Last week, something remarkable happened in British politics. It was remarkable because the collective expectation of the polls, pundits and public did not foresee the outcome of that fateful Thursday night, after voting closed on a rainy summer evening.
By Neeliya De Silva
Last week, something remarkable happened in British politics. It was remarkable because the collective expectation of the polls, pundits and public did not foresee the outcome of that fateful Thursday night, after voting closed on a rainy summer evening
It was a general election called upon a whim, to consolidate a Conservative party mandate ahead of Brexit negotiations, and which brought about precisely the opposite of what it intended. Theresa May, instead of securing a majority for her party, managed to plunge the UK into the abyss of a hung parliament, losing a net total of 13 seats, whilst a Labour insurgency – unexpected and undreamt of, even amongst the most staunch of its supporters – gained the party a total of 30 extra seats.
Now, British politics is at a historical turning point, with momentum on the side of Corbyn’s supporters. A Conservative Party is in disarray, scrambling to make a deal with the controversial DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) of Northern Ireland, with a humiliated and defeated May still at the helm. However, gleefully proclaimed a ‘dead woman walking’ by her own ex-Chancellor George Osbourne, consensus is that it is only a matter of time before she is replaced as leader, as another general election looms in the not too distant future.
What went wrong for the Conservative party, one year after the shock of Brexit? It could be said that the British electorate, by now, rather enjoyed the high drama of boldly defying expectations. More interestingly, the seats gained by Labour, in Tory strongholds like Canterbury, and the richest constituency in the UK, Kensington, showed there were more significant factors at work here. Firstly, the youth mobilised around a socialist Labour candidate who, with his patchy grey beard and a twinkle in his eye, breathed new life into the stale and uninspiring state of centrist British politics. Active in politics since the 1970s, and long cast aside as an eccentric figure on the fringes of the Labour party by its centrist renewers, Jeremy Corbyn’s startling rise to leadership showed the left of the party eschewing the Blairite politics of New Labour, which of late had done little to rouse its supporters or distinguish Labour from being called a watered-down version of the Conservative party.
And for young people, saddled with university debt, low employment prospects and a housing crisis which made the prospect of owning a home near impossible, it was possible to place their hearts in the hands of a man who represented hope, who promised a different path, a new way of doing things. Since coming into power in 2010, it had been seven long years under the Conservatives and their long-held belief in austerity economics, ostensibly pursued to reduce the national deficit, but which instead had the pernicious outcome of systematically dismantling public services, schools and hospitals, with the lowest paid and vulnerable most affected – whilst low-taxed corporations and the wealthiest in society thrived, unrestricted.
The young were fitful, restless, and agitated, and hungry for change, so out they went in their numbers to vote for a future they could claim as theirs. For them, this result is the beginning of a struggle to gain a future that offers them promise, not fear.
Another important aspect is that this leadership contest was premised on personality, with May deriving her authority by deriding Corbyn as a laughingstock and incapable of representing the country in Brexit negotiations. Indeed, a hostile right-wing media did their best to support May and smear Corbyn, pointing out his past sympathies to the IRA and other separatist groups to turn public opinion further against him. However, the public were more discerning than the media had thought, and could see clearly beyond the propaganda of partisanship. To the spectator, Corbyn possessed the air of a man at ease with himself, the more the electorate got to know him, he came across as principled and compassionate, someone whose character could be judged by his refusal to retaliate to the numerous personal attacks that came his way.
May, on the other hand, appeared robotic and insincere, she floundered and fled from the public eye, caught in a loop with her pre-packaged soundbites, puzzlingly refusing to partake in the standard democratic convention of a head-to-head debate against her political opponent. Was it any wonder the public did not take to a candidate who feared debating her opponent and hid from the spotlight, when Brexit talks would involve numerous complex and nuanced talks with determined EU negotiators on such matters? Combined with the disastrous and much publicised U-turn on her social care policy concerning the elderly – alarming a core demographic of her voter base – there was not much positive feeling around a candidate who posited herself as presidential but fell flat in anyone’s estimation as such.
By her own word, May now has no authority to negotiate the Brexit talks she insisted were the most pressing task at hand. The EU has been watching this election play out with keen interest – what it has shown is a weakened political party with no mandate, making it easier for the Europeans to drive out a hard bargain in this protracted divorce settlement. The ‘hard’ Brexit which May favoured – with no freedom of movement between the UK and EU countries, and no access to the single market, seems in need of revision, with an agreement that favours continued access to the single market and freedom of movement being the most favourable outcome. Safe Tory seats like Kensington, which were also heavily pro-Remain, went red for a reason, as affluent southerners who voted to stay showed clearly that they did not want to sever ties with Europe.
Now, a revitalised Labour party plans to make headway with its surging momentum, fighting to gain those marginal seats which would make a majority possible, and making it clear that New Labour is dead, austerity is done, and the socially democratic politics championed by Corbyn are here to stay. After all, when asked if he’s in this for the long run, Corbyn said: “look at me, I’ve got youth on my side”. Meanwhile, it is uncertain which way May will lead us in the Brexit negotiations – whether the UK will come crashing down out of Europe, as her dreams of being beloved leader did, only time will tell.
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