Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 13 December 2019

Who to blame for Johnson winning?

When I wrote this in 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.

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 noted in 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 post about 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.


  1. Your "raging" has been an important inspiration, Simon. Looking fwd also to deeper thoughts.
    All best

  2. Please don't go too far away or for too long. I have a feeling we are going to need voices like yours.

  3. While I read and value all you write, I have been and am distressed that you are unable to understand just how important having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister would have been.

  4. Thanks for your posts. One question: Will you be intending to post more about macro theory in the future? Topics like monetary policy, QE, NGDP targets, MMT, the Euro, microfoundations etc. or not? If not, do you know where I can find blogs on these topics.

  5. From the beginning, you were continually critical of Jeremy Corbyn for failing to be sufficiently against Brexit. This was a drastic political mistake.

  6. Dear Simon Wren-Lewis

    Darkness has indeed crept over the divided kingdoms with half-truths and lies first through the post of many minds. You fought long and hard to enlighten us all with the facts and the clear reasonings which your sharp intellect dictated. Your thoughts have been vindicated all too often by the events with others failing to think things through and to act accordingly. You truly raged as a bright flame of truth...

    For my small part I feel honoured to have witnessed that ready rage of reason through blog and book.

    Thank you for everything!

  7. Economists will want to thank Britain for running a natural economic experiment. They are lusting for the results of leaving the EU.
    Good Luck to Britain. I hope things work out better than predicted.

  8. Yours has been a voice of sanity these past weeks and months. Thank you. Please don't go too quiet!

  9. Partisan hackery tied in a bow of sour grapes, garnished with feeble economics.

  10. You have it pretty spot on. Labour and LibDem contrived to kill off the remainer cause in the end. Corbyn for me though bears ultimate responsibility for Brexit. At the time of the referendum his lack of enthusiasm (to put it mildly) for the remain cause left many Labour voters lacking clear direction; their instinctual answer was to vote for the 'man of the people' Farage and against the remainer Conservatives (Cameron and Osborne). The remain cause could then have united and unequivocally come together on a simple 'confirmatory referendum for the deal' message. That might have had a chance. Instead they let the 'English Nationalist' party drive the agenda.

    If Labour does not make Corbyn and his idealogues go, they will be out of power for at least 10 years. I think it needs to change its approach to choosing leaders too: leaving so much power in the hands of party members empowers the fanatical wing(it's the same in the Tory party too).

  11. By "getting back to the light" and "ensuring that we never again lapse into a post-truth world" you seem to mean creating a world in which everybody agrees with you about everything?

  12. "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."

    Well I'm going to try to raise public understanding of why we need to replace FPTP with a Proportional voting system in the Commons.

  13. I support Remain but I do not know how Labour as a Remain party can represent the Leave strongholds that have just fallen to the Tories. A different Labour leader supporting Remain would face different objections but would probably fail anyway.

  14. Oh dear God. Blame the messenger and not a single sentence of self-doubt. Not even at least a minimum effort in trying to understand that people were upset for being called stupid racists and not having their orders obeyed. Not a single sentence trying to understand the issues of identity raised since 2016. Not even the minimum acceptance that people may want self-governance and have their law makers accountable. With thoughtful analysis like this, the Tories are guaranteed another generation in power! It does seem that the next Labour prime-minister hasn’t been born yet.

  15. >Labour leadership single-handedly created the revival of the Liberal Democrats.

    Surely Labour had little chance to switch to "Remain" in 2019 as the voting membership needed included a lot of Leave oriented supporters too. Internal affairs of the Party, PLP vs Momentum, have been damaging.

    Labour however is well positioned amongst the youth if they go full Momentum. But risk becoming a pressure group.

    Boris' promises will create disappointment but the logical next move for Tories is toward a relatively centre-right Cameron/Blair position .. they have a huge problem appealing to the youth now, that's an incentive to borrow and spend.

    How would you seek to reform media outlets?

