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British Elections: There Is An Alernative

Priyamvada Gopal (pg268@cam.ac.uk) is at the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge and Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

As the euphoria of a victorious defeat subsides, there is a sense of determination within Labour ranks as well as a degree of real hope among those in the broader electorate who wish to see Tory rule and austerity come to an end sooner rather than later. The way ahead will not be easy, not least because of the still very deep divisions of Brexit both within the Labour party and beyond.

On the morning of 9 June 2017, many progressive people in Britain woke up with a familiar sense of dread. The memories of 24 June and 9 November 2016 were still fresh in our minds. On both those occasions, the opinion polls had been wrong in calling it, in the first instance, for a Remain vote in Britain's referendum on membership of the European Union (EU) and, in the case of the United States (US), indicating that while it would be close, Hillary Clinton, rather than Donald Trump would win the presidential race. I was, therefore, not placing my faith in the exit polls of the previous night which had suggested that the snap election called by British Prime Minister Theresa May would result in Britain's Conservative government losing its majority.

A Gulp of Fresh Air

How glad I and many others were to be wrong, delighted to see the ticker tape running across the BBC screen confirming a hung parliament, no party having won an overall majority. The widely anticipated coronation—the distinct possibility of a landslide having been May's motivation for calling the gratuitous snap election—had been cancelled and to widespread amazement, the Labour Party, led by the veteran left winger, Jeremy Corbyn, had increased its seat share, putting paid to repeated prediction of total annihilation at the ballot box. Instead, it had acquired 32 more seats and increased its share of the vote to 40 percent, only slightly behind the Tories' 42%. Just days before, May had sternly warned voters that as few as six lost seats for her party could see Corbyn negotiating Brexit instead of her. She lost 18. It may yet be that her government falls sooner rather than later.

The Labour Party had, of course, not won the election but as defeats go, this was a startlingly triumphal one. For many on the broad left and liberal spectrum of British politics, a sense of euphoria now prevails, and certainly, of a reprieve from that state of affairs in Britain and beyond, where the near inexorable rise of rightwing forces had started to seem like being sewn up inside a fresh animal hide which would suffocate its wearer as it shrank. For us, the shattered Tory expectations of a decisive majority combined with what was patently a huge swing in Corbyn's favour felt like someone had gashed open the shrinking leather, allowing in a gulp of fresh air. Perhaps it could be that the juggernaut of fiscal austerity and the rule of capitalist greed could, after all, be slowed down. This victory in defeat for Corbyn and defeat in victory for Theresa May could have seismic repercussions.

What had happened? Only a part of the story is that of the entitled arrogance of May and her fellow Conservatives in setting a date for re-anointing themselves supreme rulers of Brexit Britain, authorised to run roughshod over the concerns of half the populace about Britain's withdrawal from the EU and the "hard" terms on which it would be conducted. In the seven years of Tory rule, "austerity"—blamed repeatedly on supposed prior Labour profligacy—was inflicted ruthlessly with benefits for the poorest and the disabled slashed, public services eroded and the National Health Service performing at breaking point. Meanwhile, also slashing corporate taxes more than once, the Tories repeatedly informed a population where wages remained depressed and whose living standards were further worsened by a weakened pound in the wake of Brexit, that we were "all in it together."

May, not blessed with charisma as it is, was brazen enough on live television to inform an overworked nurse concerned that her pay had not risen in years that "there's no magic money tree". Up until the Brexit referendum, the time-honoured formula of blaming the decimation of public services, including the NHS, on migrants while peddling the crassest forms of nationalism tinged with a good measure of imperial nostalgia had appeared to be working beautifully. Until, one day this June, it did not.

Compelling Counter Narrative

                   

The other half of the story, of course, is the less predictable and meatier one. In the six weeks following May's snap election announcement, Corbyn and his team criss-crossed the country speaking to large crowds at rallies, making the case that a different kind of society was entirely possible. To the rightwing Tory tale of a Britain being taken for a ride by the EU, the well-being of ordinary citizens jeopardised by immigrants whose presence the government was powerless to stop, Labour at last offered a compelling counter-narrative that was outlined, in due course, in a succinct, clear and carefully-costed manifesto. What had hurt people and society, Corbyn repeated, was that a small number of people were getting wealthier under a 'rigged economy' and government that secured and nourished the rich at the expense of the many. This had meant a fall in living standards for the larger number as well as growing job insecurity. The NHS was struggling from underfunding as were schools, social care and public services even as tax avoidance in high income brackets was rife and enforcement poor. The electorate had a very clear choice: they could either settle for more of the same if the Tories were re-elected or choose a party which would emphatically invest in the NHS, education, public transport and social care.

