The General Election in the United Kingdom on Thursday 12 December produced a major earthquake in British politics. Although opinion polls had shown either a narrow majority for the Conservative Party or a hung parliament, and the gap between the Conservative and the Labor parties had narrowed during the last few days of the campaign, the outcome came as a shock not only to the opposition parties that lost so badly, but even to the Conservative Party that could never dream such a landslide. President Trump was one of the first leaders to congratulate Boris Johnson with promises of “massive” trade deals.
A long list of Tory failures
The Conservative Party’s failures during the past ten years include: a botched EU referendum, former Prime Minister David Cameron’s immediate resignation after the referendum with no provision having been made for its aftermath, a disastrous general election called by Theresa May in 2017 to give her a mandate to rule, which turned a slim Tory majority into a hung parliament, three years of disunity inside the Conservative Party and the repeated defeats of the agreement reached by Theresa May with the EU mainly due to the uncompromising stances of the right-wing extremists in the Conservative Party who wanted to leave without an agreement.
The party had pursued a long policy of economic austerity that had produced almost unprecedented poverty among the lower classes, an NHS in crisis, and a widening gap between the super-rich and the poor. This disastrous record should have normally resulted in an overwhelming Labor victory. Yet, it seems that none of those lies and failures had an effect on the way that people voted.
A lackluster campaign
Boris Johnson, the leader of the Conservative Party, had led a lackluster campaign, had refused to take part in many interviews, and had attracted ridicule the day before the election for hiding in a fridge in order to run away from an interviewer.
He had also produced a very thin and unambitious Manifesto. Many of his campaign promises were immediately revealed to have been false. He promised to build 41 new hospitals, but then it turned out that funding would be provided for only six hospitals during the next five years and the rest of them would be built at some indeterminate date in the future. He claimed that there would be 50,000 new nurses during the next parliament, but it soon became clear that the figure included 18,500 existing nurses. Meanwhile, the National Health Service has been experiencing its biggest crisis in many years.
Johnson’s uncaring reaction to the photo of a four-year-old boy lying on coats on the floor of an overcrowded hospital caused a great deal of panic in Tory ranks. He took the reporter’s mobile and put it in his pocket. There were many similar incidents that revealed his uncaring attitude.
On the other hand, the Labor Party membership was bigger than ever before, turning it into the largest Socialist party in Europe. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labor Party, ran a very energetic and positive campaign, being surrounded by vast cheering crowds wherever he went. The Labor Party Manifesto was one of the most ambitious and indeed revolutionary manifestos for change in recent decades, and it seemed to be largely popular. Corbyn put forward what he called “the most transformative, radical and exciting program ever put before the British electorate”.
The Manifesto promised to bring energy, water, rail and mail delivery companies into public ownership, and that it would nationalize BT Group’s Openreach network so it could roll-out ultrafast broadband across the country for free.
Clearly, all of this came at great cost. The Confederation of British Industry claimed that the nationalization of public utilities would cost £196 billion (about $263). The Labor Manifesto also promised to abolish tuition fees for university students, to provide funds for continuing education and training, to bring the voting age down to 16 from the current 18, to spend billions more each year on the NHS, and also to provide a nationwide Social Care System to work alongside the NHS in order to cater for an aging population. In order to pay for those huge costs, the Labor Government would raise taxes on the top five percent of wealthy people, would introduce a wealth tax and would close tax loopholes. Most of those promises seemed to be very popular with the people.
Winners and losers
However, despite all this, Boris Johnson won the biggest Conservative victory since the glory days of Margaret Thatcher’s third term in 1987, and despite the seeming popularity of its Manifesto, the Labor Party suffered the worst result since the 1935 General Election.
The Lib Dem Party’s young and newly elected leader Jo Swinson, who had boasted at the start of the campaign that she would be the next British prime minister, lost her seat of East Dunbartonshire to the Scottish National Party. Far from gaining a huge majority the party lost one of its 12 seats (that of its leader).
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Union Party (DUP) that had kept Theresa May’s minority government in power in return for scrapping the so-called Backstop, which separated Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain, lost two of its 10 seats. Its deputy leader Nigel Dodds lost his seat to the Irish Nationalist Sinn Fein Party.
Clearly, the biggest winner was the Conservative Party which won 365 seats, gaining 47 new seats, while the Labor Party was the biggest loser with only 203 seats, losing 59 seats.
Reasons for Labor defeat:
Since the election, Corbyn’s critics have mentioned three main reasons for his failure: The lack of clarity in his Brexit plans, fears about national security, and Corbyn’s personal unpopularity. There is some truth in all of them.
