What did we learn from the UK election?
There are pointers for Australian Labor from Jeremy Corbyn’s success
LET’S not deny the Corbynistas a moment of hubris — they deserve to feel some vindication after being pilloried from all sides, including their own, for the past two years.
But enough time has passed since last Thursday’s UK election for the emotions to die down and to begin forming some rational conclusions.
Like last year’s US presidential election, the result of the poll — a reduced Conservative majority and a hung Parliament — went against all expectations based on political convention.
Theresa May’s gamble to call an early election a bare two years after the previous one was widely predicted to have resulted in a massive swing to the Tories and a wipeout for Labour of such magnitude that it could have taken decades to recover.
The pundits said that May would ride the Brexit wave and all but obliterate Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Corbyn, meanwhile, was regarded entering the election as unelectable: he was a man who had spent most of his adult life paddling in a small political pond on the backbench, who now found himself presiding over a divided party and loathed by most of his parliamentary colleagues, and shackled with — so we were told — policies that belonged in the 1970s.
The predominantly pro-Tory press played its part, backing May as a reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher and demonising Corbyn at every turn.
I was as wrong as anyone. From day one, I embraced the policies Corbyn was advocating. But as much as I admired him for his principles, I just didn’t rate him as a good enough salesmen to convince the electorate. At the beginning of this year’s UK campaign, I was predicting a bloodbath on the scale of Thatcher’s obliteration of the hapless Michael Foot in 1983 (on exactly the same date: June 9).
I repeat: I was wrong (although I still have misgivings about Corbyn in the longer term, as you’ll read below).
So what went wrong for the Tories and right for Labour? And what can we in Australia learn from the UK election, so soon after Trump’s victory in the US and Macron’s sweeping away of Le Pen in France?
1. We learnt that pro-worker, socialist, anti-austerity policies are not the electoral poison that everyone thought they were.
The political mainstream has shifted so far to the right since the 1980s that what would once have been regarded as a modest left agenda is today characterised as nothing short of pure communism.
But Corbyn’s Labour has shifted the goalposts and successfully begun changing the language of political discourse. This is probably his greatest achievement.
UK Labour now has a progressive, pro-worker, pro-environment policy manifesto that can win an election, and there is no going back now. It is a manifesto that proudly embraces the tenets of British socialism: the welfare state, free health and education, affordable housing, public ownership of transport and utilities, equality and freedom from discrimination, and income redistribution through a progressive tax system that targets the wealthy and big corporations.
This agenda spells the end of New Labour and the third way. It shows the door to the technocrats and incrementalists and naysayers who argue that the key to Labour’s electoral success was not bold policy development, but showing Labour could be a better manager of a centre-right agenda when in government.
Corbyn’s agenda isn’t so radical when you think about it, but it took the circuit-breaker of his election as Labour leader for the party to adopt it.
2. A new progressive movement has been been born that will be the springboard for real change.
Both Corbyn and Bernie Sanders have inspired people to participate in politics for the first time, helping to build a new progressive movement on both sides of the Atlantic. The growth of Labour membership under Corbyn has been staggering, something like a 270% increase since he became leader.
What this does is provide a foundation for electoral success.
But with the birth of this progressive movement also must come a warning, because political movements and political parties are not the same thing. Unlike mass movements, political parties have no choice but to make compromises both to win power and then to govern. Political parties should respond to populist movements but they cannot be them.
The mass movement built by Corbyn’s followers is both a blessing and a curse.
Corbyn, or whoever follows him, will need to carefully navigate this inherent conflict and reconcile these two potentially incompatible strands on the left.
3. There is an old adage that oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose them.
The Tories had a terrible campaign, full of mistakes and poorly pitched. They expected to coast to an enlarged majority and their arrogance showed. The u-turn on the “dementia tax” was the worst, but not the only example, of a half-cocked and badly communicated campaign.
Theresa May turned out to be a wooden, robotic campaigner and the more the public saw of her, the less they liked her. By contrast, Corbyn by all accounts had a good campaign, appearing to actually enjoy hitting the hustings. There are some obvious parallels here with last year’s Australian election, where Turnbull and the Liberals were awful while Bill Shorten’s Labor hardly put a foot wrong.
But the Corbynistas should not rest on their laurels. Their man is not a brilliant orator, nor does he inspire through unadulterated charisma. He benefitted from the circumstances and from May’s own terrible performance.
Like Turnbull, May made a strategic mistake by calling an early election with a thin policy agenda to promote. It was rightly seen by voters as a cynical grasp for power.
