Why This Year’s UK Election Feels Like a Victory After 20 Years of Neoliberalism

2017 0614ukJeremy Corbyn campaigns in West Kirby, England, May 20, 2017. (Photo: Andy Miah)

In 1997, I voted for the first time in a British general election, and voted Labour. I was woken up on the morning of May 2 by a knock on the door of my room at college and the amazing news that the Conservatives were out. The “nasty party,” the party of Margaret Thatcher and the Poll Tax and an endless shower of racist homophobes, was out after almost two decades in power.

Any lingering doubts about “New” Labour’s shift to the center — and about the fact that Tony Blair, the new prime minister, seemed like the kind of man who’d say anything to win — were quieted by the fact that I was 19 and not particularly politically educated. The sun was shining and the Tories were out. Labour’s campaign theme song, “Things Can Only Get Better” by the Northern Irish pop group D:Ream, seemed to have come true. We’d done it.

Things Can Only Lurch Rightward?

One could fill a whole series of articles chronicling the ways in which Labour under Blair failed the promise of that day in 1997: abolishing grants for higher education and replacing them with loans while introducing tuition fees, stealthily chipping away at the National Health Service and other public services through public-private partnerships, giving us home secretaries who shamelessly pushed anti-immigration and “tough on crime” rhetoric. But the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the UK’s willing participation in the entire “war on terror,” remain Blair’s bloodiest and most bitter legacy.

To ensure re-election, Labour ran on a platform of triangulation and fear: their strongest message was essentially “You don’t want the party of Thatcher to get back in, do you?” — or literally, “Be afraid” — while they drifted closer and closer to Conservative policy and rhetoric. This strategy may sound familiar to people in the US.

It had dismal results: after a huge jump in 1997, Labour’s share of the vote plummeted in every election while Blair or his successor Gordon Brown were in office (overall voter turnout also hit an all-time low in 2001). Once out of power, Labour continued a version of this approach under Ed Miliband (the party’s leader from 2010-2015), selling a mug that boasted of promising “controls on immigration.” Jeremy Corbyn’s close ally and first choice for shadow home secretary, Diane Abbott (who was also vilified and then vindicated in this year’s election) rightly described this opportunistic concession to xenophobia as shameful.

A New Hope

Fast forward to today, and the results of this year’s general election — while not resulting in a Labour government, as yet — now seem to shine more brightly than Labour’s actual win 20 years ago.

That victory became impossibly tarnished by the realities of Blairism and the extent to which the United Kingdom appeared to become a place in which there was truly no alternative to neoliberalism, austerity and complicity in US imperialism. Despite being less of a two-party system than the United States, all the major parties seemed to share one extremely limited set of values. When the Liberal Democrats cut a jaw-droppingly cynical coalition deal that ousted Labour and returned the Conservatives to power in 2010, the UK’s political future seemed as grim as it ever has in my lifetime. The National Health Service would be dismantled and sold off. London would become nothing but a playground for the incredibly wealthy. And the poor, not to mention the elderly and the disabled, would be deemed disposable with a speed that would make Paul Ryan blush.

In this context, and in the light of last week’s results, the memes, cartoons and street art depicting Jeremy Corbyn as Obi-Wan Kenobi seem less silly. Corbyn’s ability to rebuild the Labour Party simultaneously as an electoral force and a left-wing one has indeed provided a new hope, one that resonates beyond the UK at a moment when the political contest in Europe and the United States has otherwise appeared to largely be between an increasingly discredited neoliberal centrism and an ascendant far right.

The Many, Not the Few

It is a very good idea to try, if at all possible, to resist the temptation to feel too much personal affection for political leaders and to avoid the trap of thinking that they are your close personal friends or family members. It’s a phenomenon that seems to invariably lead to a distorted view of their policies. Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau were never our super-progressive boyfriends, Joe Biden was never our cool uncle, Hillary Clinton is not our sister or mom, Bernie Sanders was not and is still not our communist grandpa.

