The British establishment doesn’t just want to defeat Jeremy Corbyn; it wants to destroy him.
Hence, Theresa May’s decision to call the snap election, now scheduled for June 8, after repeatedly stating since becoming prime minister that she would do no such thing. Understandably, the initial reaction of the public – after having been through an intense campaign wringer including the Scottish referendum in 2014, the last general election in 2015 and the Brexit referendum in 2016 – was less than enthusiastic about another march to the polls in six weeks’ time (to top things off, elections for local councils and regional mayors are to be held in early May).
While the Prime Minister had previously argued that the country needed a period of stability after the Brexit referendum – and that the national interest would be served by waiting until the next regularly scheduled election in 2020 – she now argues that a lack of “unity” amongst Westminster parties will weaken her hand in Brexit withdrawal negotiations with the EU. Although rather than it being a problem with opposition parties, as May would like to have it, disunity is much more of a threat on her own benches: the Conservatives currently hold a slender working majority of 17 in Parliament, with over 30 of its members of parliament under investigation for violating election spending limits in the previous election.
The unwritten UK constitution (rather a glaring contraction in terms, but the Brits seem to get away with it) grants the prime minister extraordinary powers to call an election at his or her convenience: with her government close to collapse in 1982, Margaret Thatcher went to war in the Falklands and proceeded to call an election in 1983, which she won handily. In contrast, John Major, well behind in the polls and besieged by the Tory Eurosceptics he dubbed “the bastards” (who, in hindsight, have won the day), waited until the last possible moment to call his losing election in 1997. Although this arbitrariness was supposedly remedied by the Fixed-term Parliaments Act of 2011, which required a two-thirds majority to dissolve parliament, in practice it was only ever symbolic, as the law itself could be repealed at any time by the same simple majority needed to call an election. And with the opposition parties agreeing to it, the motion to dissolve parliament passed with an overwhelming majority on Wednesday, April 19.
Who Let Him In?
May’s protestations notwithstanding, the real reason for calling the early election has nothing to do with unity or the lack thereof (are all parties supposed to magically agree on something as contentious as Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union?), but naked political advantage. To understand how we got here, we have to step back slightly in time.
After the Labour Party’s unexpectedly poor showing in the 2015 election, a leadership election was held to replace outgoing leader Ed Milliband. It was the first election to be held under the new rules instituted by Milliband, which scrapped the block vote of trade unions and MPs in favor of a one-person, one-vote system open to all party members and non-member supporters: in effect, a sort of primary system. Happy to see the trade-union link with the party ostensibly weakened, the centrist, Blairite wing of the party happily went along with the proposed reforms. Then, when veteran left-wing MP Jeremy Corbyn decided to make his dark-horse run for the leadership, a number of these same centrist MPs indulgently helped him get on the ballot (Labour tradition held that a token left-winger was always to be included) in order to “broaden the debate.” How fateful their assistance would prove to be.
Fueled by the newly enfranchised base, Corbyn swept to victory with 59.5% of the vote in a four-way race, a historic margin larger even than Tony Blair’s leadership victory in 1994 (Blair, for his part, spent the leadership campaign penning a series of apocalyptic anti-Corbyn op-eds, to no avail). The Labour Party’s membership swelled to over 500,000, making it the largest social-democratic party in Western Europe.
Corbyn’s 10-point program calls for greater investment in infrastructure and the creation of a national investment bank; the building of a million public-housing units (known in the UK as ‘council homes’); mandatory collective bargaining for companies with 250 or more employees and an end to exploitative work contracts; an end to the creeping privatization of the national health service; universal public child care; a national education service; a transition to a low-carbon economy; expanding the democratization of public services; increased access to leisure, sports, and the arts; equal rights for women, minorities, LGBT, and the disabled; reducing income and wealth inequality by increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations and by cracking down on tax evasion. Recent additions include a minimum-wage increase, free school meals, and a law forcing big businesses to publish their tax returns. A popular basket of items, polling suggests, for a society where neoliberal politics have held sullen sway for three decades, regardless of whether the ping-pong ball has bounced from the Conservatives to Labour and back.
But for the establishment, Corbyn’s real sins lie in the foreign-policy realm. Like Bernie Sanders, he has been ahead of his time across a wide range of issues, backing a political engagement with Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland well before it was politically acceptable to do so, opposing apartheid in South Africa (and getting arrested for it) at a time when Margaret Thatcher was branding the African National Congress as “terrorists,” opposing the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile while the British government staunchly – and shamefully – supported it, bucking his own party to publicly oppose the Iraq War, and supporting Palestinian rights despite the political cost entailed.
Nor has the pressure of the leadership caused him to abandon his stances. Over the last two years, Corbyn has opposed air strikes on Syria (supported by his then shadow foreign secretary, who made an impassioned speech against him), resisted an inordinately expensive £100 billion renewal of the nation’s Trident nuclear missile system against the majority of his parliamentary party, and called for a withdrawal of support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen while a war crimes investigation was carried out, a motion opposed by a hundred of his own MPs, who either abstained or didn’t bother to show up for the vote.
