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Corbyn Just Might Win: A Brief Primer on Britain’s Elections

Peter Rugh Jun 7

He was useful as a loser, now they’re worried he just might win.

For decades, Labor Party leaders in Britain cringed at Jeremy Corbyn. There was his sympathy for the Irish Republican Army, Trotskyism, Palestine; but more than anything else Corbyn represented the lingering remnants of working-class politics in a party that under the leadership of Tony Blair had by-and-large embraced neoliberalism. He was helpful in so much as he kept the left wing of Labor from splintering off — provided the left wing remained in check — but now that the left wing has taken the party over and it looks like when Britons vote on Thursday Corbyn has a slim chance defeating the incumbent Theresa May of becoming the next Prime Minister, Labor’s elites are shitting their pants.

To put it the parlance of the New York Times, which summed up the situation by quoting Professor Tim Bale at London’s Queen Mary University: “[F]or Labour’s less ideological, more politically ambitious lawmakers, it would be nothing short of disaster leaving them ‘to the thought of a decade out of power, of a whole career at Westminster without power.’”

Those “less ideological, more politically ambitious lawmakers” (read spineless, power seekers) are hoping a crushing defeat will befall their own party like the one that led to the demise of Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, in the 2015 election against David Cameron. A heavy loss would lead to a regrouping within Labor, similar to the one that followed Miliband’s defeat and aided Corbyn’s assent — only this time it would put Labor’s right wing back in the leadership. Yet, despite Miliband’s loss two years ago, not to mention Brexit, Labor’s neoliberals continue to underestimate the public’s dissatisfaction with their agenda.

“Part of Mr. Corbyn’s recovery in the polls comes from people who are opposed to “the system” and from younger voters,” the Times notes.

Corbyn is within 4 percentage points in the polls of presiding over a Labor government. Robert Kuttner, writing for American Prospect, further explains why:

Corbyn’s program, For the Many, Not the Few, ridiculed by the usual suspects as hopelessly left-wing, evidently appeals to a lot of Britons, and is also sensible economics: Raise taxes on the affluent, restore public services (including free higher education), reclaim union bargaining rights, re-nationalize the results of failed privatizations, clamp down on predatory private capital.

To those who occupy an increasingly disintegrating center, Corbyn’s platform is terrifying. The Times’ Ross Douthat went so far as to compare Corbyn to Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and apparently Joseph Stalin, warning of “ideological impulses that killed people and wrecked countries on an extraordinary scale” during the 20th Century. Somebody appears to have forgotten Britain’s bloody, very much mainstream, imperial record, let alone the Blair-backed Iraq War, which killed, wounded and displaced tens of millions of people.

May’s call for snap elections in April wasn’t aimed at crushing the Labor Party, since by that time attacks from within it, including a vote of no confidence in Corbyn, had already dwindled Corbyn’s popularity to 25 percentage points below May’s. It was to solidify her grasp on a  Conservative Party that, like their Republican counterparts in the United States, is divided between a nationalist right-wing and a more centrist camp. May is quite the opportunist, warning of Brexit before the referendum and embracing it afterward. Holding elections now is a way for her to solidify her hold on power, before regrexit sets in.

Few foresaw Corbyn’s rise. Even his staunchest supporters dreaded the June 8 vote. But the elections have afforded Corbyn the opportunity of addressing voters directly with less media mediation and have breathed new life into Labor’s political prospects, whether Blairites like it or not.

“Voters increasingly perceive Corbyn as a man of principle and May as an opportunist,” writes Kuttner. “Even if they don’t agree with his entire program, they see Corbyn as on the side of the common person, and as a man of integrity. It’s very reminiscent of [Hillary] Clinton versus [Bernie] Sanders, even down to the role of the Democratic National Committee. The established Labour Party, very Blairized, loathes Corbyn as a throwback to the kind of radicalism that Blair was trying to expunge.”

Like Clinton, May has been exceptionally guarded when it comes to media appearances and policy questions, preferring to send out surrogates to thrash the Labor leader. After the recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, these have taken the form of criticism over Corbyn’s ability to keep Britons safe. These arguments don’t hold much water since this was precisely May’s job for six years prior to becoming Prime Minister. Austerity won out over counterterrorism during her tenure as Home Secretary. She reduced England’s police force by a sixth even as the country’s Conservative leaders jumped into new Middle East wars like the one that left Libya a failed state. The unlikely beneficiary of all these poor decisions? It just might turn out to be Jeremy Corbyn.

Karma bites.

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Photo: Jeremy Corbyn at a campaign on May 20. Credit: Andy Miah.