May’s gamble falls flat while Labour’s pays off

Contrary to most predictions, in Britain’s June 8 election the ruling Conservative government lost its majority, while opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn proved unexpectedly popular.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

UK Prime Minister Theresa May hoped that Thursday's election would give her a stronger mandate to pursue a "hard Brexit". Now she is facing calls to resign.

Updated Jun 14, 2017
Robin Amos Robin Amos is a staff writer at TRT World. @RobinGPAmos

Victory is a tricky thing, especially in British politics lately. Brits woke up on Friday morning to the news that sitting British Prime Minister Theresa May may have “won” the election, but it was the man, who senior figures in his own party once slammed as “unelectable,” who was celebrating.

When Thursday’s general election was called on April 19 with the aim of strengthening the government’s position in Brexit negotiations, polls showing the Conservatives with a 20-point lead suggested they would win with a landslide. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn initially appeared down on his luck, with much of the British establishment loudly voicing their scepticism, right up to the mocking tabloid headlines on the eve of the vote.

Now, with the Conservative Party losing its majority in parliament, May is facing calls to resign, as she scrapes together a coalition with the hard-right Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, noted for its history of opposition to abortion, Catholic rights, and homosexuality.

The upset comes after Labour won 261 seats to the Conservatives' 318, and follows on the heels of two other seeming political flukes last year in the English-speaking world that broke with centrist expectations: the majority of Britain’s public voting in March 2016 to leave the EU, and – on the other side of the Atlantic – Donald Trump’s election victory in November.

A not very British election

Until recently, politics in the UK, land of “Keep Calm and Carry On,” had long had the questionable privilege of generally being seen as boring and predictable to those not in the loop.

The stances of the leadership of the UK’s two main political parties, Labour and Conservative, had coalesced around a shared post-Thatcher neoliberalism. Both embraced a pro-US, pro-NATO and sometimes schizophrenic pro-EU foreign policy, a business and finance industry-friendly attitude, and – after the global financial crash of 2008 – broad agreement on the need for significant cuts to public services. After at first deviating from this agenda somewhat, the third largest party, the Liberal Democrats, largely fell into line after forming a coalition government with the Conservatives in 2010.

True, there were setbacks resulting from the economic crisis, as well as grumbling from smaller parties, but it looked like the debate had mostly been settled. The UK, along with much of the rest of the world, it appeared, was witnessing “the end of history.”

That is, until Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the opposition Labour Party in October 2015, and until the outcome of the EU referendum last March, rejecting an economic and political status quo that most of the country’s elite had assumed was rock-solid.

“History” has made a comeback, and Corbyn is one of its heralds. Now, socialism appears to be on the rise once again in Britain, ironically at a time when an advocate of the free market has just been elected by the French.

Along with Corbyn's unanticipated gains, it looks like left-wing politics might be coming back into vogue. (Reuters)

It was only last year that fellow Labour parliamentarians tried to oust Corbyn as head of the party in a September leadership election. And while Labour probably won't make it in to government, Corbyn has surpassed expectations by mobilising an estimated 72 percent of youth voters – according to head of the National Union of Students Malia Bouattia – and overseeing his party’s comeback as a genuine opposition force in British politics.

Taking Labour back

Corbyn first came to note during the 1970s and '80s on the left of a Labour Party that was, economically speaking, already well to the left of where it sits today.  

While the Labour Party had previously tended to play down its commitment to socialism, in the 1983 election, under the leadership of Michael Foot, it challenged the Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher with a manifesto promising unilateral nuclear disarmament, the nationalisation of industry, higher taxes for the rich, and leaving the EU’s forerunner, the European Economic Community. Labour Member of Parliament Gerald Kaufman later called it “the longest suicide note in history.”

The 1983 election was a disaster for Labour, with the party losing around 10 percent of the national vote, but it saw Jeremy Corbyn voted in as MP for the London constituency of Islington North.

Following that harsh defeat and another in 1987, figures such as Neil Kinnock began trying to make the party more “electable” by moving the party further to the right and expelling members of the far-left Trotskyist group Militant. But Corbyn’s views didn’t transform to fit with those of his party.

After “New Labour” was voted into power in 1997, under the leadership of Tony Blair, he frequently voted against bills supported by the government as well as the war in Iraq, becoming a marginal figure on the marginalised “Old Labour” left of the party – a relic of the bygone radicalism that died with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eternal victory of liberal capitalism.

Under the leadership of Tony Blair, Labour moved to the right, and left-wing politicians like Corbyn were pushed further to the fringes of British politics. (AP)

Or so it seemed, until nearly two years ago. The rebel took and stayed in charge with the support of an influx of mostly younger new party members, unhappy with austerity, who found hope his status as a proudly socialist outsider could harbour genuine change.

One of these was Ann Calouri, a 34-year-old communications worker from London concerned over rising homelessness and inequality, who told TRT World, “Jeremy Corbyn is the reason I joined the Labour Party last year ... I felt so inspired and hopeful to see a politician who, like me, believed in social justice, and in the importance of caring for your neighbour.”

