Corbyn catches the spirit of Brexit, then terror strikes

Theresa May has lost her snap election, even if she wins it.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
5 June 2017
Cross of generations.jpg_large.jpeg

Sunday 4 June: this updates an article originally written on Friday 2nd. 

When it was called, it looked like the greatest foregone conclusion in election history. Prime Minister May’s standing among the public could hardly have been higher while Labour under Jeremy Corbyn appeared divided and archaic. The unassailable would crush the unelectable as the Conservatives were set to sweep to a majority of even 200.

Theresa May had called her ‘snap’ election deceitfully. Her true aim was to cover up the EU’s confounding of her plans for Brexit, as I explained immediately she made her announcement in Why is she Frit?  Despite this, even the Labour leadership thought the outcome was a foregone conclusion. Tory domination was confirmed in the local election results on 4th of May. It was not just that Labour did badly and the Tory polling lead was humongous. UKIP collapsed. Should most of its 4 million Brexit-lovers swing behind Theresa May, as seemed inevitable, a tremendous victory for May was assured, thanks to Britain’s winner-takes-all electoral system. Eventually, it would turn out badly for her, I predicted, but her immediate triumph seemed certain.

In one of the strangest of elections, it is Corbyn who has captured the anti-system, anti-elitist spirit of Brexit while the Prime Minister embodies the crepuscular condescension of the old regime. He appears to be the populist and she the hateful elitist. He is the energetic insurgent seeking change and she is the evasive, manipulative representative of the status quo. With the polls swinging wildly, who knows what the outcome will now be? UKIP supporters in crucial northern constituencies are not natural Tories and might break for Labour or simply abstain. If so, May’s hopes of a massive plurality could prove to be no more than dust.

Then, on the evening of Saturday 3 June, seven people were killed in London by deranged, so-called Islamists, defaming the name of their prophet, one of whom apparently regarded voting as a form of blasphemy. The morning after, the prime minister emerged from Downing Street to report to the country on what had happened the night before.

In an effort to pull back the advantage, May launched into a four-part programme on how the country should respond, saying. "Enough is enough" and  "We cannot and must not pretend that things can continue as they are. Things need to change...". In this way, she exploited the campaign's pause to define the days news coverage as it opened the final, potentially decisive week of the campaign. She did so in the most effective way there is, by appearing to be 'above politics'. As she demanded powers over the internet, said the country and especially 'the public sector' had been 'too tolerant' of extremism and this attitude must be 'stamped out' to secure 'one truly United Kingdom', she sounded comfortable with herself, for the first time since since the campaign began. 

She is, however, on the defensive. I am among those caught up in the embarrassment of upturned expectations. Just before the election was called I finished a book on the causes of Brexit and Trump that, among other things, looks at the remarkable similarities of last year’s campaigns – the referendum and the US presidential. Both the rebellions of Brexit and Trump, were marked by an apparent ‘authenticity’. They seemed to be the ‘real thing’ demanding change, while both the Remain campaign in the UK and the Clinton bid for the presidency were alike in being contrived and ‘artificial’.

But the UK’s Leave campaign was divided. After the vote Theresa May stormed through the detritus of potential Conservative candidates to grab the premiership. In doing so she seemed to personify a new majority. A Remainer, she spoke for the millions of Remainers who had secretly wished in their hearts to leave the EU. At the same time, May’s message to Brexiteers was that she would deliver the full Monty – the people have spoken, she was their chosen vehicle, her Brexit would mean ‘Brexit’. Assisted by the Daily Mail, May’s commuter-belt ‘anti-elitism’ was reinforced by a far-reaching ‘one-nation’ conservatism, an endorsement of Brexit’s social ‘revolution’ and a ruthless destruction of the Cameron-Blairite cohort that had led the UK for the previous six years - or was it nineteen?

If my book’s analysis of Brexit and Trump may help explain the current swing to Corbyn, it did not predict even limited success for him. On the contrary. When I looked at the huge contrast over globalisation between President Trump and May’s philosophy of Brexit, I mocked Daniel Hannan, the most eloquent advocate of her ‘Global Britain’. So confident was Hannan that the zeitgeist belonged to him and his fellow globalisers, he had dismissed the prospect of Trump becoming president out of hand. I wrote, May “has embraced a Conservative Party vision of Brexit, whose master theoretician, the Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, thought (how wrong can you be?) that Trump was the Jeremy Corbyn of US politics.”

