Jonathan Freed­land

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Jonathan Freed­land

On June 8, Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May learned one of pol­i­tics’ cru­elest les­sons: that it is pos­si­ble to win an elec­tion and still lose. Tech­ni­cally speak­ing, she was the vic­tor, as her Con­ser­va­tive Party won fifty-six more seats in Par­lia­ment than its Labour op­po­nents. But May lost her over­all ma­jor­ity in the House of Com­mons and, given where the two par­ties had started, to say noth­ing of her ex­pec­ta­tions and in­deed her mo­tives in calling a con­test in the first place, this vic­tory tasted like the most bit­ter de­feat. Noth­ing about this out­come had been pre­dicted. On April 19, the day af­ter the prime min­is­ter dis­solved Par­lia­ment and trig­gered an early vote, the in­ter­na­tional edi­tion of The New York Times cap­tured the in­stant con­sen­sus about the in­evitabil­ity of a May tri­umph with its front-page head­line, “The Fore­gone Con­clu­sion of Bri­tain’s Elec­tion.” That’s cer­tainly how it seemed. The opin­ion polls showed May—in­stalled as Con­ser­va­tive Party leader and prime min­is­ter in the sum­mer of 2016, af­ter the Brexit ref­er­en­dum had top­pled the pre­vi­ous in­cum­bent, David Cameron—crush­ing her op­po­nents. The Tories had a twenty-point lead over the Labour Party and May’s per­sonal rat­ings were in the strato­sphere: 61 per­cent of Bri­tons re­garded her as the most ca­pa­ble prime min­is­ter, com­pared to just 23 per­cent for Labour’s Jeremy Cor­byn. That 61 per­cent fig­ure was, in­ci­den­tally, the high­est recorded by the poll­sters Ip­sos Mori since the com­pany be­gan ask­ing the ques­tion back in 1979—the year Mar­garet Thatcher first en­tered Down­ing Street. May’s de­ci­sion to seek a pop­u­lar man­date three years ahead of schedule—a de­ci­sion reached while hik­ing in Wales with her hus­band on an Easter va­ca­tion—was widely ap­plauded as seiz­ing a rare op­por­tu­nity to win a Thatch­er­style landslide.

At first, po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sion cen­tered only on the size of May’s com­ing vic­tory. Mu­nic­i­pal con­tests on May 5, in which Labour took a thor­ough pound­ing even in its most tra­di­tional heart­lands, con­firmed the im­mi­nent wipe­out. Labour’s anti-Cor­byn camp, in­clud­ing the over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity of its MPs (172 out of 229), who had voted no con­fi­dence in their leader the pre­vi­ous year, be­gan plot­ting for his post-de­feat re­moval. (Full dis­clo­sure: I was one of those who ar­gued that Cor­byn was doomed to be un­electable.) But events did not fol­low the script. At 10:00 PM on June 8, an exit poll showed that May had not ex­panded the Con­ser­va­tives’ slen­der ma­jor­ity in the House of Com­mons to fifty, sev­enty, one hun­dred, or even 120 seats. On the con­trary, she had lost it al­to­gether. Nor had Labour plum­meted be­low two hun­dred seats in the 650seat cham­ber, as once seemed pre­or­dained; it had gained thirty more. Through the night, the news only be­came more mind-bog­gling, as Labour not only held its own in Wales, the English Mid­lands, York­shire, and the north­east—all places where it had been brac­ing for losses—but made gains in Tory strongholds. The cathe­dral city of Can­ter­bury, Tory since it first be­came a par­lia­men­tary seat more than 150 years ago, turned Labour. Even­tu­ally, even Kens­ing­ton—a by­word for Lon­don wealth, where the av­er­age home is val­ued at $1.8 mil­lion—fell to Labour. The Tories were still the largest party in the House of Com­mons, but it was small con­so­la­tion. May had asked the vot­ers for a man­date, and they had spurned her.

How had a woman hailed as the sec­ond Iron Lady been hum­bled by a man who had served thirty-odd years as an ob­scure back­bencher and dogged cam­paigner for lost causes, long beached on the fringes of the English left? More im­por­tantly, could this in­con­clu­sive re­sult, which leaves May in of­fice but not in power, al­ter the course of Brexit, per­haps even de­rail­ing Bri­tain’s exit from the Euro­pean Union al­to­gether?

