Labour’s electoral defeat falls in between the Leave and Remain ideological poles, writes Raluca Bejan (St. Thomas University). She explains that while austerity is partially to blame for the result of the recent general election, so is the nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that pervades British society.
The results of last week’s general election in the United Kingdom came as a shock. The initial polls predicted a ‘knife-edge’ result, with a prognosticated vote difference of just five points. However, the Conservatives not only won, they won with a majority, securing 365 out of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. Stuck at 203 seats, Labour suffered one of its biggest electoral defeats ever.
At a time when the Labour Manifesto detailed concrete steps to gear the British economy towards benefiting the working class, to support strong state investment in the public sector and to develop a Universal Basic Income pilot project, measures that would have tackled UK’s inequality rates — the worst in the developed world — the electorate decided that inequality and poverty are secondary to the Brexit saga.
Labour’s defeat was attributed by ‘Lexit’ supporters (those advocating a left-wing exit from the European Union (EU)) to the party’s refusal to stand by the EU referendum results, and failing to represent the interests of the Leave faction.
Indeed, Labour lost about ten points in the areas that had cast strong Leave votes in the 2016 referendum. Yet it lost six points in the Remain constituencies as well. It is farfetched to claim that the British electorate, disillusioned by austerity, voted for Brexit in 2016, and then, aiming to avoid at all costs any compromise on Brexit, voted for a party that will only further entrench austerity.
A vote of the rich
Things are much more complicated than simply assuming that working-class people are an idiotic mass of voters, with little agency and without the intellectual capacity to weigh their own material interests.
First, the 6% drop in the Labour vote among Remainers proves that the election results were not solely dependent on the Leave camp. Data from the Brexit vote shows that Remainers are doing relatively well, financially speaking. It also appears that they represent a segment of the British electorate who would rather have Brexit any day than elect into power a party that will tax their assets, redistribute wealth and care for the country’s poor.
Austerity or immigration?
Second, it is impossible to find a clear relation between austerity and the election results. Years of longitudinal research to measure electoral attitudes pre- and post-austerity would be needed to substantiate such claim.
While the 16% drop in the Labour vote (compared to the 2017 election) in Bolsover, a Leave constituency that has been voting Labour for close to 70 years, would most likely make for a strong argument among Lexiters, the overall picture is much more complicated. Bolsover is indeed an economically deprived area. In the 2015 English Indices of Deprivation – an official measure using income and employment deprivation; education, skills and training deprivation; health deprivation and disability; crime; barriers to housing and services; and living environment deprivation – Bolsover ranked the lowest among Derbyshire’s districts and in the bottom quintile of the most deprived districts in the entire country.
Yet there are other economically deprived areas that did not vote Conservative. Barking and Dagenham, for example, which similarly voted Leave in the EU referendum, ranks as the second poorest London borough. However, it voted Labour in the recent election: in Barking, Margaret Hodge won with almost three times the number of votes as the next closest candidate, while Dagenham and Rainham elected Labour candidate John Cruddas by only a few hundred votes more than his Conservative opponent.
Havering, however, the London borough that voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, puts things back at square one: both of its constituencies (Romford and Hornchurch & Upminster) went Conservative. Unemployment doubled in Havering between 2008 and 2014, but the high rates of unemployment do not tell the whole story.
Demographic changes in Havering indicate an increase in the proportion of EU citizens in the area, from 1% in 2001 to 7% in 2011. This increase is primarily due to immigration from Eastern Europe after the 2004 and 2007 waves of EU enlargement. There was also an increase in the proportion of immigrants from Africa in Havering, from 2% to 8%. The 2016 Brexit vote was grounded in a strong anti-immigrant rhetoric. In fact, immigration was one of the negotiation points that David Cameron brought to the EU table prior to requesting the referendum vote. It is not much of a stretch to associate the changes in the demographic composition of the borough with the numbers in the referendum and the subsequent electoral results.
The British Election Study conducted in 2016 asked respondents to identify, in their own words, what mattered most when deciding on the referendum. About 15,070 unique answers were collected. Responses were aggregated into ‘word clouds’ and displayed using the frequency of the words to create a visual scaling. As seen below, there is no empirical ground to doubt that Brexit was a vote against immigration:
*Source: The British Election Study. Release date: 7th November 2016.
Some could argue that Labour disappointed its electorate, since for years it had neglected their concerns of poverty, inequality and social deprivation. This electorate, perhaps, did not feel that structural changes would be achieved within the institutional confines of the EU. Yet others could equally well argue that Labour was voted down on grounds of nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Yes, austerity is partially to blame for the results of the recent general election. But so is the nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that is ever-present within British society. Those eager to yell about one should also be willing to yell about the other.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Your analysis is the reason why the Conservatives will continue in government for the foreseeable future – and beyond this Parliament. As a Conservative voter all my life you and left wing analysts like you are invaluable to me. The rose tinted glasses that you wear give you an extraordinary view on life. People who actually visited constituencies during the election campaign all report the same – Labour stalwarts didnt particularly like Boris but liked JC and his momentum colleagues even less. It is a fact that the UK has never elected a far left government and is very unlikely to do so. Get rid of Corbyn and replace him with someone in his image and the result will be the same.
