Monday, June 26, 2017

UK Election 2017: The rise and rise of Jeremy Corbyn & Labour Party

Antara Ray Chaudhury



"The mandate for Brexit in 2016, made May believe that the British people are in favour of a more exclusivist Britain for Brits but she clearly failed to see or underestimated their aspirations, their frustrations and tensions. The underbelly of Britain was already facing the heat of 10 years of austerity politics and Corbyn with his socialist agendas has seized the moment. This is a watershed moment for the left liberals in UK and the world. If the labour party can now regroup under Corbyn’s leadership then there is a fair chance that they would win the next election and take Britain to a more egalitarian socialist path".


Increasingly it looks like the English summers are all about referendums and elections. In 2014 it was the referendum for Scotland, in 2015 it was the general election, 2016 was the watershed referendum for Brexit and now in 2017 it’s the  snap general election. Thus the political parties are also in perpetual campaign mode. When British Prime Minister Theresa May had called for the snap election on 8 June, little did she knew that it will turn into an election for the Labour Party and specifically for Jeremy Corbyn. By the time the exit poll results were out, it was clear that UK is heading towards a hung parliament with Tories losing majority, Labour gaining substantially and SNP losing its ground in Scotland. As the day progressed the British parliament ended with Conservative party winning 318 seats as opposed to 331 in 2015, the Labour Party increased it's tally from 232 to 261 winning Tory bastions like Kensington, Chelsea, Canterbury;  the Liberal Democrats winning 12 seats and SNP getting 35 seats as opposed to the massive 56 in 2015 with others at 24 seats. 


When the elections were announced in March, it was clear that this whole exercise was a tactical move by May to consolidate her power over House of Commons by crushing a weak Labour party (seemingly saddled with a leader who was   on the far Left of spectrum and thus considered ‘unelectable’ by entire political establishment including Labour sympathisers), to bring what she called “Hard Brexit”. Her promise of being a bloody difficult woman to put “Britain first” in the negotiations with the EU, required a much stronger mandate than 331. It was looking like that the conservatives are going to increase their tally almost by 60-80 seats if not 100 and the Labour party, as per the pundits, were to suffer their worst defeat since 2015 under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The Blairite faction of the New Labour was already plotting a coup against Corbyn after the Brexit referendum which however had led to a failed Labour leadership challenge by Owen Smith in 2016. Snap General election called by May seemed to have given Blairites another opportunity to take back the control inside the party, (if Labour were to suffer humiliating defeat on 8th June). The party’s rating was abysmally low of 25% in April-trailing Tories by over 20%. A Tory landslide was looking like a foregone conclusion. 

What has changed in the last three months in Britain? How do we even make sense of this result? What does it mean for the Labour Party and for Jeremy Corbyn and what lies ahead for Britain in terms of Brexit? In this article I will try to put my thoughts on some of these questions mentioned above.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn (he has been known as the back bencher, hardliner old Labour member) was being given very little chance in this election. The mainstream British media including the ones on the left liberal side were not only sceptical but also gave him very little coverage. However as the election campaign progressed, the situation started changing fast. Theresa May wanted to be the 21st century Thatcher and ran a highly personalised presidential election style campaign. She pitched herself as a ‘strong and stable’ leader and remarked that even if Labour won more seats, it would still need SNP’s support and Corbyn would head a “coalition of chaos”. However, Conservatives’ agendas on Dementia Tax, Hard Brexit, immigration control, attacking the opponents with comments like naked alone Corbyn, a terrorist sympathiser not only made her unpopular among the immigrant working class population but she started losing the ground among the white working class and white middle class, aged conservative voters. But was it just Theresa May’s so called mistakes that made her lose authority and legitimacy on the ground? Or the Labour Party under Corbyn’s Leadership managed to do the impossible because of their own plan of action, strategy and tactical moves. To be honest, it was bit of both.


This election came at a time when Britain is facing a full blown crisis of Brexit, with officially being recognised as the slowest growing economy of EU, with an ever rising inflation and fall in standard of living. From March to 8th June there are some distinct moments which put Labour back in the reckoning. First was the leak of Labour Party Manifesto which fortuitously helped the party and Corbyn to get the media coverage which was not being given earlier and set the terms of the debate towards welfare issues. If the Tories expected that the leak will help them to consolidate the support against labour, it did the exact opposite. Second, was the two terror attacks in Manchester and London. Ideally these attacks should have helped a Right Wing party which thrives on anti-immigration, Islamophobia and propagate politics of fear in the name of national security. But Labour Party was successfully able to shift the discourse in the media and in the public after these attacks from Terrorism to the state of Police and Investigating agencies in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn’s personality with the agendas drawn in the manifesto along with the innovative campaigning strategy particularly among the youth (18-25 years old) were some of the real game changer for not just Labour but for Britain as a whole. Let me discuss this in bit detail.

