Philip G. Cerny


The outcome of the UK general election on 12th December 2019 was both personally depressing for me as a Labour Party member, but equally fascinating as a follower of politics and current affairs. I think there are several crucial factors that can be taken away from the re-election of Boris Johnson as Britain's Prime Minister.


From the outset, I am commenting on this not as traditional “expert” on British politics, but as a long-practicing comparative and international political scientist. Thus, with that as a context, these are the factors that jumped out at me over the course of the election campaign and watching the results roll in.


1. Boris Johnson, for all his self-absorption, got it right in terms of having a clear and powerful election slogan that dominated the debates, airwaves, etc. The British have been totally absorbed by the issue of Europe and the Brexit crisis for five years, since David Cameron's surprise majority in 2015 and attempted renegotiation in 2016. The promise – however misleading – to “Get Brexit Done”  resonated with people throughout the campaign, even among those voters who would normally prefer the other policies, especially domestic, of the opposition parties, especially in the case of those Labour seats in the North and Midlands.


2. The opposition parties’ priorities, both domestic and foreign, were at odds with each other. Given the UK’ “first-past-the-post” electoral system, as French political scientist Maurice Duverger argued in the 1950s (I was briefly his student in Paris in the 1960s), votes for third parties are wasted votes in terms of actually winning seats. In the recent election climate, indeed, the Labour Party, for reasons addressed below, came to be a “nearly” third party.


3. The campaign in the Conservative leaning parts of the media played a key role. Papers including the Express, the Mail and the Sun – with reference to the last, given its working-class readership – were intensely pro-Johnson and pro-Brexit. Given the fact that voters in the “Red Wall” parts of the Midlands and the North of England were strongly pro-Brexit, the influence of the Conservative tabloids considerably boosted key campaign messages. The most important of which was 'Get Brexit Done'.


4. Personality. Corbyn appeared stiff, evasive and unappealing in meetings and on television, especially when challenged on issues by voters and journalists. This was in sharp contrast to 2017 when he looked friendly and even avuncular in comparison to the more rigid Theresa May. Polls both during and after the election have revealed that voters in general, but specifically Labour voters, were hostile to Jeremy Corbyn. Many voters were simply of the opinion that he was unsuited to be Prime Minister. Johnson, for all his negative features, looked more capable.


5. The Labour manifesto was over saturated in policy offers, unlike the relatively brief and punchy Conservative one. Nobody could read it and walk away with the impression – true or not – that the party was making a load of spending promises that it would find difficult to keep. Despite voters’ wish to put austerity behind them, paradoxically Johnson’s more limited approach appeared more feasible in government.


6. In my opinion, presentation, especially in an era of media intensity and social media, was crucial. Labour and the Liberal Democrats' presentation of policy was long winded and lacked short, concise explanations backed up by appealing and punchy slogans. Consider this as an exercise. Watch the victory rally held by Johnson on the morning of the election. He repeatedly asks the assembled party members what the government's priorities are for the next five years, 'Get Brexit Done', '20,000 more police' etc. are the replies. Can you imagine a similar response with such clarity to similar questions were the roles reversed and Corbyn was asking members?  


7. The Labour stand on Brexit was problematic. It gave the appearance of wanting two conflicting things at the same time, i.e. (a) a soft Brexit followed by (b) a second referendum allowing Remain as an option (given the stark divisions within the party). Labour was therefore widely perceived as either lacking a clear direction on the Brexit issue, or deliberately two-faced to both Remain and Leave voters. Furthermore, Labour’s non-plan would take at least 6 more months to work through, giving the impression that it would just delay things further with no clear outcome.


8. One of the most problematic issues, was that of antisemitism. This was manifested at five levels. In the first place, it was unclear whether it was a “top down” issue concerning whether Corbyn, his party administrators and his supporters were themselves antisemitic. At a second level, it was a “bottom up” issue concerning individuals and activists in constituency parties. Third, it was unclear whether the Labour Party itself was thought to be institutionally or merely incidentally antisemitic. Fourth, it was debated whether enough was done within the party to get rid of the genuinely antisemitic people there. Finally, some important Jewish groups were strongly anti-Corbyn and refused to campaign. The attempt to counter this by accusing the Conservative Party of deep-seated Islamophobia (and, indeed of its own antisemitic elements), however accurate, fell totally flat given this important context.


9. The growth of populism in many countries in the 21st century, across borders and political cultures, was successfully appropriated in the British case by the Conservatives. This was in line with wider international trends stemming from economic change, social insecurity, and the dialectic of globalisation and fragmentation around the world.


10. What the Johnson Government will do in office is extremely unclear. Johnson in Downing Street on the morning of the election spoke of leading a One Nation Conservative government. His first 100 days in office, especially the prorogation of Parliament, suggest otherwise. Commentators talk of the 'real Boris Johnson' being closer to that who governed London as Mayor, but this is again uncertain. The simple fact is we will just have to wait and see which Boris Johnson emerges.


Philip G. Cerny is a Professor Emeritus of Politics and Global Affairs at the University of Manchester and Rutgers University-Newark. Image credit: CC by Number 10/Flickr.