• Keep Faith with the Voters

    The British general election, producing, as it did, a record majority for Boris Johnson’s Conservative party, will be regarded by many as providing a blueprint for achieving similar success for right-wing parties in other countries – not least in New Zealand.

    Simon Bridges has already proclaimed that the victory was due to Boris Johnson’s “clarity and firmness” and has promised to follow a similar path to election victory here next year. That path may not, however, be as clear as it may seem.

    It is certainly true that Johnson’s constantly repeated slogan “Get Brexit done!” offered a simple and clear commitment that resonated well with British voters. The opposition Labour party, by contrast, had shilly-shallied over Brexit, and had offered the doubtful prospect of a second referendum as their preferred means, they hoped, of breaking the deadlock.

    The voters, especially those Labour supporters who had voted for Brexit in the 2016 referendum, were not impressed and responded by voting Conservative, many of them for the first time. In an election campaign dominated by Brexit, Labour predictably lost seats to the Conservatives – especially in the North and the Midlands, while the anti-Brexit Liberals failed to make their much-anticipated gains from the Conservatives. The way was clear for a massive Tory victory.

    The true lesson to be drawn from the British general election is not, in other words, that Labour voters were persuaded of the advantages to them of electing a Tory government. It was, rather, that they were fed up with the three and half years of a parliament that had failed (or refused) to give effect to the decision they had reached in the 2016 referendum. The lesson is not so much about how to win an election as about how to lose one.

    What Boris Johnson managed, but Labour failed to do, was to keep faith with the British people. He understood that the Brexit decision was not, as so many who opposed it insisted, a terrible mistake by those who didn’t understand what they were doing, but was, rather, a considered judgment as to the impact EU membership had had on their lives.

    The real puzzle is why Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, failed to grasp this. It was, after all, his Labour voters in the North and Midlands, whose jobs, wages, housing, education and health services had suffered most and who had blamed EU membership for what they felt was a loss of control over their own affairs.

    When Labour MPs joined the majority in parliament apparently determined to frustrate the Brexit that lifelong Labour voters had voted for, those voters then voted for the one politician who would, they believed, do what they wanted.

    The election result was therefore hardly a surprise. It was a totally foreseeable rebuff by voters to all those politicians who thought they “knew best”, and who presumed to substitute their opinions for those of the voters who had elected them.

    Those politicians took a dangerous gamble with the voters’ faith in representative democracy when they ignored the wishes and opinions of those who had sent them to parliament.

    Boris Johnson’s victory did not, in other words, materialise out of thin air. It was a justified reward for nothing more complicated than simply trusting (and representing) the people – something that should come naturally to all democrats.

    If lessons are to be drawn here in New Zealand, they are to be learned by Labour rather than by right-wing politicians. It is, after all, the left that claims to represent – as Jeremy Corbyn himself put it – the “many, not the few”. That claim can at times seem somewhat hollow, as Corbyn demonstrated.

    The British election could have turned out very differently, if Corbyn had taken one simple step. If he had committed, at the beginning of the campaign, to delivering Brexit, the whole issue would have been negated as a point of difference between the two major parties, and Labour voters would have been able to decide their vote on a range of other, and more familiar and traditional issues, which would in most cases have meant that they stayed loyal to Labour. Parting company with the voters, especially your own, is never a good idea.

    Bryan Gould
    18 December 2019