Among the many tenets of re­ceived Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal wis­dom that were up­ended on June 8, one of the first to tum­ble was the no­tion that cam­paigns sel­dom mat­ter. By Bri­tish stan­dards, this was a long cam­paign (seven weeks, which, to Amer­i­can ears, will sound mer­ci­fully brief). Some can be started and fin­ished in twenty-one days. And they al­most never change the weather. For all the sound and fury, vot­ers have tended to do on elec­tion day what they had planned to do be­fore the start­ing gun was fired. This, too, was another rea­son to as­sume that May would cruise to vic­tory. She be­gan the race miles ahead and, if prece­dent was any guide, she would end it in the same place.

But this time, the cam­paign mat­tered. As al­ways, it turned on two ques­tions: the com­pet­ing strengths of the main party lead­ers and their re­spec­tive man­i­festos, or pro­posed plat­forms for govern­ment. On both counts, the Con­ser­va­tives were found lamentably, and un­ex­pect­edly, want­ing.

May de­cided that she was her party’s chief as­set and set about trav­el­ing around the coun­try in a “bat­tle­bus”—a quaint func­tion of Bri­tain’s ge­o­graphic com­pact­ness, there be­ing limited need for planes—em­bla­zoned with her own name rather than that of the Con­ser­va­tives. She side­lined her cabi­net col­leagues and made her­self the sole speaker in her cause. The trou­ble was, she was ap­pallingly bad at it. As a can­di­date, she made Hil­lary Clin­ton look like Bill.

A fal­ter­ing speak­ing style was cou­pled with an awk­ward fa­cial tic: her ex­pres­sion tends to de­fault to a gri­mace that only wors­ened un­der pres­sure. She re­peated her slo­gans ad nauseam, con­stantly telling vot­ers that the coun­try needed “strong and sta­ble lead­er­ship,” which only she could pro­vide; that she wanted a large man­date to strengthen her hand in up­com­ing Brexit ne­go­ti­a­tions with the re­main­ing twenty-seven EU mem­ber states that Bri­tain is about to leave be­hind; and that the al­ter­na­tive was a “coali­tion of chaos” formed by the hap­less Cor­byn in al­liance with the UK’s smaller par­ties.

Th­ese mes­sages had doubt­less tested well in fo­cus groups. But some re­verse alchemy oc­curred when May par­roted them end­lessly and in re­sponse to any ques­tion, usu­ally be­fore small groups of hand­picked sup­port­ers in her­met­i­cally sealed rooms, watched by a frus­trated press corps. It re­vealed her as un­able to think on her feet, and there­fore seem­ingly lack­ing any deeper, no­bler mo­ti­va­tion for seek­ing the sup­port of a pub­lic al­ready wea­ried by a ref­er­en­dum bat­tle just a year ear­lier and now forced to take part in an elec­tion she had im­posed.

Rapidly, she was mocked as the May­bot, her rep­e­ti­tions cut to­gether and cir­cu­lated vi­rally via so­cial me­dia. Hers was a style of po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion per­fected in the Tony Blair era that be­gan in the 1990s, in which can­di­dates were drilled in “mes­sage dis­ci­pline,” re­peat­ing the same phrase over and over to en­sure the key words made it onto the evening news. It worked then. But in the era of Face­book and Twit­ter, it ex­posed her to ridicule.

Cor­byn was the po­lar op­po­site. By con­ven­tional stan­dards, his stump speech hardly amounted to rous­ing ora­tory. Of­ten ram­bling and with ca­dences that re­solve in bathos, the six­tyeight-year-old Labour leader looks un­spun, a sur­vivor of the pre-Blair era when pol­i­tics meant long speeches at pub­lic meet­ings rather than sound­bites for TV. No longer scruffy—his han­dlers gave him a hair­cut, trimmed his beard, and put him in dark blue suits long ago—he nev­er­the­less ex­udes a kind of retro au­then­tic­ity. He can’t de­liver a barn­storm­ing speech the way Bernie San­ders can, but the two men share the earnest sin­cer­ity of the long­time out­sider, the vet­eran cam­paigner for whom ca­reer ad­vance­ment was never the driv­ing pur­pose.

