Theresa May’s Catastrophe

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Foto: Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 / CC / Flickr

By John Pickard

The general election has been a huge moral defeat for the Tories and Theresa May personally. May called a snap election in the expectation that she would increase her small parliamentary majority of 12 by anything up to 100 seats. But the gamble has failed miserably.

The Guardian correspondent reported the comments he heard from political pundits on their way into the TV studios to cover the election. For these ‘experts’, the only question was how big the Tory majority was going to be: 50, 70 or 100 seats.

In the event, May conducted her campaign in a very personalised and ‘presidential’ style, repeating the mantra of her supposed “strong and stable” leadership over and over again ad nauseam and the campaign backfired spectacularly.

Within the Tory Party, the knives are now out for Theresa May. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, now the editor of the London Evening Standard, described the result as a “catastrophe”. Within hours of the polls closing, Sir Craig Oliver, director of Communications at Downing Street had made a similar analysis. “In Conservative Campaign Headquarters”, he said, “there will be deep and lasting shock. It was the biggest gamble a politician has taken for a long time and if that exit poll is right [and it was], it has failed.”

Whereas in April, most political commentators saw the result as a foregone conclusion, with the Tories up to 20 per cent ahead in the opinion polls, they failed to take into the account the huge groundswell of opposition that has built up against austerity and to the obscene plundering of the economy by the super-wealthy and the huge disparity in wealth and income in society. They also failed to take into account the miserable and faltering campaign of Theresa May herself.

Rather than getting out and “meeting the people”, Theresa May’s campaign was carefully stage-managed to keep her away from real people as much as possible. So-called Conservative ‘rallies’ consisted of May speaking from a dais to a couple of dozen Tory supporters, with camera angles and press photos carefully managed to appear that she was addressing a large gathering. In some of her meetings, press representatives were even excluded and given hand-outs afterwards. When she visited factories, it was invariably after workers had been sent home, so her soap-box could be surrounded once again by a Tory rent-a-crowd. The May “bunker” campaign became a parody of itself and it resonated with great hilarity around social media.

Stung by criticism, May was forced to endure a couple of TV programmes in which she met and had to answer questions from ordinary people and on these occasions, she was shown to be hesitant, unsure and completely unable to answer questions put to her. This is hardly surprising, given the nature of Tory policy in the last seven years and the driving down of living standards. “Why should nurses have to go to food banks?”, she was asked by one person, only to be told to audience gasps that it was a “complex” issue. Little wonder that she refused to appear in a face-to-face debate with Jeremy Corbyn. The day after the election the big bookies started publishing odds on her likely successor.

Labour

In contrast to Theresa May’s hesitancy and her complete lack of rapport with ordinary voters, Jeremy Corbyn barn-stormed up and down the country, speaking to genuine mass rallies and interacting with ordinary voters. At every venue he spoke at, there were thousands of people waiting to hear him, often with over-flowmeetings. A couple of days before the election, in Gateshead (on Tyneside), eight thousand waited in the pouring rain to hear him and this was typical. As a result of this direct and personal appeal to voters, Corbyn was able to counteract – at least to some extent – the media campaign of misinformation and lies about him.

In the post-war period, there has never been such a campaign of lies, disinformation and outright abuse directed at a Labour leader in the way the press directed their campaign against Corbyn. The two terrorist outrages in the weeks before the poll, in Manchester and then in London, added more grist to the mill for this army of professional liars. Mixed in with the usual claptrap about “Marxist extremists” and “ruinous spending”, one paper after another denounced Corbyn as “the terrorists’ friend” and this issue was deliberately woven into questions in his TV interviews. But this avalanche of bile and poison largely failed. Given the huge significance of social media, and the fact that so many young people ignore the newspapers as a source of news, it is doubtful if the billionaire-press can ever again have the same weight in British politics.

