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Why the British election result matters beyond Britain

World

OP-ED

Why the British election result matters beyond Britain

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (Photo: Leon Neal / Getty Images)

Why should anyone outside of the UK care about the British election outcome, in which Boris Johnson’s Conservative party trounced the opposition?

First of all, what happens in Britain – in politics, as in culture – still has disproportional influence globally because of the disproportionate “soft” power of the English language.

Second, relatedly, the UK is still one of the world’s biggest economies, a G10 country and a permanent member of the United Nations’ Security Council.

Third, it’s a member of the European Union (EU), humanity’s greatest experiment in multilateral collaboration, but it is, of course, in the (protracted) process of leaving the 27-country economic and political club following a plebiscite referendum in 2016.

That Brexit decision has thrown British politics, and some of its democratic institutions, into paroxysms of disarray and disharmony. The divisions between “remain” and “leave” have cut across many if not all of the traditional dimensions of the political demography – certainly class, the urban-rural and North-South divides; and, more than anything, the inter-generational dimension.

It rendered the general election on 12 December the most uncertain as well as the most important for at least a generation.

Especially for progressive people – and this is the fourth reason why the British election mattered – for whom the Labour Party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was either a long-awaited socialist Messiah or an “extremist” walking disaster who was bound to fail, depending on where precisely the individual sits on the left-of-centre ideological spectrum, it was a seminal moment.

The results were a crushing blow to Labour – even worse than the 1983, 1992 and 2015 defeats. Labour lost 42 seats from the last election in 2017. Many of those seats were in traditional working-class areas in the North of England and the Midlands that Labour has simply never lost before or which the Tories have not held for almost a century.

This is truly shocking. In these constituencies, many people voted Conservative for the first time in their lives, even though it would appear to defy reason to think that a Tory leader – especially one as mendacious, entitled, elitist and unprincipled as Johnson – could be trusted.

As one of my UCT LLM students asked me recently, “why would a working-class person in the UK think for even a second that the Conservative party could be relied upon to serve his or her interests?”

It is a compelling question. And the corollary question is the one that the progressive left, in Britain and elsewhere around the world where ultra-populist and often extreme right-wing parties are surging upwards, must confront: Why is it that once again working-class voters have turned away from a left-leaning political party to vote for a right-wing one?

Displaying precisely the intellectual arrogance and ill-judgement that were the central features of his time as leader, Corbyn is in complete denial. On 15 December 2019, he wrote an article arguing that Labour had “won the argument”, referencing the fact that 10-million voters had voted Labour, but failing to mention that this is 2.5-million fewer than two years ago.

And, far more importantly, winning the argument – even if that is remotely true, and I don’t believe it is – is pointless if you fail to win the seats, unless your attitude to politics and power is focused not on the “bourgeois” notion of victory, but on the purity of your ideological stance.

Herein lies the core problem of Corbyn and his Corbynistas. In essence, they are a toxic combination of ideological self-indulgence and Trotskyite entryism. They care less about winning power for the Labour party than winning power in the Labour party.

I have personal experience of this. When I was active in the south-east London Labour party in the 1980s and early 1990s (before coming to South Africa in 1994), those of us who would identify as being “traditional” Labour party members and, in so far as an ideological brand could be attached, as social democrats or democratic socialists, fought a tough fight to rid the party of “hard” left operators who wanted to use the Labour party as the vehicle for their own political fetishism.

I thought we had won. So, Corbyn’s victory in the leadership contest after the 2015 election – in which the outcome defied the opinion polls that had predicted that a Labour party led by Ed Milliband would likely be the main player in a coalition government – was shocking, not least because it soon became clear that he remained stuck in a 1970s’ student union worldview.

Because of this, and because he is simply not cut out for modern political leadership, Corbyn failed to persuade voters or offer a clear alternative. In turn, the bewildering complexity of his programme for “real change” was shredded by the populist simplicity of Johnson’s simple “Get Brexit Done” slogan.

Many on the left will seek to dismiss my perspective as a “Blairite” one – much the same, by the way, as some will seek to discredit the legacy of “Mbekite” politics. But after almost 10 years of Zuma and Tory-led rule by austerity in Britain, I am not remotely ashamed to say that I miss both leaders, even though their records in power are rightly condemned for their inexcusable failures on Iraq and HIV-AIDS, respectively.

While Tony Blair was able to articulate a vision for Britain that was credible and persuasive, his Chancellor of the Exchequer (minister of finance), Gordon Brown, asserted “social democracy by stealth” – rebuilding public services and infrastructure; promoting a fairer, more decent society; nurturing the economy during tumultuous geopolitical times (9/11 and then the 2008 financial crisis).

