The decade began and ended with the election of Conservative governments. In the four general election between 2010 and 2019, each ended with Tory victories and an increase in the Conservatives' share of the popular vote. A defining majority in 2019 appears to set the Tory party up for a further decade in power. This glance at the state of British party politics in 2019 would suggest we are now in a period of Conservative hegemony at least as profound as Thatcher’s. Yet the coloration of these governments reflects the turmoil that has actually surrounded them. After Brexit, Cameron’s glossy sub-Blairism slipped abruptly and seemingly without legacy into the sterner, hectoring National Conservatism of Theresa May. This too was curtailed with vanishingly little to its name in the long fallout from the 2017 election. Finally, Boris Johnson’s brand of dishevelled authoritarian nationalism has forged an intimidating, if potentially unstable, social coalition. The possibility of big majorities - unknown to the Tories since Thatcher - is back and with it the promise of a generation of Conservative rule.
The perverse effect of a decade of unrest and upheaval has been the strengthening of the Conservative Party. The Global Financial Crisis of 2008 appears now as a sharp shock to a political system and national settlement that was already fraying. Following it British politics experienced a series of crises that were symptomatic of its deep constitutional and geopolitical inadequacies. Two referendums – the Scottish and the European – have defined the terrain on which the Conservative Party has rebuilt itself – albeit in a regionally and nationally uneven manner. From a national embarrassment under Major in 1997 to a seeming colossus in 2019, it is a compelling if disconcerting story. This is a rare example of a party radicalising in office, under the pressure of crisis and demands from radical fractions within its ranks.
What of the opposition? Three successive orientations have been put down by the Tory machine. Brown for the Labour right; Miliband for its centre-left; and Corbyn for its radical left wing. It was the latter that, to the shock of most commentators, proved the most difficult for the Tories to beat. Brownism’s exhaustion in 2010 was down to its own internal contradictions and a restyled Blairism was enough to displace it. Cameron’s government’s only claim to distinction was the extent to which it ate the social fabric of the country, eventually undermining the ruling class’s tenuous social legitimacy and driving the conditions of poverty and exclusion that aided the Vote Leave campaign. Miliband attempted a rejuvenation of the party that had become so ossified and alienated from its social base by invoking some of the concerns of the Tribunite soft left while tilting at the nationalist preoccupations of ‘traditional’ (i.e. white) Labour voters. This ramshackle confection of technocratic neo-Keynesianism, modest reformism, and red-blooded nationalism was easily seen off by the more professional Cameron. The latter was the more shameless in his orientation to the Home Counties and the middle to upper classes. He was therefore the more honest choice. Miliband was of basically the same class layer as the Cameron circle, even if he struck a slightly different pose.
The resemblance of party leaders to each other in the first half of the decade - Miliband, Clegg, Cameron - perhaps symbolises how narrow the range of options had become. It was a stifling period. The first break came in 2014 and the narrow vote of Scotland to remain in the Union. Miliband’s disastrous backing of the Stronger Together campaign helped kill off the last support for Labour in Scotland. The 2015 election saw Scotland turn entirely SNP yellow. This was only the first definitive severance of the Labour Party from its heartlands. More would follow.
Between 2015 and 2017, a hesitant and faltering left leadership struggled to keep the Labour Party on the road. It was widely expected that the working class backing of Brexit and the popularity of May would see off this failed experiment. But it did not. The drastic growth in the Tory vote share that May won was almost entirely offset by an unpredicted burst of support for Corbyn. Labour pinched seats back in Scotland; held on to much of the North East and West; made inroads in the South; remained hegemonic in Wales; became unchallengeable in London. Only the Midlands threatened to turn blue.
Under Corbyn Labour offered simple and unequivocal repudiation of Tory rule: growing poverty and inequality; the ragged state of public services; local councils going bust; the high cost of privatised transport and utilities in the midst of a wage squeeze. As an alternative it offered a recognisable social-democratic settlement: higher incomes, higher public spending, investment, and a healthier economy and polity that would deliver stable returns to productive capital. Given the relative truce over Brexit - with both parties offering only slightly softer or harder variants - it was possible for at least some Labour Leave voters to plump for Corbyn, while the English and Welsh cities moved increasingly in Labour’s direction.
