The World

How Did Labour Blow This?

Jeremy Corbyn’s party not only failed to capitalize on the dysfunction caused by Boris Johnson. It lost ground.

Close-up of Jeremy Corbyn's face.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves his home in London on Friday. Leon Neal/Getty Images

There are 650 explanations for the Conservative Party’s resounding victory in Thursday’s general election—one for every constituency in the United Kingdom—and just as many reasons that Labour suffered its worst defeat since 1935, failing to capitalize on the past four years of chaos under Tory leadership.

Leigh, the constituency in Northwest England where I grew up, was one of the bricks that shattered Labour’s fabled “red wall.” What had previously been a safe Labour seat elected a Conservative for the first time in its 134-year history. According to the local paper, in his victory speech, newly elected Member of Parliament James Grundy declared that “his ‘Get Brexit Done’ message was key to the campaign.” I’m sure he’s right. After all, 63.29 percent of Leigh voters supported the Leave side in the EU referendum in 2016, and there’s undoubtedly a deep sense of resentment that local sentiment has been ignored. Labour MP Lisa Nandy, who held her seat in neighboring Wigan, said in an interview with the BBC that working-class Labour supporters who voted to leave had been insulted by middle-class Southerners, who dismissed them as “stupid” and “racist.” When visiting the area, it’s impossible not to encounter expressions of exasperation that Brexit still hasn’t happened. People, including some who voted to remain in the European Union, are so sick of the tune that’s been playing for the past 3½ years that they’re ready for the music to stop, even if it’s pretty much guaranteed that whatever song comes on next will be even harder on the ears.

Nevertheless, it’s still hard to believe that Tories were able to win some of their new Northern and Midlands seats. How could Labour strongholds like Bolsover, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat), and Blyth Valley turn blue? Until now, it was unthinkable if only because of tribal loyalties—working-class Northerners would never ally themselves with posh Tories like Boris Johnson!—but the EU referendum ended those certainties. Something similar happened in Scotland with the independence referendum of 2014. Before the referendum, during which Labour formed a unionist alliance with the Conservatives to oppose independence, Labour held 41 seats in Scotland—having had as many as 56 just a few years before. In the 2015 general election, one year after the referendum, Scottish Labour lost all but one of those seats as the Scottish National Party moved to dominance. As of this morning, Labour is back to a single Scottish seat after the SNP took six of its seats and seven from the Conservatives, setting the stage for another constitutional crisis around independence. That’s the kind of radical realignment that happened in the North and Midlands of England on Thursday, where the Conservatives grabbed 24 seats that Labour had held for decades.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t much of a factor in these former socialist strongholds. In all my visits to Northern England and Wales, including two this year, I’ve never heard anyone mention Corbyn, much less complain about him—he’s just one more Southerner leading the party, albeit one who lacks even a hint of charisma. Elsewhere, though, he was a huge liability. Although Labour maintained its strength in London, gaining one seat there, it was in spite of rather than because of Corbyn. He was unable to resolve internal party crises, including repeated allegations of anti-Semitism. During a high-profile TV interview during the campaign, Corbyn refused four times to apologize to the Jewish community on the day that Britain’s chief rabbi declared that “a new poison—sanctioned from the very top—had taken root” in the party. (A week later, he did apologize.)

Corbyn’s attempt to take a middle-of-the-road stance on Brexit, when he wasn’t avoiding the country’s dominant political issue entirely, alienated both the working-class Leave supporters in the North and Midlands and liberal Southerners who voted Remain. The party was also unable to win over new supporters. Its manifesto, which promises to provide free broadband service, to institute a four-day workweek, and abolish college tuition fees—reliably described as “radical” in the Tory-dominated press—failed to “cut through,” as the Brits like to say. The less well-off saw those policies as too good to be true, and more economically secure voters worried that they would end up paying for them.

In the 2017 general election, Corbyn and the Labour Party surprised everyone by avoiding an expected rout. Now we know the drubbing was simply delayed by two years. As irrational as it may be, Britons—except for those in Scotland—have once again made it very clear that they want to leave the European Union, and they want to leave it soon. Whether Johnson can really make that happen without encountering some kind of catastrophe is less obvious, but there’s no doubt he has a mandate to try.

Corbyn may be done as party leader—though he did not make the traditional loser’s gesture of resigning the day after the election, he said he would step down early next year after “a period of reflection”—his brand of socialism still dominates the party’s top echelons as well as its rank-and-file membership. Thursday’s Conservative win means that Tony Blair is the only Labour leader since 1974 to have led his party to election victory—and there isn’t another Third Way compromiser in sight.