Johnson’s main slogan was “Get the Brexit Done”, something that appealed to the Leavers and even to millions of Remainers who had become disillusioned with three years of squabbling in parliament. The Lib Dems decided to go completely against the referendum and abolish Brexit altogether. However, the Labor Party tried to remain faithful to the views of both the 17,410,742 people who had voted to leave and 16,141,241 who had voted to remain in the EU.
Labor proposed to hold new talks in Brussels within three months and reach a better deal that would not damage trade between the EU and the United Kingdom by remaining in the Single Market, and one that would safeguard the rights of workers, and then put it to a new referendum within six months and carry out the outcome.
This proposal was too complex to sell in a few words on the doorstep. Meanwhile, the rightwing media accused Labor of more dither and delay, while Johnson claimed that he would get out of Europe by the end of January and would reach a new trade agreement by the end of next year. This of course is a great exaggeration if not a downright lie, because any complex new agreement would take more than a year to conclude. The EU-Canada agreement took more than seven years to negotiate. In fact, Labor’s proposal to remain within the Single Market would have resulted in a simpler and quicker agreement.
However, voters want clarity and simple solutions, not detailed intellectual arguments. A Labor source said: “It wasn’t that people didn’t like the policies, people thought there was too many of them.” Jon Lansman, leader of the Corbyn campaign group, Momentum, said: “The manifesto was too detailed and too long. It was a programme for 10 years, not for government.”
The Tory media also highlighted the alleged security risk that Corbyn would pose. Corbyn had always campaigned against Britain’s wars of aggression, such as the 2003 Iraq invasion and the 2011 attacks on Libya. He had said in the past that NATO should have been disbanded after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and that he would never use nuclear weapons. The fact that the Labor Conference had reversed those decisions and pledged that Britain would remain a member of the NATO and would keep nuclear weapons as a deterrent did not seem to sway the diehard pro-war pundits.
Corbyn went into the campaign with the lowest net satisfaction ratings of any opposition leader since the late 1970s. This of course is not surprising. Practically the entire corporate media which controls perhaps over 90% of the entire written and broadcast media had waged a sustained campaign against Corbyn ever since he had been elected the leader of the Labor Party.
In addition to all the previous charges levelled against Corbyn, there has been a vicious and sustained campaign, accusing him falsely of “anti-Semitism”. Of course, many prominent Jews have openly challenged those charges and have in fact shown that there is more anti-Semitism in the Conservative party, among the rightwing groups, and in society as a whole than in the Labor Party, and that incidents of anti-Semitic remarks in the Labor Party have declined since Corbyn has been the party leader, but none of those academic studies have made a difference.
There has hardly been a day when one of the bulletins of some of the main broadcasting organizations, including the BBC, has not made a reference to Corbyn’s alleged anti-Semitism. Jewish MPs and Peers have paraded over the media denouncing Corbyn, and right in the middle of the campaign, Britain’s Chief Orthodox Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, launched a savage attack on Corbyn, stating that he was “unfit for office”. He went on to say: “A new poison — sanctioned from the top — has taken root in the Labour Party,” adding that in the election “the very soul of our nation is at stake.” [https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/labour-antisemitism-corbyn-not-fit-for-high-office-says-ephraim-mirvis-0thlclsns?fbclid=IwAR2Qv-_xt6zqvJczD8O3BnOnpXvkfeU6UxlQ7W2uAqM3mnMTX-BeMKu3Zso]
This was despite the fact that in a statement of Jewish Voice for Labour many Jewish Labor Party members wrote: “We are Jews who are entirely comfortable in the Labour Party. But we are far from comfortable seeing the terrible history of the Jewish people exploited by those intent upon scuppering the best hope in decades for ordinary and vulnerable members of our society.” [https://merip.org/2019/04/israel-and-the-antisemitism-playbook-in-great-britain-and-the-grassroots/]
In an excellent scholarly article entitled “Smoke Without Fire: The Myth of a ‘Labour Antisemitism Crisis’, forming a chapter of a book on the “Labour Antisemitism”, Jamie Stern-Weiner and Alan Maddison debunked that myth writing: “This last claim—a recent invention even in the context of the ‘Labour antisemitism’ campaign—is the most tenuous, flying as it does in the face of Corbyn’s entire documented political career. From April 1977, when he helped organise the defence of Jewish-populated Wood Green from a National Front rally;
Also over 200 prominent Jewish members and supporters of the Labor Party stated: “We believe that the Labour party under the progressive leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is a crucial ally in the fight against bigotry and reaction. His lifetime record of campaigning for equality and human rights, including consistent support for initiatives against antisemitism, is formidable. His involvement strengthens this struggle.” [https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/20/jeremy-corbyn-labour-party-crucial-ally-in-fight-against-antisemitism?CMP=share_btn_tw]
However, none of these statements received a fraction of the attention in the media devoted to the statements of the chief rabbi and other detractors of Corbyn.
