Democracy is in as much trouble in Britain as it is in many other places that would style themselves as such, no matter the frequency with which its citizens are invited to the polling station. And they are being invited again, by a government that is intending to deploy a national poll as a weapon of mass electoral destruction. It has the appearance of a blatantly opportunistic move to decimate the Labour Party, but let’s not be too precious about that. Politics is a contact sport, and it makes sense to kick an opponent when they’re down, to make sure they don’t get back up again. Let’s just not swallow the fiction that there’s anything patriotic or necessary about this. For the Prime Minister, an election might remove some limitations to her freedom of action to operate domestically, but it will make negligible difference to her negotiations with the EU27 over the coming two years, as has already been pointed out.
Theresa May does a good job of convincing her own side that she is a principled and reliable person to have at the helm, helped immeasurably by a monumentally baleful and dishonest media. This writer concluded as long ago as October that she is a fairly lousy Prime Minister, and never ceases to be bewildered by the way in which recent public discourse in Britain is apparently impervious to a number of global realities. But let’s be fair. Britain is not unique in how it is a country that likes to tell itself stories about itself, stories that are frequently at odds with how an outside observer would see things. The nation will very likely need all of its genius for narrative self-deception to attenuate the turbulence that will likely accompany its exit from the European Union.
In the short term, however, the pain seems like it will be exclusively reserved for the Labour Party. Current polling suggests the party is in mortal danger. It will not be completely wiped out on June 8, but it could be so fatally damaged on the day after that it might not be able to offer itself as a credible party of government again.
This blog was written on previous occasions about Jeremy Corbyn. On one occasion, it was to try and identify what it was exactly that marked him out as a loser, and to acknowledge the array of powerful forces who would be aghast at the thought of someone like Corbyn becoming Prime Minister. The other time, it was to examine the hopelessness of Labour factionalism in the context of the quixotic heave against Corbyn last summer. The bulk of the parliamentary Labour party has been desperate to be rid of Corbyn ever since they were shocked by his elevation to the leadership. Many have refused to serve in his front bench. They’ve made one doomed attempt to oust him. Now the strategy is to say nothing, in the hope that he will fail on his own terms. That’s not to say they are not resisting him where they can, such as the battle over leadership election rules that could make a future leftist leadership candidate unsinkable, as Corbyn became in 2015 and 2016.
None of this is meant to imply endorsement of the member for Islington North. That leadership challenge last year followed a distinctly low wattage campaign for the UK to remain within the European Union, and the unmistakable sense that Corbyn wasn’t altogether displeased with the outcome. One can understand, for electoral reasons, why Brexit is now excruciating for Labour. Their efforts at positioning, to demonstrate their adherence to the “will of the people” while not replicating the Tory stance, have had the effect of confusing and angering a lot of people. And after his three-line whip to wave through legislation to trigger article 50 without extracting any concessions, followed up by his ludicrous tweet claiming the “real fight starts now”, this writer concluded that Jeremy wasn’t cut out for this role. Or the job he’s currently applying for. In addition, the organisational and intellectual work that a credible government in waiting should carry out in opposition has been conspicuously lacking. To the previously trite dismissal of Corbyn as being unelectable, one finds it difficult now based on his track record of leadership to disagree.
That said, there is no reason whatsoever to think that ushering the Labour right back to dominance offers any path back to power. They don’t convincingly seem to have got the memo about the breaking of the social contract, attributable to the broken economic model most of them apparently seem to think is still the only game in town. And has been pointed out, dwelling on Corbyn’s inadequacies when the really pernicious threats to British public life emanate from the side in power doesn’t seem to be the most useful way of addressing the challenges of this moment in history.
We have a government claiming a mandate from the Brexit vote that doesn’t really exist, decrying opposition as treacherous, and intending to use their position of ascendancy to realise many of their more unsavoury aspirations. For many of this generation of Conservatives, if one thing has been palpable about all the consequential decisions they’ve made with such insouciance, it’s how low the personal stakes are for them. They have prospered politically for nearly a decade by shamelessly peddling falsehoods, particularly about the economy. Their trick this time is to try to get to the other side of election day without saying anything meaningful, instead regurgitating their “strong and stable” soundbite on autopilot ad nauseum. Meanwhile, the European Union has been methodically setting out its Brexit negotiating position, and clearly appears to be more thoroughly prepared than the country that instigated all this, and which is haphazardly lurching for the exit. Some very entitled people would appear to be in for an awakening.
In the short term, it might seem that the Tories will likely get away with it and gain a thumping majority on June 8. In truth, it is impossible to predict exactly how it will all transpire, and only a mug would make predictions, but this mug is tempted to make one. Campaigning is the part of politics that Jeremy Corbyn enjoys. And one senses that the smearing of Corbyn, along with the repetitive guff the Tories are already being called on, might not have the kind of impact they would once have been expected to. And that’s not to mention the growing irritation at the way Theresa May’s campaign stops are so transparently stage managed, with handpicked crowds. He won’t win, but Corbyn might end up losing not much more heavily than Ed Miliband did in 2015.
The question then is would he resign in that situation. Although given the nature of Labour’s civil war, even if the Labour left leads the party to devastating defeat, Corbyn might still refuse to leave the stage. Therefore, we must entertain the possibility of the party splitting. The events, circumstances and attendant stresses of the age do not seem to permit Labour remaining a broad church. June 9 could mark the date when the bitter infighting could all kick off again, and as such it’s near impossible to know what type of (plausible) result will allow for the survival of the Labour party.
Another drama playing itself out in the continuing fallout from Brexit is the future of the UK itself. This writer is conflicted on the issue of a second Scottish independence referendum, primarily because of a general refusal to embrace nationalism of any stripe. Furthermore, it’s difficult to look at the SNP cohort at Westminster and avoid the conclusion they increasingly evince a New Labour-ish tendency that seems largely related to the fact the party is on the up – a lot of these folks weren’t around when Labour ruled Scottish politics. Or rather they were, but they weren’t gravitating to the SNP. And memories of the unpleasantness unleashed by the Cybernats during the previous referendum in 2014 haven’t gone away.
Yet for all that, there are compelling arguments for independence that far outweigh these reservations. There is the not inconsiderate matter of Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will, a development that arguably does much to undercut claims that detaching from the rest of the UK carries too much economic risk. To that you can add the estrangement of Scotland from the Conservative party, however much an asset for the Tories their current leader in Scotland is. It is perfectly understandable why the Scots might not want to be subject to the dead hand of Tory misrule anymore. Finally, and very closely related to that second point, there is not just Scottish nationalism at play here. To be fair to the SNP, they haven’t succumbed to crude ethnic nationalism – theirs has largely been configured as civic and forward looking. But in the current arrangement, they are essentially expected to act as boosters for somebody else’s nationalism, a nationalism that carries a lot more baggage and animated much of the Brexit vote. The nationalism that considers England and Britain to be essentially interchangeable. One can hardly criticise the Scots for wanting to extricate themselves from that.