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24 October 2017 03:55 (South Africa)
Opinionista RICHARD CALLAND

UK election: The revenge of the ‘young remainers’

  • RICHARD CALLAND
    richard-calland-new.jpg
    RICHARD CALLAND

    RICHARD CALLAND is one of South Africa's most incisive and independent political analysts. He is an Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town. A regular commentator in the press and on TV and radio and his column, 'Contretemps', in the Mail & Guardian is highly regarded for its original take on politics, based on an extensive range of contacts built up carefully over the years, from which he has drawn in his books ‘Anatomy of South Africa’ (2006) and ‘The Zuma Years’ (2013). His latest book is, Make or Break: How the next 3 years will shape South Africa’s next 30 Years. 

Considerably more time will have to pass before we can say whether this was the election that by way of a self-inflicted wound has shaken the right's hold on power or one that launched a real revival of the left..

As a former Labour activist, looking at last night’s dramatic election night in Britain through a “tribal” Labour lens, it was a thoroughly splendid night because any bad election result for the Tories is a cause for celebration.

And what a terrible result it was for the Conservative Party: one of the biggest own goals in political history. Inside two years, they have screwed things up royally. Prime Minister Theresa May did not have to go to the polls. She had a workable majority.

But not for the first time, a Conservative Party leader made a big political decision based on their own internal party needs in relation to its position on Europe. 

The last one of those was her predecessor David Cameron’s decision to offer his own little Englander backbenchers a referendum on membership of the European Union as a way of buttressing his own power inside the party. That led, of course, to Brexit last year – the most significant political event of the era, and one with enormous geo-political implications.

Cameron resigned immediately. A year earlier, in 2015, the old Etonian patrician Tory had won a surprising majority. Even though it was a slim majority, given the predicted hung parliament prior to the election, Cameron was like the cat that had the cream.

Greedily, after less than a year in Ten Downing Street May decided she wanted a bigger majority and a clearer mandate for the demanding Brexit negotiations that are due to commence with the EU in under two weeks time.

What she really wanted was the political space to handle the sharp divisions of opinion in her own party over whether there should be a "hard" or "soft" Brexit. With polls showing high levels of popularity and the prospect of a landslide victory she could not resist the temptation to call a snap election.

The British electorate saw through this, resented being taken for granted, and have spat May – who ran a dismal campaign – out.

But what were the other factors and what does it tell us about Labour and it’s retro leftist leader, Jeremy Corbyn?

Already it is clear that last night was the revenge of the “young remainers”. In the Brexit poll, younger voters failed to turn out in sufficient numbers, especially in cosmopolitan (but on the day of the referendum, rainy) London, despite being overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU.

Yesterday, they came out in force, encouraged by Corbyn’s manifesto promises for free tertiary education (take note, South African political parties). Turnout overall was at least 5% higher than in 2015.

Meanwhile, having won nearly 13% of the vote in 2015 (but only one seat) around the country, support for the ghastly, racist nationalist party – the UK Independent Party (UKIP) – collapsed. Around three million mostly working class voters on Thursday scuttled back to either Labour or the Tories, producing some strange regional variations, especially between the north and south of England.

Clearly, UKIP’s 2015 supporters felt that with Brexit secured, there was no further need or use for Nigel Farage’s nasty little party (though Farage himself has fled the scene after the Brexit vote last year).

And, in Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP), also suffered a bad night – but for different reasons: it is strongly pro-Europe, but clearly Scots have tired of their repeated calls for Scottish independence, a matter that was supposedly settled by the 2014 referendum in Scotland.

Overall, the smaller parties were squeezed. Britain has returned to the binary politics of Labour versus Conservative that dominated the second half of the last century.

While the Tories’ fell from 331 seats, and a majority of five, to under 320, Labour gained around 30 seats. Britain has a hung parliament, with no party with a majority. The Tories, whether May resigns or not, will have to reply on the support of the homophobic nationalists on the other side of the Irish Sea – the Democratic Unionist Party, who have 10 seats in the new parliament.

Instability and uncertainty will follow, and the Brexit negotiations, already mightily complex, will be further complicated and probably elongated by the outcome. It may even, in the longer run, throw Brexit into doubt. It is less likely to happen now as a result of the election.

What does it mean for Corbyn and the left? He had been written off as a hippie no-hoper trapped by a 1970s’ world view and outdated thinking about class and power and the role of the state in the economy, as well global politics. But he ran a campaign that revealed him also to be a decent and sincere man of principle, with serious and important things to say about social services and social justice.

In the event, Labour’s manifesto was neither “the longest suicide note in history” – the phrase used to describe what Labour offered the electorate in 1983 when it was last led by a real socialist (Michael Foot) – nor anything more radical than tax (the rich) and spend (on social services) social democracy.

But, Corbyn’s slogan of “for the many, not the few” appears to have chimed with millions of voters who feel left behind by an out of touch establishment and by the inequities of modern economic globalisation.

To that extent Corbyn represents a further example of a global trend of anti-establishment politicians exploiting seething resentment among large parts of the electorate, though what is significant as well as pleasing is that in Corbyn’s case he has attacked the status quo from a progressive rather than nationalist populist angle.

And, although it was a very encouraging night after a commendable campaign, the fact is that Labour still fell well short of winning power. It must now figure out how to sustain the momentum it has built up and how it can exploit the shocked and wobbly condition of the Tories, especially by holding their feet to the fire over the Brexit negotiations.

Was last night’s dramatic British election outcome merely the response of a grumpy and fickle electorate or evidence of a game-changing moment?

Considerably more time will have to pass before we can say whether this was the election that by way of a self-inflicted wound has shaken the right's hold on power or one that launched a real revival of the left. DM

  • RICHARD CALLAND
    richard-calland-new.jpg
    RICHARD CALLAND

    RICHARD CALLAND is one of South Africa's most incisive and independent political analysts. He is an Associate Professor in Public Law at the University of Cape Town. A regular commentator in the press and on TV and radio and his column, 'Contretemps', in the Mail & Guardian is highly regarded for its original take on politics, based on an extensive range of contacts built up carefully over the years, from which he has drawn in his books ‘Anatomy of South Africa’ (2006) and ‘The Zuma Years’ (2013). His latest book is, Make or Break: How the next 3 years will shape South Africa’s next 30 Years. 

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