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The Corbyn Delusion

Just as night will always follow day, so too is any political event immediately followed by the spin. This is a crucial moment, as spin’s architects and mouthpieces try to shape the messiness of reality into a clear line of narrative, sometimes predetermined, other times improvised, before facts can ossify in undesirable ways. Nowhere is this more important than after an indecisive election such as the 2017 United Kingdom one. In the absence of an emphatic result that speaks for itself the opportunity exists to craft a version of reality that will hopefully resonate in the collective public mind. Sometimes this special pleading is laughably obvious, such as the Liberal Democrats’ forlorn attempt to suggest that the night had been anything other than a harsh reminder of their ongoing slide into irrelevance. And here is another feeble argument posturing as a profound statistic: Labour under Jeremy Corbyn won their highest percentage of seats since 2001! Yes, but remember the Liberal Democrats? They used to be a viable party, seriously, and in that same 2001 election got 18.3% of the vote. Of course after 2010 they entered into a Coalition with the Conservatives which didn’t work out so well for them as they betrayed almost everything they stood for thereby making inevitable their eventual decline. And speaking of once relevant minor parties, that’s right, The United Kingdom Independence Party. In the 2015 general election UKIP garnered 12.7% of the vote, however after the result of the independence referendum the year after, their raison d'être was no more, and their support likewise crash-dived. So should we credit the rapid demise of these once third forces in British politics for the return of votes to the major parties, or should instead we just decide it’s because Jeremy Corbyn is totes amazeballs and everyone now adores him? For those keeping score at home there was also a 5.5% swing to the Tories for this same reason, but somehow that isn’t being interpreted as “Everyone loves Theresa” in the way the corresponding boost to Labour’s numbers are. The Conservatives registered their highest percentage of the vote, 42.4%, since Margaret Thatcher’s 1979 landslide but, apparently, this figure can be dismissed with an airy wave.

And while we’re popping these red balloons, how about this: Corbyn’s “triumph” of 262 seats is only four more than Gordon Brown’s defeat in 2010. The only triumph here is that of low expectations. In the same way that his fellow sworn enemy of NATO Donald Trump’s first overseas adventure was considered a success because he didn’t start a war or personally insult his hosts, so too was Corbyn not taking Labour backwards painted as a brilliant success. And this collective patting of heads because of the youth turnout needs to stop. Yeah so it was higher in 2015, but where were all these highly motivated and politically active kiddiewinks when the Brexit vote was happening? Probably at home sharing Jeremy Corbyn memes while their pensioner grandparents who still hold onto rosy memories of empire from their youths shuffled to the polling station to fuck over Britain’s young. But, I hear the protesting cry, wasn’t this the working class returning to the fold after years of being tricked by Murdoch-lead culture wars into voting against their own self-interest? Nope, while the Conservative vote only increased by 2% in middle class areas, at the same time it rose by a frankly amazing 9 points in constituencies with the highest percentage of working class voters. The reason for this is clear to everyone weaned off the dated left-right axis that, like Jeremy Corbyn, is a relic of the Cold War. Put simply, today’s business owner isn’t the stuffed shirt smacking the homeless with a rolled up copy of the Financial Times on their way back from a fox hunt, they’re doing business with Europe, and they’re not happy about losing access to the Single Market. Therefore they were likely a remainer but will tolerate the so-called “soft Brexit” - which involves retaining access to their customers and suppliers). Meanwhile, all the little Englanders who see (in many cases correctly) their lower skilled jobs being taken by Eastern Europeans who will work longer hours for less are backing the “hard Brexit” - A.K.A. “Foreigners out!” Students and the middle classes have gotten behind both Corbyn and Labour’s manifesto which, to be fair, is light years ahead of the “soak the poor” vindictiveness of the Tories’, but to paint this a mass movement of the proletariat is to intellectually take a holiday in Narnia.

