These international elections are truly a godsend as they allow me to get my mind off of domestic developments from time to time. The UK election, taking place one week from today on June 8th, is particularly compelling and, as it has turned out, uplifting with the possibility of a positive outcome.
For unlike Bernie Sanders here in the States and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, the inspirational lefty has managed to reach the finals. This oversimplifies the process slightly, as in the UK voters vote for party rather than individual candidates, but for simplicity’s sake Jeremy Corbyn is indeed 1 of 2 people who will become Britain’s next Prime Minister.
Before diving into his chances and what it could all mean, I should preface the analysis with the full disclosure that I am very much a fan of Jeremy Corbyn – a “Corbynista” if you would, or more specifically as the British press might dub me. A quick gander at some of the pieces I have written over the past couple years would equally showcase that this is clear as day: I found Labour leadership’s failed coup in an attempt to dispose of Corbyn to be cynical and wholly unhelpful to the party. This is symptomatic of the fact that I was not as critical of Corbyn in the aftermath of Brexit as the British press or the Labour leadership. I won’t rehash the entire argument as the links are there if one desires to dive in further, but I ultimately held David Cameron and the Tories responsible for the Brexit debacle. It was not Corbyn’s job to rally voters to vote a certain way in a referendum he did not call, and furthermore Corbyn had always been candid about his milquetoast appreciation of the EU. Pointing the finger at Corbyn for not being spirited enough in supporting Remain was a quintessential example of grasping at straws: Corbyn campaigned according to his principles, and Labour supporters overwhelmingly backed Remain anyway. Thus, blaming Corbyn was seized as the means for Labour leadership to topple him and for the media to punch left in a manner that they enjoy all too gleefully.
Fast-forward about a year later: David Cameron is long gone, and Tory Theresa May has called for a special election – a concept that is foreign to Americans, for the highest office of the land anyway, but one that parties and Prime Ministers of said parties will choose in a tactful manner. And now to address some key aspects of the election.
Was it hubris that prompted Theresa May to call a special election?
This seems to be a prevailing narrative – certainly amongst Corbyn supporters as well. And of course, Theresa May’s freefall in the polls has only reinforced the notion that May got arrogant and called a special election and now it may come back to bite her. I find this sort of assessment to be a bit heavy-handed in terms of hindsight bias and, as such, unduly less than charitable to Theresa May.
May didn’t call a special election because she was motivated by hubris. She called a special election because she was 25-points ahead in the polls. It’s the kind of lead that no one is supposed to come close to making up over a span of 6 weeks. In all likelihood, this is what consultants told her, and they had to have speculated that the polling advantage would never again be so emphatic. Therefore, like any other political strategist would do if they had the opportunity to call an election at the moment they deem to give them the greatest chance at victory, May made this very calculation and made the rational decision to declare the election. I don’t consider this to be a slight against Jeremy Corbyn like some, particularly on the left, have interpreted her decision to be.
Obviously, over the past 5 weeks, she has been exposed as a pretty awful candidate. She has consistently refused to debate Corbyn on the issues, speaks in platitudes to the point where journalists are turning on her for showing an unwillingness to address the fact that her tax and social care manifestos don’t add up to any analysts, and is skirting around public appearances at a time when one would imagine a candidate would be most eager to get their message out. One can argue Corbyn is uniquely qualified to beat Theresa May, and this will be discussed in some detail below, but integral to the developments is that she is proving to be her own worst enemy. And regardless of when she called for an election or who she was facing as opposition in the Labour Party, she was always going to be exposed as the crumby candidate she is proving to be.
So what explains this thing becoming so close?
As before, when Theresa May declared the election, polls had her at about a 20-25% lead over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour. This lead has evaporated to, dependent upon which poll you use, 3-12% and trending in Corbyn’s favor. Undeniably, the race has gotten a whole lot closer than it was ever supposed to be. But why?
Clearly, Theresa May is not good at this whole running a campaign thing. But her ineptitude is only one factor in turning this election into perhaps a very close one.