 

Surely this is the stuff of any electoral battle, the opposition party promising to do the needful, accusing the incumbents of having failed, only to break pledges when in power? While it remains to be seen, of course, what Labour will actually manage to achieve if they are voted into office again, there is little doubt that Corbyn brought to the field a narrative that outlined clearly where the battle lines were to be drawn based on ideas that Labour itself had essentially abandoned in the heady years of Tony Blair's ascension to power. Now there would be a return to first principles, emphasising economic redistribution and a measure of social justice since, as the manifesto put it, "the creation of wealth is a collective endeavour between workers, entrepreneurs, investors and government." Secondly—and here Corbyn's own personality matters—swathes of the electorate were clearly persuaded by the veteran backbencher's patent personal integrity and manifest commitment to principles of economic redistribution. As May and other conservatives mechanically parroted the mantra, "strong and stable government" as a talismanic invocation intended to answer any and all questions about what the post-Brexit future held for Britain, it became clear that British voters were no longer prepared to countenance the meaningless sound bytes of condescension over thoughtful arguments and concrete proposals.

Corbyn also eschewed personal attacks on his rivals, a move that simply entrenched his credibility, even as he and members of his inner circle, especially the articulate black female member of parliament (MP), Diane Abbott, were subjected to frequently nasty and, in the latter case, racist and misogynist smear campaigns. Corbyn also displayed a willingness, when labelled, for instance, as a "terrorist sympathiser", to take a difficult position, noting after the London terror attacks of 5 June that Britain needed to assess the role played by its foreign policy in fomenting Islamist militancy. A similarly bold move was to propose high levels of spending on public services and investment in infrastructure given the relentless accusations of profligacy with finances that had been the mainstay of Conservatives' attacks on Labour.

Emergence of Young People

Refreshing and welcome though its recent high profile has been, Corbyn's brand of Labourism is not, in and of itself, the game-changer in British politics. The one single factor that has transformed the British electoral landscape over the last year is the emergence of young people, particularly students, as an electoral force—the youth turnout in this election was in the vicinity of 72%, an unprecedented figure. There are sound reasons for this including a political class across the spectrum which has largely pandered to middle-class, middle-aged and older voters, relying on the presumed apathy of those under 34 and, concomitantly, an economy which has seen young people significantly worse off than their parents and grandparents in terms of job security, housing and retirement benefits.

In 2010, the Tory-Liberal Democrat Coalition government also tripled tuition fees in the face of widespread protests with further increases expected in this parliament. Young people, if they got an education at all, would enter the workplace already saddled with thousands of pounds of debt, an amount that would only increase exponentially if they found themselves able to get on the property ladder in the first place. It is into this milieu in which Momentum, the organisation set up to campaign for Corbyn, was able to make significant inroads, registering thousands of new Labour members and bringing in young people in unprecedented numbers to work as activists and organisers who would also be involved in voter registration drives to bring more young first-time voters on to the electoral rolls. In the days leading up to the election, 10000 Momentum volunteers knocked on about 1.2 million doors, pounding marginal seats by foot, to make the case for Labour.

The Labour manifesto in their hands, dismissed by opponents as a "spending spree,"' promised massive investment in public services without raising taxes for anyone but the top 5% of earners and corporations who, under the Tories, had been enjoying the lowest corporate taxes in the industrialised world. Under Labour, the rigged (a description used frequently) economic system which disproportionately rewarded the most well-off would be reconfigured and those individuals and entities avoiding their fair share of the tax burden would be brought to justice and compliance. The Tories, meanwhile, amazingly and brazenly, had refused to rule out tax increases for all but the top earners and large corporations, offering a vague manifesto that was also fully uncosted. May's "U-turn", after widespread criticism, on a manifesto pledge which would make people pay more for social care—dubbed the "dementia tax" by Labour, also did not help her cause.

It is worth noting that the most progressive electoral manifesto Labour had produced in decades was, in fact, essentially social democratic in spirit and letter. It was keen to be seen as supportive of business and conditions which would foster jobs and economic growth defined in traditional terms while yet ensuring that progressive taxation kept schools and hospitals open and well-resourced. This did not, of course, prevent tabloids and the right-wing press screaming that Corbyn would drag the country "back" into socialism and the "seventies", a time period and scare story which, of course, has no meaning for a large section of the youth who would comprise Corbyn's social base. It was always unlikely, of course, given the formidable array of forces against even this perfectly moderate if highly welcome promise to return to the fundamentals of social democracy that Corbyn's Labour would sweep to power. It is in this light that Conservative losses can be regarded as a victory for the Labour left.