May atrophied in the wake of 2017, standing down after the failure of her Brexit negotiations in 2019. As her replacement, Johnson took the opportunity to capitalise on the public’s frustration with the protracted Brexit process and pin the blame for it on the parliamentary opposition. The decade closed with that strategy’s total success. Labour became the party of process over outcome; the Tories the party of speedy and decisive action. The deftness of the Tories' trap was not to guide the opposition blindly into a cul-de-sac, but to foreclose alternatives and have the opposition enter willingly. Labour joined in the disruption to the Brexit process and the parliamentary chaos not unaware of the potential risks, but with little idea of what else it could do.
May had made similar claims to Johnson: a coalition of chaos; more dithering over Brexit; a ‘vote for me is a vote for Brexit’; a Tory majority guarantees Brexit. Why did it work for Johnson but not for May? Part of the answer is surely that the public had grown to distrust Corbyn in the meantime, blaming his party for delay and seeing Labour’s plan for a second referendum as an attempt to scupper the whole thing. Corbyn had eventually backed the second referendum idea under intense pressure from influential, remain-supporting factions within the party’s membership and among its MPs. Moreover, little was done in the Corbyn years to rebuild trust in the party by embedding it in the places abandoned by Blairism. The community organising unit set up by Corbyn was a start but not enough to stem the tide of abstentions and defections.
The potential for Johnson’s - and May’s - majority was inscribed into the national, regional and sociological dynamics of the Brexit vote and the Scottish independence crisis. Labour had lost its Scottish firewall in 2015. The Brexit vote was achieved with a vital layer of working class support that went along with traditional petty bourgeois and small capitalist Euroscepticism. This working class layer tended to be whiter, less urban, older, more propertied, and living in towns with decimated industries. The decades long retreat of organised labour and the disappearance of traditional industries under Thatcherite onslaught eroded the cultural basis of labourism. The party of the British working class, seeing that the game was up for these solidaristic forms of social organisation, shifted its allegiance over the course of the long 1990s to the more metropolitan middle classes. Labour’s vote share gradually dwindled down across these regions; but the hard right under UKIP split the right wing vote and allowed Labour to safely keep many of these seats. The Leave coalition that formed in 2016 started the stitching of these two factions of the British right together. The scene was set for a united right under the Conservatives to crush Labour in the north, just as Labour had been crushed by Scottish nationalism north of the border. May could not pull this off because of Labour’s effective 2017 counter-strategy.
By 2019, the potential for this coalition was finally realised. Johnson had simplicity (Get Brexit Done), targeted messaging (including millions on Facebook ads), and a press that had spent four years painting Corbyn as basically illegitimate. The Corbyn-led Labour Party failed to respond adequately to any of these challenges. The obvious failure was in the broad election strategy. It fought an offensive campaign in Tory held marginals, but ignored its angry Leave-voting northern seats. Crucially, it failed to connect its radical policies to a central demand that would have broad appeal in these areas. Despite unprecedented work by activists, it may simply be that the party sent its ground troops to the wrong places. Underlying all of these errors was the simple fact that most of these voters had no reason to believe the party’s promises. A five minute doorstep conversation with an activist from out of town is not sufficient to undo years of pent up frustration and resentment. As many have said since the election, Labour needs to rebuild a radical culture in these towns and become a visible and positive part of their social fabric.