The UK election also confirmed the ongoing diminished influence of the once all-powerful UK tabloid press. Both the Sun and the Daily Mail threw everything they could at Corbyn, painting him as a terrorist-hugging Marxist, but at the end of the day little of it stuck and it had next to no impact in the polling booths.
After a relentless two year campaign of demonisation by the tabloids, there was nothing new left to reveal about Corbyn which he hadn’t already dealt with, and people were prepared to give him a second chance and decided he wasn’t so bad after all.
The tabloids are now almost irrelevant to anyone aged under 50 and future politicians should pay those bullies no heed.
But May, despite a long period as Home Secretary, was less known and her robotic and aloof personality, combined with resentment over the cynical early election ploy, meant that she lost popularity the more people saw of her.
4. Right wing populism isn’t inevitable.
The British election reiterated that there is definitely a worldwide popular uprising against politics as normal and the institutions that have come to represent it. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that people will embrace xenophobic nationalism.
Perhaps in a few years time we will actually look back and see Trump’s election in the US as an aberration rather than the start of a new norm. Look what has happened since: centrists won elections in both Holland and France, and the far right took a good kicking. The most left wing candidate in a generation nearly won office in the UK, while UKIP was all but wiped out. And Germany is showing few signs of a swing towards extremism.
Back here in Australia, One Nation is imploding at lightning speed.
There is little doubt that many Britons now regret either voting for Brexit or not voting in the referendum at all, and that post-Brexit regret was a key factor in driving votes away from the Tories. It’s somewhat ironic that the lust for a hard Brexit that May had sought to capitalise on instead came back to bite her on the backside.
In the UK, large swathes of the population feel left behind by globalisation and technological change. Once proud communities in the manufacturing heartland have been left to wither and die, creating pockets of disadvantage and working class resentment. In the US, Trump was able to reap this mood, and for a while so was UKIP in Britain.
But Trump may have done the rest of the world a favour by showing the foibles of embracing a rabidly populist right wing demagogue. What Corbyn has shown us is that a sensible progressive agenda that challenges the neo-liberal/capitalist hegemony with realistic solutions is a better alternative to economic nationalism and xenophobia.
5. The election was almost certainly the highwater mark of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
It pains me to say that Corbyn has almost certainly got as close as he ever will to 10 Downing Street and even he must be able to see that he cannot win a general election.
Corbyn has done brilliantly in many respects and proved his doubters wrong time and again. It’s unlikely Labour could have got this close if Owen Smith had won last year’s leadership ballot.
Corbyn’s legacy will be his policy manifesto and his achievement in making socialism a viable political alternative again. But he will be 71 by the time the next election is due in three years time, and his narrow loss this time cannot hide that he is yesterday’s man.
For the socialist agenda to now succeed at the ballot box, it needs to be implemented by someone younger and more representative of modern Britain, probably a woman and possibly from a minority group. Old bearded white men are no more representative of modern Britain than straight-laced vicar’s daughters or toffy-nosed old Etonians.
At a sensible time — and no-one is suggesting any immediate urgency — Corbyn needs to put his ego and ambition aside and hand over the leadership to someone with more electoral marketability. Someone with the political deft touch to rally and unite his party and sell that manifesto to the wider public. Someone with the communication skills of an Obama. Corbyn can do so while assured that his place in the Labour pantheon is now secure.
Crucially, however, whoever takes up the mantle must be a 100% subscriber to Corbyn’s agenda, not a Blairite in sheep’s clothing.
6. Exceeding expectations and coming close is not a measure of political success.
After his defeat in the 1974 federal election, the then-Liberal leader Billy Snedden defended his performance by arguing that “we didn’t win, but we didn’t lose”. Corbynistas are using a similar excuse for Labour’s 2017 defeat.
They’re wrong. Whatever the Corbynistas may say about the movement they have built, the policies they have developed and the surprising vigour with which they fought the campaign, the fact is Labour still lost. A gallant defeat is still a defeat. People who lose with their principles intact are still losers. To suggest otherwise is nothing more than spin.
Corbyn and his supporters will argue that it was a victory in itself to shift the political mainstream to the left. They will argue that May and the Tories were forced by Corbyn to soften the austerity dogma. And perhaps there is an element of truth to those arguments. But Labour still lost.
The reality is that defeat for Labour means at least another three years the Tories can take the country even further downhill. Try convincing a family about to be evicted from its home or to have its power shut down or its benefits cut off that Corbyn’s gallant defeat was a victory in itself. Near enough is not good enough.