Some individual policies that Labour put forward may have been attractive, but the package was absurd – built on bribe after bribe. The broadband offer didnt even attempt to conceal the scale of the bribes.
UK voters are a bit more intelligent that Labour gives them credit for and of course saw through the morass of spending commitments.
The contempt the Labour leadership and its supporters have shown since the result really demonstrates the problem in the first place. It wasnt the policies, or the leadership of Labour, it was the voters fault.
Your argument is an extension of that – Brexit voters are nationalists (Labour speak for racists) and of course they are misguided. Corbyn’s brand of left-wing politics is authoritarian as far left wing governments end up being. they are no different from far right governments. The government and its leadership knows better than voters and ordinary people and their opinions dont count.
I hope commentators like you, and the Labour leadership carry on the good work. And credit to Momentum too. You all make me much less nervous about a Labour government getting anywhere near the seat of power. You can hold all the supposed lofty ideals you like but you wont find any way to implement them.
There is a real world out there that none of you have much of a clue about.
Well said Andrew Banks. I think this particular writer should get out more .Far too much narrow minded education for her blinkered brain.
Comments that deliberately play into division surely aren’t needed here.
I think you are right about my comment which is uncalled for . Everyone has an opinion and Raluca Bejan has hers
I am frustrated because many of the posts the LSE put out show so little grasp about the reasons people voted the way they did and in particular, in the recent election.I have witnessed the poverty of my family’s northern seaside town . It had had long lost it’s railway, it’s fishing, and it’s heart. The street of my childhood is Buy to let for those people pushed out of their home towns for cheapness. The houses are run down. The town is struggling and has been for the past 40 years .
All one wants, all any of us wants, is the means to be able to make ones own living with the help of good transport infrastructure and so forth. Northern people are proud. They do not want hand outs or to be patronised or told they are stupid. They love their Queen, and Country and do not want it lost to a marxist dictatorship.
“UK has never elected a far left government” – well, that’s true, but equating Corbyn with the ‘far left’ is just plain wrong. Corbyns policies were in most respects no more ‘far left’ than Harold Wilsons, and Wilson was certainly elected.
What has happened is that the ‘Overton Window’ of discourse has been shifted more and more to the right. This can’t continue, unless we want to arrive at electing a fascist government (and I’m not quite sure that we aren’t ¾ of the way to that situation already).
The author asserts that ‘there is no empirical ground to doubt that Brexit was a vote against immigration’. Given that majority of the UK population is not against immigration, I beg to differ. The word ‘immigration’ in a word cloud does not provide evidence for the assertion.
It is the case that a majority of the population – including a large proportion of those voting Remain – see immigration control as an important issue, and many would like to see levels of immigration reduced somewhat. It is unfortunate that this is read as being against immigration per se. Every objective indication is that this is very far from the truth. It is worth noting that attitudes to immigration in the UK are amongst the most positive amongst EU countries, and both official UK and EU surveys indicate that positivity has grown since 2016 as well as prior.
The author says that ‘Things are much more complicated than simply assuming that working-class people are an idiotic mass of voters, with little agency and without the intellectual capacity to weigh their own material interests’ and then adds that this is because even some Leavers would ‘rather have Brexit any day than elect into power a party that will tax their assets, redistribute wealth and care for the country’s poor’
So the implication here is that Brexit / Tory voters were in fact ‘an idiotic mass of voters’, or out for themselves, unconcerned with social problems. That’s not a very generous evaluation of the demos, and it is patently false and self serving. It reduces the election result and Brexit to a culture war between the good, caring people and the bad or uniformed people, rather than a substantive political issues with good arguments on both sides. If Labour bases its reflections on these assumptions it will become ever more distant from the majority of people who it seems to view with a mixture of contempt, pity and disbelief.
The author’s phrase ‘rather have Brexit any day than elect into power. . .’ referred to Remainers not Leavers – affecting some of your subsequent remarks.
I was disturbed by the assertion ” UK’s inequality rates — the worst in the developed world”. The most commonly-used measure for income inequality is the GINI Coefficient. On this ranking, developed countries such as Italy, Australia, Spain and, far ahead, the United States have more unequal income distribution than the UK. (https://www.indexmundi.com/facts/indicators/SI.POV.GINI/rankings)
The Guardian article cited refers to a report on divisions between regions, which is something quite different.
Apols, yes, para 3 should say ‘some Remainers’, but the subsequent remarks stand.
“Yes, austerity is partially to blame for the results of the recent general election. But so is the nationalist, anti-immigrant rhetoric that is ever-present within British society.”
Why does it only have to be rhetoric? Immigration has both advantages and disadvantages for a locality. It might be that the vote in Havering was a reflection of the actuality rather than rhetoric. The article tells us that there was an increase in the immigrant population. Unless there was a corresponding increase in housing provision then people may not be happy with an influx of new inhabitants wherever they come from.
I live in a London overspill area. There are plans to increase the size of the village where I live by 120%. Villagers are unhappy with this. They will lose their countryside and their rural aspect. This is not an immigrant issue because the houses will probably be mostly occupied by people moving internally within the UK. Population influxes can be unwelcome whether they originate internally or externally.