What has widely been seen as a period of open contestation over the future of British capitalism may in hindsight look more like the slow consolidation of a new regime. Successive Conservative administrations may in future be seen as stages in the development of this regime. It was built by seizing the sclerotic institutions of British Conservatism and rewiring them for a more aggressive, data driven era. The Conservative Party - shorn of a mass membership or any organic link to wider social layers - now operates as a social media channel. It is funded mainly by large donations from the super rich; it recruits its expertise from the tech world; and does its best to hoard attention and meme-ify the most reactionary proclivities of British society. The electoral coalition it now wields is one that was carefully identified and produced, poked and prodded, titillated into existence. This is a regime that uses the power of data expertise to secure ruling class domination in an era of profound discontent, disillusionment, and growing social dysfunction. It would be overly sanguine to assume that the worsening of material conditions alone could undo such a coalition.
Brexit itself was the great experiment in which these lessons were first learned. It was Brexit that killed Cameron’s tepid sub-Blairism and helped Cummings et al remodel the Tory party into a more aggressive, slimmed down, and overtly reactionary operation. The usual backing of the press and the meekness of the broadcasters helped, but the central thrust was undoubtedly in the libidinal economies of online. Circling this drain was always Johnson, though the Tory leadership initially eluded him. Despite the credit he got for heading up the Leave campaign, his personal capacity for thuggish and unpredictable behaviour apparently drove his closest allies to put the knife into his 2016 leadership campaign. Michael Gove made a run at it himself, but was beaten out by May. May’s short, disastrous tenure points perhaps to the reliance of this new regime on quite specific personalities and operators. Johnson is the perfect politician for such a regime, exuding the necessary insouciance and bonhomie to get away with the petty slander and repetitiveness necessary for the success of contemporary Toryism. Prior to Brexit, Johnson was at a relatively low ebb. His too-flagrant careerism seemed to set him at odds with Cameron’s unrumpled sheen and May’s moralising approach. Yet it is clear that Johnson’s ruthless, self-centred careerism is an asset for at least some parts of the electorate. After all, as long as he wants what they want, his self-centredness makes him look oddly reliable. Given the general degradation of the concept of trust, flagrant self-interest is at least more honest than the dissimulations of a Cameron. As with Trump, the prior erosion of faith in the functioning of a decent political system makes it hard to oppose Johnson on moral grounds. If they’re all in it for themselves, at least he doesn’t pretend otherwise. His famously naked ambition chimes well with the surprising adaptability of the ruling social bloc that is cohered around him. Here the interests he organises and articulates have not changed much: big capital; finance; sections of the upper and lower middle classes. This bloc combines necessary deference to the imperatives of rentier and financial profit with a smattering of popular social authoritarianism for the base. In contemporary economic and social sciences literature, it is common to find the language of resilience as the essential tonic in a volatile, marketised world. The British ruling class has found its resilience in a form of adaptability. What allows that adaptability to go on so successfully is the hollowing out of so much that once supported a relatively robust opposition. The death of the big industries; the collapse of trade unionism; the muddled and disoriented political left; the thinning out of dissenting media. The ideological complexion of this bloc is flexible to a degree, though not so much as is sometimes suggested: despite adopting a hodgepodge of spending commitments, its popular appeal is to state authoritarianism (more police, stronger borders, curbs on human rights obligations) rather than welfare. And since its broader purpose is to leave the dominant mode of accumulation in place, no alteration to the financialisation of daily life, the inequality machine, or the shit jobs paradigm is countenanced. The strong state and the free economy indeed.
None of this happened of its own accord. The conditions of life in contemporary Britain are marked above all by a regional fracturing which has long since been identified as the symptom of the slow death of the British imperial state. The material basis of popular consent for the centralised British state went with Keynesianism. The slow break up of the Union is fast reaching a crescendo in the form of both Brexit’s inevitable unification of Ireland and the triumphant nationalism of Scotland. Wales limps on reluctantly in England’s shadow with no clear alternative settlement in sight. Yet even within England the industrial dislocations have driven the stronger, more outward looking sections of the broad working population into the big urban centres. Much of England’s rural and small urban economy has been decimated, its only political consolation a rejectionist anti-globalism and anti-metropolitanism. Small shifts in suburban demographics - as younger, more multicultural and progressive groups leave the over-priced centres - have hardly compensated for the rise of anti-metropolitanism elsewhere. The institutions that could stitch together these divided regions with a shared working class consciousness have not been built by a severely weakened and disoriented Labour Party. Thus the demographic patterning, regional fracturing, cultural divisions, and dysfunctional institutions of the current set up militate against a revival of social democracy and in favour of reactionary populism.
