In Thursday’s British election, the Labour Party increased its vote by 3 million votes and by 10% of the vote (from 30 to 40% overall). No political party in Britain has seen its vote rise this sharply in any other election since 1945. To say that the result confounds expectations is to understate the shock that people here are feeling here. When Prime Minister Theresa May announced the election, just seven weeks ago, she was ahead by 26% in the polls. By election day, that lead had been reduced to just two percent.
Attention focuses on Jeremy Corbyn, who has led his party since 2015. There is no one else in British politics remotely like Corbyn. Modest, unambitious and principled, he is a long-term Labour backbench MP who has made his reputation through decades of taking up campaigns which previous leaders of his party ignored. Observing elections in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2006, speaking in New York on behalf of Guatanamo detainee Shaker Aamer, attending countless events for a free Palestine.
During the long hegemony that the Blairites had over the Labour Party, Corbyn was seen as an inconvenience and an irritant. The old, right-wing Labour Party was notorious for the extent to which it disciplined its members, requiring them to possess pagers (this was before mobile phones were commonplace) so that their contacts with the media could be centrally controlled. Fifteen years ago, I recall Corbyn telling a meeting of local activists. “I don’t understand what the fuss is about. No-one tells me what to say.” Previous Labour leaders didn’t because the leadership had given up on Corbyn as uncorruptable and uninterested in the normal promises of ministerial promotion.
Journalists here seem to have some difficulty explaining why Labour has done so well, but the answer is simple. It wasn’t the unpopularity of Theresa May, nor even the stupidity of the Tory manifesto, although the proposals in the latter included a so-called “dementia tax” requiring middle class families to give up the value in their homes to pay for the social care of the elderly – a duff move for a political right which usually treats homeownership as sacrosanct.
If it had just been these factors then the vote could easily have gone to the Liberal Democrats who most pollsters expected to surge and didn’t. It was because Labour was so left-wing. Its manifesto offered voters, especially young and non-voters, the policies they wanted. Free higher education, increased taxes on the rich. The manifesto broke through the neoliberal idea that all any of us can do is wait and suffer.
But there was a second side to this. In the big cities with large Remain majorities, people projected onto Corbyn a position that is actually there in his manifesto – one of active opposition to Brexit, especially hard Brexit. So Labour did very much better than expected in Newcastle (a large city which had voted against Brexit), and only a little better than feared in Sunderland (the neighboring city, pro-exit in last year’s referendum).
Throughout the last year, politics internationally has been shaped by the knock-on effects of the Brexit vote, with its message of economic nationalism giving impetus to the campaigns of Donald Trump in America and then Marine Le Pen in France.
It seemed as if the energy was all with the racist right.
But the closer Brexit comes to reality, the more that centrist voters have rebelled against the idea that last year’s 52-48 majority for exit justifies a complete break from Europe and its model of social liberalism.
Brexit is *not* the principal reason for Corbyn’s success. He has done well because of a manifesto which promised redistribution and renationalization, and because of a turnout by young voters engaged by Corbyn’s record and his relaxed, personal style.
But it has helped to neutralize the attacks against him. Brexit’s irrationality, its unpopularity with young voters, and its premise that what the country needs is to restrict the migration of foreigners: these have helped Corbyn – in contrast to the autocratic-seeming Theresa May – to look like the leader whose time has come.