People want answers. On social media timelines, in newspapers and blogs, across dinner tables and at the pub, people are despairing that Boris Johnson is PM; the Conservatives back in power. People are asserting singular causes: it was Corbyn. Brexit. The media. London-centrism. Facebook. Disaffection. Fear.
The reality is more complex. There is no single person, group, strategy miscalculation, or media moment responsible for this outcome. Ignore the thousand Think Pieces and #THREADS saying otherwise. In the face of a desperately bleaker future, certainty is dangerous. It lets us look away from more complicated, more challenging, truths.
In some cases, people voted Conservative because they saw no viable alternative. That was not the majority instinct. Millions wanted this outcome. Across income levels, across constituencies – those that Labour lost and those it never had – Britain elected Boris. Telling ourselves lets the nation off the hook.
Other writers are debating Labour Party strategy failings and rebuilding plans; scrutinising and pontificating over where it all went wrong; which new leader might get it right. I want to ask a different question: “What kind of society wants Boris Johnson, wants this Conservative Party, to lead it?”
To understand the election we must be open to a complex, even contradictory, set of answers. We must look at the state of the nation, not the state of Parties. That nation – our Disunited Kingdom – can only be understood in fragments.
I. Neoliberalism is our state of mind
The welfare state was only established following two wars that ‘unified’ society through universal devastation and the daily assertion of collective national affinity. In subsequent years, unions grew in strength and movements battled for the social good. People fought collectively for a seat at the table, not only the crumbs that fell from it.
Thatcher’s neoliberal agenda was intended to dismantle those gains, and Britain has been decimated by it: laws and initiatives that have supported private interests, diminished labour protections and wages, rolled back welfare, and consolidated wealth in the hands of a tiny minority. When she proclaimed that there was ‘no such thing’ as society, Thatcher sought to transform the way people thought. She may well have succeeded.
New Labour continued to frame success in individualistic terms – and to entrench neoliberal perspectives. University tuition fees, for example, were sold (despite massive resistance) on the premise that degrees grant individuals higher earning potential, so should be understood as a personal investment – not a social good. The proposition quickly shifted mindsets, even among activists: initial student resistance stated: ‘education is a right, not a privilege’. Within a decade, the NUS had dropped its opposition to fees. Now, debate centres on ‘value for money.’
‘Austerity’ had a similarly rapid impact. We’ve ‘tightened our belts’ so often, we can’t imagine being able to loosen them again. People simply don’t believe Britain can afford to invest in public services: a decade of effective rhetoric pre-empting the question of whether and how it should. We’ve been trained to think of deficits and borrowing on familial terms, as if national governments – like irresponsible spenders – rack up credit card-style debt. Former Labour MPs still insist: ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch.’
We know that the ‘playing field’ is pocked with peaks and troughs; that we get poverty pay for long hours; that foodbanks proliferate alongside homelessness; that people ‘fit for work’ drop dead on the job. And yet, an unshakable thought gnaws at the back of our minds, amplified across tabloid front pages: it’s their own fault; not my problem.
That state of mind is here by design.
II. Contempt for ‘the working class’ is a British norm
In 1937, George Orwell wrote that the British middle classes are taught to ‘despise’ the working class. Throughout his career, Boris Johnson has repeatedly confirmed Orwell’s claim. Leaning into eugenics – resurgently popular across ‘intellectual class’ Britain – Johnson has openly equated intelligence and capability with wealthy, upper class backgrounds. He regards inequality as both desirable (for producing ‘innovation’ through ‘competition’) and natural – a position that effectively marries neoliberal maxims with the deep-rooted British belief that some people are indeed ‘born to rule’.
We’re taught that the middle- and upper-class have capacity for varied views; to debate politics over dinner party tables; across the House of Commons floor. Lumpen proles move as one; are ‘won’ and ‘lost’ on mass (just don’t ask why working class coastal constituencies – Clacton, Great Yarmouth, Skegness – ‘traditionally’ lean blue, just like the Cotswolds; why two in five Blyth Valley voters still back Labour [Con gain] and one in three in Sheffield Hallam [Lab hold] do the same).
Contempt for the ‘feckless working class’ is not just a Tory past time. Since the EU Referendum, liberal and left-wing condescension has hammered away at ‘stupid, spiteful, racist’ working class people who opted to Leave. After the election, a Guardian reader writes: working class Tories are ‘turkeys voting for Christmas!’ Spitting Image said the same in ’91. Ha!
