Britain: The Triumph and the Muddle

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Jeremy Corbyn leaves the Labour Party Headquarters in London.

There are two main takeaways from the astounding British election. First, there is a hunger for a progressive leader and program that takes seriously just how badly the current economy is destroying ordinary people. Against all odds, Jeremy Corbyn proved to be a plausible version of that leader, just as Bernie Sanders did in the U.S.

But second, the battle over British exit from the European Union has severely muddled the broader politics of left and right. The policy confusion will only be compounded by the muddle of a hung Parliament, in which neither major party has a governing majority.

Much of the disaffected British working class vented their economic frustrations in the 2016 referendum on Brexit. Only a small part of this vote reflected a nuanced critique of the EU as an agent of market economics and job displacement. Most of the protest vote was pure nationalism—get those Bulgarians out of our towns and stop the Brussels bureaucracy from telling us how to live.

This was the theme of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and its Trump-like leader Nigel Farage—who had a brief moment in the sun, with UKIP becoming Britain’s largest party in the 2014 elections for the European Parliament, and then collapsing this year. However, the agent of that collapse was British Prime Minister Theresa May, who essentially appropriated UKIP’s Brexit program.

Unfortunately for the ruling Tories, May totally bungled the election campaign. Calling a snap election, as a way to strengthen her hand in the upcoming negotiations with the European leadership on the terms of Brexit, blew up in her face.

May came across as conniving and opportunist, while Corbyn, long dismissed by the both the quality press and the Europhobic tabloid press as hard left, came across as principled, decent, and genuinely caring about the ordinary forgotten Brit.

Corbyn’s achievement is nothing short of extraordinary. Labour won over 40 percent of the popular vote, compared to just 30.6 in the 2015 general election. This represents the biggest swing to Labour since Clement Attlee’s epic win of 1945 against Winston Churchill. As recently as April, polls showed Labour support well down in the 20s, and May headed for a landslide win.

May could also claim an impressive gain in the popular vote—from 36 percent Tory in 2015 to 42 percent Tory this year—but the gain did not translate into seats, and her loss of a working majority of 17 MPs in a totally gratuitous election is seen as an epic blunder. Even if she hangs on for now, May is widely expected to be ousted as party leader.

Corbyn rallied young people, who had long been disaffected from electoral politics. Overall turnout, at 68.6 percent, was down slightly from the Brexit election of 2016, but up massively among 18-to-24-year-olds, from 43 percent to an estimated 65 percent to 73 percent. This clearly made the difference for Labour.

If Corbyn can accomplish a durable generational shift rallying the young for Labour as progressives, his achievement will be transformational. Unlike Sanders, Corbyn is now fully the face and voice—and conscience—of his party.

Labour also stemmed its recent losses in the northern part of England, where the betting was that support for Brexit would increase the Tory vote in traditional working-class Labour seats. The election also severely weakened the Scottish National Party (SNP), mainly because the SNP has been the dominant party for a decade and no economic miracles have happened.

The move for Scottish independence is now pretty well dead. The SNP, which looks to have lost 21 of its 56 seats in the House of Commons, is now even more likely to support a minority Labour government should that be a live option.

But what happens now? The parliamentary muddle is the worst since that of the 1920s, with neither party having a majority. This is paradoxical, since the two big parties won a larger share of the popular vote—almost 90 percent—than at any time since the 1960s. Britain is back to a two-party system everywhere but in the House of Commons, where small parties took just enough seats to create deadlock.

Minority governments are rare, and rarely stable. In the 2010 election, neither big party had a majority of MPs, but the Conservatives were able to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, and that government lasted the normal term of five years.

This time, however, the numbers don’t allow for a coalition. The Tories and their logical partner, the tiny Ulster unionists, don’t add up to a working majority. Nor does Labour plus the Scottish nationalists.

For now, May is refusing to step down. The Conservatives, as the largest party, will try to form a government, with the tacit support of the ten Ulster (Northern Ireland) Unionist MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, who will presumably vote for the government but not be in it. One complication is that Northern Ireland voted strongly to stay in the EU. May claims she has a deal, but it remains to be seen whether it will stick.

If the Conservatives fail, Labour gets to try. This choreography will play out over the coming weeks.

During this time, the formal Brexit negotiations begin, so the timing of May’s epic blunder could not be worse. Instead of a strengthened British government able to bargain hard for decent terms, Britain will be represented in Brussels by the weakest of caretaker governments.

Corbyn is also in a very tricky position relative to Brexit, the one topic on which he thoroughly waffled during the campaign. Like others on the left wing of the Labour Party, Corbyn has never liked the EU. He nominally opposed Brexit in 2016, but did not work hard to defeat it. Middle-class Labour supporters generally oppose Brexit, but many working-class voters who Corbyn needed to win back passionately backed it.

In the 2017 campaign, Corbyn supported exiting the EU, but insisted that he’d be more effective on negotiating decent terms than May would. The fact is that decent terms will not be on offer. Brussels holds all the cards.

At some point, a British prime minister will have to decide whether to exit on terrible terms that will be devastating for Britain, or just scrap Brexit and stay in. If that prime minister is Corbyn, the Scottish nationalists (who don’t want Britain to quite the EU) will press hard for Corbyn to keep Britain in, as the price of backing his government.

Only two things can be predicted with any confidence. First, the Brexit negotiations, whether under the Conservatives or Labour, will be a protracted mess.

Second, it is virtually certain that another election will have to be called, long before this Parliament is set to expire in five years. One reading is that the voters are quite sick of elections, having had the elections for the European Parliament in 2014, the general election of 2015, the Brexit referendum of 2016, and now the snap general election of 2017.

Another reading is that the Labour Party now has real momentum, and could win a decisive victory. Yet another view is that the Tories, once rid of May, could recoup under another leader as a sensible, centrist, and pragmatic party.

This could be one of those turning points, in which the beleaguered forgotten Britons finally get a champion—or history fails to turn, the governing class carries on as usual, and popular frustration continues to boil over in anti-political ways.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece reported that the Conservatives won 49 percent of the popular vote. They actualy won 49 percent of the seats and 42 percent of the popular vote. The text has been updated.

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