THE LABOUR MANIFESTO: FOR THE MANY NOT THE FEW 

The labour party manifesto of 2017 was based on the slogan “For the many not the few”. It definitely reminded one of Occupy Wall Street Movement and recently Barney Sanders moment from US election which sought a politics of 99% versus 1% rich and exploiting finance capitalists. If one just go through the manifesto carefully one will struck by its decisive core agenda driven language. It presented not just a clear vision of the labour party in Britain (in this uncertain times of Brexit) but also this manifesto represents the fundamental core political commitment of Labour as a party of working class. It is a definite departure from the ideals of New Labour and it had put forward concrete issues such as Brexit, NHS, Housing question, Education and Social Security as its core. Till March there was a growing resentment inside Labour regarding leadership’s lack of energy and commitment in the issue of Brexit and EU negotiations. Some even wanted Corbyn out from the leadership as well. However this manifesto gives us a very different picture of Labour and where it stands on the issue of Brexit.

Rather than lamenting about last years’s referendum on Brexit and so many ifs and buts, in this manifesto the party makes it very clear that, “Labour accepts the referendum results and a Labour government will put the national interest first. We will prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with EU, protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, provide certainty to EU nationals and give meaningful role to Parliament throughout negotiations.” They took a definitive position on guaranteeing existing rights for the EU nationals living in Britain. On the contrary, Theresa May’s approach to the whole issue was not just highly personalised at times not taking into account the role of the British parliament but also a very strong stand on immigration control with a threat to the EU nationals working in Britain. The labour manifesto made it clear that Immigration issue cannot be utilised to spread the Politics of fear. “Refugees are not Migrants. They have been forced from their homes by war, famine or other disasters.Unlike the tories we will uphold the proud British tradition of honouring the spirit of international law and our moral obligations by taking our fair share of refugees.” 

There was a fear that this approach, which was called a ‘Fudged position on Brexit would fail to cut much ice with Labour supporters on either side of those who supported and opposed Brexit. UKIP had dictated the UK politics’ rhetorics and imagination over past two elections and had succeeded to formulate Brexit as a national question on a rabid reactionary plank. It had succeeded to make inroads into working class Labour voters in Northern heartlands of Labour using this plank.  Then there were Tories, who had positioned as a party of Soft Brexit as well as a party of governance-a responsible, no-nonsense force which would then appeal to middle class Labour voters-thus the Right would share the spoils with Labour having left with no space to claim within such reactionary spectrum. However, the election results proved otherwise and much credit should go to the pragmatism of this approach which allowed Labour and Corbyn to focus their energies on elaborating their vision for welfare which succeeded in shifting the whole narrative of election from the national question to economic and social situation and the ills of austerity.  

Now if one goes to the pages in the manifesto, where they discussed progressive taxation, NHS, housing, schooling and higher education, public transport, social security for pensioners one cannot ignore that this manifesto brings class politics back in Britain. It reads as a socialist manifesto which still deeply values the welfare state model at the same time which has an agenda of how to move forward in the digital age with new challenges for the youth. A simple example where the Tory manifesto harped upon Britain being the country of Great Meritocracy where one can move up in life if one works hard and put the effort, Labour party painted a more context specific picture where they demanded “Ban unpaid internships-because it's not fair for some to get a leg up when others can't afford to.”

The result was, Corbyn’s popularity among the youth went upto 75% and for the first time the white working class and the middle class which supposedly have either voted the Tories or a party like UKIP last time, started coming back to Labour. In the last election UKIP almost gained 12% of the total vote share and a huge chunk of it was labour votes. This, despite the fact that in the last election on the issue of immigration, all the major parties were more or less on the same page. The most ironical sight of that election in fact was the anti-immigration mugs used for campaign of Labour Party. On the issue of austerity Labour was almost on the same page with the Liberal Democrats and conservatives. 

This time however it would not be wrong to argue that Labour under Corbyn’s leadership came back to fight the election on its own terms, the way a working class based party should. They took on austerity, immigration, NHS, brexit hands down and put forward their agenda. They looked like a party with politics of hope and  party with a plan. They could regain the confidence of those who alleged them of being politically correct and yet put forward agendas of supporting the Two State solution for Israel - Palestine, criticising Trump’s foreign policy on Muslim ban, immigration and climate change. In a sense they actually put forward a vision of an all inclusive Britain first. 