How wrong can you be, indeed. With YouGov predicting a hung parliament and the momentum apparently in Corbyn’s favour, the delightful, if still most unlikely possibility arises that Jeremy Corbyn could become the President Trump of British politics! If so, both Hannan and I will be upturned (although he will not be celebrating).

The giant cross in the graph at the top of this article explains why such an upset is conceiveable. It plots the staggering generation gap that now commands British politics. Nearly 70% of those between 18 and 24 support Labour while over 65% of those over 65 prefer the Tories. “Age rivals social class as a determinant of political behaviour in Britain”, Nick Pearce and Gavin Kelly argued in April 2016, to be vindicated three months later in the referendum where the old won the day. The pensioners turned out while the young stayed in their lodgings rather than vote Remain, thanks to David Cameron and Peter Mandelson’s lacklustre campaign to remain members of the EU. It was only afterwards that the Kingdom’s youth woke up to the consequences of losing a continental freedom they took for granted.

This time they have been urged from the get-go to register and vote. Not so much by traditional politicians as by the masters of grime (see Dan Hancox in the New York Times) and websites like RizeUP UK and grime4corbyn. On the final day for registration, a quarter of a million under 25s got their names onto the electoral roll. Perhaps they were encouraged by Labour’s sudden pledge to write-off student loans for those currently in college (surely the largest direct election bribe since Thatcher said she would sell voters their council homes below market value). Polls now suggest high commitment among the young to turn out and vote on the day. We will see. But there is an enthusiasm for Corbyn amongst his supporters, old and young, which is not matched in the public appearances of Theresa May. Her voters may prove to be determined, clearly the core of her older support is, nonetheless, as the referendum showed, passion and excitement attracts extra numbers to the polling stations.

A striking analysis of social media responses across the web, by Jimmy Leach writing in the Times, shows the positive impact Corbyn is making and the disasterous growth of negative responses aroused by Theresa May.

The election, then, will be decided by the turnout of the old. Their patriotism and longing for the past was stirred by the promise of Brexit. In the final week of this campaign the Prime Minister has reached in their direction to rally them to her cause. The generation gap was on full display in the final set-piece, TV appearance of the two leaders. May refused a debate in which she could be challenged by Corbyn and voters could compare them in direct combat. Instead, first May then Corbyn took questions from a blunt-speaking audience. Towards the end men who were past their prime challenged the Labour leader on his support for the IRA and unwillingness to press the nuclear button. Younger members who grew up after the Cold War and knowing only peace in Ireland were unmoved by obsessions with archaic forms of security.

But the Prime Minister’s older supporters are reportedly aghast at the so-called ‘dementia tax’ proposed in the Tory party’s over-confident manifesto. It is a reasonable policy. If someone needs social care for a long-debilitating illness then the costs should be borne out of the value of their property after they die. For, as the Conservative manifesto puts it rather primly, “many older people have built considerable property assets due to rising property prices”. They propose to ring-fence £100,000 of inheritance should a person’s estate be worth this (four times the current level). However, a sacred taboo was broken by this responsible suggestion. A Tory prime minister was suggesting a tax on wealth. The shock has still to subside, even though May ordered a rapid U-turn to cap the amount as the protests rose. The consequence of her forced change of mind, however, was even more damaging image-wise. It led to an instantaneous loss of her tough-girl persona as the strong leader capable of taking on the EU and her opponents derided her as ‘weak and wobbly’ not ‘strong and stable’. Since then she has been unable to recuperate. She has fled from debates and looked uncomfortable with voters outside her privileged constituency.

