Vidya Ram

Understanding Labour’s resurgence in UK

VIDYA RAM | Updated on January 12, 2018

Flexible yet clear: Jeremy Corbyn’s economic positions went down well

The election is a vote for welfarism and a less stringent approach to immigration. It also validates Corbyn’s party leadership

On Wednesday night this week, the Union Chapel, a church in the central London borough of Islington that doubles as a popular and trendy music venue, played host to a different kind of stardom, as Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn held his last rally before Thursday’s general election.

“Oh Jeremy Corbyn” and “Jez We Can” were among the loud, musical chants of the audience gathered there, while more stood outside unable to get in.

Such gatherings across the country have been the trademark of Corbyn since his epic campaign to become leader of the Labour party in 2015, but were scoffed at in the early days by his opponents within and outside his party, convinced that his supporters were hardly representative of the wider British public.

Reversal of situations

That assumption was thrown out with the bathwater on Thursday night, along with hopes of a comfortable Conservative victory, as the election resulted in a hung Parliament, with the Conservatives losing seats and failing to win an overall parliamentary majority.

The rubber stamp on the Conservative track record that Prime Minister Theresa May had sought was nowhere in sight. By contrast the vote for Labour was up by over three million.

Much uncertainty remains, but there are a number of takeways for Britain and beyond so far. Firstly, the much-touted march of the right, touted by its proponents in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the victory of Donald Trump last year, is far from inevitable. What is happening in Britain points to something far more complex at work in the West: widespread dissatisfaction with the status quo that doesn’t necessarily give into campaigns of fear and negativity pegged around immigration.

While the results and the preceding BBC exit poll came as a shock to many, the Conservatives could have looked back to the campaigns of the Brexit referendum to get a sense of where theirs may have floundered.

Post mortems of the Brexit campaigns had suggested that the Remain’s focus on scaring people about what a Britain outside Europe would suffer, rather than making a positive case for membership, was one of the factors that contributed to its failure; ironically, such an approach was certainly the case with the Conservative campaign this time round.

Negative Conservatives

Initial attempts to send a positive message focused on May’s track record, quickly gave way to a highly personalised assault on Corbyn and other members of his team, with the Conservatives deriding the “coalition of chaos” that could result from the Labour Party working with others such as the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. It attempted to pour scorn on the Labour party’s spending plans, and policies such as removing tuition fees for students, with the concept of a “Magic Money Tree.”

However, the Conservatives failed to make much headway with this as the party failed to provide detailed costings in its manifesto, and questions were raised about the financial viability of their programme, which counted heavily on cutting immigration, viewed by and large as a disaster by Britain’s business community. The negative campaigning was cleverly and humorously played on by Labour at times, which used social media to its advantage.

By contrast, the Labour campaign focused overwhelmingly on its aspirations to build a nation “For the Many Not the Few,” cleverly shifting the debate away from Brexit to the impact that years of austerity, including for the past seven years under the Conservatives, had had on voters — from the schools their children attended to the pressures facing the NHS. Austerity even figured high in the debate around terrorism, as Corbyn shifted the focus back on them and the cuts that had been made to police forces over the past years. Even John Redwood, a Conservative MP to the right of the party acknowledged the public appetite for greater spending on public services, in a television interview on Friday morning.

The results also question the common perception that politics and politicians don’t change over the course of the campaign, but merely reflect the sentiments that have ridden through it. Corbyn, a long term passionate and principled politician who had taken up a range of causes over the years proved able to juggle the different policies within his party. Some policies in the manifesto were ones that Corbyn had explicitly opposed in the past such as the renewal of Trident, Britain’s nuclear deterrent.

Such moves helped draw in Labour voters who had initially been sceptical of him, as well as win support from within influential party figures, such as Tony Blair’s ally Alastair Campbell.

Corbyn’s earnest, and passionate style contrasted with May’s whose attempt to position herself as a “bloody difficult woman” felt out of step with the mood of the country, concerned about the ways in which negotiations over Brexit would pan out. Genuine questions about local concerns on Brexit related job cuts were met with unemotional, highly general responses from the prime minister.

Campaign issues

The result will have a huge impact on the Labour party going forward, putting paid to the assumption of many within the party, since the days of Blair, that being on centre ground was the party’s only hope of success. The Corbyn manifesto is a radical one, with pledges to renationalise key infrastructure, raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and revisit Britain’s interventionist foreign policy. The campaign has returned the British electoral system to one dominated by the two mainstream parties, in a way it has not been for many years.

With Brexit negotiations set to commence in mid June, it will also raise fundamental questions about Britain’s Brexit strategy, though perhaps not in the way some had foreseen. The collapse of support for the right wing UK Independence Party had been expected to benefit just the Conservatives. But Labour gained from it too, suggesting that the disillusionment with UKIP did not necessary involve policies focused around cutting immigration. While Labour has pledged “fair rules and reasonable management of migration” its immigration strategy would be a big departure from the tough Conservative approach, making allowances (significantly for India) for family reunions and a more welcoming environment for students.

Labour has pledged to rip up the Conservative’s white paper and adopt a more conciliatory approach to the negotiations, which would include retaining the benefits of the single market and customs union. Uncertainty is likely to continue in the coming days, but one thing is clear: political victory doesn’t always equal winning an election and as Corbyn said on Friday, British “politics has changed and politics isn’t going back into the box it was in before.”

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Published on June 09, 2017
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