British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said, “A week is a long time in politics.” Never has that statement seemed truer than right now in the UK. Barely more than a week ago most commentators, journalists, pollsters, politicians and public thought we were headed for an increased Tory majority, the disintegration of the Labour Party and the end of their leader Jeremy Corbyn (HERE and HERE). Today the Conservative Government has lost its majority, Labour MP’s are uniting around a triumphant Jeremy Corbyn and the only reason Mrs May is still in place as Prime Minister is because nobody in their right minds would want to be leader of a minority Government dependent on the support of the ultra conservative Democratic Unionist Party.
Theresa May had warned that in a hung Parliament we could be in danger of being governed by a ‘coalition of chaos’, and one with connections to terrorist groups; she just didn’t mention that it was going to be led by her.
The UK introduced fixed term Parliaments of five years in 2010. Elections can only be held before the completion of term if two-thirds of the members of the House of Commons agree. With the Tories 20% ahead in the polls, Mrs May 60% ahead of Corbyn in approval ratings, the PM and her cabinet decided to call a snap election which would give them a landslide majority, with a solid mandate to dictate their policy of a hard Brexit from Europe and wipe out the Labour Party at the same time. When Jeremy Corbyn instructed the Labour Party to vote for it, we thought, here is the turkey voting for Christmas.
Mrs May and her advisers thought all they had to do was stay out of any shit storm public debates and present her as a “strong and stable” leader while attacking an incompetent Leader of the Opposition. It was a miscalculation of epic proportions, not least in that May was completely unsuited to being cast as the Churchillian figure they tried to make her out as; the “strong and stable” mantra soon had to be dropped for fear of ridicule, as she conducted policy u-turns. Mrs May seemed more weak and wobbly.
With the public sector pay freeze brought in, in 2010, limiting pay rises to 1%, and with inflation running at more than double that, large numbers of people have seen a very real decline in their living standards. Meanwhile top private-sector executives have seen a 50% increase in salaries in the same period. At a public meeting a nurse told Mrs May she hadn’t had a pay rise since 2009, her reply, “There isn’t a magic money tree.” didn’t go down well with the public.
Since the banking crisis, public sector and low paid workers have seen their standard of living steadily undermined: pay freezes, welfare cuts, bedroom tax, reductions in funding for the ’Sure Start’ programme for young children. The Tory manifesto seemed to offer just more of the same, but now taking away free school meals for school children, means testing pensioners’ universal benefits, and revising the amount of money people would be expected to contribute towards their own care in the case of long term care, the so called ‘Dementia Tax’.
In Britain the National Health Service is almost universally admired and loved. Through a slight of hand the Conservatives since 2010 have continued to increase funding directly to the NHS, but slashed funding to local authorities who were responsible for social care. So that, especially older people, who say, had had an operation, once ready for discharge, might not find a care-home or home support to help them convalesce and so have to remain in the hospital. What became known as ‘bed-blocking’ is one of the NHS’s major issues and has thrown many hospitals into crisis. The Tory manifesto sought to deal with this problem by making people with assets responsible for their own care costs, forcing them to effectively mortgage their homes to pay for their home care. The elderly home owners, the bedrock of Tory support went ape, and Mrs May stumbled through an interview insisting nothing had changed in her policy, clearly changed in direction by 180 degrees.
All the way through this debacle the cartel of the right-wing national press in the UK, kept insisting that Mrs May was the only leader capable of running the country and getting a good deal from the negotiations with the EU for Brexit. At the same time Corbyn’s long history as a peace and anti war campaigner, someone who insisted it was better to talk than to fight, was portrayed as consorting or even colluding with terrorists. The Daily Mail, The Sun, The Express, The Times and The Telegraph, amounting to about 75% of the national press sales took this line. It’s worth noting that none of the proprietors of these publications, that also strongly advised people to vote Brexit from the EU, actually lives or pays tax in the UK.
While the UK press can be as partisan as it’s proprietors like, there are very strict rules around broadcast media reporting on elections and referendum. They must follow strict rules on impartiality and accuracy. In these arenas and on social media Jeremy Corbyn started to make an impact; even UKIP leader Nigel Farage praised his commitment, passion and that he was standing up for something.
When the Labour manifesto was leaked to the Tory press who gleefully attacked it as irresponsible fancy with no basis in reality, a lot of Labour supporters held their head in their hands and cried. But then, slowly, as people read the manifesto in detail and the careful costing for the programmes was released, they began to see that actually it was a manifesto that dealt with the real issues facing ordinary people and that it offered hope.
Labour would raise taxes but only for people earning over £80,000 per year, about 5%, and they would raise Corporation taxes, which the Tories were cutting to 16% back to 2010 levels of 28%. They would increase spending on education and on the NHS. They would re-nationalize the rail transport system and other privatized utilities: Thatcher had promised better services and cheaper prices from privatized industries and it hadn’t happened. All people saw were the huge salaries and bonuses that executives were getting for running essential services which bled the customers. And Labour would borrow money at historically low rates of interest to invest in housing and other capital infrastructure projects. It slowly dawned on people that here was an unapologetic, socialist manifesto that ordinary people were supporting and getting behind.
Arguably, one of the most successful proposals was the abolition of college fees. It would be expensive, it would be paid for by taxes on corporations and the rich, but it was massively popular amongst young voters and their families. One Tory MP admitted that all of her children and their friends were voting for Labour. Alongside the positive policies Corbyn has a young leftist support group called Momentum. Established only two years ago, it boasts 25,000 members all of whom it seems are adroit and experienced with social media. While the perceived wisdom is that older citizens read newspapers and get out and vote while the younger ones don’t read newspapers and stay in bed, Corbyn and his Momentum supporters seem to have turned that on its’ head. Latest estimates are that a million new 18-24 year old voters registered to vote in the run up to the election and an estimated 72% of the group actually voted. There main concerns: education, housing, jobs and a fair world; all issues Corbyn was addressing.
So. A massive step forward for the Labour left and Jeremy Corbyn. A humiliating defeat for Theresa May and the Conservative Party. But, Labour did not win and Theresa May will lead the next Government. There is little doubt that at the right time the Tories will replace May; they are famously unsentimental about their leaders. It’s unlikely that their minority Government will see out a five year term. Already there are signs that a softer Brexit will result and perhaps even a cross-party committee to negotiate, but will this election have fundamentally changed anything? As Chairman Mao answered when asked about the impact of the French Revolution, he replied, “It’s far too early to say.”
Editor’s note for transparency: Neil Burgess was my agent for about 20 years.