Cor­byn ben­e­fited too from the equal-time rules that bind the broad­cast net­works dur­ing cam­paign sea­son. Sud­denly, he was granted ac­cess to TV shows that had pre­vi­ously de­picted him only in snatched news re­ports, of­ten fo­cus­ing on his own col­leagues’ low opin­ion of him. On the sofa on day­time TV, he re­vealed him­self to be af­fa­ble and en­gag­ing, chat­ting about his fond­ness for grow­ing veg­eta­bles, rather than the fire­breath­ing Marx­ist that the pro-Tory pa­pers had es­tab­lished in the pub­lic mind. He was able to sweep aside lin­ger­ing ques­tions about his past as­so­ci­a­tions with au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes from Cara­cas to Tehran—or ter­ror­ist groups from Ha­mas to the Ir­ish Repub­li­can Army—as so much an­cient his­tory. What were, in fact, ex­pres­sions of sol­i­dar­ity on his part he re­cast as dis­creet ef­forts at peace­mak­ing.

With noth­ing to lose, Cor­byn turned up for var­i­ous TV in­ter­views or de­bates with the lead­ers of smaller par­ties that May had cho­sen to duck. She cal­cu­lated that she would be grant­ing him too much sta­tus if she de­bated him one-on-one, a view taken by sev­eral prime min­is­te­rial in­cum­bents be­fore her. But that al­lowed him to make his case. What­ever you thought of his pol­i­tics, he was clearly a per­son com­fort­able in his own skin. The same could not be said of her.

It was on pol­icy, how­ever, that the Tories erred most egre­giously. May’s man­i­festo in­cluded a pro­posal to fund all “so­cial care” of the el­derly—re­gard­less of whether you were looked af­ter in your own home or in a res­i­den­tial cen­ter—by posthu­mously tax­ing your home, down to your last $125,000.

Among pol­icy wonks, it seemed rea­son­able enough: it made sense to ap­ply the same fund­ing rules, no mat­ter where you were be­ing cared for. But it rat­tled a core com­po­nent of the Tory base: the home-own­ing el­derly. Un­der Bri­tain’s Na­tional Health Ser­vice, they knew the govern­ment would meet their med­i­cal costs if they had cancer. Yet now they were be­ing told they’d have to pay up if they suc­cumbed to Alzheimer’s. In­stantly, May’s move was dubbed the “de­men­tia tax.”

The polling re­sponse was swift and dis­as­trous. May re­versed the pol­icy within four days of its an­nounce­ment, un­der­min­ing her claim to be “strong and sta­ble.” Worse, she pre­tended that “noth­ing has changed.” That made her look id­i­otic. She was now lam­pooned as “weak and wob­bly,” sell­ing a man­i­festo that no­body wanted, whose cen­tral pro­posal had been ditched.

Again, the con­trast with Labour was sharp. Cor­byn’s pro­gram was packed full of treats for al­most ev­ery seg­ment of the elec­torate. The el­derly were promised they’d keep ev­ery cash ben­e­fit they cur­rently en­joyed, in­clud­ing those threat­ened by the Tories. In­dus­tries whose pri­va­ti­za­tion in re­cent decades had be­come in­creas­ingly un­pop­u­lar, most notably the rail­ways, would re­turn to pub­lic own­er­ship. Most strik­ing of all, the Labour man­i­festo promised to scrap univer­sity tu­ition fees, mak­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion free of charge for ev­ery­one, just like it was in Cor­byn’s day. Th­ese and other pro­pos­als struck a chord in a pub­lic tired of post-crash aus­ter­ity and fed up with stag­nant wages, un­der­funded pub­lic ser­vices, and un­af­ford­able homes. The an­ti­aus­ter­ity mes­sage hit home to such an ex­tent that it may well have en­abled the Labour cam­paign to stay on track de­spite two ter­ror at­tacks in two weeks: the first on the Manch­ester Arena, the sec­ond on Lon­don Bridge. Or­di­nar­ily, a shift in fo­cus onto na­tional se­cu­rity would have fa­vored the Con­ser­va­tives, as they ea­gerly re­minded vot­ers of Cor­byn’s his­tory of friendly con­tact with groups as­so­ci­ated with ter­ror­ism. But Labour could hit back, not­ing that May, as home sec­re­tary from 2010 to 2016, had presided over cuts in po­lice num­bers in the name of bal­anc­ing the books. In a pow­er­ful line, Cor­byn ar­gued that safety could not be bought “on the cheap.”