Maybe these commenters think there’s some sort of silver bullet put down that’ll make working-class voters come around and say, ‘Sorry sir, I don’t know what came over me, like. You go back to parachuting some soppy PPE graduate into my North East constituency and we’ll go back to being angry about t’pits.’
Labour now stands accused of abandoning its roots as the party of ‘the working class’ – as if the fall of the ‘red wall’ was unforetold. The Party ‘base’ has been steadily shifting since 1970. So has the makeup of the electorate – further complicated by people habitually self-identifying as belonging to one class while their job title and salary suggest another.
In 2011, YouGov president Peter Kellner wrote:
Forty years ago, when Harold Wilson’s Labour party lost power, two-thirds of the electorate were working-class […] Today they comprise just 43% of the electorate – but class has largely lost its significance as a determinant of votes. In 1970 Labour’s “class gap” was a vast 34 points [56% of its voters were working class, compared with 22% middle class]. By 1997 it had shrunk to 17 points. It is now  just six points.
Not so long ago, this was good news for Labour. Echoing Blair’s stated desire for a merit-based, ‘classless society’, Deputy Leader John Prescott – son of a railway man, grandson of a miner – declared in 1997: ‘We’re all middle-class now.’ Post-2019 election, his old colleague Alan Johnson demanded Corbyn supporters ‘go back to student politics’ (presumably in those university towns that would otherwise be blue). Suddenly, the Party wants ‘the working class’ back.
Not so suddenly, that imagined monolith doesn’t exist. Different ideological lines divide us now – so much so that Kellner concluded in 2014:
Social class is still a significant factor in British politics, but the nature of that factor has changed utterly. In this, as in so much else, the past is truly another country.
The insight stands but his closing metaphor is rubbish. That was Britain then; this is Britain now. Some things change.
And some things stay the same. In Britain, the house always wins. While MPs backgrounds are increasingly diverse, deference to ‘Prime Ministerial’ appearance and ‘a safe pair of hands’ remains coded as: white, male, establishment. Five of our last twenty Prime Ministers went to Eton. Eleven studied at Oxford – including the three most electorally popular Labour leaders, Atlee, Wilson and Blair.
When Britain elects, we remember our place.
III. Britannia rules the waves
Millions of working class people live in cities; work in urban service industries; are Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic; come from immigrant families. They tend to vote Labour. Writing them out of ‘the working class’ reiterates a dangerous – and increasingly popular – ethnonationalist myth.
This is not new, or surprising. In the popular imaginary, all British society is white. We say it, sing it, print it: ‘Rivers of blood’; ‘There ain’t no black in the union jack;’ ‘If you want a n***** for a neighbour, vote Labour;’ ‘In the UK illegally? Go home or face arrest’. ‘Great Britain’ is built on violent imperialism; the genocide of peoples racialised to justify their enslavement. On these foundations, the ground is not only ripe, but constantly primed for white nationalism to flourish. And flourish it has.
Racism is not a ‘working class’ problem. Far from it. Within our criminal justice system Black and Asian people are disproportionately targeted for arrest and surveillance – even as they lay dying – and receive harsher sentences. Across all British universities, only 115 of 19,000 (0.6%) professors are Black. Black women MPs receive the most abuse on social media; in Westminster they are mistaken for the cleaning staff.
The daily messaging of our biggest selling newspapers and popular TV shows promote and compound racist and xenophobic perspectives. So too revered broadsheets, where post-9/11 British Muslims were ‘the fifth column in our midst’ (The Sunday Times); ‘an alien wedge’ (The Telegraph). To millions in Britain, the hostile environment, Prevent, Windrush deportations are not scandals. Racism is so routine in the UK, dating app profiles echo 1950s shop windows.
Empire is taught and embraced as a source of pride. Four in five people ‘do not regret’ our colonial history. Prominent academics celebrate it. Like Johnson, who recites Kipling in Myanmar, most British people would not dream of acknowledging – never mind apologising for – bloody British Imperialism.
In 2019, Labour pledged a formal inquiry into ‘Britain’s colonial legacy’ and its ‘contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity’ worldwide. It promised to shut immigrant detention centres; to resume refugee rescue missions in the Mediterranean Sea. For believers in ‘Great Britain,’ these promises are threats. Voters were not hoodwinked by tabloid slurs – by his own Party’s promises, in our current national context, Corbyn is a ‘traitor’.
If your primary concern is keeping Britain ‘British’, voting Conservative is not a ‘against your own interests’. For over fifty years, Labour failed to convince people otherwise. Johnson did not ‘pander’ to the far right. Credit where it is due: he is a profoundly racist man who announced that there will be space to unapologictally express white supremacist, xenophobic beliefs under his watch.