What was very significant in the campaign was the popularity of Labour’s manifesto. Even among some more confused workers or middle-class voters, those taken in by the demonization of Corbyn, the policies put forward in the Labour manifesto were popular. For the first time for decades, there was clear blue water between the Tories and Labour. This was the most radical manifesto since 1945, advocating re-nationalisation of Royal Mail, energy and water utilities and the railways. The manifesto sought to protect and develop vital public services like the NHS and Education. A key policy, extremely popular among youth, was the promise to do away with university tuition fees and to lift the burden from those young people already weighed down by student debts. The chief election slogan of the Corbyn campaign was “The Many, not the Few”, and this found an echo.

Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, made this comment on Labour’s manifesto, when it was launched: “This is about the state getting deeply involved in much more of the private sector than it has been, certainly since the 1970s, and perhaps since the 1940s, with respect to, say, telling banks which branches they can’t close, setting minimum wages for a quarter of private sector workers and about 60 per cent of young people… All of these things are utterly different from anything we’ve experienced in many, many decades.” (emphasis added)

It was because of the electrifying effect of Labour’s campaign that the Tories’ hopes of an easy victory were shattered. Photographs appeared on social media on election day showing people queuing up to vote and that is a rarity in British politics. In the event, the overall turnout was 69%, the highest since 1997, even then only 2% higher. Large numbers of young people turned out to vote Labour. In the month leading up to the deadline 1.76 million under-35-year-olds who had not been on the electoral role registered to vote.  This was higher than the figures for 2015 (1.39m) and 2016 (1.28m) and polls showed that a far greater number were determined to vote. In the past, the failure of young people to vote and the greater likelihood of older people to vote have been regular features of British elections. It was estimated by the Trades Union Congress that the ‘missing’ youth vote was equivalent to around 10,000 votes in every constituency. However, this pattern was decisively broken. According to polls, a big majority of 18-35-year-olds were determined to vote and of these, the greatest proportion were going to vote Labour.

It is clear that in some university towns, the youth and student vote has been decisive. In the city of Cambridge, considered to be a ‘marginal’ seat, the Labour candidate won with over 50 per cent of the vote. In Canterbury, also a university city, Labour won – despite the city having had a Tory MP for the last 100 years. Kensington and Chelsea, a constituency in the heart of ‘posh’ London, returned a Labour MP for the first time.

The final total result was a vote of 42.4% for the Conservatives and 40 per cent for Labour. For Labour, this was a better result than under Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown and it bettered two out of three of Tony Blair’s victories. The jump in Labour’s vote was the biggest between two general elections since 1945. The biggest loser was UKIP, which saw its vote collapse by nearly 11 per cent to under 2 per cent. Marxists had always argued that the support for the UKIP was a distorted ‘protest’ vote among workers who had felt left behind by ‘New Labour’ and that they could be won back with a radical programme. This proved to be the case. Although in some areas, the Tories gained more from the collapse of UKIP, the national picture was that Labour gained by far the most, winning back their previously disenchanted voters.

This election result means that British politics has been shifted permanently to the left. More correctly, the election shows that the political shift that had already taken place was at last given a channel through which it could be expressed.

In the Labour Party, this election has enormously strengthened Corbyn. Since the election was called, 100,000 have joined the party, adding to the three quarters of a million already members. The right-wing parliamentarians and all those who dubbed Corbyn as being “unelectable” have been made to eat their words. On the morning after the election, Owen Smith, who stood against Corbyn in the second leadership campaign in 2016, admitted that “whatever Corbyn has, we need to bottle it”. These compliments will not wash with Labour Party members, of course, because Owen Smith was the figure-head of the attempted Parliamentary ‘coup’ against Corbyn and that was seen as a significant factor is letting the Tories get so far ahead in the polls over the last year. Had it not been for that attempted coup against Corbyn, we might now be looking at a Labour Prime Minister.