They say that elections are never really changed by the short campaign and are decided by the prior settlement of opinion. Were that so, May cannot lose. But if you play ‘snap’ maybe the rules do not apply. More important, it is clear and now widely recognised that the prime minister has been tremendously damaged by her exposure in the campaign. She called it to be about Brexit. But she has nothing new to say about Brexit. As Labour says it accepts Brexit must take place, the issue has no traction and has been removed from under her. The clash she genuinly wanted was over who is in charge - which she thought she would win easily. What Britian needs is a serious debate about what kind of Brexit it wants, how it will work, what strategy the government intends. On this, where leadership could have been proven and Labour too put to the test, there is nothing. In effect, the breakdown that is Brexit continues - and is part of a larger breakdown.

To understand this we need to to take a step back and look at the manifestos of the two main parties. They share a common rupture from the dominant neoliberal approach of the last 35 years, with its anti-state philosophy of market competition. In the night of media silence the old form of economic government is slipping below the waters, as the British public distances itself from an epoch of military failure and financial crash. This extraordinary and far-reaching development has not been discussed on the BBC or in most of the media as they cannot use the term ‘neoliberalism’. By depriving themselves of any word to describe the UK’s still dominant political-economy they are unable to ask how its approach is being repudiated by both the main parties. The only exception being a long and intelligent overview in the Economist by Adrian Wooldridge.

Of the two documents, the Tory manifesto is more philosophically explicit about its break from the past, better written and presents a sweeping redefinition of its party’s approach:

We will run public services in accordance with their values as important local and national institutions. We will not only guarantee but enhance workers’ rights and protections. And we will develop our ambitious modern industrial strategy to get the economy working for everyone, across the whole of our nation.

we will need a state that is strong and strategic, nimble and responsive to the needs of people. While it is never true that government has all the answers, government can and should be a force for good – and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people.

We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality…. We know that our responsibility to one another is greater than the rights we hold as individuals.

May’s Manifesto is not lacking in the modern either. It confronts the ‘gig economy’ and supports the development of ‘electric cars’, neither mentioned by Labour, and states, “we pledge to be the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.”

Labour’s Manifesto has no such general overview of its political philosophy. It gets straight down to business saying the rich are getting richer and instead we need to help the poor. Its commitment to a strategy of industrial investment parallels the Tory document while it is far more interventionist and egalitarian, calling for nationalisation of basic services.

In one way Labour’s manifesto is the more old-fashioned, seemingly setting out a return to the 1970s without even the zip of Tony Benn at his most radical. Its section on democracy makes no dangerous commitments that might directly threaten parliamentary socialism. But its pledge to explore options for a possibly full-scale constitutional convention that can consider 'the option of a more federalised country', along with the ambiguities and contradictions of its approach to Brexit, means, if I can use a form of double-negative, that a transformation of the way the UK is governed has not been ruled out.

The opposite is the case with the Conservative prospectus. While the energy released by Labour's approach is inventive, for all its 1970s Bennism, the spirit of Theresa May's approach is (as Wooldridge reports) a passion for the 1950s. The document demonstrates her sense that democratic reform endangers ‘Our Precious Union’. So May promises to reverse what her manifesto calls previous governments’ attitude of ‘devolve and forget’ towards Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It says we must be ‘strong and united’ to take a ‘leading position in the world’. It builds on a theme already clear from May’s speeches as Prime Minister – a conscious aim to forge a single nation, ‘We are a United Kingdom, one nation made of four’. To this end, the electoral system will be reinforced not reformed with personal identification being introduced at polling stations to prove your right to vote.  All this will prepare the way for the ‘repatriation’ of power from the EU.

The authoritarian nature of the Tory manifesto runs against the grain of popular protest. It defines ‘take back control’ as concentrating power in ‘our’ prime minister for whom strength means not revealing her hand - not sharing it with self-governing citizens. The fetishization of 'strength' chimes with the attitudes of many an older voter, Labour as much Tory. And not just older ones.  The image of her responding to saturday night's London terrorist attack and calling for action will reinforce this. The press will assail Corbyn for his alleged colusion with 'terrorists' in the past, and will do so without respite or granting any mercy to truth or fairness (for a vivid picture of their slant see Roy Greenslade). The problem for May is perhaps less the Manifesto’s approach than the fact that it was composed in the spirit of the centralisation it advocates.

