Corbyn in 2015. Jason/Flickr. Some rights reserved.In the run-up to the British general election on 8 June, three columns in this series explored the possibility that the end-result might not be a landslide victory for Theresa May and the Conservative Party.
The first pointed to “a niggling sense that something may be developing under the surface that could break through even in the short time left” (see "The Corbyn crowd, and its signal", 18 May 2017). It seemed implausible, given that most opinion polls were showing a Conservative lead well into double figures. But a few days later the lead was beginning to narrow.
The second column noted that “Labour supporters began to sense a previously heretical notion that the Conservatives might not even gain an overall majority…” (see "Corbyn, and an election surprise", 26 May 2017).
The third column further explored this possibility, though I have to admit that my own sense on election day was that the surge in Labour support had probably come too late. What the column did try to do, though, was link the election with the urgent need to review the handling of the war on terror in light of the Manchester and London Bridge attacks (see "Britain and ISIS: a need to rethink", 7 June 2017).
It argued as follows:
“The implications for Britain are that at some stage there has to be a fundamental rethinking of its defence posture and how it responds to al-Qaida, ISIS and the like. Even if Theresa May’s Conservative Party is re-elected that process will eventually become impossible to avoid."
“But if Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party was to achieve the near-impossible and form a minority government in the coming weeks, its chances would be greatly boosted. Just one reason for anticipating a Labour success is that the much needed rethinking might happen sooner rather than later.”
The election results showed Labour making strong advances in votes and seat gains, enough to deprive the Conservatives of their previous majority and thus forcing them to seek support to remain in government. The diminished prime minister Theresa May is now trying desperately to shore up her government by making a deal with Northern Ireland's right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). If this link is treated with suspicion by many even in her party, it is met with deep disdain across the rest of the political spectrum.
When it came to canvassing, leaflets, hustings and all the rest, many tens of thousands of people turned out to help.
Labour’s success was down to many factors, but two of them, both linked to Jeremy Corbyn, stand out. The first was his own campaigning with its sustained message of hope, the second was the way in which his approach had already motivated huge numbers of people, by no means all of them young (see "The Corbyn crowd, and its signal", 2 September 2016). When it came to the detail of the election – canvassing, leaflets, hustings and all the rest – many tens of thousands of people turned out to help, resulting in a level of activity that almost certainly exceeded even the high point of Labour’s 1997 campaign.
A wider agenda
So, what comes next? The utter dismay now evident in the Conservative Party, and the anger of the exceedingly rich benefactors who put so much money into the campaigning, mean there may be a short period of reflection. Equally, determined attempts will soon be made to close the resulting political space and take back control of the political agenda.
How will this unfold? If Theresa May’s attempt to maintain power fails and if she, or her successor, stands down in favour of a Labour minority government, then another election is likely. On present form Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party could certainly win this – indeed it is the only major party that even wants another election!
Whether the party wins such an election or is part of a minority government, it will face strenuous and well-funded opposition. But in those circumstances, Britain’s natural Conservative establishment might not find it easy to press its claims. For even before reaching that point, it is clear that many of Labour’s domestic policies are popular. This is shown by recent government u-turns on pensions and education, and even more remarkably in its message that austerity is no longer the cornerstone of its economic approach.
The implication is that other areas of perceived Labour weakness will be assessed and exploited, the most significant of these being security. Even this will not be easy, since Corbyn’s response to the Manchester and London Bridge attacks was seen to be both heartfelt and pointed. In particular, there really is a sense that the ISIS attacks do relate to persistent failures in the United Kingdom's foreign and defence policy.
The desire for international standing runs right across the body politic.
Nonetheless, it is a policy area that Conservatives will seek to exploit, not least because they can readily tap into any lingering sense that Britain is still a great power which can best be demonstrated through military capabilities under a government of the traditional type. That sense may be more pronounced among older people, but the desire for international standing runs right across the body politic. The British may not be as deluded as Trump’s “make American great again” approach, but any party that can present a credible and worthwhile policy that also enhances international standing may continue to do well.
In this context, Labour should develop much wider policies that respond to the many international-security challenges the country faces. This needs to go beyond just arguing that the war on terror has failed – for that, in any case, is being more and more accepted. Many more issues could be on the agenda, all of them areas where a middle-ranking state such as the UK can actually have an impact. They include transforming United Nations peacekeeping; developing the UN emergency peace service; fair trade; controlling global tax avoidance; countering tax havens; addressing the immensely profligate arms market; and investing heavily in green-energy transformation across the global south.
This is about much more than winning an election – it is about promoting the idea that Labour is an internationalist party at a time when international leadership is sorely lacking.
This case may run against conventional political wisdom which believes that elections are won or lost on domestic issues, particularly the economy. But this is about much more than winning an election – it is about promoting the idea that Labour is an internationalist party at a time when international leadership is sorely lacking. That approach should be at the heart of Labour's purpose. The party's election manifesto and Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at Chatham House on foreign policy together represent a very good start on this path. Developing them further, and making the entire approach high profile, are likely to bring major and surprising benefits.
Labour’s internationalist agenda would in this way become as significant as its recent successful presentation of domestic policies, gaining the respect of voters of all ages. The heart of the matter is that it is the right thing to do. If the approach also makes it more difficult for Labour's opponents to label the party as unpatriotic then that is no more than a useful bonus.