No-one who knows Britain at all can surely or reasonably claim that the years of Blair/Brown government between 1997-2010 were not better and more just and decent than what preceded or followed it.

It may not have been the stuff of “revolution” that fuels the fantasies of the Corbynistas. But, ironically, it was far more in touch with a far larger and more diverse cross-section of the British people. Blair and Brown understood their country better. They understood that it is a (small c) conservative society, no more so than in working-class communities – where Queen and country matters as much as the desire for decent, fairly paid work.

The next leader of the Labour party needs to understand this in a way that Corbyn and his London acolytes failed to.

She or he needs to be able to connect with British “working class” voters, but also bridge the divides that have been excruciatingly opened up by Brexit. I put “working class” in parenthesis because the economic and social character of the “working class” is not what it was, re-shaped by the Thatcher-driven structural shift away from manufacturing industry towards other sectors, different skills and trade, and self-employment.

It will take leadership with the dexterity of a Blair and the staunch resolution of a Brown – both giants in their own way – not the vacillation of Corbyn who, unforgivably, was unable to offer a clear view of his own on the most important issue for a generation or more, Brexit. Voters clearly realised that Corbyn was more inclined towards leave than remain, but was too weak to say so or to try and lead the debate in either direction.

Understanding the progressive benefits that accrue from EU membership, especially as a shield against Tory anti-poor rule – again I speak from experience of representing welfare beneficiaries during the cruel final years of Conservative rule under John Major in the late 1980s – proved to be beyond Corbyn.

I will spare you the detail of the numbers, but as a result of this fundamental failure of leadership, he succeeded in upsetting both remainers who voted Labour in 2017 and working-class leave voters in the North and Midlands.

Labour lost voters because of Corbyn’s leadership, the confusion over its Brexit position, and the lack of clarity and strategic focus of its manifesto programme, which although it contained significant and laudable ideas and commitments, came across as a hastily assembled potpourri of public investment, some of it in areas of the economy that did not align with the electoral strategic imperative.

Bizarrely, in addition, Corbyn’s leadership group managed to convey weakness to the electorate while exerting an unbending autocratic style internally. Those within the movement who failed to drink the Kool-aid supplied by Momentum, the hard left grouping that has been the driving force of the entryist manoeuvre, were told to “f**k off to the Tories”.

And so, apparently, many did just that.

There are some societies around the world in which revolutionary leftist politics may, and have in the past, gained traction and succeeded. Britain is not one such place. This is not about sacrificing principle or policy, or abandoning the search for structural change to economic wealth and power, but about recognising the socio-political and historical constraints and nuances, and adjusting strategy and tactics accordingly.

And it is about having the right leader to articulate the vision and engage the electorate.

Labour says it is going to think deep and hard about this existential crisis before it elects Corbyn’s successor. It will need to. It must emerge with a clear answer and a powerful response, otherwise Johnson and the Conservative party will be in power for the next 10 if not 20 years, doing untold damage to the economy, global multilateral relations, and the basic rights and dignity of the most vulnerable members of British society.

It’s ideological and strategic compass must reach right into the centre ground, lest Johnson’s version of “One Nation Conservatism”, however cosmetic and ill-founded, seize control of the moderate middle. Thus, it will need to encompass and harness liberal values and a commitment to multilateralism and the international rule of law, on the one hand, with a deepening programmatic commitment to public investment and sustainable economics that meets the climate emergency head-on, on the other, all with the singular purpose of closing the divide between the few and the many.

As for many left-leaning political formations the world over, it will need to grasp the nettle of immigration and engage with “working class” communities’ anxieties and, yes, prejudices. This is where it will really need to “win the argument”, otherwise it will remain an albatross around the neck for the foreseeable future.

Labour’s strategic dilemma after its painful moment of defeat is basically then the same as that which confronts the global left.

Whether Labour can think clearly as well as deeply after such a traumatic loss and when the structures of the party have been taken over by the Corbynistas to the extent that it may not matter which leader is elected, since the factionalism that has eclipsed any real sense of strategic purpose in the last two years may now be too deeply rooted, remains to be seen.

Regardless, other centre-left parties, in continental Europe – such as the struggling SPD in Germany – as well as in North and Latin America, will probably keep a careful watching brief, including our very own ANC. They should all do so. There are plenty of lessons to be learnt.

This is why the British election matters far beyond the shores of its island. DM

Richard Calland is an associate professor in public law at the University of Cape Town.

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