LONDON – British journalists, pollsters and political strategists are struggling to interpret Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning rise in the pre-election polls. Corbyn, at 68, and a proud leader of Britain’s left, had been dismissed by British elites as a hopeless case.
Corbyn had become Labour Party leader only because of a change in the Party rules that inadvertently gave the decision to grassroots radicals―who can pay a few pounds, join the Party and cast votes to select a leader with the consent of only a minority of Labour MPs.
The Parliamentary Labour Party used to select the Leader. Today it’s filled with centrist followers of former Prime Minister Tony Blair, most of whom opposed Corbyn.
In April, when Prime Minister Theresa May called a June snap election in hopes of increasing her Conservative majority in the House of Commons, now just 17 seats, polls showed Labour 24 points behind the Tories, and poised to lose dozens of seats.
Now, with the June 8 election just days away, Corbyn has surged to within a few points of May. To a visiting American journalist, the election feels like a cross between Sanders versus Clinton and Clinton versus Trump.
Like Sanders, Corbyn is demonstrating that there is a broad hunger for progressive populism, awaiting only the right leader. Ordinary Brits have gotten screwed by the elite globalization embraced by both the Tories and the Labour Party under its last two governments led by Blair and Gordon Brown (1997-2010).
With the June 8 election just days away, Corbyn has surged to within a few points of May.
Corbyn’s program, For the Many, Not the Few, ridiculed by the usual suspects as hopelessly leftwing, 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.
Like Hillary Clinton, Prime Minister Theresa May has proved to be a spectacularly inept politician. The more people see her, the less they like her.
The Tories feinted to the center, pledging to shore up the National Health Service. But in order to plug a budget gap, they proposed to tax estates of over 100,000 pounds—about $130,000—to recoup money paid out by the health system for long term care.
This was promptly dubbed “the dementia tax.” May reversed course, and then looked even stupider when she denied changing her stance.
May also ducked a candidates’ debate, sending in her place the government’s Home Secretary, Amber Rudd. May’s strategy has been to try to be above it all. This is also backfiring.
Meanwhile, Corbyn, not an especially charismatic politician, has become more and more confident, relaxed, comfortable in his own skin, and likable. Voters increasingly experience Corbyn as a man of principle and May an opportunist. 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 Clinton versus 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.
Even two grizzly terrorist attacks, one last week in Manchester and the other Saturday night on London Bridge, have not produced the usual rallying around the government.
The election will come down to turnout. Polls indicate that Corbyn has the support of overwhelming numbers of young people. Traditionally, however, the young turn out at a much lower rate than the old.
This time might be different. Under the British system, you have until two weeks before the election to register to vote. The Corbyn surge began in mid-May. There are enough voters registered to elect him. The question is how many will show up at the polls.
The election could well produce what the British call a hung Parliament, in which neither Labour nor the Tories have an absolute majority. This would give the balance of power to the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), who are expected to win about 50 seats in the 630 member House of Commons. The odds are that the SNP would back a minority Labour government rather than May and the Tories.
And this raises the issue of Britain’s exit from the European Union, one of the most bizarre cases ever of a governing class shooting itself in the foot.
When the Brexit madness does pass, the harder work of rebuilding a decent Britain that works “for the many, not the few,” only begins.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron decided to bet Britain’s future on two reckless rolls of the dice. He gave Scotland the right to have a referendum on whether to stay in the U.K. (the Scots narrowly voted to stay in 2014). And he hoped to silence critics of the E.U. both in his own Tory party and in the more rightwing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) by offering a referendum on whether Britain should quit the E.U.
But oops, Cameron guessed wrong on that. In the so-called Brexit vote of June 2016, a narrow majority of 52 to 48 cast their ballots to leave the E.U. Cameron’s own ignominious exit as British prime minister followed in short order.
And then, to compound the weirdness, Theresa May, who succeeded Cameron as prime minister, had been opponent of Brexit, but she decided that her ticket to political success was to “make Brexit work.” And she concluded that the way to marginalize the rightwing nationalists of UKIP was to be just as hard line as they on the subject.
This was a tactical success—UKIP has gone into eclipse as the Tories have become the party of Brexit—but a strategic disaster. For there is simply no way to make Brexit work.
Consider just a few items:
Britain wants to have its cake and eat too, keeping tariff-free access for trade with the nations of the E.U, but having the freedom to limit free movement of people, and also opting out of many E.U. laws and regulations. But there is no way the E.U leadership will allow that.
Some 14,000 trucks travel between Dover and Calais every day. Imagine if they were subject to border inspections?
The defunct British auto industry was rescued by Japanese and Korean carmakers after the Thatcher government extended generous tax breaks. Britain became their export platform to continental Europe. If there is no more free trade between Britain and the continent, other nations will be happy to take these factories.
Fully half of all British exports go to E.U. countries. But only ten percent of E.U. exports go to Britain. Guess which side has more leverage in the negotiations?
Since Thatcher, Britain’s most important industry has been international finance. With the threat of Britain losing access to barrier-free export of financial services, the big American and British banks are already making contingency plans to move operations to Dublin, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and so on.
The state of play is that negotiations on the details will continue through 2019 or 2020. At some point, the reality will sink in that Brexit can’t be done, except at immense pain to Britain’s economy.
Denis MacShane, former Europe minister in the Blair government, wrote a prophetic book in 2015 on how Britain’s governing class was setting itself for a catastrophe in the 2016 Brexit vote.
MacShane has a new book due out in July, explaining just why getting out of the E.U. is like unscrambling an egg. “There are 750 separate treaties that would have to be negotiated,” he told me. British citizens would lose benefits they’ve come to take for granted, such as the right to retire in pleasant places on the continent, and free health care while they are traveling in Europe. The more all of this sinks in, the less popular Brexit will be,
And this brings us back to Corbyn and May. Corbyn was never a strong supporter of the E.U., which he viewed as a source of imported neo-liberalism. Nominally, Labour supports making Brexit work. But if he is the next prime minister, Corbyn is not likely to lead Britain out of the EU on the terms that will be offered.
And if his government requires the support of the Scottish Nationalist Party, Brexit becomes even less likely, since the Scots are passionate about not wanting to quit the E.U. A Britain that left the E.U. could well pave the way for a Britain without Scotland.
Even if May is re-elected, pressure will keep increasing from the Conservatives’ usual constituency of Britain’s ruling elites not to commit the folly of Brexit. The best outcome would be for the sheer opportunism of two successive Conservative prime ministers to discredit their party for a long time—but not at the price of a catastrophically bad decision to quit Europe.
Of course, when the Brexit madness does pass, the harder work of rebuilding a decent Britain that works “for the many, not the few,” only begins.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School. His latest book is Debtors’ Prison: The Politics of Austerity Versus Possibility.
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