For Sarandip Singh-Batt, a 25-year-old accounts payable assistant from Birmingham who has been a Labour Party member since he was 16, said Cobyn “is a man of true heart and principal. He understands how hard life is for the majority and he knows how to make life better for that majority.”

Corbyn's outsider status and grassroots campaigning helped him build a large base of enthusiastic supporters. (Reuters)

Corbyn’s unpopularity among the majority of his fellow Labour MPs and controversial views are proof to supporters like Singh-Batt of what they see as his principled nature. But older generations of Brits aren’t so willing to embrace him. Anthony Prince, a 69-year-old retired university professor, said he planned to vote Lib Dem but would have considered voting Labour if it had a more centrist leader and put more emphasis on maintaining Britain’s ties with Europe. In his view, Corbyn is “an unredeemed old leftie, who has learnt nothing through his political career, and has no ability to lead a party.”

“The revenge of the young”

In the last weeks in the run-up to the election, Labour under Corbyn saw a surge in support among the British public. In the last polls before the election the party caught up to within a few points of the Conservatives, ultimately resulting in them losing 12 seats and Labour gaining 29 – one of those for the first time ever.

By all accounts, one of the main reasons for the rise in Corbyn’s popularity, and drop in support for May, was the inclusion of a proposal in the Conservative manifesto – subsequently retracted – which would have seen many elderly having to sell their homes upon death if they wished to benefit from publicly-funded social care at home.

Another possible contributor was Corbyn getting more air-time in the run up to the election, such as in the BBC Leaders’ Debate, enabling him to reach out more to the public. His supporters have often complained of alleged media bias against his campaign, with veteran BBC journalist David Dimbleby lending support for these claims by telling Radio Times, “I don’t think anyone could say that Corbyn has had a fair deal at the hands of the press … we generally have a right-wing press.”

May, for her part, didn't turn up to the BBC Leaders’ Debate at all, and was widely mocked on social media following a hard-hitting television interview with broadcaster Jeremy Paxman. Despite promising to offer “strong and stable” leadership, her U-turn and poor media performances gave the opposite impression.

But one factor in the election result has drawn particular interest – the rise in the youth vote, with former Conservative MP and political commentator Matthew Parris telling ITV News on Friday that “this election looks to me like the revenge of the young on the old."

Initial reports suggest that Labour's gains may be largely down to Corbyn's success in courting the votes of Britain's youth, a high proportion of which usually don't turn out at elections. (Reuters)

Just as Corbyn managed to win the hearts of the younger members of his own party, he looks to have galvanised many young Britons as well – a demographic that has traditionally turned out poorly in elections. Polls in the UK are generally weighted to take account of this, but look to have missed the mark this time.

According to government data, by the time voter registration closed on May 22, over one million 18 to 24-year-olds had registered since the election was called. An ICM poll commissioned before the election by the anti-extremism activist group Hope Not Hate and the National Union of Teachers indicated that over two-thirds of those who were certain they would vote planned to vote Labour.

But while these trends may bring hope to those who want to see young people more engaged in politics, they also suggest that these young people are heavily discontented with the socio-economic status quo.

For many young people, like Calouri and Sing-Batt, the future of Britain’s free-of-charge National Health Service,  Brexit, and – in particular – unaffordable housing were the main concerns.

According to a Daily Telegraph report from 2015, citing data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, 60 percent of 25 to 34-year-olds owned their homes in 1994, while at the time of the report only 34 percent could say the same.

In the words of Calouri: “We need more housing built, including social housing, and we need a cap on private rents. Properties should not be allowed to sit empty, as many do.” She adds, “As a born-and-bred Londoner, it makes me extremely angry that rich foreigners who do not even live here are pricing me out of my own city.”

Courting the youth vote, Labour’s campaign promised to address these issues, adopting the slogan: “For the many, not the few.” But to people like 56-year-old software developer Chris Ward from Romsey in Hampshire, Corbyn made “promises that he cannot keep … I trust the Conservatives more than I trust Labour.”

Older and wealthier homeowners want housing prices to rise or stay stable, while the young and poor want them to fall. Those who feel free movement under the EU helped undermine their wages, or resent it for what they see as its legal supremacy over the UK, largely want out with no strings attached, while others – often young and well educated – saw the bloc as offering opportunities for their country and future and now feel bereft.

The problem is that in many cases the views and interests of each – frequently overlapping – group are mutually incompatible or even antagonistic. And one ironic outcome of this increasingly interest-based politics can be seen in the way that the Conservatives’ move to place more of the burden of public spending cuts on older people ended-up helping Labour gain ground.

At one level, the unexpected gains made by Corbyn, a veteran of the divisive Thatcher era, suggest that division has come to Britain once again. They underscore increasing polarisation in British society – between the supporters and sceptics of Brexit, rich and poor, and young and old.