In the U.K., the early morning hours of December 13th brought the greatest defeat in terms of seats lost, if not the popular vote, that country’s Labor Party has suffered since the Thatcher era. While the exit polls predicted an even bigger victory for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, in the end his government had an 80 seat majority in the country’s 650 seat parliament and a mandate, as he repeated endlessly during the campaign to: “Get Brexit done”.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labor Party did well in areas controlled by or considered marginal where Labor supporters voted to remain in the European Union but suffered catastrophic losses in the north and Midlands where large numbers of those who traditionally vote for the party had voted to leave. While on the surface it at first seemed that the Tories had handily beaten their nearest rival, looking at the vote counts in many of these seats, it was as much Nigel Farage’s far-right Brexit Party who drew votes from Labor and helped the Conservatives to victory in constituencies where such results would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. While the fledgling alt-right party failed to secure a single seat, what this result says about the thinking of some voters is even more troubling than initially thought.
In a sense, there was some good news from a left perspective in that the Liberal Democrats, who worked in coalition with the Conservatives to unleash almost a decade of austerity lost seats, including that of its leader Jo Swinson and all the MPs who had defected to them during the last parliament over Brexit, mainly Conservative remainers but including Chuka Umana, a centrist seen as serious by establishment media, who jumped from Labor to the Lib Dems and lost his seat.
Another big winner last Thursday night was the Scottish National Party, which promotes progressive policies similar to Labor and was thought to be a likely coalition partner if the latter had won enough seats to govern with them. Scotland had voted fairly overwhelmingly to stay in the E.U. in 2016 and the party promised a referendum on Scottish statehood regardless of who was elected to power in Westminster after the election.
This should create a serious problem for Boris Johnson, who has said he will ignore calls for a referendum on Scottish independence, despite a larger mandate for it now than there ever has been for Brexit in relative terms. Another headache will come from Northern Ireland, where the unionist DUP suffered catastrophic losses to Sinn Fein, a party that wants a to leave the UK and unite with the Republic of Ireland.
In any case, at just 5 weeks it was a short, strange campaign and one in which one of the major candidates, the current Prime Minister, put a reporter’s phone in his pocket to avoid looking at a photo of a child with pneumonia sleeping on a hospital floor and hid from reporters in a refrigerator. This strategy of dodging questions seems to have worked and may set a bad precedent for future campaigns far and wide.
The media focused relentlessly on allegations of antisemitism in the Labor Party, mostly centered on criticisms of the Israeli right, going so far as to accuse Jeremy Corbyn of harboring these sentiments himself. It got to a point where the accusations were simply presented as an undisputed fact, despite Corbyn’s long history fighting all forms of racism, including attacks by neo-fascist groups like the National Front, who he helped to successfully confront and defeat in what has come to be called the Battle of Wood Green in his late 20s.
It will be interesting to see if a centrist like Emily Thornberry or Keir Starmer wins the leadership of the party if the hue and cry about antisemitism in Labor quiets, showing once and for all that this was being used to smear Corbyn and to a lesser extent the youth movement, some of whose founders are Jewish, Momentum.
Boris Johnson on the other hand, when he actually took questions from the press, wasn’t asked about the outrageously bigoted things he’s written in columns for a variety of rightwing sources over the years. The way he’s written about Africans, about women, about gay men and about Muslims to name just four instances, should have been a subject of conversation, if not outright disqualification. Even the white male, working-class voters who voted him into office with such a sizable majority have not been spared his upper class ‘wit’.
Of them, Johnson wrote in a 1995 Spectator column, that the, “modern British male is useless… If he is blue-collar, he likely to be drunk, criminal, aimless, feckless and hopeless, and perhaps claiming to suffer from low self-esteem brought on by unemployment.”
Another clever trick that the U.K. media failed to debunk was the promotion of the idea that Johnson had only been in office for 120 days and thus couldn’t be held responsible for the Conservatives relentless gutting of the country’s social safety net over the past decade. It was as if it didn’t matter he held a seat in parliament since 2015 and spent two years as foreign minister.
To give the newly elected Prime Minister some credit, Johnson and his team have dealt with the split between remain and leave MPs in a way that Corbyn didn’t and made his party the party of Brexit. He has promised a new version of ‘one nation’ conservatism that will move away from the austerity politics of the past. Whether he will live up to these promises remains an open question.
We will also have to see if Brexit remains a poisoned chalice as, if the last 3 years have taught us anything, leaving the E.U. is easier said than done. Despite a promise to take the country out of the E.U. by January 31st, there is no guarantee that he’ll be able to ink a free trade deal with the union within the year-long time frame he’s announced.
Depending on how this works out, Johnson may be facing an enraged nation at the next election in 5 years time and there is a very real possibility he will have broken the union with Scotland and possibly, Northern Ireland, creating the conditions for the breaking up of the U.K.
Corbyn’s mistake was in trying to please both sides in his own party, promising a 2nd referendum on whatever deal he could negotiate with the E.U. or the option of remaining in the union. While this position is well-reasoned, it neglected the passion that the debate about Brexit has stoked in the country.
Although many commentators in the UK press tried to portray the Labor leader as half Machiavelli and half Stalin, the truth seems to be far from this. In listening to him speak he has always come across to this writer as a decent, well-intentioned man who tried to build consensus with a pack of hungry wolves in his own party and in a billionaire controlled media baying for his blood. What the party’s manifesto called for is only radical in the world we currently live in, which celebrates wealth as the highest good and elevates upper-class twits like Johnson or the current U.S. president in positions of power they haven’t earned.
Although the neo-liberal wing of the party is going to try to pull the party back to the Blairism of the past, there is still a chance that some form of Corbynism will survive in the Labor Party going forward, just not with Jeremy Corbyn himself. Unfortunately for the world, ambitious policies like the Green Industrial Revolution will have to wait at least five long years to become reality, if they are ever enacted at all.