To rebuild from a defeat Labour must base itself on the facts

By Oliver Wilson

There can be no illusions. In the election the working class and oppressed have suffered a serious defeat at the hands of the Tories. It means that the Tory Party, purged even of its fake ‘wets’, has five years to carry out its project of the ‘Americanisation’ of British society – to savagely attack workers’ rights and social protection.

Confronted with this onslaught it is more important than ever that Jeremy Corbyn, and the Corbynista wing of the Party, continues to lead Labour. Any other Labour leadership would not merely refuse to resist the Tory assault which is to come but will be an active participant in it – an obstacle to resisting it.

Faced with such a situation, and the attacks to come, it is vital that a strictly objective analysis of what has occurred is made. Only facts and reality, not myths which some are trying to spread, are useful in fighting the savage assaults to come and learning the lessons of the defeat to resist them.

What the votes show

In 2017 Labour was 2.3% behind the Tories, forcing a hung Parliament. On the best polling estimates if Labour had been within around 6% of the Tories at this election a hung Parliament would have again resulted – and this time, with no one to form an agreement with on his form of Brexit, Johnson would have been finished. But instead Labour’s vote fell by 7.8% compared to 2017, delivering Johnson a big victory. The decisive question is therefore where these Labour votes were lost to?

The votes at the general election tell its story with total clarity – as shown in the table below. In round numbers Labour in net terms lost two and a half million votes compared to 2017. In contrast the Lib Dems in net terms rose by 1.3 million, the Greens rose by 340,000, and the SNP rose by 260,000. Taking into account smaller parties, this means that the vote for strongly pro-Remain parties rose by almost two million. In contrast the vote for the Tories and their pro-Brexit allies in net terms rose by 350,000. There was also a small fall in turnout.

In short, in net terms Labour lost 4 votes to hard Remain parties for every 1 vote it lost to pro-Brexit parties. The claim that Labour basically lost votes to Brexit parties is a straightforward falsification – the exact opposite of the truth.

Text Box: Table 1
Table 1

This claim that Labour lost votes fundamentally to pro-Brexit parties, not to Remain parties, is based on one of the worst methods in statistics – refusing to look at the overall picture and instead extrapolating from selected areas, Wales or parts of the north of England, where Labour did lose votes to pro-Brexit parties. But as Lenin put it in Statistics and Sociology: ‘The most widely used, and most fallacious, method in the realm of social phenomena is to tear out individual minor facts and juggle with examples. Selecting chance examples presents no difficulty at all, but is of no value, or of purely negative value, for in each individual case everything hinges on the historically concrete situation. Facts, if we take them in their entirety, in their interconnection, are not only stubborn things, but undoubtedly proof-bearing things. Minor facts, if taken out of their entirety, out of their interconnection, if they are arbitrarily selected and torn out of context, are merely things for juggling, or even worse… we must seek to build a reliable foundation of precise and indisputable facts that can be confronted to any of the “general” or “example-based” arguments now so grossly misused in certain countries. And if it is to be a real foundation, we must take not individual facts, but the sum total of facts, without a single exception, relating to the question under discussion. Otherwise there will be the inevitable, and fully justified, suspicion that the facts were selected or compiled arbitrarily, that instead of historical   phenomena being presented in objective interconnection and interdependence and treated as a whole, we are presenting a “subjective” concoction to justify what might prove to be a dirty business.’

Looking not only at the total votes but at the shares of the vote, which gets rid of the effect of the small fall in turnout, shows an identical picture of overwhelming Labour net loss to Remain parties not to pro-Brexit parties. Labour’s vote fell by 7.8%. Support for strongly pro-Remain parties (chiefly Lib Dems, SNP, Greens) rose by 6.2%. Support for pro-Brexit parties (chiefly Tories, UKIP, Brexit Party) rose by 1.6%. Again, Labour lost in net terms 4 votes to Remain parties for every 1 vote lost to pro-Brexit parties. 

Text Box: Figure 1
Figure 1

The collapse in Labour’s vote was therefore factually overwhelmingly to Remain parties. Labour suffered a severe defeat at the election because it lost its dominance of Remain supporters. Refusal to face these facts is to act like a political ostrich with its head in the sand – ignoring the fundamental features of the situation to discuss individual results taken out of context. It is to create, as Lenin put it: ‘a “subjective” concoction to justify what might prove to be a dirty business.’

To rebuild from defeat Labour has to base itself on the real facts not on ‘subjective concoctions’. Anything else would only aid further defeats.

When Labour lost its support

The opinion polls, which are of course themselves less significant than the actual results, also show a story of total clarity.