The trend outlined here mostly accounts for 2019’s dismal election failure by the Labour Party. Of course, there were severe mistakes made by the leadership in the short campaign which compounded the trend: a misallocation of funds and activists to Tory marginals rather than Labour ones; a muddled and over-complicated policy message; the unpopularity of the leader and the failure to own up to his and our failings on antisemitism. The final electoral phenomenon that still warrants explanation in this account, however, is the success of 2017. That achievement - of a ten point increase in Labour’s popular vote share to nearly 41% - now looks like a deviation from an otherwise clear trend of secular decline in Labour’s vote. It offers - for those willing to look - a glimpse of an alternative way forward.
The Corbyn surge of 2017 was down to a range of factors few of which are accounted for in most media narratives. The austerity generation - the young who struggle with rents, a high cost of living, poor public services, stagnating or falling real wages, and the inability to settle down in life - had staged a series of rebellions against their post-crash fate. These are well-known, from Occupy to the anti-austerity movement to the 2011 riots. These coalesced in and around the Labour Party and allowed for the election of its most left-wing ever leader. Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership proved at first - and again after 2017 - no better at articulating a convincing alternative to the Tories. But the brief period in 2017 when, compelled by a wave of working age enthusiasm, the leadership seized the initiative from the Tories is worth thinking about. Volatility in popular sentiment - a function of the very weakness of consent-making institutions in British life - made it possible for Labour to reach out briefly from its base in the cities and to capture some of the towns that were abandoning it. Labour kept its message broad and simple; offered tangible and immediate improvements to people’s lives; and fought a genuinely innovative campaign. Significantly perhaps, it also accepted the Brexit referendum result. The reduction of that same leadership to desperately pumping out secondhand memes on social media platforms in the final moments of the 2019 campaign was clear evidence of its failure to maintain a consistent message or build on the enthusiasm of 2017. At no point in 2019 did the Corbyn leadership genuinely have the initiative or even really the attention of the voters it needed. It was, as the sensible centrists like to say, talking to itself.
Recovery from this unenviable position will - needless to say - not be easy. There remains a core Labour vote in the north that is above 30% at least. Heroic efforts by committed socialists in the North of England should not go unmentioned. The spiritual home of Tory Euroscepticism and xenophobia remains the South. Most working age people under the age of 50 will likely still vote Labour at the next election. Higher turnout will be essential - some Labour Leave seats saw turnout as low as 50% in 2019. To ensure that turnout is high, Labour needs to - as many have already said - build trust. A useful case study might be the much celebrated and admired city of Preston. A smaller, northeastern city with a Labour MP and Labour controlled council, Preston is often cited as an example of Corbynism in power. The famous Preston Model anchors investment around local institutions. It is a rare case of good governance under neoliberal austerity. Labour councils must adapt this model across England and Wales, providing living examples of the alternative. Many have suggested Labour turn towards community organising and that will have its place. But in terms of building faith in the Party, nothing is more effective than actual evidence of governing differently and better. There is evidence in the 2019 results that returning to at least 2017 levels of support is possible in five years’ time. Johnson’s majority was an impressive feat, built on the unique Brexit polarity, the depression of voter turnout, and the unconvincing position of the Labour Party. There is residual support for Labour if it can be tapped effectively.
The latter requires more than a clever message or strategy. The national and regional fracturing of the British state and economy will be the decisive political variable in years to come. Currently it benefits the Conservatives as the Party of order. To find an answer to complex constitutional and existential questions for the British state, Labour will need to think beyond its standard economism and towards fundamental questions of democracy in the ‘good society’ of the future