Boris Johnson’s victory in the general election could hardly have been more emphatic or more extraordinary. For a party to have won its fourth election in a row is unusual enough, but to do so while increasing its share of the vote and its parliamentary majority at the same time is unheard of. Even though historians won’t be able to bracket this election with those that have kicked out one party and replaced it with another, it may nonetheless prove just as historic for the way it changes British politics. But that depends on what happens next in the two main parties. How should they react?
The central fact of this election result is that it has virtually taken Brexit off the agenda for the first time in decades. That’s not to say that there are not still many Brexit-related issues to be resolved. There most definitely are. And there will be plenty of arguments to be had about them. Not the least of them is what sort of long-term trading relationship we want with our old EU partners once we have left. But Mr Johnson has knocked out of court the fundamental question of whether Britain should leave the EU or not. We are now definitely going to leave and politicians in all parties will have to adjust to that political fact. All talk of campaigning to remain and of calling a second referendum is over.
To some people this new political reality will be a source of great joy; to others, sadness and even despair. But to most of us, I suspect, it will be a matter of relief. By campaigning on the slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’, Mr Johnson was tapping into a deep frustration that this one issue was consuming all our political energy and driving us all mad in the process. Now politics can get back to normal and we can talk of other things, most of which matter more to most voters.
The reason why this election may turn out to be historic is to do with how the parties respond to this post-Brexit opportunity to deal with what worries people in their everyday lives. It’s possible to argue that until Thursday both parties had abandoned the ground on which the majority of the electorate stands and fled to the extremes. That would certainly be a common analysis of what Labour did in 2015 when it elected Jeremy Corbyn as its leader and the far left of the party took control. Some would say a similar pattern had developed in the Tory Party after the modernising David Cameron lost the EU referendum and his successor, Theresa May, quickly became prisoner of the right wing of her party. People in the so-called ‘centre’ of British politics felt they had been deprived of representation.
What this election result shows (at least outside Scotland) is that avowedly centrist parties, notably the Liberal Democrats, have failed to seize the opportunity to fill the void. So what matters now is how the two big parties respond to the new situation.
One historical precedent at least would suggest that the Conservatives, rewarded by an unexpectedly large majority, might relish the chance to turn ideological purity into practice. In 1983, Margaret Thatcher was re-elected with an enormous majority in an election she had been expected to lose until she won the Falklands War the previous year. It was the 1983 victory that created ‘Thatcherism’, the application of a set of ideological beliefs to areas such as privatisation of public utilities, market reform in the public services and restrictive trade union law.
Some in Boris Johnson’s victorious party would no doubt relish the equivalent now, in the form of turning the UK into a Singapore off the coast of Europe, cutting both public spending and taxes and the like. But the Prime Minister shows no enthusiasm for this whatsoever. His insistence throughout the campaign and in his victory speech to party workers on Friday morning was that his would be a ‘One Nation Conservative government’ that would take its agenda from what the British people wanted, not from what his party’s ideologues cooked up in their policy-wonk think tanks. Top of that agenda would be the NHS. And spending would have priority over tax cuts.
Behind this choice, as much as anything else, lies an electoral calculation. Mr Johnson went out of his way to acknowledge that his success on Thursday was due to traditional Labour voters ‘lending’ him their votes. If he wants to keep them, he must be responsive to what they need. In short, Mr Johnson announced that it his aim to steer his party away from the Thatcherite identity that had made the party anathema in many parts of the country. If he carries this promise out, then 2019 will indeed turn out to be a historic election, at least in the history of the Tory Party.
But what of Labour? Its defeat was the worst since 1935 and Jeremy Corbyn has conceded that he will resign in due course. But what direction should it now take given the many divisions within its ranks? The new ‘post-Brexit’ dispensation of British politics will at least deal with one of those divisions: everyone must now reconcile themselves to the fact that Britain is not going to remain in the EU. But as for the other divisions, defeat is likely to exacerbate them as the battle is joined between the factions.
Chief among them is the battle over the future of Corbynism, defined as the radical transformation of a capitalist economy into a socialist one. To many ideologues in the party and especially in Momentum, the grassroots organisation created to embed Corbynism within the party, commitment to such an ideology is non-negotiable. Many of those who back it deny that its radicalism was responsible, even in part, for the defeat. For example, the party chairman, Ian Lavery, a key supporter of Mr Corbyn and an MP from the north east where so many Labour seats fell to the Tories, argues that the only difference between 2019 and the election in 2017 when Labour under Mr Corbyn did surprisingly well, was that this time the party was equivocal about Brexit rather than being fully committed to carrying out the verdict of the referendum. In other words, Corbynism is itself not Labour’s electoral problem.
But many others in the party, including former MPs who lost their seats, think quite the opposite. Not only was Jeremy Corbyn toxic for the party on the doorsteps, but what the former Labour home secretary, David Blunkett, called the party’s ‘impossible agenda’ based on a ‘pseudo-Marxist programme’ was neither credible nor desired by the British people, including the thousands of traditional Labour voters who flocked to the Tories.
Within Labour, therefore, the battle will be between two sets of belief. There are those who believe that in the new post-Brexit world, Corbynism without Corbyn can still win, and those who believe Labour needs to ditch its far left and return to a social democratic programme that accepts capitalism but seeks ways to make it more equitable.
History suggests that such battles in parties that have lost can take a very long time to resolve themselves. Meanwhile, Mr Johnson may feel he is on course to transforming the Conservative Party and a fifth consecutive election victory in 2024. If both were to happen, 2019 would indeed have proved itself a historic election.
So how should the main parties respond to the new political world Britain woke up to on Friday morning?
Let us know your views.