As long as Brexit was a future, and therefore theoretical, issue Labour remained neck and neck with the Tories. Strongly pro-Remain parties, in particular the Lib Dems, remained marginal – in March 2019, just before the first deadline for Brexit, the Lib Dem share of voting intentions was 10%, only very slightly above their 7.4% result in 2017, and Labour was essentially neck and neck with the Tories (see Figure 2). But as Brexit moved from a theoretical to a practical issue, with the approaching deadline for EU withdrawal, with the Lib Dem emphasis on opposing Brexit, and with Labour at that time not committed to its final policy of a referendum with Remain as an option, these factors led to a surge in Lib Dem support and a severe fall in Labour’s support. The Lib Dems achieved a 19.6% share of the vote in the Euro elections, compared to Labour’s 13.6%, and with this momentum they reached a peak of 24% in polls of voting intentions in a general election, again ahead of Labour, in May 2019.

The claim made by pro-Brexit forces in Labour that Labour lost support when it adopted a position for another referendum has no base in fact whatever. The polls show with stark clarity that Labour lost support in the period leading to the Euro elections. Labour’s support actually went up after it adopted its final position on Brexit.

The Euro election was always going to be significantly different to a general election, as it was seen as a type of specific vote on Brexit, and it was clear Labour would win back a number of Lib Dem voters at a general election. This indeed happened, with the Lib Dem share of the vote falling from 19.6% at the Euro election to 11.5% at the general election. But the damage had been done. The Lib Dem vote in the 2019 general election was 4.1% above its level in 2017, and with the Greens rising by 1.1% of the total vote, this loss of Labour votes to strongly pro-Remain parties led to the very sharp fall in Labour’s share of the vote at the general election. Despite support for Labour rising during in the general election campaign, it was never able to recover fully from the damage done in the Euro election.  That is the fundamental picture of the election.

Estimates by the most serious British polling experts, such as Professor John Curtice, are that if Labour had been within 6-7% of the Tory vote Johnson would not have obtained a majority in Parliament – and his Brexit would have been defeated as no other party was prepared to support it. But instead the Tories were more than that ahead of Labour when the votes were cast, as already seen, overwhelmingly due to Labour’s loss of support to Remain parties. It was this loss that delivered not a hung Parliament but Johnson’s big victory.

Text Box: Figure 2
Figure 2

It is also clear there was not any overwhelming support for Johnson’s policy as the Tory press is attempting to claim. Support for pro-Brexit parties at the election was a minority in Britain and scarcely advanced compared to 2017. In 2017 pro-Brexit parties, the Tories plus UKIP and the DUP, won 45.0% of the vote. This time the Tories/Brexit Party/UKIP/DUP won 46.5% – still clearly a minority of the population and with only a 1.6% advance.

The non-Brexit parties (at this election those pledged to a 2nd referendum on EU membership) – Labour, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party, Green, Plaid Cymru, and north of Ireland Remain parties – received 52.1% of the vote. The pro-Johnson Brexit bloc was therefore in a minority.

Of course, this fact that a minority position among the British population will now be carried out is a clear demonstration of the undemocratic character of the British political system. A Tory Party representing well under half the electorate can impose its will on the majority. But don’t ever expect mercy from Tories – they built the system to serve their interests and will always use it to their advantage.

The role of the Lib Dems, SNP and Greens

Naturally it was the role of the Lib Dems in particular, and the SNP and Greens to a lesser degree, which delivered this victory to Johnson and Brexit by taking votes from Labour and even by forcing the election at the time of Johnson’s choosing in the hope of taking votes from Labour. Those in Labour who were cheering ‘bring it on’ about the general election have been shown to be in dangerous error, refusing to take into account the trends which had been made clear by the Euro elections and have retreated into silence now that the outcome of the election they demanded is clear. They should learn from their severe mistake in analysis now the results of it are clear.

The result was that the Lib Dems delivered a hard Brexit and a Johnson government, and lost seats, while the SNP won seats but destroyed the hope of a referendum on Scottish independence for the next five years. The SNP’s talk that the case for a Scottish independence referendum is unanswerable is simply hot air – Johnson will just ignore it.

But nothing is to be expected from the Lib Dems and SNP, who are capitalist parties, except that they will aid the capitalist class and the Tories. In its strategy Labour has to calculate on defeating such parties, not on receiving help from them.

Why Brexit was crucial in the election

As many on the left now openly acknowledge, there was never any possibility to entirely displace Brexit at this election by another agenda. As John McDonnell put it, and as Laura Parker of Momentum acknowledged, stating clearly that not discussing Brexit or taking a clear position on it was not a possible strategy: ‘Obviously, we need to wait for the full results but it looks like Brexit dominated. It’s unquestionable that Labour’s policies are popular. Every poll shows it.’