Some people voted for Johnson despite his brazen racism, Islamophobia, homophobia. Others – in every constituency – backed him because of it.
IV. The right rules the roost
Seven days before the 2016 EU Referendum, Jo Cox was murdered. The six other MPs assassinated since 1836 were all killed by Irish Republicans, opponents of the nation-state. Cox’s assailant cried: ‘Britain first!’ In a sleight of hand intended to distance his rhetoric from its effect, Nigel Farage simply said it didn’t happen.
Brexit emboldened a far-right already long present in British society – including activists, politicians, academics and journalists alike. Hate crime is up. Fascist groups grow. The clarion bell keeps sounding. Our most popular presses say: false alarm.
Nationalism is not the only rising threat. Last year, anti-LGBT campaigners gathered at primary school gates. ‘Pro-life’ activsts, backed by US money, held ‘vigils’ outside hospitals and targeted a pregnant MP in a billboard smear campaign. Black footballers face monkey chants in stadiums; ceaseless racism online. Transmisogyny is the mainstream ‘feminist’ norm. Threats and harassment force women MPs out of office; rape offences are up – convictions are down.
Meanwhile, in Westminster, virulent right-wingers have scaled the halls of power. Their racist, xenophobic, transphobic, homophobic, anti-abortion, pro-war, misogynistic, pro-death penalty, anti-welfare, anti-poor views are not only a matter of record, they are badges of pride. Jacob Rees-Mogg, Priti Patel, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab, Sajid Javid – ridiculed on Have I Got News for You, then invited on it; going viral in mocking memes. Lounging in the Commons; stripping citizens of their rights. Laughter has not stemmed their rise.
A new cohort of explosively right-wing MPs now wield authority. The MP for Ashfield would put ‘nuisance tenants’ in forced labour camps with ‘cold showers’. The MP for Hastings and Rye thinks George Soros ‘controls’ the EU; people with disabilities ‘don’t understand money’. The MP for South Cambridgeshire says immigrants are vectors of disease. Their Party’s manifesto – in policy and in rhetoric – publicised their aims: demonising traveller communities; extending ‘police powers’; promoting ‘discipline’ in schools; expanding the prison estate; ‘revising’ human rights law; promising constitutional change.
Did Labour lose because it moved away from its base? Or did the Conservatives win by doing the same? A parade of ‘one nation’ Tory grandees and once-rising stars – Ken Clarke, John Major, Michael Heseltine, Philip Hammond Anna Soubry, Amber Rudd – told us bluntly that they, ‘no longer recognised’ the Party. Tommy Robinson thinks so, too.
The Tories scooped up new support while enough ‘traditional’ voters remained comfortable with this iteration of the Party to consolidate its power; sanctioning the boot heel already standing on millions of necks to press down harder.
V. Britain is not an island
No matter how ‘sovereign’ the nation, British political tides shift in an ocean of currents.
Right-wing politicians have been in the ascendency across Europe for over a decade, the European Parliament proving an instructive bellwether of where national politics – and transnational alliances – will head. In Austria, Hungary and Poland, anti-democratic parties promising ‘crackdowns’ on immigrants, welfare rewards for ‘traditional family values’ and to curb press freedom have all secured power. The vote share of explicitly far-right parties steadily creeps skyward. A perverse ‘at least they’re not them’ logic has masked the relocation of ‘acceptable’ politics much further to the right.
Meanwhile, party in-fighting, vote fragmentation, the emergence of new alliances, volatile coalitions and tenuous grips on power have seen four elections in four years in Spain; continuous strikes and riots in France; a ‘government crises’ and snap elections in Italy, and increasingly desperate coalitional attempts to hold the centre in Germany. The UK is on its third PM in as many years – despite the incumbent winning each of the past three elections. This is not exactly a period of European political stability.
Britain is comparatively consistent. The Conservative Party has ‘seen off’ the rising far-right by inviting it in while Labour has vastly out-performed its continental counterparts by retaining a national vote share of 32 per cent (albeit down from 40 per cent 2017). Social democratic parties elsewhere have been haemorrhaging voters: the French Socialist Party, which held an absolute Parliamentary majority in 2012, scraped just 6 percent of the 2017 vote. Dutch Labour poll even lower, dropping 19 points between elections. The German Social Democratic Party suffered its worst post-war result in 2017. The following year, the Swedish Social Democrats registered its lowest vote since 1908. A different UK Labour leader would have scored the ‘open goal’ of this election? Perhaps if the goalposts hadn’t moved.