Jeremy Corbyn is not perfect, and there have been moments I’ve doubted him — his decision to counter May on “public safety” by promising to hire more police officers, an uncharacteristic moment of triangulation, being the most recent example. Nevertheless, he’s made it more difficult for me to stick to the principle of not feeling affection toward a political leader.

In part, this is because Corbyn has been very quick to redirect credit to the party members, grassroots organizers and voters who have propelled him to where he is today by pounding the pavement and door-knocking while also using social media smartly and thriftily. His campaign’s advertising reflected this — from the tagline “For the many, not the few” to a final social media video that featured no words, just music over shots of some of those “many,” with Corbyn himself interspersed relatively rarely.

Like other aspects of Corbyn’s success, this is slightly less unusual in the UK than it would be in the US. The political contexts of the UK and US are different to a degree that most analyses, thrilled by the similarities which do exist between Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, tend to overlook. The British prime minister is a public servant and the leader of the party in government, not the “commander in chief,” and less venerated than an American president — a silver-lining benefit of still having a monarch as ceremonial head of state.

Make no mistake, however, it still bucks the trend for a supposedly uncharismatic grey-bearded veteran of the Labour rank and file to become so popular, especially among young Brits. Corbyn’s age, his clothes, his soft-spoken manner, his apparent lack of focus-grouped polish and his hobby of what people in the US would call community gardening — all of these things may seem iconic to his supporters now, but all of them were thoroughly pilloried for a time and presented as evidence that he was an unelectable relic.

“Scorn and Ridicule”

Then there was the media reaction to Corbyn’s politics. Any left-leaning candidate in the UK has slightly more room to question nationalism, militarism and the precepts of the free market than one can imagine in the US. Yet it is undeniable that Corbyn has pushed against even those slightly wider limits — and achieved electoral results to an extent no one thought possible — in the face of a backlash from the media and the political class that would do DC proud.

Don’t take my word for it. A report by the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science, published in July 2016, found the following (emphasis mine):

… Jeremy Corbyn was represented unfairly by the British press through a process of vilification that went well beyond the normal limits of fair debate and disagreement in a democracy. Corbyn was often denied his own voice in the reporting on him and sources that were anti-Corbyn tended to outweigh those that support him and his positions. He was also systematically treated with scorn and ridicule in both the broadsheet and tabloid press in a way that no other political leader is or has been. Even more problematic, the British press has repeatedly associated Corbyn with terrorism and positioned him as a friend of the enemies of the UK. The result has been a failure to give the newspaper-reading public a fair opportunity to form their own judgments about the leader of the country’s main opposition.

In the subsequent year, this attitude barely relented, and in some quarters, it intensified. The same report noted, “The degree of positive exposure in the left-wing and centrist press is a bit higher, but it would be fair to say that also there the support for Jeremy Corbyn is at best lukewarm.”

There is not space here to detail the failings of the British media in full, especially the public and left-leaning outlets from which one might have expected better. Suffice to say, the approach of some liberal and center-left columnists was to take a tone “more in sorrow than in anger,” a pseudo-pragmatism with which US readers of similar publications will be familiar, in which they sadly bemoaned that there was no way Labour under Corbyn could achieve electoral success, no matter how much they might like it to be true.

Many of the center-left and liberal media professionals who did this are already walking it back, in some form or another. Some have made what appear to be good faith apologies, while others have made dishonest remarks (“shameful how the right-wing press tried to smear him!”). Some have even treated us to the unlikely but satisfying spectacle of eating a page of their own words on TV. The Blairites and others within the Parliamentary Labour Party who spoke against Corbyn in the media, challenged his leadership and generally worked to undermine him find themselves in a similar position. (Judging by the standing ovation Corbyn received on his return to the House of Commons this week, most of them now want to be on the winning side of history.)