One right-winger after another has been sniping and undermining Corbyn for the last two years. One “Labour” candidate even said quite openly, “vote for me”, but adding that he “wouldn’t vote for Corbyn to be Prime Minister”. And who can forget the comment of Peter Mandelson, arch Blairite, who said that “every day” he thinks of some small thing he can do to undermine Corbyn? This disgraceful campaign of unremitting sabotage and sniping by right-wing Labour parliamentarians will not be forgotten by Labour members and when the dust is settled, there will be renewed calls for automatic re-selection of candidates so that the Party gets candidates and MPs that reflect the overwhelming ideas of the membership and not the personal careers of a few dozen MPs.

Given that Corbyn’s position – for the moment – is unassailable, it is possible that some right-wing MPs might choose to walk away. Even before the election was called, some right-wing MPs gave up their parliamentary ambitions to pursue their careers elsewhere. Seeing which way the wind is blowing, others might join them. After all, it was never Corbyn personally that rankled with the right of the Labour Party, it was the politics he represented. Seeing a permanent shift in British politics and in the character of the Party moved permanently to the left, will lead some “Labour” MPs to reconsider their options. They are not comfortable in a party with a mass membership and a radical manifesto. Before the election, some Labour MPs were more or less openly planning to split away and form a right-wing opposition grouping in parliament, on the same lines as the Social-Democratic Party, which split from Labour in 1981. They certainly did not expect the election outcome we got. But once the dust has settled, and with the urgings of their ‘friends’ in the media, some Labour MPs may still put these plans into action.

Labour has made electoral gains in England, Scotland and Wales. But their recovery in Scotland, although noticeable, was overshadowed by an even greater swing to the Tories, at the expense of the SNP. It is clear that the SNP seriously miscalculated the mood in Scotland around the question of a second independence referendum: the mood is nothing like as strong as they thought it was. Making it number ten in a list of ten key election policies, didn’t make any difference.

Many thousands of voters in Scotland – in some cases self-declared Labour supporters – voted tactically to beat the SNP, specifically on that question. The Tories gained most from this, but Labour also made gains. The SNP vote went down from 50 per cent in 2015, to 37 per cent. The main gainers were the Tories, nearly doubling their vote from 14.9 to 28.6 per cent.

Labour has only made a relatively modest recovery, from 24.3 per cent to 27.1 per cent, but this is a long way from the scenario of the ultra-left sectarians, who described Labour as being “dead” north of the border. The sects of all stripes had abandoned the Labour Party in the last two years and have chased after the chimera of ‘left nationalism’ or a ‘Scottish Workers’ Republic’ or something of that kind. “Whilst south of the border Corbyn’s Labour is an obvious choice”, one sectarian group wrote, “north of the border the party is becoming more and more irrelevant”. (April 30). In fact, the Corbyn effect has been quite dramatic in Scotland. The day before the election, The Independent reported the results of an opinion poll among Scottish 18-24-year-olds, showing that Labour was just ahead of the SNP, at 41 per cent to 40 per cent. The Tories were on only 9 per cent.  Labour’s vote in Scotland, at 27 per cent, is (for the moment) squeezed  between the two larger parties in Scotland, but the most likely scenario is that the recovery of Labour will continue in the coming years, as the Tories and SNP are exposed as anti-working class parties.

Perspectives

When the excitement and immediacy of the election dies down, it will become apparent that in the coming years, British politics is in for a period of enormous instability.

The Tories will try to cobble together an agreement with the Northern Ireland party, the DUP. Because Sinn Fein – also with an increased representation to seven MPs – will not take up their seats, the number required for a parliamentary majority is proportionally less. It is quite possible that Theresa May will put together a Minority Government, supported by the DUP and that this Government totters along for the foreseeable future.

Theresa May had an awful election and her authority and support in the Tory Party are considerably undermined. But that does not automatically mean she will be ousted. The crisis in the Tory Party reflects the crisis in the ruling class, which is split to an unprecedented degree. If Theresa May continues it will be because the Tories are in a state of complete paralysis and there is no alternative to her who would not be worse.