Brexit and the Chicken Coup
American veterans of the 2016 campaign will be no strangers to the dynamic of an ostensibly left-leaning party doing everything possible to shut out the actual progressive wing of its base. Imagine the reaction, then, if a progressive were to inexplicably vault over them to become party leader (in a parliamentary system, recall, the leader of the parliamentary party automatically becomes prime minister if that party goes on to win an election). Considering that the large majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party consists of graduates of the Tony Blair School of Third-way, Messianic Militarism, and despite the criticisms that can be leveled at Corbyn for mistakes he has made as leader, the underlying fact remains that, even if he were to have stood on his hands and given out candy canes to every MP on a daily basis, conflict between the two sides of the party was inevitable.
American readers will also be very familiar with the phenomenon of UK media consolidation: taking into account Rupert Murdoch (owner of The Times and The Sun), Russian oligarchs (owners of The Independent and The Evening Standard), assorted wealthy families (The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mail), and even the former head of a soft-porn empire (The Daily Express and Daily Star), the British print media is overwhelmingly right-wing. The BBC – scared of being sold off by Tory privatizers – is not far behind, as a recent Cardiff University study has demonstrated. Attacks against Corbyn from this camp, therefore, were to be expected. More disappointing, but perhaps no less surprising, has been the assault on him from the nominally center-left Guardian, whose phalanx of liberal gatekeepers laid into him with tone-deaf relish.
Initially, anti-Corbyn MPs bided their time, briefing against him in the press and voicing their discontent at parliamentary party meetings. Meanwhile, despite dire predictions of a fatal Corbyn drag on Labour’s electoral fortunes, the party went on to win its first five by-elections under its new leader and did better than expected in local elections held in May 2016. Labour was not in spectacular shape, polling even with or slightly behind the Conservatives, but the sky was not falling in, either. And considering it had just lost a general election the year before, more time was needed to give a definitive verdict on the new leadership’s fortunes.
Then, on June 23, Brexit happened. Prime Minister David Cameron, who had campaigned for the losing Remain side, resigned. A string of Labour MPs, furious at what they perceived to be Corbyn’s insufficient support for Remain (a debatable assertion, looking at polling and voting data) demanded he resign as well. When he did not, they sensed that the time was ripe to launch their long-brewing coup. A drip-drip series of resignations rocked the Labour Shadow Cabinet and, on June 28, 172 of Labour’s 232 MPs voted against Corbyn in a no-confidence motion, triggering another leadership contest. In a sign of how bitter the conflict had become, the Blairite wing of the party tried to keep Corbyn off the ballot paper, although the party’s Executive Committee eventually ruled that, as the incumbent leader, he would be able to stand again without having to collect MPs’ nominating signatures. In the event, and despite a new £25 pound fee being levied on new members to be able to vote, Corbyn went on to win the second leadership contest by an even larger margin than the first, defeating the anodyne Owen Smith by 62% to 38%. The “chicken coup” had been stymied.
But the damage had been done. Two acrimonious leadership contests in the space of a year, ongoing party dissension, out-in-the-open sabotage (Blair’s former right-hand man Peter Mandelson, for example, has admitted to attempting to undermine Corbyn every single day), and the Brexit-fueled reconciliation of the hard right and the Conservatives (who quickly got their house in order by selecting May to replace Cameron) all combined to send Labour’s poll numbers into free fall. By late 2016, the deficit had hit double-digit numbers; by this Spring, it had fallen to 20. On the day of the snap election announcement, the Conservative lead over Labour stood at 21 points.
A Dual Boon
A rout of Corbyn would be a boon for May’s Conservatives, a green light for both a hardline Brexit stance – greatly complicating any chance of reaching a trade deal with the European Union within the two-year negotiation period – and an even more sustained assault against the creaking British welfare state at a time when more people than ever are using food-bank handouts to get by. There is the added advantage, of course, of being able to get an election out of the way before the full implications of Brexit become evident to the British public.
But it would be no less of a boon for the neoliberal wing of the Labour Party, which would waste no time in wielding it as a stick to send its progressive base scurrying back out to the cold, slamming the door behind them by counter-reforming the leadership election rules to ensure that no leader who shared their views could make its way past the bouncers again. As UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system, like America’s, is extremely hostile to new parties, the banishment of Labour progressives could exclude them from meaningful institutional participation for years to come. Tony Blair, not to be outdone, got right to work attempting to undermine the nascent Corbyn campaign; expect more high-level defections in the days to come.
As for Theresa May, she is clearly banking on playing it safe and sailing to victory on the back of her large poll lead and the short campaign season. Already, she has made it clear that she will shield herself from scrutiny as much as possible, avoiding media questioning and refusing to participate in televised debates.
But playing it safe entails its own risks, as does the unforced error-producing certainty of having the election in the bag. Already, the Conservative campaign is off to an uneven start, having suffered the resignations of May’s communications director and press secretary in the space of a week. Then, on Friday, Chancellor Phillip Hammond ruffled feathers by signaling the Conservatives might walk back their pledge not to raise the income tax, VAT tax, and national insurance rates.
From whatever direction you look, Jeremy Corbyn has a very steep road to climb. But history has shown that, beneath the polite and deferential image it may project, the British electorate does possess an obstinate streak. In 1945, just two months after VE Day put an end to World War II in the European Theater, Winston Churchill stood for reelection at the height of his popularity. It was an election no one thought he could lose. Except for the public, which swept him out of office in a historic landslide. The Labour government that followed under Clement Atlee rebuilt the shattered nation, nationalized key industries, and founded the National Health Service and the National Assistance Act, establishing a universal safety net. There is something in human nature, it seems, that enjoys foiling a foregone conclusion.