IT will rank among the most calamitous of political blunders. The decision of British Prime Minister Theresa May to call a snap election to buttress her ‘hard’ bargaining stance in upcoming Brexit talks has blown up in her face, with consequences that continue to reverberate across the entire British state.
The crisis, full-blown and multi-dimensional, reaches beyond matters of government survival, dubious backroom deals and unprecedented disruptions of longstanding constitutional procedures. It is unfolding on the rickety structure of a weakened economy officially recognised as the slowest-growing in the European Union, with inflation on the rise and living standards set to tumble further. Worst of all (from the perspective of British and international capitalism), May’s catastrophic misjudgement, exploited brilliantly by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his legions of activists, has reignited class politics in Britain while burying Blairist ‘third way’ centrism fathoms deep.
UNMISSABLE SCALE OF THE CRISIS
The scale of the crisis is unmissable. Nearly a week after polling day (June 8), May – the ostensible victor, heading the party with the largest number of seats in parliament – remains unable to form a government. Tory survival in Downing Street has been staked on a deal with the most reactionary force now occupying seats at Westminster: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), representative of the most bigoted, anti-Catholic, racist, sexist and homophobic elements polluting the soil of Northern Ireland. The proposed alliance has opened the lid on a Pandora’s Box of constitutional issues, with questions raised as to its legality, the concessions to rabid Ulster Unionism May might be ready to entertain, and the political fragility of any deal (as a Northern Ireland-based party, the DUP cannot vote in Westminster on legislation affecting only English voters). Beyond this, wide swathes of British opinion (including within Conservative ranks) finds repellent the notion of making government hostage to an organisation notorious for its longstanding terrorist links.
Two running themes of May’s campaign – her invocation of the slogan ‘strong and stable government’ versus what she called Corbyn’s ‘coalition of chaos’, and her unflagging smearing of the Labour leader as a ‘terrorist sympathiser’ (like many other political figures, Corbyn engaged with Sinn Fein at various stages of the Northern Ireland peace process) – have been thrust back in her face over the past few days. As people across Britain see it, the real ‘coalition of chaos’ is the one May is now seeking to hammer out with a party whose ties to terrorism are evident, even proudly acknowledged.
Within the Conservative Party, May’s squandered advantages and disastrous election campaign have generated fury along with a refusal to let her stand down. The defeated ‘victor’ betrays all the hallmarks of a hostage; Mark Mardell, a seasoned BBC journalist, likens her to a “medieval monarch, captured by her barons… broken on the electoral wheel (she) is forced to stand on splintered limbs, grimacing through the pain, for the sake of her party’s chance to cling to office.”
Each passing day brings fresh evidence of May’s ineptitude and inability to govern. Yesterday (June 12) saw the suggestion of a delay to the Queen’s Speech, earlier set for June 19 along with the State Opening of Parliament. May is apparently seeking ‘wriggle room’ in her negotiations with the DUP, who appear to exercise veto power over the contents of the Queen’s Speech (which sets out the legislation an incoming government seeks to pursue). There have also been rumours of a delay to the start of crucial Brexit talks, which would put pay to another of May’s campaign mantras: that Brexit discussions would start “eleven days after polling day.” Meanwhile, May’s Brexit minister, Georges Bridges, has resigned.
The talks in Brussels, whenever they start, will open another can of worms for May, challenging further her ability to head a government as “stable as a two-legged stool” (Mardell again). The Conservative Party, although riven with fissures, is nowhere as divided as it is over Brexit, with ‘hard’ Brexiteers locked in conflict with those seeking a softer landing. While the latter camp remains a minority within the party, it has been emboldened by the election results and by May’s collapse. A year ago, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the resignation of David Cameron, party bigwigs judged May a ‘safe pair of hands’ among an unappetising bunch of would-be replacements (Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Andrea Leadsom…) They must be rueing their choice now.