The right-wing media, of course, did go all in. The Sun, the tabloid that famously supported Labour in 1997 as owner Rupert Murdoch and Tony Blair began an ill-fated friendship, declared: “There is nothing more important for Sun readers’ jobs and futures than keeping Jeremy Corbyn out of [the office of Prime Minister],” with a cover that helpfully recapped all their past smears in one hyperbolic list. Those smears, however, weren’t enough to stop almost a third of Sun readers from voting for him.

“As Good as Mainstream UK Politics Will Allow”

The data from the election is still being deconstructed and debated, but there is some evidence that it is not quite so simple as to declare that all young people were Corbyn’s most energized new base. It was Black and other non-white Britons who turned out in higher numbers, according to an analysis by Paula Surridge, a political sociologist at University of Bristol:

… the more ethnically diverse areas had a higher increase in turnout than less diverse areas…. This suggests the narrative about turnout change in 2017 is more complex than just getting out the ‘young’ vote. It suggests turnout rose most where the population was ethnically diverse.

What made Corbyn so popular with young British voters of color? It wasn’t just his economic policies — it was also the fact that he’d put in the work. Let’s not forget that Tony Blair ended his time as prime minister by explicitly blaming Black “culture,” not poverty, for violence, a piece of blatant anti-Blackness. Black and Muslim British communities surely needed to see the ghosts of Blairism exorcised as much as anyone, and Corbyn, who is open to the idea of investigating Blair for war crimes, represents the first leader who offers that.

The #Grime4Corbyn movement was yet another group that turned out to have the last laugh at the expense of more “qualified” media pundits. Akala, one of several Black British musicians to throw their weight behind Corbyn, explained his view of Corbyn thus:

I’m from North London (his area) & ppl in the black book store in the hood actually know him for last 20 years … Cos he goes there. Also said public (to an audience with very few black folk to impress) that Walter Rodney is his favourite book. Acknowledges Britain’s ‘problematic’ imperial history/legacy. Basically as good as…. mainstream UK politics will allow. For a potential prime minister to even know where the black book shop is is just weird, let alone 2 know Rodney…

The involvement of young Black musicians included providing the basic information that the UK’s media institutions did not. For example, rapper JME collated all the party manifestos “in one place for us lot to check out.” This wouldn’t have been such a huge boon for Labour if their manifesto hadn’t been proved so popular.

What was popular about the manifesto? It pledged to renationalize the energy industry, railways, buses and postal service; to scrap those aforementioned tuition fees; to boost workers’ rights and undo many benefits cuts. It ditched the idea of reducing immigration numbers, explicitly criticized the idea of setting immigration targets, and promised to remove the income thresholds for immigrants’ spouses. In the area of foreign policy, it may not have gone as far as close observers of Corbyn’s personal foreign policy stances may have hoped (or in the case of the tabloids, feared) but it nevertheless promised a U-turn, including ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

“Labour’s manifesto inspired me like nothing else,” a student in Nottingham told the Independent. “This election was our chance to take back control of our futures.”

What Happens Next?

For now, Theresa May is clinging to power, with a looming deal with Northern Ireland’s hard-right, paramilitary-linked Democratic Unionist party (DUP) that not only makes a mockery of the idea that the Conservatives are no longer the party of regressive homophobia, misogyny and racism — not that the Tories need the DUP for that — but could also threaten peace in Northern Ireland itself. There is a dark irony in that, following a Brexit result that was powered in part by dreams of British nationalism, and in response to a Labour party now led by the closest thing to an anti-nationalist, anti-colonial leader British politics has seen in a long, long time, May has resorted to trying to cut a deal with what British music writer Tom Ewing aptly describes as “the fanatical residue of Britain’s original colonising sin.”

But the consensus, which was for so long set against Jeremy Corbyn in spite of any countervailing evidence, is now clear: May’s days are numbered. Corbyn is vindicated, and his party’s membership has surged. The next election is Labour’s to win — and it is highly likely that it will be won on a platform that challenges the ideological assumptions that have governed British politics for two decades. There is, after all, an alternative. No wonder the capitalists are terrified.