As Professor Neve Gordon, an Israeli law professor currently at Queen Mary University of London, wrote: “Since I moved to London two years ago, hardly a day has gone by without a new attack against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in the British media. These attacks follow a familiar script: a fragment of some action, photo or errant remark from Corbyn’s past is unearthed and sensationally presented as fresh evidence of his sordid character—and this information is then mobilized to demonstrate that Labour’s leader is ‘antisemitic and pro-terrorist.’” [https://merip.org/2019/04/israel-and-the-antisemitism-playbook-in-great-britain-and-the-grassroots/]
These incidents have included photographs of Corbyn laying a wreath in a Palestinian cemetery in Tunis in 2014, falsely claiming that he had been paying homage to the terrorists who had carried out the 1972 Munich Olympic massacre. The Daily Telegraph published an exclusive report showing pictures and a video of Corbyn at a 2012 conference in Doha, Qatar, where he chaired a panel discussion about the plight of Palestinian refugees.
These incidents do not show any anti-Jewish action or sentiment by him or members of the Labor Party, but he is demonized due to occasionally speaking about the Palestinians and criticizing some of the policies of the rightwing Israeli government under Netanyahu. As Professor Gordon points out: “And, finally, what are the political objectives of such vicious and relentless attacks? There are two apparent reasons. First, Corbyn has a clear economic agenda and is not one to abandon his beliefs in the face of power…. Second, if Corbyn’s bid in the next elections is successful he will be the first prime minister in British history, and indeed in the history of Western governments, that is pro-Palestinian.” [https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/feb/20/jeremy-corbyn-labour-party-crucial-ally-in-fight-against-antisemitism?CMP=share_btn_tw]
These attacks on Corbyn set a dangerous precedent both in the United States and in Britain, warning all those aspiring to office that any criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians will spell the end of their political career.
To conclude, the rather vague Labor Party position on Brexit and these vicious attacks by the establishment media against Corbyn were the two most important factors behind the defeat of the Labor Party and the ascendance of the Conservatives
Threats to the union
However, the situation is not as rosy for the country as the Conservative victory indicates. The Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), which is demanding independence from the United Kingdom and wants to remain in the EU practically swept the board in Scotland with 48 seats, gaining 13. The Conservatives have only six seats, having lost seven; and Labor has only one, having lost 6 seats in Scotland.
There is a similar picture in Northern Ireland. For the first time in history the Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland won more votes than the Unionist DUP that wants union with Britain. It is important to bear in mind that both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted strongly to stay in the EU in the 2016 EU Referendum. While in England 53.4% voted to leave versus 46.6% to remain, in Scotland 62.0% versus 38.0% voted to remain, and in Northern Ireland 55.8% versus 44.2% voted to remain in the EU.
There have always been strong nationalist sentiments in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although in the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum 55.30% versus 44.70% of the Scots voted to remain as a part of the United Kingdom, recent opinion polls have shown that now there is a majority in favor of independence in view of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, something that is confirmed by the results of the latest election, which in Scotland was turned into a referendum on whether to remain as part of the United Kingdom or apply for continued EU membership.
These developments do not bode well for the continued unity of the United Kingdom. There have already been demands in Northern Ireland for a referendum to decide whether it should maintain its union with the United Kingdom or join the South, thus remaining in the EU. Opinion polls show a majority in favor of remaining in the EU.
The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said that Boris Johnson has “no right” to stand in the way of another Scottish independence referendum. She has argued that the election result “renews, reinforces and strengthens” the mandate for a new referendum. In a speech in Edinburgh on Friday, she told Mr. Johnson: “You, as the leader of a defeated party in Scotland, have no right to stand in the way. The people of Scotland have spoken. It is time now to decide our own future.” She has already requested that SNP should be granted the legal power to hold another referendum vote.
So, although the Conservatives can take great satisfaction in the result of the election that has given them a big majority to rule for the next five years, this election may mark the start of the disintegration of the United Kingdom. Scotland and Northern Ireland may eventually break away from Britain and join the EU, especially if Johnson concludes a hard Brexit that would curtail the unimpeded trade between those two parts of Britain with the EU. However, in his victory speech, Johnson adopted a conciliatory tone and spoke of a “one-nation Conservatism”. For the sake of Britain, let’s hope that he can deliver on those promises.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: