Something strange appears to be happening on the way to British Prime Minister Theresa May’s anticipated victory after her clever strategy of calling a snap election.
The ploy could backfire on her―just the way her predecessor, David Cameron, got caught when he thought he could shut up the ultra-nationalists by calling a referendum on British membership in the European Union. The result was Brexit, and Cameron’s own hasty exit.
Until a few weeks ago, the general assumption in Britain was that the Labour Party was doomed to a sweeping defeat in the June 8 general election. In April, the Tories had an overwhelming lead in the polls.
May, who had succeeded the hapless Cameron, was an opponent of Brexit who now vowed to make Brexit work. She was seeking a strong mandate, so that she could negotiate the best possible terms.
May also moved to the center on domestic issues, promising more generous spending on public services, so as to pre-empt Labor’s domestic appeal. As politics, all this sounded positively brilliant.
Labour, meanwhile, was stuck with a leftwing leader in Jeremy Corbyn, who was far behind May in the polls. Labour looked to lose dozens of seats and be consigned to political oblivion.
Well, that was then.
While Corbyn is an old-fashioned class warrior, class in Britain has not gone away.
In recent weeks, Corbyn gained dramatically on May. Even the horrible bombing in Manchester, the kind of gruesome event that normally causes voters to rally behind the government, did not slow Labour’s momentum.
According to the Guardian, more than a third of voters (37%) say their opinion of the prime minister is more negative than at the start of the campaign, against 25% who say it is more positive.
The opposite is true for Corbyn, with 39% saying they have a more positive view of Corbyn compared with 14% who now have a more negative view.
Corbyn also leads by 13 points among voters under 50, and is tied with May among women.
If the election were held today, the governing Tory party would lose seats. Labour is in striking distance of winning a majority, and the momentum appears to be with Labour. So, what on earth happened?
First, May’s ploys struck a lot of voters as too clever by half. She seems like an opportunist, first opposing Brexit, then supporting it; first promising not to call a snap election, then changing her mind. Just another scheming politician.
But something more fundamental could at work. When Corbyn made public Labour’s platform, known in the U.K. as its manifesto, (“For the Many, Not the Few,”) the initial commentary from the usual suspects was that the program was hopelessly leftwing – raising taxes on the affluent, increasing public investment, re-nationalizing the national rail grid, capping rents — that sort of outmoded stuff.
Well, it turns out that a lot of ordinary Brits have been hungry for this kind of program. They certainly didn’t get it from the last two Labour governments, under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, who joined the globalist, neoliberal parade.
A lot of the protest vote for Brexit came from disaffected Labour voters, who concluded that their party had joined the ruling elite. But Corbyn may bring them back to Labour.
While Corbyn is an old-fashioned class warrior, class in Britain has not gone away; and a lot of the British left-behinds are evidently looking for just that sort of champion. Corbyn is similar to Bernie Sanders, and not just ideologically. A lot of people who may not agree with all of his program have a grudging respect for his honesty.
Corbyn drew barbs from Conservatives when he said that British support for ill-considered Mid-East wars had increased the risk of terrorist attack. But it turned out that most Britons agreed with Corbyn.
And Corbyn may have drawn the perfect opponent in Theresa May, who looks more conniving and opportunist by the day.
The point is that a great deal of the mass disaffection from politics and conventional politicians can go right, or it can go left. Sanders or Trump; Le Pen or Melanchon; Brexit or Corbyn.
The difference between Corbyn and Sanders is that Corbyn is in a head-to-head race against an establishment candidate in a general election. He may not win, but these are complicated cross currents—and he was counted out far too soon.
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.
Like Robert Kuttner on Facebook.
Follow Robert Kuttner on Twitter.