Post-elec­tion analy­ses at­trib­uted much of Labour’s suc­cess to the fact that younger vot­ers in par­tic­u­lar were re­cep­tive to Cor­byn’s mes­sage, and es­pe­cially his prom­ise of a free col­lege ed­u­ca­tion. Cor­byn’s ral­lies around the coun­try, bring­ing out eight thousand in the rel­a­tively small city of Gateshead, for ex­am­ple, were filled by young devo­tees, in scenes that prompted ready par­al­lels with the “Feel the Bern” days of the San­ders pri­mary cam­paign. Sup­port for Cor­byn be­came a sta­ple on so­cial me­dia, helped along by artists and mu­si­cians, in­clud­ing lu­mi­nar­ies of grime, a hard-edged Bri­tish strain of rap. #Grime4Cor­byn spread via Snapchat and In­sta­gram the case for reg­is­ter­ing to vote and, once you had, for vot­ing Labour.

But while the no­tion of Gen­er­a­tion Cor­byn is an ap­peal­ing one, it’s far from the whole story. For one thing, Labour led among all those un­der forty-five, not just the youngest. A close read­ing of vot­ing pat­terns also shows that where Labour surged most was in ar­eas with high con­cen­tra­tions of grad­u­ates and an eth­ni­cally di­verse pop­u­la­tion. Strik­ingly, ac­cord­ing to Robert Ford, a po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist at the Univer­sity of Manch­ester, Labour ad­vanced fur­thest in seats “with the largest con­cen­tra­tions of mid­dle-class pro­fes­sion­als and the rich.” Mean­while, the “Con­ser­va­tives, long the party of cap­i­tal . . . made their largest gains in the poor­est seats of Eng­land and Wales.” This sug­gests a Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal rift along class and ed­u­ca­tion lines with par­al­lels to the Clin­ton/Trump di­vide in the US. Labour was able to at­tract another cru­cial group of vot­ers too. It had long been as­sumed that those who had voted for the pro-Brexit UK In­de­pen­dence Party (UKIP), for­merly led by Don­ald Trump’s pal and reg­u­lar Fox talk­ing head Nigel Farage, would desert the party this time: af­ter all, its work was done. It was fur­ther as­sumed that those vot­ers would flock en bloc to May, who had promised to im­ple­ment their will and pur­sue Brexit, even in its hard­est form—a Brexit that would see Bri­tain de­part not just the EU but also its sin­gle mar­ket and cus­toms union. The mu­nic­i­pal elec­tions on May 5 sug­gested that May had suc­ceeded in mak­ing the UKIP vote hers.

But anal­y­sis of the June 8 re­sults shows a sur­pris­ingly large slice of UKIP vot­ers break­ing for Labour. One read­ing is that th­ese were peo­ple who were not, af­ter all, ob­sessed with Europe, but rather look­ing to cast a vote against the sys­tem it­self—a sys­tem that had seen wages flat­line for years, while de­priv­ing cher­ished pub­lic ser­vices, from schools and hos­pi­tals to lo­cal parks and li­braries, of cash. Farage had once seemed an apt ve­hi­cle for that protest vote; now it was the anti-estab­lish­ment Cor­byn. The other ex­pla­na­tion is that Labour ben­e­fited from its own tor­tured opac­ity on Brexit. Torn be­tween those who voted Leave in 2016, of­ten white work­ing-class vot­ers in post-in­dus­trial towns, and its Re­main­ers, of­ten city­d­welling col­lege grad­u­ates, the party had cho­sen to sit on the fence. Of­fi­cially, it said it was com­mit­ted to im­ple­ment­ing Brexit, but with a hint of flex­i­bil­ity to re­as­sure Re­main­ers that Labour pro­vided an al­ter­na­tive to May’s head­long rush for the EU exit. While yet another May slo­gan in­sisted “no deal was better than a bad deal,” Labour vowed that walk­ing away from the EU with­out an agree­ment was not an op­tion.

