Why Did Labour Win in My Hometown, But Lose Across the Rest of the UK?

I live in Canterbury, where the Labour MP Rosie Duffield increased her slim majority tenfold in the general election. Given Labour’s defeat in almost all of the rest of the UK, it’s worth considering why this happened,.

A prime reason Duffield retained her seat is that that Labour had the support of a rickety but effective anti-Tory common front that counterbalanced the negative factors which were sinking its hopes elsewhere. The Lib Dem candidate unilaterally stood down and endorsed Duffield so as not to split the Remain vote, though he was promptly replaced by the Lib Dem leadership.

The Greens, meanwhile, did not stand – and a booth in High Street, Canterbury, was selling blue badges with the message “Tories for Rosie”.

When Duffield, a former assistant teacher and single mother, first won the seat by 187 votes in 2017, ending no less than 185 years of uninterrupted Tory representation, the Tories and the media blamed the student vote.

But while the city does have two big universities and the campus of a third, this has been true for decades, during most of which the constituency routinely returned Sir Julian Brazier, a right-wing pro-Leave MP.

Canterbury and nearby Whitstable may look prosperous to visitors walking down their high streets, but the constituency contains deprived housing estates where people on the minimum wage struggle to feed their families.

In this the city is certainly not unique. One of the most extraordinary and contradictory developments in modern English political history is that people living in such “left behind” and “left out” places decided to retaliate against a British establishment that had long ignored them by scapegoating the EU, even though it was often the only governmental institution that did anything to help them.

On the outskirts of Canterbury, for instance, is the estate of Thanington, which, because of its reputation for violence and crime, used to be nicknamed “Little Beirut” – that is, until 20 years ago, when it received a £2.5m EU grant to refurbish it.

Even so, locals say that most of its population voted Leave in the referendum, and as happened in much of England and Wales, might have voted Tory last week.

I asked Mike Bland, campaign coordinator for Duffield, why she had won when so many of her fellow Labour MPs had lost. He said that Labour had lost support in the Leave-voting estates, but “voters stayed home and did not switch to the Tories”.

Duffield is popular and had distanced herself from Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour leadership – distanced herself so far as to attract furious denunciations from some leaders of the local party.

Labour could never out-Brexit a Brexiteer-led Tory party in Canterbury or anywhere else, but it could compensate for losing Leavers by winning enough Remain votes to make up for these losses.

In the constituency there had been a small Remain majority in the referendum, and Duffield was vocally pro-Remain. This was important because in other constituencies, Labour’s suicidal policy of being somewhere in the middle between Leave and Remain managed to alienate both sides, as it was always likely to do.

More Labour voters switched to the other Remain parties – often in Leave majority areas – than Labour Leave voters switched to the Tories. For all Boris Johnson’s triumphalism, the overall Tory share of the vote only increased by two per cent.

The Red Wall, much loved by the media, was something of a myth, made up of traditional marginals and de-industrialised constituencies that had shifted unsteadily towards the Tories since the 1970s.

Of course, it’s easy to say what the Labour Party should have done if it was less divided. Its ambivalent Brexit policy was a compromise between factions, however toxic it was likely to prove to the electorate as a whole. But the divisions were real, so the only real solution for Labour was to avoid a general election until Brexit was decided one way or another.

Numerous Labour and Lib Dem leaders are now saying how much they opposed a general election, but their opposition, if it existed at the time, was largely invisible.

Yet a speech by Tony Blair on 2 September accurately predicted all the political disasters that would follow if Labour and the Lib Dems chose to jump into what he termed the “elephant trap” of a general election. Blair said that if Johnson “mixes up the Brexit question with the Corbyn question in a general election, he could succeed”. And succeed he did.

Obvious though this was from a glance at the opinion polls, Blair noted that the Labour leadership had been “inoculated” against political reality by its unexpectedly strong showing in the 2017 election.

Everything turned out precisely as Blair had forecast. Both Corbyn and Jo Swinson, the Lib Dem leader, proved equally delusional about their prospects.

A minority Tory government in a hung parliament under an unpopular leader should have been seen by them as being as good as it gets for opposition parties. Instead, propelled by wishful thinking, they obligingly consented to an election dominated by the twin issues of Brexit and Corbyn and which they would inevitably lose.

What will life in the “elephant trap” be like for the rest of us?

We can get some idea of the strength of the social and economic forces underpinning last week’s general election result by looking abroad. Similar revolts in non-metropolitan de-industrialised towns and city outskirts gave birth to the gilets jaunes in France and propelled Donald Trump into the White House in 2016.

Jeremy Corbyn is not often compared to Hillary Clinton, but some of their mistakes were similar. Both wasted the energies of enthusiastic supporters trying to win opposition-held constituencies and states when they should have been fighting desperately to defend their own political bases.

Populist nationalist leaders are popping up all over the world. Johnson is only the British iteration of this global trend. All have authoritarian instincts to which they give rein as far as political circumstances allow. Opposition to their rule is divided, intimidated or both.

Ominously for Britain, the populist nationalist wave is not receding. And once they’ve won it, few, if any, of these leaders have lost their grip on power.

Patrick Cockburn’s past columns can now be found at The I. Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).