Worldwide, right-wing ideologues espousing ethnonationalist policies have seized office through elections, coups, and consolidations of power. An international parade of ‘strong men’ politicians have tapped into a ‘sick of politics’ zeitgeist, selling grandiose ideas in simplistic soundbites. From #MAGA to #NARA, from ‘Fearless solutions, fast action’ to ‘Get Brexit done’. Build the wall; ban the Muslims; kill the ‘criminals’; expel the gays; protect ‘white culture’, and put women in their place. These narratives have not gone unnoticed in Britain, by voters or strategists.
Johnson announced himself, literally, as the Incredible Hulk; promised to ‘smash’ and ‘bulldoze’ anything in his way. Insults intended to expose the void behind his façade – ‘bluster’, ‘cavalierness’, ‘bombast’, ‘arrogance’ – only aggrandised his preferred self-portrayal. His manifesto promised to ‘unleash’ Britain’s potential – as if something other than the Conservative Party (perhaps a different Conservative Party) had been holding it back.
Not ‘weak’ like Corbyn – or soft like Cameron, or May. Even his Brexit is hard. We had an Iron Lady before – she took tea with Pinochet and bombed retreating warships. We liked that, too.
Some framings old, some tactics new, some rhetoric borrowed: all things blue.
VI. (Mis)information is weapon – and it always has been
Social media is a manipulative format. The ways in which election-shaping (mis)information spreads via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Reddit and WhatsApp are well-documented. We’re so accustomed to this reality that quantifying the amount of ‘dishonest’ content shared in Conservative Party online ads barely raises eyebrows. Tories paying Google for their fake site to top search results for ‘Labour manifesto’? That barely made headlines.
These are not new tricks: in 1964, the Conservative Party used ‘targeted’ racist ads to turn Smethwick blue; they tried the same in the 2016 London Mayoral race. Lib Dem leaflets use wilfully misleading bar charts and questionable data. Labour sought ‘good days’ to bury bad news. With reason, people increasingly do not trust politicians.
Established news outlets are supposed to play by different rules? Billionaire press moguls – Lord Rothermere, Richard Desmond, Rupert Murdoch – are not accountable to loftier ideals than billionaire social media baron Mark Zuckerberg. Our papers have never been impartial; their owners always eager to protect their interests and consolidate influence.
Mud is not newly sticky. The Daily Mail published the forged ‘Zinoviev letter’ in 1924 to stoke Liberal fears that a Labour government would encourage Soviet-style class revolt. Despite later acknowledging its own part in ‘a historic smear campaign that lost Labour the 1924 election’, The Mail this year splashed: ‘Was the red plot letter that helped kick out Labour GENUINE after all?’ History can be forever (re)written. Capslock and leading questions are as effective on smartphone ‘news alerts’ as they have been on newsagent sandwich boards. Proven ‘press hostility to Labour’ is as unsurprising in 2019 as it was in 2015, or 2010, or most of the past century.
The increasing intertwining of online/ print/ broadcast media has changed journalism in some ways, of course. Local papers have been gutted, while mobile technology and fast trains offer an illusion of ubiquitous reach: London-based reporters nip up to Scarborough and do a Vox Pop outside Weatherspoon’s to get the measure of the nation – and missing pressing stories on their doorstep. ‘Name’ journalists are paid to opine; reporters on meagre day rates instructed to rewrite whatever comes through the wires. Competition for ‘click-throughs’ and 24-hour rolling coverage are the new norm.
Time and editorial pressures only compound the existing limitations of an already ideologically narrow industry. Newsrooms are overwhelmingly white and male; vastly over-representative of privately educated voices. Westminster journalists, by their own admission, ‘crave the ideologically soft centre’ – in 2015, the mere prospect of a Corbyn led-Labour Party caused them apoplexy.
This election, the political editors of the BBC and ITV were #breakingnews in the style of junior reporters; tweeting to millions without a factcheck in sight; parroting tips from unnamed ‘senior Conservative sources’. Five years ago, one of them was warning against click-chasing trends. Twenty years ago, people trusted journalists.
As Dawn Foster recently explained, ‘mistakes’ in reporting cannot be corrected later: ‘once it’s out there, far fewer people will see the correction than the original falsehood.’ This is not accidental: newspapers have always printed miniscule ‘clarifications’. Social media amplifies the effect: digital lies embed in server as well as human memories, can be swiftly recalled. The tactic has been embraced by politicians worldwide: let the lie go viral – apologise later. Or don’t. Can’t you take a joke?