Two truths that do hold: Firstly, there is a great body of research that could tell any tempted prime minister that snap elections almost always backfire. The public might be oblivious to much of the business of government, but they do cotton on to when they’re been driven to the polls out of pure political expediency, and they usually jack up. Secondly, in Westminster systems it is never oppositions that win elections, it is governments that lose them. Often this can be explained as just a cyclical turnover – all long-serving governments eventually bog down in some combination of complacency and/or scandal. Once highly attuned political compasses go haywire as hubris and the myth of invincibility set leaders and their parties down the road to defeat. But even first-term governments can get thrown out if a majority of the electorate feels they broke the pact that elevated them to office, or that complacency/scandal schedule is vastly accelerated. In Australia in 2013, Tony Abbott was the most unpopular opposition leader to ever bring his party into government, and when there he became one of the most unpopular prime ministers, and was replaced mid-term. His legislative programme was mostly a neoliberal fever dream that never had the mass public support its proponents fantasised onanistically about. Was the victory of the Coalition in that election a result of Australia moving massively to the right, or rather was it a consequence of the previous three years of the Rudd/Gillard/Rudd leadership merry-go-round/soap opera? Answers on a postcard. In the wake of the divisive Brexit vote and the dramatic ascension of Theresa May to No. 10 over the prone and bloodied forms of Messrs Gove and Johnson, this should have been a moment of great vulnerability for the government, but the opposition was too busy fighting amongst itself. It turned out that not only had Corbyn achieved nothing in terms of legislation during his 30 year plus residency on the backbench, he hadn’t even spent the time making many friends, perhaps that might have something to do with his more than 533 votes against Labour since 1997. So in an incredibly cynical move, May decided to capitalise on what Paul Keating would have called a “beautiful set of numbers” that showed Labour twenty points down in the polls and take the nation back the ballot box, using the looming Brexit negotiations as a pretext that was bought by nobody. Yet during the campaign it was May’s own weakness that became the focus as she robotically recited Abbott-esque three word slogans (as advised by Liberal Party guru Lynton Crosby) while the opposition leader proved unexpectedly adroit at retail politics. The result confirmed the old adage – it was the government that lost the election, not the opposition that won it. And even if you did try that line, it’s a strange sort of victory when you end up with less votes, less seats but somehow still try to claim victory.

So whither Brexit, the ostensible reason for this election and still the crucial issue facing Britain as the clock counts down towards 2019 and the final discharge of Article 50? Well we’ve heard about how people like their Brexit: hard, soft, over easy – but how will the inconclusive election result affect the shape and tone of the final outcome? For now the May-lead Conservative government will continue, supported on confidence and supply it seems by the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party. A lot is being made of some of their policies and how these might conflict with the Tory platform, but this really is a non-issue compared to Corbyn’s past praise of the IRA (which fits a pattern of him cosying up to dictators with abysmal human rights records – like a sort of George Galloway-lite, he comes from that school where it is not sufficient to simply oppose “imperialism”, it seems almost mandatory to also embrace authoritarianism at the same time). All the while his position on Brexit has been a barely maintained façade as like his mentor Michael Foot, Corbyn sees the EU as an impediment to achieving a worker’s paradise in the UK; it’s not even clear he voted to remain as he said he would after his anaemic and reluctant campaign for it. Regardless, the removal of a comfortable majority for the government (and their own conflict over loving the Single Market but resenting the imposition of EU law) could ultimately lead to better outcomes. There will be pressure on May to incorporate elements of the “soft Brexit”, especially concerning the Irish border, as the DUP are not alone in seeking to avoid a return to the bad old days of an Ireland walled in two. Likewise, May’s style of leadership that seemed to involve two advisors and no one else must go, she, or another prime minister must be more consultative and democratic as they try and steer Britain though its most difficult times since the 1940s. Finally, the pressures of their minority position might spell the end to some of the Tories’ more noxious polices, like their attempts to privatise the NHS and further whack the students who didn’t vote for them. A better deal for Britain with Europe and a dangerous extremist like Corbyn kept from power – that could be a deal worth embracing, no spin, I promise.

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