Boris Johnson, despite dodging most debates, lacking any policy platform beyond “Get Brexit Done,” and having literally hidden in a refrigerator to avoid a journalist near the end of the campaign, will have a large majority in the U.K. Parliament after last Thursday’s election.
The Labour Party’s hope that it could turn this election—as it did in 2017—to topics beyond the U.K.’s connection the European Union was dashed. Labour’s army of young activists had hoped that Jeremy Corbyn, despite demonization in the press since his 2015 accession to the leadership, could pull off a shocking win or at least a hung Parliament.
They hoped that their thousands of hours traveling to the North and Midlands and South and anywhere that Momentum’s mycampaignmap.com told them to go would cut through the noise of Conservative ads and misinformation campaigns. They hoped that the personal connection and the persuasive conversation would win people’s trust back.
There are signs that it did—but that the effort was too little, too late. Labour’s polls and Corbyn’s personal approval ratings steadily ticked upward over the campaign, but not enough to overcome the lead the Conservatives began with. The center—represented by the Liberal Democrats and a handful of splitters from Labour—collapsed even harder than Labour did. And the hot takes and recriminations have come hot and fast in the days since.
Young people in the United Kingdom, like the United States, are less likely to own property, more likely to have student debt, and more likely to be in precarious work.
It’s always been foolish to over-compare U.S. and U.K. politics; Brexit simply has no equal in the United States right now. It is not a simple partisan issue: It sliced both the Tories and Labour in slightly imperfect halves, and Corbyn’s challenge was to try to win both sides to his program, which was even more radical in 2019 than in 2017. It included not just renationalization of major industries, but a four-day work week, a Green New Deal with a target of decarbonization by 2030, and other policies which, despite Labour’s loss, remain popular.
But as Labour activist Philip Proudfoot, from Durham, one of the Northern districts to hemorrhage Labour votes, told me, in those areas people thought they’d already voted for a radical project—Brexit. Voters expected Brexit to bring renewed public spending and political change. And Labour was, to them, ultimately just one more thing holding Brexit back.
Meanwhile in Remain districts, Labour also shed votes to the Liberal Democrats and Greens—not enough to give either of those parties more seats in Parliament, but just enough in a few places for the Tories to squeak through. There was nowhere for Labour to turn, decisively, without losing votes; its attempt to split the difference didn’t work.
The splintering around Brexit highlights the way that the working class itself has changed. Too many people, in both the U.S. and U.K., still hear the term “working class” and see images of white men in hard hats, socially conservative and easily turned off by too much radicalism. But the working class is being recomposed; that Labour (like Bernie Sanders) is overwhelmingly popular among young people reflects that recomposition. Young people in the United Kingdom, like the United States, are less likely to own property, more likely to have student debt, and more likely to be in precarious work.
During the campaign, I visited picket lines where the University and College Union lecturers and staff were on strike. At University College London, on December 4, the cleaning workers and security workers, members of Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) picketed alongside the lecturers, marching through London arm-in-arm—a reminder that young PhDs in temporary part-time contracts have more in common, economically, these days with the security guard at the door than their senior colleagues.
This is the working class that Labour has captured with the turn to Corbynism. It is diverse, with more women, people of color, and immigrants, and it is more likely to be in service work of some sort than making things.
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The recomposition of the working class is geographic as well. Young people leave their homes behind for the cities where the work is, whether that work takes the form of driving for Uber or programming video games—two different types of workers represented by the IWGB. With the industrial jobs disappearing—in places like Dagenham (which Labour held) on London’s far east as well as in the North—different kinds of work fill in the gaps.
Care workers often look after those who broke their bodies in the mines or the factories but who live longer thanks to the National Health Service. Labour’s offer of a National Care Service was pitched to both these workers and those they care for, and in places like Morley, the Yorkshire town where I followed canvassers the weekend before the election, Labour candidates made much of this promise, and of the fear that Johnson would further privatize the NHS.
Still, older voters that I heard on the doorstep didn’t really believe that the NHS could go anywhere. It had, after all, survived Margaret Thatcher. The older voters in what Craig Gent at Novara Media noted is rightly called England’s mining belt still have visceral memories of Thatcherism, where the “new common sense” was beaten into people—sometimes literally—during the miners’ strike and the mass privatizations that followed.
Labour had for decades relied on those memories for its “red wall,” but it turned out that what was the hardest for those voters to do was hope for something better. Corbyn’s promises were too much; too many people didn’t trust Corbyn to keep them.
The challenge for Labour now is not to over-correct while understanding why it lost a chunk of its traditional base. It must not assume that working-class voters of color or young people with degrees struggling to pay inflated city rents are less worthwhile voters. And it must not make the same mistake with the new working class that the Blairites did with the old and assume they have nowhere to go if the party, say, pivots rightward on immigration.
It was precarious and flexible workers who were able to go on the road to canvass for Labour; it was young people who’d decamped for the cities, who returned to canvass in the places where they grew up, who tried to convince family and neighbors to give the newest incarnation of Labour a chance. Labour must remember how to reach the old working class while continuing to work with the new.
It is painful that the people who best understood the need to rebuild Labour in communities, the need to demonstrate everyday solidarity, are its departing leaders: Corbyn and John McDonnell. Two Londoners, to be sure, but two men who’d spent their backbench lives on picket lines and protests, showing up for boring activist meetings with no hope at resume-building. The community organizing unit that they instituted a little more than a year ago was designed to do just that, active around the country in places where Labour hadn’t been seen in years.
Too many people, in both the U.S. and U.K., still hear the term “working class” and see images of white men in hard hats, socially conservative and easily turned off by too much radicalism.
In Putney, where organizer Beth Foster-Ogg worked among residents who feared their housing block could be the next Grenfell—the tower that burned in 2017, killing 72 people—Labour had one of its few gains, putting popular local councillor Fleur Anderson into a previously Tory-held seat. In Sheffield Hallam, where Labour also gained, the community organizer held canvassing trainings and built an activist base for the party. Such organizing was designed not simply to win votes but to give working people the resources to fight more effectively, to build long-eroded trust and the social solidarity that Thatcherism aimed to destroy.
There has been broad consensus since the election that Labour must make the party a presence in the everyday lives of people again by fighting for fair housing, clean water, public transit, even better-managed football teams—it must, in other words, continue the work of the organizers who have begun sinking roots around the country, and expand it massively.
And for U.S. activists watching, the lesson must be that rebuilding trust takes time, base-building, hard work. There is no perfect message that can cut through the social media-amplified noise campaigns the right will run; there is no one you can throw under the bus to solve the problems. Progressive campaigns must reach the working class everywhere it lives—in deindustrialized smaller towns as well as the biggest cities—and they must do more than make promises or show up at election time. They must prove they are around for the long haul.