Corbyn, it must be remembered, did not just face the arrogant condescension of his Conservative opponents—former British prime minister, David Cameron, famously told Corbyn at the dispatch box to wear a tie and sing the national anthem—but also relentless undermining from the centre and right of his own party. Labour members and voters were repeatedly and lugubriously warned that Corbyn would finish off Labour and that his tenure as leader would only help the Tories win. The former Blairite minister, Peter Mandelson's words were not untypical as he committed himself to try to do something each day to "bring forward the end of (Corbyn's) tenure in office" and "to save the Labour party from his leadership." What was the main problem with Corbyn? He was, in a word used repeatedly from within Labour, "unelectable."

Unelectable?

This much-bandied about term is a word that exceeds its pejorative and personal remit—dismissing Corbyn as a remnant of a bygone era whose views would not be palatable to a public accustomed to being treated as consumer-stakeholders rather than as citizens. At stake, ultimately, was nothing less than the a panic-stricken defence of the failing "Third Way" project pioneered by Tony Blair and his legatees, the so-called "modernisation" of the Labour Party which would involve a complete jettisoning of any commitment to socialism, capitulate fully to the demands of capitalism in creating a supposed "centre ground" and focussing as far as possible on a middle-class property-owning electorate while throwing a few sops in the direction of the fading welfare state.

It was, in others words, the last panicked screams of New Labour's embrace of the notorious Thatcherite TINA, that is, "there is no alternative" to neoliberalism, precisely the claim which Corbyn's narrative was challenging. The Blairites had famously insisted on being "intensely relaxed" about the "filthy rich"; now they were anything but relaxed faced with the prospect of the Labour Party spearheading a modest degree of redistribution. Another kind of society, Corbyn was saying, was not just possible but perfectly viable. The Parliamentary Labour Party's own insistence on Corby's "unelectability" tells us much about how far Labour had come by the beginning of the 21st century from its modestly socialist beginnings, set up by the socialist, Keir Hardie, and others in the early 20th century as the electoral face of the British working-classes.

The intense anxiety displayed by factions within the Labour Party were mirrored in the press, not just the usual suspects owned by Rupert Murdoch (the Sun and the Times) and the Barclay Brothers (the Telegraph) but also in the Guardian which, for a very long time, ran hostile editorials and opinion pieces by staff columnists which repeated the charge that Corbyn was a throwback to a time best left behind. As the tabloids and their twin broadsheets ran hysterical pieces about Corbyn's purported links with terrorists and extremists of every ilk, liberal commentators in the Guardian and the Independent, agreeing that Corbyn had rendered the party "unelectable," also offered snide and unsubstantiated suggestions that Corbyn and his circle were hospitable to anti-Semites and misogynists. Since the elections, a few have retracted though not perhaps as fully and as honestly as might have been proper.

Victorious Defeat

 What next? As the euphoria of a victorious defeat subsides, there is a sense of determination within Labour ranks as well as a degree of real hope among those in the broader electorate who wish to see Tory rule and austerity come to an end sooner rather than later. The way ahead will not be easy, not least because of the still very deep divisions of Brexit both within the Labour party and beyond. Where the wider membership of the Labour party and the overwhelming majority of Britain's younger voters were and are against leaving the EU, Corbyn was charged, not without justification, of running a lacklustre campaign in favour of the Remain vote last year. More dismayingly, Corbyn issued a three-line whip ordering Labour MPs to vote with the government when Theresa May sought parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50 which would set in motion the negotiations leading up to Britain's departure from the EU.

Since 48% of the United Kingdom (UK) voted to Remain, including the majority of Scotland and Northern Ireland, there was widespread feeling that Labour under Corbyn could and should have done more to represent this half of the country. The Labour manifesto does, it is worth noting, make clear that freedom of movement between the EU and Britain will end which may have been a tactically clever move to placate Britain's Leave voters and indeed there is some evidence that Labour picked up votes which would have otherwise gone to the wildly xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The question of whether it is right to give up that principle in a world where it is necessary to open up more borders rather than re-inscribe them, however "soft" the Brexit Labour proposes, remains on the table, a bitterly divisive issue as does immigration on which the Labour manifesto prevaricated.

What does remain heartening and hopeful, however, is that young people have now asserted themselves as citizens and agents of democracy; it is vital that they be supported and cheered on as they do so. They do necessarily have a fully mapped-out version of the future but have a keen sense that the present is unacceptable. Their new mood is progressive and coalitional in spirit, something that the Corbyn camp would do well to keep in mind, both as principle and as strategy. The decisive end of Tory rule in short order might well necessitate the "Progressive Alliance" that many have called for, one that would involve the co-operation of the Greens and the Scottish National Party. For one thing is at last crystal clear: contra Thatcher's famous pronouncement, there is an alternative and it is finally beginning to make its presence felt.

 

Updated On : 23rd Jun, 2017

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