In the topsy-turvy, looking-glass world that is current British politics, everything seems strange, exciting and up for grabs. As Left commentator Lindsey German puts it, “In a situation which now defies all political logic the winners of the election look like losers and the losers look like winners. That’s because everyone can see the direction of change.”
At the centre of this extraordinary, exhilarating seismic shift stands Jeremy Corbyn, his magnificent campaign, the most radical party manifesto in a generation, and the mass membership that strode the streets, knocked on doors, took to the social media and came up with an infinite variety of lively new ways to get Labour’s message across. In combination, these elements fuelled the supersonic ascent of Corbyn’s Labour over the course of just five weeks. From its starting point of 24-25 per cent of the national vote in the polls in mid-April, when May made her fateful announcement, the party moved in one direction only: upwards. On June 8, to the consternation of its political opponents, the wider state and the entire mainstream media, it carried 41 per cent of the national vote, achieving the biggest increase in the share of the Labour vote over the party’s previous general election performance since Clement Attlee’s epic victory back in 1945.
Part of the explanation lies with Corbyn himself. A seasoned political fighter whose parliamentary experience reaches back to the 1980s, Corbyn incarnates qualities which distinguish him from the general run of politicians and make him instantly appealing to voters weary of party apparatchiks and career politicians fixated on the greasy pole. His voting record, always from the backbenches, is remarkable both for its consistency and its principled character; on every key issue, from the struggle against apartheid South Africa to efforts to block Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, the MP for Islington North has taken the progressive, non-opportunist road, often attracting the ire of the Labour Right in the process. It was on the basis of this record that party members and supporters lined up behind him so conclusively during two leadership battles, in 2015 and again last year. On both occasions, Corbyn romped home with a huge majority – to the dismay and horror of Blairites, other right-wing elements and much of the party’s organisational hierarchy (many battles remain to be fought within Labour itself).
Corbyn’s experience has also honed a capacity for acute political judgment. Since the Brexit vote in June of last year, he has attracted considerable flak for accepting the outcome of the referendum and not positioning Labour against the invocation of Article 50, the formal triggering of the process of leaving the EU. His stance was that a democratic decision deserved respect and should not be blocked. On this basis, the Labour party was able to reach out to working-class voters who had fallen prey to UKIP and its reactionary racist and anti-immigrant programme. Analysis of election data suggests that Labour’s success in pushing its national vote to around 13 million rests in part on its ability to win back significant sections of its old working-class base, especially in the North-east but elsewhere, too.
Another important facet of Corbyn’s Labour is its readiness to shift political activity outwards, away from a Westminster focus and a narrow concentration on electoral politics. Momentum, a pro-Corbyn grassroots campaigning network of over 20,000 members, symbolises and promotes this turn towards social movements, community campaigns and attention to a broad range of issues, including anti-war activity and environmental concerns.
‘FOR THE MANY, NOT THE FEW’: MANIFESTO RESTORING CLASS POLITICS
By all accounts, however, the biggest single factor behind Labour’s election success has been the manifesto – ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ – placed before the nation by Corbyn, his rock-solid Leftist ally John McDonnell and their team. Without even a hint of hyperbole, this can be described as the most radical Labour programme many of us have ever witnessed. By focusing on issues affecting people’s everyday lives in austerity Britain – the crumbling, semi-privatised national health service; education cuts incapacitating schools across the land; the ongoing housing nightmare; the proliferation of food banks shaming one of the world’s richest economies –the manifesto wrested the election away from ruling party control, caught the imagination of millions and restored class politics to the heart of British politics. The force of its message could not be drowned out, even by the intervention of terrorist attacks which in other circumstances might have benefited the Right.
A tottering regime headed by a hostage leader; a crisis of governance that has no parallels in recent British history; an uncertain, undoubtedly rocky Brexit road ahead; and a rejuvenated opposition scenting blood and eager for the next battle in what no one doubts will be a protracted war: such is the current reality in Britain. No wonder Donald Trump has opted to stay away.