The British General Election: The Nightmare before Christmas

Two years ago, shortly after the General Election of 2017, I wrote a piece about the UK election nights I’ve experienced over the years. It was a personal piece, reflecting on the strange mix of emotions they’ve evoked in me and recalling some of the odd ways in which I’ve spent those evenings.

I now realize that the earlier piece was written in something of a state of euphoria. Labour performed strongly in 2017, massively increasing its share of the vote, to 40 percent from 30 percent, on a platform committed to radical change. That surge renewed my political hope after the various political disasters of the preceding years—Modi’s election landslide in 2014, the Conservative victory in 2015, Brexit, Trump, and Duterte in 2016, continuing nightmares in Turkey and elsewhere. That might seem a foolish response now, but sometimes you have to take hope where you can find it.

It’s vital to realize that for those consciously committed to socialist values, which I reckon is about 20 percent of the UK adult population, Corbyn’s Labour Party represented the first time since the 1980s that we could actually vote for the Party with enthusiasm. The goal was to build support not by trying to capture the center ground, as Blair’s New Labour had, but by getting previously disillusioned working-class and/or ethnic-minority and/or young voters to turn up. The result of 2017 suggested that this could be done.

That sense of renewal lasted until earlier this year. I spent the first six months of 2019 in the US, and when I returned to the UK in July, something had changed. My middle-class liberal friends had turned against the Corbyn Labour Party, mainly on the grounds that it wasn’t sufficiently anti-Brexit. Meanwhile, Labour’s attempts to obstruct Brexit in Parliament, partly carried out to force another election, seem to have alienated many working-class voters disengaged from politics. In response to Labour’s success in 2017, the Conservative and centrist media ratcheted up their campaign of disinformation against the Corbyn Labour Party, including accusations of institutional antisemitism. There were indeed incidents of antisemitism in the Labour Party, and the Party mishandled some aspects of its response, but much of the news coverage was based on extraordinarily poor reporting, including the utterly mendacious idea that Corbyn and senior figures in the Labour Party were personally anti-semitic. Racism and antisemitism in other parties, with few exceptions, went more or less unreported.

Labour plummeted in the polls from 38 percent at the beginning of 2019 to 25 percent when the General Election was called in early November. They made up some ground during an uneven campaign. The Conservatives’ campaign was laughably bad, but it didn’t matter. Their mantra of “Get Brexit Done” was the only policy they needed, especially as Trump buddy Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party stood aside in many constituencies in order to unify the far right. The Conservatives in effect became the Brexit Party (Farage’s party ended up taking just 2 percent of the vote). Now an English nationalist party in all but name, the Tories took 43 percent of the votes, but, because of Britain’s undemocratic electoral system, once again triumphed over a divided opposition, with progressive votes split between Labour, the centrist Liberal Democrats, and the increasingly powerful Scottish National Party.

Yet in the run up to the election, hope lingered in my social media bubble, based on memories of how the predictions of disaster in 2017 hadn’t transpired. For reasons known only to software engineers in companies such as Facebook and Twitter, my feeds seemed to consist almost entirely of fellow socialists, even though I follow and friend a pretty diverse group of people. Friends shared pictures of young people queueing outside polling stations and stories of working-class hatred for Boris Johnson.

But it was with trepidation that I arrived at my friend Izzy’s 2019 Election Night party, already half-pissed after hitting the wine to “calm my nerves,” to be smilingly greeted by her and her beautiful son Alex. The guests were mainly middle-class Labour folks. And, like people all over the country, we gathered around the television at 10pm, to see the results of the exit polls. These have been pretty inaccurate in recent years, but it was immediately clear that the Conservatives had triumphed.

I paced the party trying to share my grief. I called my sister Julie, a well-known actor and passionate public supporter of Corbyn’s Labour Party, and we left missed-call messages of shock and solidarity for each other. The family WhatsApp group lit up with horrified takes, including the despairing words of my 85-year-old mum, working-class and fervently pro-Labour. A friend at the party shared yet another under-evidenced “report” criticizing Labour antisemitism. Another noticed I was sinking and gave me a much-needed hug. I drank a lot more wine. Everyone studiously avoided the dreadful television coverage and some tried to make small talk. Eventually my partner Helen drove us home, where I flew into a rage, shouting abuse at the nation, and kicking my laptop bag across the living room. I ripped up a copy of Britain’s one nominally “quality” left-wing national daily newspaper The Guardian, which I’ve read since I was 16 years old, the subscription to which we’d already cancelled as a result of its reporting on Corbyn’s Labour Party. For some inexplicable reason I poured water over the tattered shreds.

Then I unwisely turned to social media. There were the same expressions of shock and horror that I’d seen in my WhatsApp groups. But also the inevitable backlash. Predictably, the obsession with Corbyn came to the fore, expressions of an infantile need for a “strong leader,” some miraculous figure who would somehow withstand the onslaughts of Britain’s profoundly Conservative press and the supposedly neutral broadcast media that follow their agenda.

Someone like Tony Blair maybe? At least he knew how to win! Okay, there was the slight problem of his teaming up with Bush II to wreak global havoc. But he kept the Daily Mail happy. He even increased spending on the NHS and schools! Never mind that Labour were committed to a radical programme of privatization and marketization in education, health, and beyond. Never mind that they reinforced the monstrous audit culture that haunts British public services, arts, and universities. Never mind that they cozied up with Britain’s massive finance sector and laid the basis for the UK’s version of the 2008 crash. Never mind that they destroyed Labour’s historic connection to working-class people.

Of course a constant thread was that the whole Corbyn Labour thing was just too left wing, “unrealistic,” “delusional.” On telly, the pundits agreed—how could Labour be so stupid to believe that you could change things, so that the poor and the marginalized might actually feel that they had a chance, a sense of ownership, a stake, a feeling that things could get better for them? What an absurd idea.

Some were blaming the stupid working class, pulling out that now familiar and sickening cliché “turkeys voting for Christmas” even though the most deprived places in Britain remained Labour and the richest remained Conservative. Perhaps there should have been a clearer sense of being anti-immigration, like those successful social democrats in Denmark? Yes, great, let’s be a bit more racist! That’ll show the Tories! Many of the most confidently authoritative social media voices seemed to be male academics, based overseas, and with seemingly no knowledge whatsoever of British political struggle, no sense of the inspiring activism of a new generation of young Labour activists, no acknowledgement of the actual policies Labour had been offering.

No one believed that the Labour Party could win the 2019 election outright, but the experience of 2017 led many of us to dare to hope that at least the Tories wouldn’t achieve a majority. Labour achieved a higher percentage of votes (32.2) than under the more centrist leadership of Ed Miliband in 2015 (30.4 percent) and Gordon Brown in 2010 (29 percent), but its lowest number of seats since 1935. 54 percent of voters chose parties supporting Remain or a second Brexit referendum, yet Britain will leave the European Union. The process will take years and it will be presided over by the most right-wing government in British history. Hope will return, but it will be slow, and the British left will need to show solidarity, empathy, and compassion to avoid tearing itself apart.

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David Hesmondhalgh

David Hesmondhalgh is professor of media, music, and culture in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds. He is the author (with Kate Oakley, David Lee, and Melissa Nisbett) of Culture, Economy and Politics: The Case of New Labour (2015), Why Music Matters (2013), Creative Labour: Media Work in Three Cultural Industries (Routledge, 2011, co-written with Sarah Baker), and The Cultural Industries (Sage, 4th edition due in 2018). Twitter: @hesmondthing