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Who to blame for Johnson winning?

Summary:
When I wrote thisin July I desperately wanted to be wrong. (Of course I was wrong about a lot of the details but alas not the main point.) But it soon became clear that, compared to 2017, the press had had two more years to paint Corbyn as marxist, unpatriotic and racist, and for enough people that would be a reason not to vote Labour. Among others who supported Brexit, they really did believe that Johnson was the man to get Brexit done. Many will say that Labour lost badly because they had a left wing manifesto. They always do after each election defeat. I doubt that has much to do with this defeat, although the large amount of giveaways to the wrong people was probably a factor. The problem was Corbyn, not Labour’s manifesto. And while many voted against the media image of Corbyn more

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When I wrote thisin July I desperately wanted to be wrong. (Of course I was wrong about a lot of the details but alas not the main point.) But it soon became clear that, compared to 2017, the press had had two more years to paint Corbyn as marxist, unpatriotic and racist, and for enough people that would be a reason not to vote Labour. Among others who supported Brexit, they really did believe that Johnson was the man to get Brexit done.

Many will say that Labour lost badly because they had a left wing manifesto. They always do after each election defeat. I doubt that has much to do with this defeat, although the large amount of giveaways to the wrong people was probably a factor. The problem was Corbyn, not Labour’s manifesto. And while many voted against the media image of Corbyn more than anything else, it has to be said that Corbyn’s past and his failures over the last three years made the media’s job very easy.

We should of course blame the media. The right wing press became part of the Tories propaganda war. The Tories lied like never before, just as some of them did in 2016. The BBC was even more careful not to do anything that might upset the government, and it has a real problem when ‘accidents’ keep advantaging one side. But the moment the BBC played a key role in electing Boris Johnson was very specific, and it goes back to the day Johnson got his deal with the EU.

What the media should have asked at that moment is why Johnson had accepted a deal that was essentially the first the EU had proposed, but which he and other ERG members had said at the time was unacceptable. Why had he capitulated? Was it all just a ruse so he could become Prime Minister?

Nobody thought a deal was possible, gushed Laura Kuenssberg, repeating one of CCHQ’s lines to take. No sense from her of what had actually happened. As I noted here, the BBC’s Brussels correspondent got it about right, but the tone of the reporting was set by Kuenssberg. Whether this misrepresentation of Johnson’s deal was deliberate or the result of ignorance I don’t know, but it was critical.

Of course the Tory and Brexit press also took CCHQ’s lines to take. The BBC is the only chance most voters have to get a check on what their newspapers say. It did not provide any such check on this occasion. And it is critical because it allows Johnson to say, as he has, that it was his unique abilities that helped him achieve a deal that everyone said was impossible. No doubt he will say the same when he refuses an extension in July next year because the EU have refused to give him the deal he wants.

Voters who still believe in leaving the EU were left with the impression, thanks to the BBC (and of course the Brexit press), that Johnson was the person who could deal with the EU and get Brexit done. They were not told the truth that he was the person who had helped waste almost a year in squabbling in part so he could get to be Prime Minister. So Leavers are left with an image of competence rather than the reality, which is that Johnson is quite prepared to damage the economy and the workings of democracy just for his own personal gain.

But there is little that Labour or the Liberal Democrats can do about media bias while they are out of power. Undoubtedly a key reason Johnson won was because the Remain/anti-Johnson vote was split. It is depressing and very worrying how many people voted for Johnson, our own Donald Trump, but while the Electoral College gifted Trump his victory despite losing the popular vote, so First Past The Post (FPTP) gave Johnson his victory. A lot of people voted tactically, but not enough.

Both Labour and Liberal Democrats are to blame for not cooperating. While Labour’s failure was not a surprise, I had hoped the Liberal Democrats would take the opportunity to seize the moral high ground and not put up candidates in Labour marginals like Canterbury. It didn’t, and instead it spent too much of its time attacking Labour in the futile belief that this would win over some Tory voters. I suspect they would have been much more successful if they had been honest that the best way to stop Brexit was through a minority Labour government dependent on LibDem votes.

The ultimate responsibility for the split vote must nevertheless rest with Jeremy Corbyn.

Who to blame for Johnson winning?

The big surge in the Liberal Democrat vote from below 10% to over 20% at its peak began in the Spring of this year, and it coincided with a collapse in Labour’s vote. This quite remarkable change in fortunes cannot be put down to a biased media, but is obviously a Brexit effect.

Throughout 2018 Labour had managed to stay the obvious choice for Remainers, as it had been in the 2017 election. But as soon as May finalised her Withdrawal Agreement it was clear triangulating would no longer work, and Labour would have to take a position. The polls suggested Labour would lose votes by not supporting Remain, but as I notedin December last year too many within Labour were in denial.

Labour entering into talks with May to get Brexit done was I suspect the final straw for many Remainers. They didn’t go to the new and short lived Remain party but the Liberal Democrats and the Greens. The European election was a disaster, but shifting Labour’s policy seemed like trying to get blood out of a stone. I really think if they had moved at the beginning of 2019 to where they ended up things would have been rather different. Instead the Labour leadership single-handedly created the revival of the Liberal Democrats. That, as well as his failure to deal with antisemitism and some of his intolerant supporters, are major factors behind this defeat.

Easy to say in hindsight? Not really. I said these things in 2016 in the second Labour leadership election that Corbyn won. I said it throughout late 2018 and early 2019 was the Remain vote became disenchanted with Corbyn. But the behaviour of Labour MPs made an alternative to Corbyn impossible in 2016 then, as it had been in 2015, and after the 2017 general election result he was never going to be removed.

Could we have stopped Johnson if Labour had not allowed the Remain vote to split. To be honest I don’t know. That is how negative the media’s image of Corbyn has been. Some Lexiters will say it is all Remainers’ fault, but that is a nonsense position. As a result of this defeat we have reached the end of the line for the Remain cause. It has been three years of experts and people who made themselves experts trying to explain why Brexit was such a bad idea, but nothing we could do was able to counteract the propaganda of the Brexit press and the knowledge as opinion attitude of the broadcast media, and particularly the BBC. The really striking finding after three years when the truth about Brexit became crystal clear to anyone wanting or able to see it is that the number of people wanting Brexit changed only a little, and that is what gave Johnson his majority.

Now that we have elected our own Donald Trump, I’m reminded of a talk Paul Krugman gave after Trump won. At the time I wrote a postabout it, and I ended it like this:
“We can, and should, continue to rage against the dying of the light. What is difficult, in this time of crazy, is being able to put that rage aside, and engage in a form of quietism, a retreat from the here and now of political discourse. Not a retreat into any kind of acceptance of where we now are, but instead into asking what and why, and from the answers to those questions to planning for the time when facts get back into fashion. But more than that. Using the answers to the what and why to prevent us lapsing back into our current post-truth world.”

I will continue to rage, but not quite as often as I have done since the blog began almost exactly eight years ago. It is time for deeper thought about how we get back to the light and ensure that we never again lapse into a post-truth world.



Simon Wren-lewis
Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. This blog is written for both economists and non-economists.

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