In the past, the Tories and the class they represent have always hidden their disagreements, because a third party – the working class – might be looking on. But the divisions are so great now that it is impossible to hide them. Many sections of small and medium businesses bought into the illusion that the economy would somehow ‘prosper’ after Brexit. On the other hand, most of big business, the banks and multi-nationals are horrified at the economic fall-out of a hard Brexit and exclusion from the EU single market. Even in the facing of looming Brexit negotiations, these contradictions and splits cannot be resolved and the only option for the Tories in the short-term is to ‘muddle on’.

What makes the ‘muddle’ all the more dangerous is an economic scenario that is anything but good. According to an OECD report, issued days before the election, In the first quarter of 2017, the UK’s real GDP grew more slowly than any other G7 economy. The first quarter showed Britain as having the lowest growth also in the EU. The forecasts are for British economic growth to slow to only 1 per cent or less. The UK economy was already tottering along.  Sterling has fallen markedly since the election result and this has added to the falls against the Euro and the Dollar since the EU referendum last year.

In society at large, the election will have permanently and significantly changed political perceptions. The Labour campaign – re-nationalisations, anti-austerity, ‘saving the NHS’, properly financing Education, and so on – has entered the consciousness of workers everywhere, including those who did not vote Labour this time. The Labour slogan, “For the Many, not the Few” will not be forgotten. In that sense, this election will be seen as a milestone in the awakening political consciousness of the working class.

The opposition to austerity and the defence of workers’ living standards and rights may have been temporarily halted on the electoral plain, but that is all the more reason, therefore, that it will be re-energised on the industrial plain. There will be many strikes, demonstrations, rallies and campaigns against Tory austerity, particularly focused on the public sector, among teachers and NHS workers. On the streets, in communities and in the workplace, the opposition to the Tory government will intensify.

There will be no resolution of the political crisis and divisions within the Tory Party, no change in the gloomy economic scenario and no clarity or certainty in the Brexit negotiations. Muddling along might be fine for a short time, but it is no answer to growing economic, social and political crises, so the medium or longer-term perspective must be that the Tory Government will fail or fall. A minority Conservative government will to find it difficult to survive for the long term. Another general election is therefore a possibility. But so soon after this one – particularly with Labour still dominated by the Corbynite wing – another election could pose enormous dangers to capitalism. It is one thing ‘allowing’ a Labour government into office if all it does is tinker with mild reforms while it uses its authority to push down living standards and policies in the interests of business. It is another thing entirely to stand idly aside while a ‘dangerously’ radical government threatens to really implement policies against the interests of business. The danger is that expectations have already been raised too high.

It is possible, therefore, that the siren calls in the press might start to focus on splitting both main parties. A commentator on the BBC radio the day after the election suggested that within the confines of the two main parties there are in reality “four parties”. The anti-Brexit wing of the Tory Party and the right-wing of the Labour Party probably have more in common with each other than either has with the rest of their own parties.  There is no gratitude among right-wing Labour MPs. Many of them only managed re-election on the basis of the ‘Corbyn surge’ that spread like a political tsunami across the whole country. Although the right-wing in the PLP are lying low in the immediate aftermath of the election, probably 120-150 of those MPs who voted “no confidence” in Corbyn a year ago, are still in situ and have not changed their views. Most of these ‘Labour’ parliamentarians are still closer to their Tory colleagues than to Labour’s manifesto or the Party membership. Calls for a ‘Crisis’ Government or a Government of National Unity would not go unanswered among these MPs.

Whichever way the next few years pan out, it is clear that in the short term at least, anyTory Government will be characterised by instability, uncertainty and volatility. This has been an historic election, but politics is ever a long game. This election is only the first in a series of ‘historic’ elections that will change the shape of British politics in the years to come.

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