Cor, blimey! Corbyn's surprising election result
Britain has always been a socialist country. Don’t believe me? The NHS, the first trade union, National Rail, and the British know how to queue. Political commentary involves trying to foretell future trends in the name of keeping one’s finger on the pulse. The affirmation, though not quite coronation of Jeremy Corbyn has been the third shock in a string of upsets to the pundit class.
First was Brexit. The folly of tearing away from the EU, the great symbol of European post-war prosperity, to stick it to a few beige Eurocrats seemed so self-evident that none of the major parties endorsed it.
The tragic-comic vision of Farage heading the doomed Brexit charge with a few bumbling Tories like Boris Johnson had the serious press treating Brexit as the last gasp of parochial Little Englanders.
The polls showed a close but comfortable margin for Remain.
A Remain voter could go to bed that night safe in the knowledge that “Britain was better together” (hardly a ringing slogan, the Leave side always had the upper hand on that score with the sinewy “Take Back Control”)
By breakfast time on Friday morning, said voter would soon hear the phrase “Shy Brexiteer”. The polls had got it wrong. Large swathes of the country, from Birmingham to Sheffield, Preston and Cornwall, had chosen to strike out - for Britain to strike out on her own and perhaps more importantly to strike out at the economists and politicians and pundits who told them they mustn’t.
A similar scene was to unfold a year later in the US. Complex computer models had charted the diminishing prospects of Bernie Sanders navigating a course to victory through the state caucuses. The delegate rich Southern States had rebuffed the Sanders advance. By March, five months before the DNC, Bernie had no hope of taking the nomination unless he convinced the super-delegates to side with him. It seemed like a vindication of the data.
And the data before the general election indicated Trump was toast. A few days before the election, the New York Times website provided fun, interactive tools so that you could see the odds for yourself.
Move the brightly coloured blue dots and red dots, like abacus beads, here and there. If, after playing around with probably scenarios, you mischievously piled up all the states in Trump’s favour, you got a win for the orange charlatan. The future however, seemed to belong to team blue.
Fortune did not play that way.
Commentators, burnt twice, and worried that they were now doctors who can no longer find a vein let alone their patient’s pulse, approached the UK’s general election with caution. Like hell they did.
Corbyn, despite being rescued by his popularity among Labour members after two attempts to oust him, was treated with disdain by the British press.
The majority of writers proclaimed their left bona fides, before declaring Corbyn a bridge too far. The reasons they gave included; Corbyn’s stance on terrorism, his silence on anti-semitism and misogynistic bullying against the anti-Corbyn faction in the Labour Party, his initial weakness in PM questions and failure to seize opportunities like the Tory u-turn on National Insurance Contributions, his participation in a Vice documentary which showed him as an at times truculent leader of a disorganised team. Overall, Corbyn was described as lacking a prime ministerial polish. When stopped and asked a question on the street, Corbyn has a habit of crouching his frame into the microphone and peering up at the interviewer expectantly.
There were doomsday predictions – the Conservatives would leave Labour with just 100 seats. There were exhortations for him to step aside for the good of the party, which ranged in tone from “Be a good sport now Jezza” to “Get that rancid trot from Islington out of here before he condemns us to 40 years of Tory rule”
Like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn energised the youth vote with big, open-air rallies. His manifesto, which included items like free university tuition went down well. Corbyn himself seemed to blossom on the campaign trail. Labour focussed on registering new voters. Britain had 2.3 million people newly registered to vote on June 8.
Meanwhile on May’s campaign, a reasonable start had slumped into the dementia tax debacle. The conservative manifesto had the dual ability of kicking their elder base in the shins by suddenly announcing that some of them would be leaving several hundred grand more to the state when they died than they originally anticipated, and also alienating the young who would be left without an inheritance.
To be fair, talk of budgeting the care system had been around for a while, the Dilnot commission released recommendations in 2011 that would have placed a bigger burden on people to fund the care themselves, however these were tied to assurances that pensioners would not have to sell their house to pay for it.
The shock announcement that the state would no longer pay for in home care until one’s assets dropped below 100k created a furore and backlash which led to the proposals being dropped. The old line about the nasty party seemed to resurrect itself.
Another election - more predictions. An astonishing Survation poll, far from predicting a Tory landslide, had Corbyn within one point of May.
The media, anticipating a Trumpian right wing revolt, were incredulous. Twice they had called the wrong card. They were determined that this time they would not be caught out.
After all, another poll had Labour 11 points behind the conservatives. Some observers had noted that most polls had shown a tightening of the gap between Labour and the Conservatives since May, although to wildly different margins. Could the fickle Gods of polling be trusted?
Out of principle or stoic indifference, the majority held fast to the belief that Corbyn would be Labour’s ruin. For starters, the young don’t vote. And although lip service is paid to the idea thatmoving away from centrist politics can help win an election, it’s not believed deep down. As evidence of this, it’s interesting to note that during the internal coups at the start of Corbyn’s leadership, the centrist Labour MPs who rebelled weren’t reprimanded for putting their ideological purity above keeping the party together. This is because their politics are not seen as distinctly ideological, rather they are a manifestation of pragmatism. In a way, the rebel MPs were in fact doing it to keep the party alive, as the brand of Labour politics they espoused was self-evidently the vote-getting kind.
Instead of losing 50 seats, Labour gained 30. The conservatives spent £130 million and lost 13 seats and their majority. A number of razor close constituencies meant that with 2227 more strategic votes, Corbyn would have won outright. In this election, May’s win was the victory that felt like defeat and Corbyn’s loss, the defeat that felt like a victory.
A hung parliament is the result, with the conservatives depending on the patronage of the small, radically conservative Northern Irish party, the DUP. In other European democracies rainbow coalitions are the norm. However in first past the post UK, such an arrangement is unstable. Corbyn has already been making noises about holding another election in September.
The mistake was in thinking that Corbyn and the politics he represents were too alien to appeal to the electorate. Like it or not, much of his manifesto was made up of promises to restore British institutions to the way they were. Bring back the university maintenance grant, restore the NHS, renationalise the railway and national grid, repeal the Trade Union Act, all of these signal a return. Britain has always had a genteel kind of socialist sensibility, for those who can remember before the luridly free-market eighties. Although rarely explicitly stated, the signs were always there, in small ways as well as large. Where else do the TV soaps shun airbrushed glamour for the kitchen sink drama of life in Northern towns? Where else did nearly half the population grow up in houses owned by the government? And in those houses everything from the phone lines, to the electricity and water, run by nationalised industries? The fact that a populist revolt broke right in the USA and left in theUK should not come as a surprise – in the US conservative voters rail against the undeserving being provided with free health insurance, the UK is a country where conservative voters rail against their single payer health system being jeopardised by the undeserving. Therein lies the difference.
It’s something of a paradox that for many Brits, neither the Thatcher years nor the decade preceding it are remembered with fondness.
Does this election reflect a harkening back to the politics of the seventies, or indeed the dawn of a new era of Corbynism? Despite the victory laps, Labour did not win the election. Who knows what strange tides may befall the Labour Party before the next election, for the moment the rebel MPs have quietened down but the bitterness of the infighting may have left many queasy about a rematch.
Whatever happens, Corbyn defied the political consensus to breathe fresh life into a strain of politics that seemed to have vanished from British life. With his woollen jumpers and socialist politics, instead of being a candidate from the fringe, Corbyn may just be the most British prime ministerial candidate yet.