Another tactic, borrowed from the White House Communication Team: refuse to engage with reporters. When the soundbite is the scoop, leaders’ speeches, press statements and direct-to-camera clips will be covered anyway. Why relinquish control of the narrative by allowing a Q&A? Journalists recognise this strategy, trailed during the Conservative leadership contest. They have no idea how to combat it.
Neither do Labour. Post-election, Party figures have willingly supplied Op-Eds, interviews, speeches, comments and briefings tearing chunks out of each other. Most Tories have ‘unavailable for comment’. They’ve been at home, sharpening their knives over Christmas dinners, undisturbed.
That balance of scrutiny will keep working for them.
VII. Corbyn was not the messiah – but his popularity cannot be overlooked
Corbyn’s leadership, and his team’s strategy, were flawed. If defections and disaffection weren’t evidence enough, election results are indisputable proof.
How and why it was flawed is less straightforward. Parliamentary Labour Party members and political commentators between Westminster and Fleet Street present one rap sheet. Actual voters offer different justifications. Was Corbyn a lifelong Brexiter or closet Remainer? Intransient and dogmatic or indecisive and vague? A conniving man with a masterplan or reluctant figurehead out of his depth? All of those things, depending on the day?
But Corbyn also rode groundswells of enormous popular support to twice shock and dismay the PLP; made politics engaging to young people; oversaw massive Party membership growth. At the 2017 election, the unexpected ‘Corbyn bump’ held off decades-in-the-making surging Conservative support in ‘traditional Labour heartlands’. By their own assertion, Corbyn offered something new to BAME members and voters, who helped propel new MPs (in the most diverse Labour cohort to date) to victory. He dragged the terms of debate leftward – at least for now.
Suggesting that only rabid left-wingers placed hope in the Corbyn project is not only inaccurate, but dangerously dismissive. Switching out which demographics are taken for granted will not end well for Labour. Rebuilding the red wall won’t make it contain more seats. If the next leader punches sidewards instead of building up from current foundations, Labour will be dead by different means. It was flatlining long before 2015.
It might be tempting to believe that a different Labour leader would have swept to power, heroically preventing Brexit and ‘uniting the nation’ along the way. But A.N. Other only wins in a Britain that doesn’t exist; in a counterfactual reality where we can substitute in our favourite figurehead and cherry pick moments from historical chains of events to fit best-case-scenario imaginings. History doesn’t work like that.
At best: a different Labour leader might have attracted more voters. Most likely: a different Labour leader would have attracted different voters, and lost by a different margin, across a differently patterned map that was still predominantly blue.
Either way, it’s time to pick a new hero. Better yet, pick a thousand. We’re going to need a lot of them.
VII. What now?
We have to be willing look at Britain as it is today; in its complexity and contradictions; its beauty and ugliness, its capacity for optimism and its causes of despair. This list is not the whole picture, just a few pieces, shifting on a moving board.
We know that, post-election, hate crime has spiked along with the markets – only the latter likely temporary. Donations to foodbanks, shelters and charities are up too. In Parliament, already announced: no BDS; less BBC; slashed labour protections; a minimum wage rise that’s the ‘biggest ever’ (the small print: far less than promised). We’re three weeks in.
A country that feels shattered to so many is, when viewed from Westminster, as its most politically unified in decades – and primed for a ‘radical’ Conservative programme.
We must be willing to unite across ideological lines to lobby, petition and protest our government; blunt the edges of its axe. But the challenges ahead go far beyond Parliament, and party politics. Small, local campaigns and institutions across the UK are gearing up for long fights against new funding cuts; increased surveillance and criminalisations; battles to keep public spaces and services out of private hands.
Creeping normalisation of anti-semitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia and racism must be countered everywhere it arises, from everyday interactions to new policies and laws. Independent media producers and watchdogs will need ongoing financial support. Grassroots organisers will require immense volunteer power. Solidarity will demand wide and deep network-building that is sincere, not cynical; focused on changing society as well as winning power.
It is not too much to demand both.
Millions are devastated by this election. We must not be defined by it. This is Britain now. It doesn’t have to be Britain tomorrow.
Citation: S. McGuirk (2019) “Britain in Fragments (Or, Why Boris?)” Blog post, published December 20, 2019, http://www.siobhanmcguirk.com/britain-in-fragments-or-why-boris
I was living in Washington, DC when Donald Trump won the 2016 US Presidential Election. In the days following, I wrote an essay titled, ‘Why Trump? (Or America in Fragments). The UK is a completely different place, with an entirely different political system and culture. But I kept returning to thoughts I had back then, about a nation fragmented. This essay is the result.