What is more, the Labour party could translate their return to core socialist vision into a practical, tangible manifesto which could capture the imagination of common people. There was an intricate struggle involved here-apart from the ideological debate within Labour party over Blairite New Labour politics versus Corbyn and Unions’ Old Labour; there was a practical issue involved. The Blairite camp argued that pragmatism towards neo-liberalism was necessary to keep Labour Party electorally viable since it would then appeal to middle classes. Whereas Corbyn argued that a return to core Socialist vision was necessary to enthuse young voters, minorities, working classes who were facing the brunt of neoliberal austerity; and only such return would enthuse them to enrol and vote and thereby add the electoral support for Labour. The historical record of youth turning out to vote had remained poor and there was widespread scepticism as to how much the youth support Corbyn’s campaign was generating would translate into actual votes. This in fact was the single most unknown factor for various pollsters who then tended to give lower weightage to the youth turnout based on historical record, including 2015 general elections and Brexit. And thereby they were proven wrong as youth turned out to vote in large numbers. This helped Labour immensely, and consequently, the Labour is now definitely on a radical footing-an outcome unimaginable only a couple of months back. 

SNP in Scotland was demanding a second referendum (for Scottish independence). However, there has been a decline in appeal for this demand within Scotland with electorate already weary of the prospective Brexit and its implications. Clearly the promise of second referendum and possibility of Independent Scotland returning to EU were distant dreams upon which SNP placed all its bets. On the other hand, the unionist parties i.e. Labour and Conservatives in Scotland were able to gauge the situation better. Thus, Labour party actually managed to recover some of its lost ground over SNP. They managed to get 29% of the total vote share in Scotland. Though it is true that the Tories have equally gained in Scotland thereby bringing down Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP to 29 seats. The tide of impassioned nationalism seems to have receded in Scotland as well as England; and Labour certainly deserves credit for that. 

What does it mean for Britain? What happens to Brexit now?

So the question is where does it lead Britain after this result. As of now Theresa May has formed a minority government and is seeking support of DUP (Irish party) (known as her own coalition of Chaos) which has got 10 seats. This makes it further interesting as DUP is known as a Unionist, Anti LGBTQ rights,  Anti-Abortion rights, Ultra conservative counterpart from Ireland. Hence the Tories under May’s leadership now faces two pronged challenge: To press for their Hard Brexit with EU which under a minority government looks unlikely and to have alliance with a party like DUP whose agendas are going to hurt them further. Jeremy Corbyn on the other hand has definitely emerged as a new role model for the resurgent labour party and will have a decisive role to play now in the British Parliament to put May under pressure, to negotiate Brexit deal with EU. Labour MPs from Blairite camp who were hoping to oust Corbyn, have come to accept Corbyn; however, the control of the Labour party is now firmly in the hands of Corbyn and his team. Also, the Conservatives may be in power, however they have already had to retract from their radical austerity measures and there are all the indications that there will be a Soft Brexit-where free movement of EU nationals is guaranteed and it might even entail a common customs union. The question of Brexit is now defined in more sober terms of loss/gain of employment, living conditions, possible effect on wages etc. and not emotional, reactionary outcries as witnessed last year. This has been a sea change. 

The mandate for Brexit in 2016, made May believe that the British people are in favour of a more exclusivist Britain for Brits but she clearly failed to see or underestimated their aspirations, their frustrations and tensions. The underbelly of Britain was already facing the heat of 10 years of austerity politics and Corbyn with his socialist agendas has seized the moment. This is a watershed moment for the left liberals in UK and the world. If the labour party can now regroup under Corbyn’s leadership then there is a fair chance that they would win the next election and take Britain to a more egalitarian socialist path.

If 2016 was the year which saw right wing forces gaining strength world wide from UK to USA to France, beginning of 2017 with the defeat of Marine Le Pen in France and now with this mandate for Corbyn has generated hope for the revival of radical politics. The radical movement of Bernie Sanders has been growing in USA. It has brought back the language of welfare, free education, health care which was discarded as obsolete and orthodox socialist communist agenda in the first world politics. Overall it has put forth the concept of working class back along with race, gender, environment and national security. It has changed the discourse of the debate. 

The only word of caution is the pace with which the changes are taking place in politics is phenomenally fast-paced. It just a matter of days and months when tides are turning. Events of all kinds are now moving with light speed. The political pendulum is swinging wildly from Obama to Trump; from the SNP triumphant to Nicola Sturgeon in sudden abeyance; from Europe supposedly in hopeless crisis to the establishment leadership of Macron and Merkel; and from the Brexit victory to the glorious shocks and surprises of last week. It actually makes the saying right that, “Anything is possible" and for the Labour, as Guardian reported “There is no unwinnable seat now.” For the moment this is definitely the first step towards the victory of Politics of Hope over Politics of Fear. 



 The author is a research scholar based in New Delhi, India.

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