This does not mean to suggest that Labor in Australia should ditch its values to pursue a win-at-all-costs strategy. It’s simply a reality check for the Corbynistas and their cheerleaders down under.
7. Disunity is death.
The one thing everyone on the left can now agree about is that Corbyn could possibly have won if he hadn’t had to deal with two years of white-anting and undermining by his internal opponents in the Labour Party. Just imagine how well Corbyn might have performed if he had a united party behind him over that time.
For most of his leadership, Corbyn has been fighting battles on two fronts: the external battle to win public support for his agenda; and the internal battle to legitimise and solidify his leadership in the party. If anything, it is the former that has been easier.
Corbyn has faced dissent, criticism and disloyalty from not only his parliamentary colleagues, but from Tony Blair and his surrogates like the loathsome Alistair Campbell on the outside. With Labour so divided, it has struggled to provide any real opposition to the Tories who have more or less been able to get away with what they wanted. Meanwhile, Corbyn has always had to fight with one arm tied behind his back.
It was only with an election underway that Corbyn’s enemies temporarily put away their weapons. And isn’t it amazing what a bit of solidarity and unity can achieve?
Surely now Corbyn has earnt the respect and support of his colleagues. Surely now the Blairites must now accept that their days are over and that politics has moved on.
The 2017 election has shown that voters will embrace a real Labour agenda, not the Tory-lite alternative that the Blairites have been clinging to. They either need to pledge total allegience to Corbyn’s agenda or find something else to do.
8. People want authenticity from their politicians.
They don’t come more authentic than Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, two grumpy old socialists who somehow bypassed the machinery that turns all politicians into boring robotic clones.
Corbyn was the most unlikely British political leader since Michael Foot: a cardigan wearing Obi Wan Kenobi lookalike no-one had ever heard of. But he was authentic. People could imagine having a pint with him.
Whatever their other faults, neither Corbyn or Sanders could ever been accused of having tempered their natural style to court voters. Nor have they compromised on their beliefs.
Voters recognised Corbyn as being a man of principle and strong values, and they liked that. He refused to be polished, and projected a form of trust and an antidote to the cynicism of the Blairites in particular. Corbyn has shown that you do not have to be a small target to succeed in politics. Voters will respect you if you are brave and stand for something.
Hillary Clinton was the complete opposite. She was a consummate career politician who never uttered a word without it having been thoroughly research and focus group tested. Voters who looked closely at her could not find any authenticity, which explains why she failed to defeat Trump. And Trump? We all know he’s a phony, but he projected enough authenticity through his unhinged rants and tweets, particularly when placed next to Clinton.
In an Australian context, Bill Shorten is none of these things. He’s a robotic machine politician. But Anthony Albanese oozes authenticity, while Shorten has been unable to win over a large proportion of the public who detect in him cynicism and insincerity.
Just as Corbyn must resist the urging of political advisors who want him to now adopt a more conventional approach to opposition, abandon his more contentious policies and welcome back into the fold the Blairites, so must Australian Labor adopt a leader with real authenticity who is prepared to abandon the safety first, small target strategy of the past four years.
9. We learnt that young people will vote if they are inspired to.
But what they want is hope, not negativity. Young people are as sick as the rest of us of the relentless negativity coming out of the mouths of politicians. They are sick of the finger-pointing and the blameshifting. They want answers and solutions, not just more problems.
It’s funny, isn’t it, that these two grumpy old men should inspire so many young people to vote for the first time. But the reason why Corbyn and Sanders turned out so many young people is that they wrapped their critiques of modern capitalism in a cloak of positivity and hope.
Those conservative commentators who put the surge in the youth vote down to Corbyn’s promise to abolish tuition fees completely missed the point. It’s a typical conservative approach to attribute how people vote to self-interest but the reasons were more complex than that. Tuition fees no doubt played a part, but young people in the UK face a future of insecure work where they can’t afford a decent home and the planet they live on is slowly being choked by climate change. They looked at the Tories and saw a party of discrimination and xenophobia that protects the big end of town and the wealthy, wants to cut public services and close the borders. On the other hand, Corbyn offered hope, and being idealistic young people they opted for hope over fear.
The ultimate lesson from the UK election? It has to be that socialism is not dead and that the values of equality and fairness and decency can still pave the way to electoral success. That hope can overcome hatred and fear. That the austerity and inequality must end. And that authenticity and real values matter.
Then again, in these crazy and unpredictable times, I could be completely wrong. I was about Corbyn, after all.