In effect, its drafting was a ‘coup’ within the Conservatives. Today, what passes for democratic debate in the oldest political party on earth is a private exchange of views between Theresa May’s joint chiefs of staff. If you are lucky there are anonymous reports that they have had a disagreement. The Cabinet were hardly brought into the discussion of the manifesto, its language and commitments. Its policy initiatives and wording were not shared or argued through. That is not May’s ‘style’. It is not just that ‘the public’ does not like being taken for granted. The journalists and commentariat who are eager to shred Corbyn and his politics still retain a modicum of professional self-respect and cannot abide being taken for granted.

A devastating profile in the Financial Times by George Parker and Roula Khalaf quotes a ‘former Tory minister, fighting for re-election’. He said: ‘People don’t like the cult of personality and the apparent Stalinist control. The public can now see it and they don’t like it.’ It is not often that a senior Tory accuses the party leader of Stalinism.

The FT report continues,

Senior figures in the Labour campaign privately agree voters are not about to gamble on Mr Corbyn in Number 10. Most Tory MPs also believe their prime minister will hold on, but some fear that this most unpredictable election campaign could leave her weaker rather than stronger if she is returned to Number 10 to negotiate Brexit. “We will have had a bad campaign and win: Corbyn will have had a good campaign and will lose,” says one minister. Then the minister adds: “If she carries on like this, she will destroy herself. That’s the truth.”

May is carrying on “like this”, in a defensive, patronising fashion, because she is hiding something: the dishonesty of her stated approach to Brexit. She is now running the final days of the campaign by proposing herself as the strong leader able to take on an “aggressive” European Union. To this end she declares, as often as she can, that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. Corbyn is not alone in saying that the UK is not at war with the EU and that there will have to be an agreement. No government can possibly risk a ‘no deal’ as Martin Wolf has set out in his description of the idea as ‘absurd’. The price in terms of disruption is one the financial and exporting sectors cannot permit and will not allow. Will Hutton reinforces the point, conjuring the spectre of the 14,000 lorries that cross the channel a day, tailgating at Calais and the supermarkets running out of food. Theresa May knows this, of course. She is just strutting. Her claim that she will countenance ‘no deal’ is just bluster.

Such posturing can work. However, the election has exposed the prime minister’s deeper strand of contempt for democracy and openness. After she first laid out her stall I argued that the Daily Mail has taken power and that May’s politics were the expression of that paper’s editor, Paul Dacre, whose views, hammered out across thirty years, every Tory knew by heart. Dacre is notoriously averse to giving interviews or permitting himself to be held accountable. Although a far-more original and intelligent figure than May, he is a controller. She reproduces his dictatorial culture. To this can be added the ethos of the Home Office that she headed for six years and its blinkered, judgemental culture as described by Will Davies. Her statement yesterday after the Borough Market attack perfectly captures the combination of the Mail and the Home Office. It has given us a premier whom many in the public find increasingly repellent. Except, perhaps, when it comes to terrorism

The latest Ashcroft poll suggest a Tory majority of 60 and most doorstep reports confirm hostility to Corbyn. In other circumstances this would be a comfortable plurality for the Tories. Today, for May, it would be a rebuff. She needs at least 80 if not 100. When May called the election, she asserted that the country was united behind her plan for Brexit but Westminster was not. She felt obliged, therefore, to bring parliament into line with the people. At this rate, however, she will have divided ‘the country’ even if she wins. Theresa is holy no more. She has lost her shine, and no longer personifies ‘the nation’. The main aim of her election gambit has failed.

A complete upset and a Corbyn victory of any kind, such as a hung parliament will be a tremendous blow against her ‘hard and dirty Brexit’ - and could open the way for a more creative relationship with the European Union. As Theresa May's election strengthens opposition to her within the Tory Party and across the country, and breathes a new form of life into the Labour Party, her control over the meaning of Brexit has been badly damaged. What Brexit means is no longer just up to her. A process I thought would start only five to ten years hence might begin within a week.


Anthony Barnett, The Lure of Greatness, England’s Brexit and America’s Trump, can be pre-ordered from Unbound and will be in the shops at the end of August.

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