As Jeremy Corbyn rightly put it, he was very proud of Labour’s manifesto but said the election was ‘taken over by Brexit’.

The reason for that is that Brexit is not an ‘international’ issue separate from domestic ones. Brexit is a strategy led by Trump and the US to fundamentally reorganise British society in a negative direction. Therefore, it had a huge impact and could not be avoided as a central issue. Brexit was not the most important issue facing the population, defence of their living standards was, but it was clear Brexit would have a ‘tipping point’ effect on the election. That is why this website has devoted many articles to it – Labour’s loss of Remain voters 4 to 1 compared to loss of pro-Brexit voters is what led to this severe defeat.

Marxism vindicated

Of course, the election campaign entirely vindicated a Marxist analysis of capitalism. Total bias and distortion was shown by all capitalist forces in the campaign and tens of thousands of people have learnt from that. Not only the traditional Tory controlled private media but the role of the BBC in particular was disgraceful – tearing away its mask of ‘objectivity’ to function as the propaganda arm of the Tory Party.

But once again, as with the role of the Lib Dems and SNP, that is just what is to be expected. As Marxism shows, the state, in this case the state broadcaster, is not neutral. It is an arm of the capitalist class. A successful strategy for Labour has to be based on the automatic assumption that the state will not be neutral.

A Marxist analysis showed clearly in advance all the chief features of this election – that Brexit would be a crucial issue because it is  a massive US-led attack on the working class, that the decisive issue in whether Johnson would be able to implement this attack on the working class was whether the Lib Dems and other Remainers would be able to take sufficient votes from Labour, and that the state would not be in the slightest neutral. It is not the job of Marxists to ensure that defeats are better organised, or that they play a leading role in a defeat. The job of Marxists is to take a line that will lead to success. In fighting the two interlinked most serious issues of the coming decade, halting the international offensive of the US and fighting against climate catastrophe, a Marxist analysis has shown itself to be indispensable.

The coming attack

There should be no illusions as to what is to come. The outcome of this election means a savage attack on the NHS, on rights at work, on social security, and numerous other rights of working and oppressed people. It means Britain becoming an active ally in Trump’s path of climate catastrophe.

To divert attention from the worsening of the situation for the working class, this will lead to the Tory Party and its media launching a deep racist offensive – Johnson’s overt racism in the last days of the campaign was just a taste of what is to come. Internationally Britain will not only be increasingly lined up behind Trump’s course towards climate catastrophe, it will play an active role in the US’s imperialist wars and promotion of right-wing regimes such as Bolsonaro in Brazil.

Any failure to fight this with every means available would not only directly hit the living standards of the working class, and the most oppressed parts of British society, but will lead to a sharp fall in Labour’s electoral support – as the lessons of the collapse of support for all the right wing Socialist Parties in Europe, symbolised by the German SPD, demonstrates and as was confirmed by the collapse in support for the Lib Dems and all ‘centrist’ parties during the election. Only the maintenance of a fight against the Tory onslaught to come will maintain not only the living standards of the working class and oppressed but Labour’s electoral support.

That is why maintaining Jeremy Corbyn and Corbynism’s role in leading the Labour Party to fight the assault that is to come is vital. Jeremy Corbyn is the finest leader the Labour Party has ever had. He has devoted his life to fight oppression with no thought of personal gain. He transformed Labour membership from a decaying wreck to the largest party in Europe. It was because he fought exploitation and oppression so relentlessly that millions of people support him. The Manifesto was magnificent. Labour just could not overcome in the election campaign the big loss of support to strongly Remain parties that had occurred at the Euro election – Labour’s final position on Brexit was essentially correct, aiming to unite Remainers and soft-Brexiters, but it was adopted too late and only after the impact of the Euro election defeat.

The right-wing of course are clamouring for Corbyn to resign and for Corbynism to be thrown out of leading the Party. They can’t wait to participate in disarming the working class and oppressed in front of the Tory onslaught to come. They also can’t wait to reduce Labour’s vote down to the disastrous level of right-wing socialist parties in France and Germany or the miserable results of the ‘centrists’ who split from Labour.

The answer should be clear. Factually of course no one can stop the right wing running a candidate against Jeremy Corbyn for leader and then the membership will decide on Labour’s course. But Jeremy Corbyn should not resign and Corbynism must continue to lead the party – that is even more vital given the Tory onslaught which is coming.

All those who supported and defended Corbynism must continue to do so whatever their other differences. A united front of all these forces is vital faced with the onslaught of the Tories that is to come. But within that framework it is vital to study the real lessons of the election. Successful strategy can only be based on facts, not myths.