Corbyn Has Changed the Face of British Politics
by Joud Halawani Al-Tamimi
Labour has lost the election. May lingers in No.10. Corbyn sounds more victorious than ever. And Corbynites are rejoicing. But far from making little sense, the reds have ample grounds to celebrate.
When May first called for the snap general election, opinion polls were on her side; Labour were more than significant twenty points behind. The Prime Minister was anticipating a landslide victory that would usher in a Conservative majority in parliament, just in time for Brexit negotiations. We were told by pundits, news channels and tabloids around the kingdom that Labour would suffer a crushing defeat. But little did they know.
The day just before the election, the BBC’s vote tall showed that Labour have narrowed the gap down to 2.4%. Twelve hours later, the election results were announced only to confirm the shocking exit polls, showing that Corbyn has managed to increase Labour’s vote share by 10%, and their seat count by 29, thereby consolidating his previously vulnerable position as leader of the Labour party. Meanwhile, May was bequeathed a hung parliament. Clearly, a remarkable ‘swing’ had occurred throughout the course of the election campaign.
SEIZING THE HEARTLAND
Labour beat predictions all over the UK. May tried with little success to win over Labour’s traditional working-class base in North of England, enticing them with an aggressive stance on migration and the prospect of a hard ‘Brexit.’ To May’s dismay, Labour not only managed to keep a majority of its seats in Northern England, but also won new seats in places like Leeds, North West and Warrington South. Labour also compensated for the seats it had lost in Scotland to the SNP in 2015.
As for Greater London, Labour took over four seats that had historically been Tory strongholds. Perhaps the most astounding and least predictable of all was Labour’s seizure of South Kensington, the UK’s richest constituency, which has never before had a Labour MP. In South of England too Labour claimed victories in cities like Canterbury that have up until a week ago been ‘Tory heartland.’
THE END OF THE BLAIR ERA
The Labour manifesto with which Corbyn fought this rather unpredictable election promised higher expenditure on health, education and care for the elderly. The expenditure was to be covered by higher taxes on the rich and big corporations. The programme also included the nationalisation of the water-supply industry and the railways. This is the most radical manifesto put forth by Labour in decades. And it won them seats.
The celebration however is not merely about numbers. Labour’s win has transformed British politics for good. Most importantly, it has undermined the long-held assumption amongst Labour MPs that the only way to win an election is to shift to the centre and turn their backs to signature left-wing policies.
Particularly since the 1980s, Labour MPs have surrendered all fights against the free market. Only Corbyn and a few other MPs stood “strong and stable” against this trend. Corbyn was disregarded by Blair and his supporters as eccentric and not to be taken seriously. Many Labour MPs continued to dismiss Corbyn and mock his leadership, up until a few days ago. The party considered the sharp break with austerity policy that he advocated tantamount to political suicide.
What Corbyn has managed to do then is to force the Labour Party into some long overdue soul searching. He has redefined what is feasible, viable and even imaginable in politics. Most importantly, Corbyn has proved that the Labour Party needs not bend to the right, but should rather stick to what “really” sets it apart it from the Tories to stand a good chance in British politics and be a significant force to reckon with. The shift away from the neoliberal orthodoxy that Labour has embraced the past 20 years has been validated by the electorate. It is the end of the Blair era.
And Corbyn did not miss the the chance to make this point: “You know what?” he said. “Politics has changed, and politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before.”
“Because what’s happened is people have said they have had quite enough of austerity politics,” he continued. “They have had quite enough of cuts in public expenditure, underfunding our health service, underfunding our schools and our education service, and not giving our young people the chance they deserve in our society… And I’m very proud of the results that are coming in all over the country tonight, of people voting for hope, voting for hope for the future and turning their backs on austerity.”
Corbyn’s message was echoed by Sanders, who shares his leftist and progressive politics: “They won those seats, not by moving to the right, not by becoming more conciliatory, they won those seats by standing up to the ruling class of the UK.”
Had Gramsci been with us today, he would have appreciated the magnitude of what Corbyn has accomplished, not least because the campaign has disrupted what has come to be embraced and accepted as “common sense” in British politics. It is this “common sense”, according to Gramsci, which safeguards elite power.
Gramsci taught us that elite power is not constricted to the state. Undermining elite power therefore requires taking down the multiple layers safeguarding the ruling class.
In the context of British politics, one trough of elite power is the Labour right. The latter have been trying to dominate the British Left for years, claiming that radical left policies do not stand a chance. This was disrupted with the release of the Labour manifesto, which galvanised substantial support, especially amongst the young.
The second trough of elite power that Corbyn managed to take down is the tabloid press, which has been waging a vicious war against him for a long time. The war proved futile, as millions granted Corbyn their vote despite claims by the media that this 68 year old North Londoner is “soft in terror”, “communist” and plans to take Great Britain “back to the 70s.” Overnight, Corbyn proved that Fleet Street’s influence can only go so far.
Still, it cannot be denied that May’s weak performance has also contributed to Labour’s upsurge. The Dementia tax she initially introduced alienated the older generation of Tory supporters. Her subsequent U-Turn on this policy undermined her claim to strong and stable leadership. Calls to bring back fox hunting made things worse. Finally, her unwillingness to engage in debates with her Labour counterpart significantly undermined her credibility.
WHAT NEXT FOR LABOUR?
May took what she thought was a safe gamble to execute a hard Brexit and with that make further reductions to the already declining welfare state. Her unforeseen move backfired. But the battle is far from over. It is a long road before Labour are able to turn their radical left vision for the country into a tangible reality.
The first issue they will grapple with post election is Brexit. Given their unexpected performance in the elections, it is likely that they will be able to force a “softer” version than that endorsed by May. The main game changer, however, would be compelling May to take yet another U turn, but this time on her cherished austerity policy.
Until then, the Conservatives will be forced to talk about increased public expenditure and higher taxes in their subsequent battles for power. Corbyn has forced the political conversation to be argued on his terms. The old man might not be enjoying his unassuming vegetarian breakfast in No.10 this morning. Still, he has evidently accomplished a great deal.