Rt Hon Jeremy Corbyn, Leader of the Labour Party, UK. Chatham House / Flickr. Some rights reserved.
The UK was thrown into collective shock last night when early exit polls announced that The Conservatives, while still the biggest single party, had fallen short of a parliamentary majority. The so-called Corbyn surge, which pundits have tried to spin as a fiction invented to sell papers, revealed itself as more than a collection of .gifs and twitter hashtags, emerging as a real political force. It was a moment of profound embarrassment for media types and the first taste of victory for a generation who had seen year after year of Conservative victory.
As the final results trickle in – amidst widespread calls for Theresa May’s resignation – it is now confirmed that neither major party will have an easy time forming a government. The Tories are ahead with 318 seats, Labour have an extraordinary 261 seats (many final polls anticipated around 200) and the Lib Dems trail on 12. These elections were supposed to provide ‘stability’ for the nation, and it is a line that Theresa May is sticking to without irony this morning. The reality is that this disaster is her own fault. She called an election in order to strengthen her hand, failed to campaign, and then lost her majority. Parliament is ‘hung’ and she will never recover from this blow.
As many had hoped but few expected it was youth mobilisation that swung it towards Labour. Turnout among under 25s was over 70%, higher than the EU referendum and a mammoth 30% more than the 2015 election. Millennials, it was proved, have more guile than they’ve been given credit for and have now asserted themselves as a constituency that cannot be simply walked over. Nick Clegg, who epitomized this condescending attitude to the young with his famous u-turn on tuition fees, capitulation with the Conservatives on benefit cuts and flimsy Remain campaign, lost his seat. Meanwhile, Labour consolidated in its heartlands, expanding majorities, and took over 30 new seats including Canterbury, which has been a Tory constituency for 100 years.
As many had hoped but few expected it was youth mobilisation that swung it towards Labour.
With ten days to go until the Brexit negotiations formally begin, negotiations with the EU were certainly one of the most important issues in play, though it is easy to overstate the importance of this issue for the electorate. The impending discussions were rather a ghostly, distant force underpinning some wild transformations in the electoral landscape. As I pointed out shortly before the vote, Labour, in stark contrast to the Conservatives, had the advantage of being able to appeal to both sides of the referendum divide. Remainers in the end seem to have backed Corbyn unequivocally despite the party’s poor campaign last June and rather inconsistent stance on EU immigration. At the same time, just as notably, they picked up thousands of votes from UKIP who had been dissatisfied with May. Nigel Farage, most should be pleased to hear, is now terrified that Brexit is going to be diluted into a softer form, but in reality it will be a real challenge for Corbyn’s Labour to continue to unite these two very different forces.
It wasn’t all about Europe however. Far from it. The Labour campaign, as has been noted by many commentators, was grounded in a real social vision that understood and proposed convincing solutions to the continuing legacy of the financial crash, the cruelty of state policies on the weakest that are specific to the UK. John Harris’s documentaries for the Guardian go to the real heart of this bleak reality and the vision for change. Look, for example, at the outdoor Corbyn rally in Gateshead on 5 June (11:16), which was ram-packed despite torrential January-like rain. Here you’ll see the drenched faces of young, old, white, black and a roughly 50/50 gender balance. When such a demographic and in such large numbers supports a manifesto like that put forth by Corbyn, the centre ground has well and truly shifted.
No other country has anything quite like the British tabloids, and perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of this result is the public’s relative defiance of their toxic influence. They simply do not know what to do this morning. Knives are out, of course, for Theresa May and puns abound: ‘Theresa Dismay’, reads The Sun, ‘Mayhem’ reads the Daily Star; the analysis though is notably confined to the woman herself and not the electoral energy that has been mobilised. Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, reportedly stormed out of the Times election party when he saw the polls. His papers will now, of course, go for the jugular. But all of this serves to highlight a larger point: Labour has made ground against a party which not only had a far bigger campaign budget but some of the most powerful vested interests onside.
All these points are connected. And this is what dazzled liberals on both the left and right must try to understand this morning. The young, on social media, but also in the streets and real life meetings, are bypassing the old forms of power and patronage and beginning to set a new political agenda. It was they who led this fight, and they did so not out of radical chic pretentions but with discipline in order to contribute to building a more empathic society. There are many questions that need to be asked: what would a ‘soft Brexit’ actually mean? How can democratic momentum be sustained when the parties return to their usual internal power games? Perhaps most taxing is the question of media dynamics: as tabloid power wanes, how much authority does this give Zuckerberg and Facebook?
It was, however, a great and unexpected result made all the more meaningful by the circumstances that led to it. Labour, having mobilized a new constituency in UK politics, now have a mandate for change. It’s up to Corbyn and his team to prove they really are different and to continue to channel the voices of the indignant, whether in opposition or in government.
This article was originally published at politicalcritique.org