Unfortunately I was too busy to pen an election blogpost prior to the event, but on the upside at least this makes foretelling the result easier – I predict a thumping majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party, putting an end to ten years of thin majorities and scrabbling coalitions in British politics.
OK, so I admit that hindsight makes prediction quite a bit easier, but even now a lot of us are still scratching our heads trying to work out what the hell just happened. Ideally, I’d like to avoid adding my voice to the welter of wise-after-the-event opinion-mongering that claims to know exactly what the Labour Party got wrong, and write instead on the implications for my main themes of sustainable localism and agrarianism. But in order to achieve the latter, I think I do need to indulge in a little of the former…
Labour’s erstwhile top brass have blamed the result on their ambiguous stance on Brexit, compared to Johnson’s simplistic ‘let’s get Brexit done’ messaging. Some Labour activists outside the Corbyn faction have called this ‘mendacious nonsense’ and blamed the unpopularity of the leader himself. There’s no denying Corbyn’s low public esteem, but it’s worth further pondering this analysis.
First, it’s not actually an analysis – further steps are needed to explain how voters proceed from personal dislike of Corbyn (“There’s something about his mannerisms” in the words of one Labour-turned-Conservative voter in a depressed, post-industrial erstwhile Labour town) to voting instead for Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson (Eton and Oxford), whose congenital disdain for such places and people couldn’t be plainer. But if that’s all there is to it, then at least we can all go home, stop devoting any attention to actual politics, plug in the TV and just give Kelvin and Oti the keys to No.10.
Personally, I think Brexit did have a lot to do with the result – as indeed even the “something about his mannerisms” voter maintained, and as is suggested by the correlations between leave-voting areas in 2016 and Johnson-voting ones in 2019. However, this too requires further analysis. What kind of Brexit Johnson will ‘get done’ remains unclear, but it’s pretty clear that it won’t ‘get done’ on 31 January, and when it’s ‘done’ the situation of struggling voters in Britain’s post-industrial towns will almost certainly be worse. I can’t help feeling that what we were voting for wasn’t any actual Brexit that Johnson has either the power or desire to deliver, but Brexit as a kind of ideal that’s slipped its real-world moorings – Brexit as a dream of autonomy and control regained in an uncertain world, Brexit as analgesic, Brexit as totem. A case of let them eat Brexit.
This is fantastic news for those of us who have other potentially unpalatable political truths to deliver, such as my own conviction that we need to develop a labour-intensive, small farm-based economic localism to see us through our present crises. Forget the agonised political analysis and the enormous difficulties of realizing it. Just give it a vague and upbeat moniker – ‘the transformation’, perhaps – find a useful idiot to promote it in a mainstream party, and talk constantly about how it’ll enable us to take back control. Job done.
Oh, who am I kidding – that’s not how it’d play, is it? What the Conservatives have pulled off is just another variant of a classic right-wing populist heist: deliver some jam-tomorrow message cloaked in nationalist garb aimed at the ‘majority’ working class while demonizing enemies within and without like socialists, immigrants and gypsies, and propagate the message aggressively through the good offices of deep-pocketed patrons and a compliant press run by the same, who are the only people likely to reap any substantial benefit from the result.
Populism of this kind has been one of the more successful politics of modern times (witness the USA, India, Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary, Poland etc.), so there are reasons to think it could be the long-term making of the Conservative Party. But there are also reasons to think otherwise. The government’s hybrid new constituency of well-to-do little Englanders and alienated Brexit ex-Labour voters would be a hard one to hold together long-term even for a popular, able and wily Conservative politician – and I don’t think Johnson is any of those things. After the referendum I wrote that Johnson was largely responsible for packaging up a fantasy Brexit for mass consumption and now needed to be given the leeway to try to deliver the real one. After three years of faff, that hour is now upon us. Honestly, I could have written the same post last week – it wouldn’t have lost much for contemporary relevance.
I’m not sure this will pan out well for Johnson. It seems likely that Britain’s already hollow economy will be further carved out by the EU and the USA on his watch, and it may not be easy to pin the blame on them, particularly the USA, long-term. Likewise the integrity of the UK itself – including the irony that Corbyn’s sympathies for Irish republicanism seem to have strengthened Johnson’s hand, while the latter’s Brexit may well do more for Irish reunification than Sinn Féin ever could. Johnson fancies himself as a Churchill figure, but as he-who-can-no-longer-be-named once said, history repeats itself – the first time as tragedy the second time as farce. Maybe Brexit is Johnson’s World War, and it’ll be followed by an Atlee.
But what kind of Atlee? I think it would be a huge mistake if the Labour Party tacked rightwards as a result of this election. Centrism scarcely got a thumbs up from voters (look what happened to the Lib Dems … or to Dominic Grieve) and the Tories are always likely to be better at muscular nationalist populism than the Labour Party. Also, peering through the absurdities of Britain’s first-past-the-post and multi-national politics, the fact is that Corbyn got a higher proportion of the vote in this election than any Labour leader not called Tony Blair since Neil Kinnock in 1992, and in the 2017 election under his leadership a higher proportion than anyone since Harold Wilson in 1970 – despite levels of media vilification far beyond those that even Kinnock endured. That’s not to say Labour doesn’t need a different approach and a different leader. But I don’t think the lesson of this election is that it needs a more centrist one.
As various commentators have suggested, the Labour Party’s malaise has deep historic roots that long pre-date Corbyn’s tenure, relating to the demise of the organized industrial working-class and its forms of community-building and self-education. What’s now needed to create an electable left populism is longer-term community-building of another kind, promoting locally shared spaces and resources, environmental care and economic autonomy that tries to build bridges among whoever’s locally in place. That strategy is also the one that’s needed to build a sustainable small farm future. So for me it’s clear at least where to focus political energy.
The short-term consequences of Johnson’s victory for farming and the countryside seem grim. Although many farmers seemingly voted Conservative, they’re a small constituency of no electoral importance to the party, especially now it’s shorn of its more patrician elements in favour of the radical right. It’s extremely unlikely that the financial support farmers will get post-Brexit will match the largesse of the EU – I think many will go to the wall as a consequence, the countryside will be carved up by market forces, and Britain’s food system will be forced open by its new trading situation, becoming more import-dependent. The hope has to be that, in this vast churn of farm property sales and rural destruction to come, the necessity for building local economic autonomies and ecological conservationism will become more obvious, along with the opportunities to do so.