As for im­mi­gra­tion, the de­ci­sive is­sue in the 2016 Brexit ref­er­en­dum, Cor­byn said that the num­bers of in­com­ing for­eign­ers would “prob­a­bly” come down once the UK was no longer bound to com­ply with the EU right of free move­ment for its cit­i­zens; but he also sig­naled that pro­tect­ing Bri­tish jobs mat­tered more to him than curb­ing mi­gra­tion. That too was a con­trast with May. In govern­ment, such am­bi­gu­ity would un­ravel fast. But in an elec­tion cam­paign, it worked like a charm, al­low­ing Cor­byn to re­cruit both hard-up, anti-im­mi­gra­tion Leavers in Hull and well-heeled, cos­mopoli­tan Re­main­ers in Kens­ing­ton, all at the same time. (In­deed, Labour’s vote share in­creased by twelve points in the strong­est Re­main vot­ing ar­eas.) The re­sult is that, in an era dom­i­nated else­where by pop­ulist lurches to the right, Cor­byn’s brand of left pop­ulism has be­come a po­tent force in Bri­tish pol­i­tics.

So what now? Once the elec­tion was done, May set about form­ing a govern­ment de­spite find­ing her party sev­eral votes shy of an over­all ma­jor­ity. She turned for help to the Demo­cratic Union­ist Party (DUP), the hard-line voice of Protes­tantism that dom­i­nates the still-sec­tar­ian pol­i­tics of North­ern Ire­land. (One wit de­scribes the party as “the po­lit­i­cal wing of the seven­teenth cen­tury.”) The Demo­cratic Union­ists have ten seats in the Com­mons, which gets May just over the line. But they are un­bend­ing in their op­po­si­tion to abor­tion and LGBT rights, es­pe­cially same­sex mar­riage, which has un­nerved those Con­ser­va­tives who backed Cameron’s orig­i­nal project of mod­ern­iz­ing their party and detox­i­fy­ing its brand in the eyes of ur­ban and suburban Bri­tons. One can only imag­ine how easy it will be for Cor­byn to use the Tory al­liance with the DUP to gal­va­nize his youth army in any fu­ture elec­tion. At the very least, Labour will be able to note the irony that it is now May, not Cor­byn, who will be pre­sid­ing over a “coali­tion of chaos.” The over­rid­ing is­sue will, of course, be Brexit. The DUP sup­ports it, but with reser­va­tions. It wants a “fric­tion­less bor­der” be­tween the Ir­ish Re­pub­lic, which will re­main in the EU, and North­ern Ire­land, which will be out­side it—a goal that surely can only be re­al­ized if the UK leaves the EU but re­mains in the sin­gle mar­ket. This is the so-called “Nor­way model,” which notably re­quires Oslo to pay hefty dues to the EU in re­turn for full ac­cess to the sin­gle mar­ket, but with no say over the mar­ket’s rules. More broadly, May no longer has the num­bers in Par­lia­ment for a “hard Brexit”: there are enough Re­mainer rebels on her own side to deny her that op­tion. If Cor­byn were to de­mand a deal that keeps Bri­tain in the sin­gle mar­ket—not his stance now— there would be plenty of Tories ready to side with him against her.

The larger prob­lem for May is that her author­ity is shot. Her fel­low Con­ser­va­tives are al­low­ing her to cling on in 10 Down­ing Street chiefly be­cause none of them fan­cies tak­ing on a sud­denly strength­ened Jeremy Cor­byn just yet or han­dling the poi­soned chal­ice that is Brexit. But it’s trans­par­ently clear that May is liv­ing on bor­rowed time. She will face her Euro­pean coun­ter­parts—in­clud­ing, in Em­manuel Macron, a French pres­i­dent who is set to be but­tressed by an enor­mous par­lia­men­tary ma­jor­ity—across the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble as a di­min­ished fig­ure. (She al­ready looked that way when she made her first post-elec­tion for­eign trip on June 13, stand­ing along­side Macron at a Paris meet­ing, flus­tered as her pa­pers blew off her lectern.) They will know that she is, as one for­mer col­league puts it, a “dead woman walk­ing.” Euro­pean lead­ers may pre­fer to give the Bri­tish prime min­is­ter noth­ing, wait­ing un­til she is re­placed, ei­ther by a par­lia­men­tary coup ad­min­is­tered by her own party or by Cor­byn in yet another elec­tion, which could come as soon as this au­tumn or next spring. Not that the Tories are in any hurry to sub­ject them­selves to the vot­ers again. In­deed, all that binds the Con­ser­va­tives to May now is their re­luc­tance to face Cor­byn and his im­prob­a­ble al­liance at the bal­lot box. Of her, the Tories have lost all fear. She is that most en­fee­bled of fig­ures: the gam­bler who had ev­ery­thing and threw it away. n —June 15, 2017

Theresa May and Jeremy Cor­byn

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