new MPs have been sworn in, and a frankly ghastly cabinet has been appointed. Two former Tory MPs, Zac Goldsmith, who lost his seat for the second time in three years while Nicky Morgan swore on Friday to step away from front-line politics were quickly appointed as lifetime peers and will remain in cabinet positions. Calling out this new Tory government’s hypocrisy is exhausting already and it’s not even been two weeks.

A couple of silver-linings were the DUP losing two seats and the Brexit party not winning any, although both parties undoubtedly did their job of splitting the Leave vote into many key constituencies. However, come February, Nigel Farage will be without a job and his party will have zero representation. What’s next for the Brexit Party? Who knows.

Anyone remember, what seems like forever ago, when Johnson shut down Parliament in order to prepare a Queen’s speech? Strangely, this one didn’t need as much preparation and was delivered less than a week after the election took place. This time, healthcare and tougher terrorist sentencing were put centre stage. I’m wary to believe any promises the Tories make about the NHS; no one seems to know how many more (in the traditional, correct sense of the word) nurses there will be, nor how many new hospitals. The Guardian described the promise of a £33.9bn increase in funding by 2023 or 2024 as “largely a symbolic move.” There was also the suggestion of making photo ID mandatory at polling stations, a much-criticised policy that, unsurprisingly, tends to affect poorer and marginalised communities.

Corbyn attended the speech, traipsing into the House of Lords next to a dishevelled Johnson looking utterly miserable. He is, for now, still the leader of both Labour and the opposition—it’s the job of the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) to decide when he goes as leader and who will replace him.

Many commentators and critics are placing the blame for Labour’s colossal defeat squarely upon Corbyn’s shoulders. On doorsteps, many MPs (and now former MPs) found that his leadership was a real concern for many voters, above Brexit. His ambiguous position on Brexit didn’t help. Many Labour voters, including much of their traditional base, felt alienated by Corbyn and left behind by his policies. Obviously, media narratives didn’t help, with Johnson repeatedly dodging scrutiny—and it seems he has already reneged on several promises made during the campaign. Protections on workers’ rights were swiftly removed from the revised EU Withdrawal Agreement, which passed through the House of Commons by 358 to 234 votes on Friday 20 December.

Emily Thornberry, Jess Phillips, Angela Rayner, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Sir Kier Starmer and Lisa Nandy are all contenders for the leadership. Selecting another North London MP seems short-sighted. Meanwhile, Phillips has supported some problematic positions in the past, describing Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, among other things, doesn’t support abortion under any circumstances, as a “real gent.” And Rebecca Long-Bailey is a dedicated Corbynist when, clearly, the party needs a change in direction.

Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to have won an election since the 1970s. I, for one, do not want to see the party regress entirely to centrist Blairite policies. For all his flaws, Corbyn stood for decency and equality; many of his signature policies had overwhelming support from the public. The party is fragmenting: a leader at the centre of the party, rather than a centrist leader, might manage to hold things together.

A few months ago, it looked as if the Tories and the whole of the British right were falling apart and that we might see real reform of party lines. This election has healed those wounds, while nonetheless shifting the party further to the right. Last week, the leader of Britain First, a fascist group, urged its members to join the Conservative party and “secure” Boris Johnson’s premiership. Now, it is the left’s turn to be in disarray.

The next five years could be bleak. Now, more than ever, we need to fight and, most importantly, to hold those in power to account however we can.