NOTE: The following article was filed before the May 22nd bombing in Manchester. The author and Progressive Army wish to express their condolences to the families of the victims and all those affected by the attack.
When Prime Minister Theresa May stepped out of Number 10 Downing Street on April 18 to announce that she was calling a snap election for early June, the script had already been written. May would win an overwhelming, perhaps record-breaking majority. The Labour Party’s humiliation would be so complete that it could be split asunder, ending its days as a major political party. The Conservatives would then use their power to gerrymander the nation’s electoral constituencies in their favor, which, together with their blob-like absorption of the anti-European Union UKIP Party, would guarantee their dominance for decades to come. Faced with overwhelming – practically unanimous – media opposition, Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn would hobble through the campaign en route to a ridicule-ridden oblivion. Writing in The New York Times, Dr. William Davies warned of May’s “vapid vision for a one-party state.”
But life has a way of deviating from the script.
In just one month, the U.K. election campaign has been upended in ways that few beyond Corbyn’s most fervent supporters predicted. Labour has surged, cutting a 23-point poll deficit to single digits while the Conservatives have lurched from error to error in a comical campaign that has laid bare their every weakness. What’s going on? Let’s look first at the candidates and then at the parties and their policies.
Before the campaign began, Jeremy Corbyn was considered to be, with little hyperbole, the least popular leader in the history of the British Empire (which has seen some doozies), worse than Attila the Hun, Donald Trump, and Godzilla combined. Not the kind of person you’d expect to attract people to his rallies, right? Except that that’s what started happening – and not just in Labour strongholds such as York, Birmingham, and Hull, but in Conservative-held areas such as Leamington Spa and Scarborough. On the trail, Corbyn has shown an openness to media questioning and a common touch that belies media portrayals of him as an urban elitist on one hand and a raving Red on the other. And the crowds keep growing. On Saturday, May 20th, for example, after a clamorous reception on the beach at West Kirby, he received a rock-star welcome from 20,000 fans at a musical festival in nearby Prenton Park.
Theresa May, in contrast, has run a campaign so cloistered that it could practically have been carried out by a stunt double, ruling out debates, answering minimum press questions with pre-prepared soundbites, and holding tightly controlled, invitation-only events filled only with party supporters. Indeed, her attempts to stage-manage events have spilled over into the Pythonesque regions of bizarre. On one campaign Saturday, she held an event in rural Scotland at a site so remote that there wasn’t even internet access, booking the event as a child’s birthday party in order to avoid locals finding out. At another, it emerged that May’s team was attempting to get reporters to give up their questions in advance. At a factory in Cornwall, members of the media were locked into a room to avoid their covering her visit. And in Bristol, she visited a social club at a housing estate – except that the residents of the estate were not invited. It has gotten to the point where even establishment-friendly Sky News has complained openly about being frozen out of access to the Prime Minister and her team. Not that anybody has had much in the way of access: with rare exceptions, May’s entire cabinet has gone into virtual seclusion since the campaign begin.
But above and beyond May’s North Korea-style approach to campaigning, the Conservatives’ major misstep came with the launch of their manifesto. As Britain is a parliamentary system, the government has a built-in majority to (theoretically) pass the legislation it pleases, thus making the manifesto a much more important document than the American party platforms. In my previous piece about the campaign, I wrote about the “unforced error-producing certainty of having the election in the bag.” The Conservative manifesto seems to have been born directly out of such a mindset, as it baldly goes after its most natural constituency – senior citizens – in what Corbyn quickly dubbed a “triple whammy of misery.”
The manifesto proposes to end the so-called “triple lock,” which guarantees pension benefits rise by a certain percentage every year, and to means-test the winter-fuel allowance, replacing the universal benefit with a complicated application system that would virtually ensure that it would reach far fewer people. But the biggest of the whammies is what has come to be known as the “dementia tax,” which would allow the state to charge an individual for long-term care by raiding his or her home equity. This had led to widespread fears that people could lose their homes – or, at the very least, have little to nothing to leave to their children – if they were to commit the sin of living too long. After widespread protests, May walked back the proposal four days later in a catastrophic press conference and follow-up interview. Or maybe she didn’t. Nothing was clear except her insistence that she was being very clear about it.
Free school lunches for infants also stand to go, while defense spending rises and the corporation tax is cut, and what positive proposals there are have not been “costed” – that is, there is no explanation of how they will be paid for. And, in a touch of nineteenth-century, Victorian flavor, the Conservatives are even promising a vote to restore fox hunting, banned since 2005. As a whole, the manifesto well evokes the nickname of the “nasty party,” hung on the Conservatives back in 2002 by one… Theresa May.
But where the Conservatives were bald, Labour went bold. Its manifesto returns the party to its social-democratic roots with a popular set of proposals anchored by a clear philosophy. Several of them would be familiar to Bernie Sanders supporters: an immediate end to student tuition fees, for example, a ban on fracking, and the expansion of banking services by establishing post-office banks. But Labour goes much further, promising to bring the trains, post office, water, and electricity back under public control, establish a national investment bank in each region to do what banks should be doing – loaning instead of speculating – strengthen collective bargaining and the National Health Service, eliminate homelessness, attain 60% renewable energy by 2030, build 100,000 affordable public-housing units a year, introduce free school lunches and an arts pupil premium to allow children to study music, fund lifelong learning for adults, extend maternity leave to one year, provide free childcare for two-to-four-year-olds, lower the voting age to 16, cap private-rental price rises, recognize the state of Palestine, and cease arms sales to human-rights abusers. All of this is to be paid for by raising taxes on the top 5% and corporations and by reversing inheritance and capital-gains tax cuts – unlike the Conservative manifesto, Labour’s is fully costed. A unifying, shot-in-the-arm manifesto, one that has also gained international attention, including in-depth segments in the U.S. from The Young Turks and comedian/analyst Jimmy Dore.
The Backlash and the Promise
If you think Corbyn has gotten bashed so far – a broadcasting bias that even former BBC chairman Michael Lyons has been forced to admit exists – you ain’t seen nothing yet. As Labour rises in the polls, get ready for glaring headlines about Corbyn the terrorist sympathizer, Corbyn the IRA ally, Corbyn the man who would let the Russians steal your child out of their crib, Corbyn the anti-patriot. The irony, of course, is that it is the Conservative government, by initiating and then embracing Brexit, which has rekindled the threat of Scottish independence and literally threatened the United Kingdom with cracking up.
And with all the talk of polls and their trustworthiness or lack thereof, it is important keeping in mind something else: as in America with its swing states, elections in the U.K. come down to a relatively small number of marginal constituencies that might actually swing between one party and another. As compared to the U.S., however, these constituencies are tiny, averaging a mere 74,769 voters in each one. Which means, in practice, that a minuscule number of voters could swing the result between a Conservative majority, a Labour majority, or a hung parliament, requiring either a minority government or some form of coalition. There is everything to play for.
Against all odds, Jeremy Corbyn has turned the Labour Party, beleaguered and divided against itself, into a contender in the 2017 election. He has done this by tearing up the script and going over the heads of the media to appeal directly to the public – and by producing a coherent set of policies that might just fashion a coalition among working-class voters, urban liberals, the young, and enough elderly voters turned off by Conservative nastiness to make the final stretch of this election very interesting, indeed. A Labour government elected on its 2017 manifesto could be a bellwether for progressives far beyond the United Kingdom, offering us a glimpse of a post-austerity society in action. It’s a panorama people everywhere are desperate to see.