On the flip-side, Jeremy Corbyn is running a very strong campaign. Centered around the message of “For the many, not the few,” such a simple yet poignant message to galvanize support, he’s been relentless in getting his message out, in imploring May to debate him on the issues (which she refuses to do), and ultimately exhibiting a genuine nature that once again makes it all too easy to draw the obvious parallel to Bernie Sanders. They’re difficult figures to criticize because their message is authentic, and for decades during their careers it did not win them many friends in Washington, DC or Westminster. In turn, there is no possible ulterior motive at play when they speak other than to better the lives of their constituents. Their popularity is derived from this shared conviction. When they rail against income inequality or the conservative vision of how to deny the working class an adequate social safety net, it isn’t political posturing: it’s what they’ve been saying all along.
So Corbyn has looked good. And obviously his willingness to proclaim his vision from the rooftops contrasted with May’s reluctance to offer anything substantive on her end plays right into his hands. A transparent vision is inherently more appealing than one garbed in secrecy.
So he’s just a better candidate?
Yes, but there’s also more to it. As I’ve mentioned in the past, the media has been rather unfair to Jeremy Corbyn for years. The Guardian in particular, considered to be the left-leaning publication of note in the UK, incessantly ran articles bashing Jeremy Corbyn during his initial grassroots-driven ascent to Labour leadership, continued to bash him during the failed Labour coup after Brexit (making excuses for other party members in the process), and has continued to patronize him in the build-up to this special election. It reflects well upon Labour’s grassroots that constant Guardian propaganda wasn’t able to sway them from rallying around Corbyn over the past couple years.
This has been compounded by high-profile public figures like J.K. Rowling and Tony Blair arguing that a Labour-led Corbyn would bring the party to its knees for reasons that still don’t make a ton of sense. In fact, polls show Labour would be faring worse with anyone not named Jeremy Corbyn as leader. If they were to fearmonger in good faith, they would probably need to concede that the reason they oppose Corbyn is because he isn’t one of their own, a neoliberal, Tory-lite figure, and therefore they’ll do whatever it takes to keep a legitimate social democrat from getting into #10. Including backing the Tories .
So the media hasn’t been unbiased to an exponential extent, the party hasn’t been helpful to Corbyn in the slightest, and high-level public figures in terms of Labour politics have publicly tried to undermine him in every way possible. This damaged Corbyn, as it would anyone, but fortunately for him most people don’t pay close attention to politics until just before election time. So despite the cynical tactics of the media, the woman who wrote children’s books, or the guy who was Bush’s lapdog in Iraq, their interjections aren’t on the forefront of everyone’s minds.
Instead, most people are now reacquainting themselves with Jeremy Corbyn or getting to know him for the first time. And they like what they’re hearing. Contrasted with May it would be difficult not to enjoy what they’re hearing from Corbyn, but it is his own message of positivity that is a significant contributing factor as well.
The media also has to display some semblance of impartiality prior to an election, and this headline at The Independent sums it up quite nicely: Labour’s poll bounce coincides with general election broadcast rules kicking in. The public are finally seeing that Corbyn is not the person he has been portrayed as . Imagine that: people actually like Corbyn and his message when the media isn’t hammering him 24/7 .
In the end, against all odds, we may well have a close election on our hands. Theresa May remains the odds-on favorite, but her struggles coupled with Corbyn’s surge and the media’s inability to keep Corbyn down as much as they were able in the past have all contributed to the race tightening up.
There is also a clear generational divide existent in the UK, and similar trends have been observed during the Scottish Independence Referendum, Brexit, and in the United States. Younger voters are much more liberal and pro-EU than their older conservative counterparts, something that’s to be expected but maybe not to such a vast extent. For all intents and purposes, there are two Britains, the young and the old, very much divided as to what Britain’s course ought to be.
In the greater context of global electoral politics, Corbyn’s surge allows for some optimism. As did Sanders’ and Mélenchon’s. As troubling as the rise of the reactionary right has been, that the populist left can counter in the face of media obstruction is a good sign. When people hear the messages of the aforementioned surrogates, particularly younger people, they are receptive to them because they make sense. At a certain point, they need to translate into electoral victories, but the trendlines are there. All that’s needed is a breakthrough to give the left the opportunity to implement their vision for the collective good.
Going into next week, Corbyn’s still an underdog. If he wins, it’d be a stunning upset, and he would immediately be catapulted to mouthpiece of the global left on the world stage. Why not dare to dream? He’s got another week to make strides and so does May to capitulate some more. Regardless of what happens, it’s fantastic he’s making it this close, and that he’s been able to do it in the face of such steadfast opposition is a testament to his message.