Brexit Destroyed Labour Party, Not Corbyn

62% of Labour seats voted for Brexit.

The British and European Union Flags Represent the divide over Brexit in the UK.

Nearly two years ago, voters in the United Kingdom went to the polls to vote in the 2019 General Election. While there were a lot of thoughts and feelings on the voter’s minds there was one issue everyone was talking about: Brexit. Would the public prefer a renegotiated deal and a second referendum under Labour? Or would they prefer a pro-Brexit approach under Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson? As the results came it, the Conservatives won with 365 seats to pass a Brexit deal. This came at the expense of Labour which lost 60 seats.

While it is easy to scapegoat former Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Most of his policies outlined in the Labour manifesto were very popular with the public. two-thirds supported increasing income taxes on people making over £123,000 a year, 56% wanted railways brought back under public ownership, 54% supported having one third of workers on corporate boards, and the majority supported public ownership of water. So given this context what was the real reason Corbyn’s Labour party lost? Brexit.

Boris Johnson stands with Theresa May in front of the Brexit Bus in May 2016. Reuters

Brexit was a referendum that was held in 2016 asking citizens of the United Kingdom if they wanted to leave the EU. European-skeptics Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson joined the leave campaign. Weeks before the vote took place Johnson traveled throughout the country in a big red bus which claimed the country sent 350 million a week to the EU. During this period Labour waited to see what the results would be. 52% voted to leave. Broken down by constituency revealed some interesting results. 75% of Conservative seats voted to leave as did 61% of Labour-held seats.

Conservatives held 318 seats versus 262 for Labour. 75% of Conservative and 61% of Labour constituencies voted to Leave the European Union.

In the six week campaign leading up to the 2017 General Election, the Conservative and Labour parties had a choice to make. Should they adopt their initial remain position or side with the majority in the UK who voted to leave? The Conservatives chose to migrate towards a hard Brexit. The Labour party adopted a similar position but with the option of tariff-free access to the EU single market. Corbyn’s approach appealed to both constituencies that voted to leave and remain. In June 2017, Labour surprised everyone when they gained thirty seats resulting in a hung parliament.

After the Election results, Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn had a brewing problem. As the Brexit negotiations wore on the Labour party was putting more pressure on him to adopt a more remain stance and suggested he hold a second referendum. But Corbyn knew that was risky. 159 of Labour seats voted for Brexit, to adopt a remain stance would create a loss of one hundred seats. So the leader adopted a compromise, he’d adopt a People’s Vote and if he was Prime Minister he would remain neutral ahead of the national vote. Meanwhile the Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson adopted a hard Brexit position under the slogan “Get Brexit Done.”

As the Conservatives became the pro-Brexit party, Labour was caught in a very difficult position. Corbyn was dealing with a split party and adopted a neutral stance in order to retain the anti and pro-Brexit seats. This decision resulted in depressed turnout among Labour seats while Conservative seats retained their margin.

Labour Leave Seats Largely Retained

Even then the results were not as catastrophic as it could have been. Out of the 159 pro-leave seats, Corbyn’s Labour party held onto 99 of them (62.3%). Furthermore out of the 30 seats they gained in the previous election cycle Jeremy Corbyn was able to retain 17 of them including former conservative Canterbury and many of the seats in the north remained in Labour’s hands. That is indicative of the strength of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader to generate enthusiasm and retain 62% of pro-Brexit seats. Without Corbyn it’s possible Labour would have lost well over 100 seats in parliament to the Conservatives and delivered Boris Johnson an even bigger landslide.

I believe if the Labour party had stuck to their original position in 2017 of accepting the results of the leaving the European Union, they would have retained more seats and possibly gained them. And we can see what happened after Corbyn left, in the Hartlepool by-election. Starmer backed a pro-remain candidate in a constituency where over 70% voted for Brexit and the voters in the North were not going to back another pro-remain member of parliament. And in the Batley and Spen by-election Labour narrowly avoided a Conservative victory by 300 votes.

The main point is that Labour needs an person who generates excitement of the base and highlights an optimistic vision for the future of that country. It can’t win by being Tory-lite it must focus on a hopeful vision that generates excitement for the base and advocates an optimistic vision for the many, not the few.

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