  16. Mr. Wren-Lewis, it was you and your academic colleagues who abandoned Jeremy Corbyn after Brexit. It was you who never accepted Brexit and pushed for the terrible idea of another vote. It was you who failed to properly support Corbyn.

  17. I repeat. Corbyn went well last time because a protest vote against arrogance did not have any consequences. This time a vote for the Labour party would mean Corbyn PM which was a bridge too far for most rational people. moreover he was all over the place on Brexit.

  18. So we are now leaving the EU.

    The Remainers could have accepted the democratic vote in 2016.

    Instead, we have had three years of rancour with Parliamentary democracy brought to its knees. The Remainers have undermined our negotiations with the EU and given an extra a year of Brexit uncertainty to British business. Thanks to them we now have a clown as Prime Minister and an entrenched right wing government.

    At least we can thank them for making the EU debate so toxic that there is no chance of a second referendum for a generation.

    What we can learn from this is that democracy may not be perfect but it is the best we have. Any attempt to sidestep democracy soon degenerates into a free for all. Yes, some people probably voted Leave because of a slogan on a bus but others were probably deterred from voting Leave because they were wrongly told that it would cause half a million of their fellow citizens to lose their job within a short period.

    Personally, at this election, I couldn’t even be bothered to visit the polling station to write ‘none of these’ on the ballot paper. In the end 43.6% voted Conservative, 2% voted Brexit and 11.5% voted for the proposition that whichever party won a majority of seats could do whatever they liked. So Boris has a clear 57% mandate to implement his policy to leave the EU.

    Who is to blame for Johnson winning? Remainers. Without their help he would never have become the leader of the Conservative Party.

  19. “We should of course blame the media”

    The media commentary was no different in 2017 than in 2019. So what changed?

    Corbyn’s manifesto moved from being radical to being ludicrous. He was forced to abandon the policy of implementing Brexit.

    Corbyn garnished a large following in 2017 as a man of integrity, but his enforced reversal on Brexit destroyed his brand image.

    The Labour party is in real trouble. The liberal elitists in London don’t have a clue about the working class in the North. The left wing radicals don’t have a clue about the working class throughout the UK. Each wing of the party thinks they are right but neither are.

  20. So in the turmoil of the election period a vote by the EU received little attention.

    The EU voted on a proposal that would have forced multinational firms to reveal profits made and taxes paid in each EU country. France, Spain and the Netherlands voted for the proposal, Germany abstained, but Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Cyprus and others blocked it.

    We can only hope that once we leave the EU, Amazon will be obliged to fulfil UK orders from within the UK rather than from Luxembourg.

  21. Blissex comments:

    The long predicted LibDem landslide proves that this election was not about brexit, but about the rejection by the large majority of centrist voters of Corbyn's deranged communism, as voters clearly ignored Johnson's "GET BREXIT DONE" message. :-)

    Look at this graph from the FT:

    Until July 2019 Labour was ahead:
    «9 July 2019 Brexit: Labour to back Remain as it calls for a new EU referendum»

    Note also that in April 2019 Labour's vote fell as the Brexit Party's vote surged, and then when B Johnson became PM the Brexit Party's vote went pretty much into the Conservative vote, while there was no switch from the LibDems to Labour even if Labour had declared for the second referendum, and the LibDem vote collapsed when they changed their policy to straight "Revoke", not a second referendum.

  22. "When I wrote this in July I desperately wanted to be wrong. (Of course I was wrong about a lot of the details but alas not the main point.)"

    Don’t worry only some minor details were wrong such as

    “After brief talks with the EU in which he tried unsuccessfully to change the withdrawal agreement, he (Johnson) reported back that the EU were being obstinate and obstructive, and therefore No Deal was the only way”


    “Despite hopes based on 2017, the increase in Labour's vote during the campaign was modest”

    But don’t worry you are right. You are always right in the make believe world of the liberal elite.

  23. ''that is a nonsense position''
    ...but 48 out of the 52 seats that Labour lost to the Tories were in leave-voting constituencies. Are you suggesting that a strong Remain position might have compensated for these losses?


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