The general election campaign marks a decisive turning point for politics in Britain. When Theresa May called it, she had a 22-point lead in some opinion polls and Tory strategists were predicting a majority of up to 100 seats, allowing her to implement her austerity programme and negotiate a Brexit without the threat of being derailed by backbench revolts.
In the end, the Tory lead was reduced to 2.4% and they failed to win a majority. Rather than “strong and stable”, the new government is weak and wobbly.
With Corbyn’s left policies, Labour won 40% of the vote compared to 30% in 2015, the biggest increase in the vote share for any party since 1945. An extra 3.5 million people voted Labour compared to the last general election. While May hid from public debates and, indeed, the public, Corbyn was greeted by mass rallies.
Young people inspired by Corbyn’s message
Only 18% of 18-24 year-olds backed the Tories, while 67% voted Labour. The Lib Dems’ attempt to capture the youth vote on the basis of being the most anti-Brexit party fell flat, taking only 7%. Some estimates suggest that as many as 72% of young people on the electoral register voted, compared to 43% in 2015.
Corbyn was able to tap into the mood among young people for change, receiving a massive response when he spoke at the Libertines concert at the Wirral Live festival. He was on the front cover of music magazines Kerrang and NME and had many popular Grime artists vocally supporting him. As Grime artist Stormzy summed it up, “I feel like he gets what the ethnic minorities are going through and the homeless and the working class.”
The idea that young people are cynical and disinterested in politics has been blown away. This generation will not be content just to vote but will seek to assert their interests by getting active in politics. However, this election wasn’t primarily a reflection of a generational divide, as suggested by some commentators. The key issue was class and young people being enthused by Corbyn had an effect on other sections of working class people. Many older workers put a cross next to a Labour candidate for the first time in decades in order to support Jeremy Corbyn. He was also successful in winning back a section of traditional Labour supporters who voted UKIP in 2015. UKIP’s collapsing vote did not simply transfer to the Tories, as May had hoped.
SNP suffer setbacks
In a stunning contrast to the 2015 landslide when the SNP won 56 of the 59 seats in Scotland, they lost 21 seats and 500,000 votes. In part, they paid the price for implementing Tory austerity. The Tories were able to increase their support in Scotland by presenting themselves as the anti-independence party. Labour made important gains, based on the popular support for Corbyn. However, this was limited by Scottish Labour’s Blairite leadership and the opposition of the party – including Corbyn – to a second independence referendum
Tories on the ropes
In contrast to the modest approach of Corbyn, the arrogance of the Tories played an important role in mobilising many to vote Labour. May’s attempt to justify the reality of nurses going to food banks demonstrated how disconnected the Tories are from the lives of ordinary people, despite attempts to re-brand themselves as the party for workers. Their plans to introduce a ‘dementia tax’ and scrap free school meals were spectacular own-goals.
The horrific terrorist attacks in Manchester and London also had an impact on the election. Usually, such attacks serve to strengthen the positon of the establishment party and, particularly, the right. However, May was left significantly exposed due to the police cuts she implemented as Home Secretary. Corbyn was successful in raising these points and also in linking the foreign policy of the British and other Western governments with the increase in terrorism, particularly their role in Syria and the willingness of the Tory government to sell arms to the Saudi regime, which has been involved in funding terror groups.
As May’s former Tory colleague and rival George Osborne put it, she is a “dead woman walking.” At this point, she only remains in place because the Tories have no obvious replacement that can satisfy the various factions of the party and the grandees fear destabilising the already weak government – reliant on the DUP – with a divisive leadership contest. Events like the Grenfall Tower disaster will only intensify anger at a Tory government and increase pressure for May to go.
Pro-capitalist consensus smashed
The Blairite idea of ‘triangulation’ – that, to win power, you must move to ‘the centre’ or, in reality, the right – has been refuted. The Labour right had hoped that a poor election would be an opportunity to get rid of Corbyn. Arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson had even told the press that he “prayed every day for a snap general election” as it would mean the end of Corbyn’s leadership.
Unfortunately for them, Corbyn’s policies are popular. Polls have showed that voters support public ownership of the rail network, energy market and Royal Mail. Likewise, the banning of zero-hours contracts was backed emphatically by 71%. Income tax hikes for those on salaries of more than £80,000 was supported by 65% of voters and 54% said they favoured the policy of building 100,000 more council houses each year.
Most Blairites have been forced, through gritted teeth, to admit that Corbyn has achieved an impressive turnaround. A minority still claim that Labour would have done even better under a right-wing leadership but this is not borne out by the facts. An opinion poll in the course of the election put Labour on 31%, but showed that only 23% would consider backing the party under Blair himself or 25% under Yvette Cooper. In fact, the fortune of the British Labour Party under Corbyn is very much at odds with the fortunes of ex-social democratic parties across Europe which have seen their support collapse, including to single figures in the cases of the ‘Socialist’ Party in France, PASOK in Greece and the Irish ‘Labour’ Party.
Corbyn’s support is reflective of the significant support received by Bernie Sanders in the United States, who promised a ‘political revolution’ against the billionaires, and Jean-Luc Mélenchon in France, who received millions of votes in the recent Presidential election on a clear, left-wing programme. Across the world, workers and young people are turning to left for radical alternatives to the crisis of capitalism.
Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have rightly called on May to resign and pledged to put their manifesto policies to parliament and challenge MPs to support them, forcing the other parties to support them or ‘show their cards’. This should be backed up by protests and strikes outside of Parliament to maximise pressure. For example, if Labour were to put forward their popular policy of scrapping tuition fees, the student union movement should co-ordinate massive protests on that day.
The Blairite wing of the party are now on the back foot. Corbyn should press home his advantage to neuter these Red Tories who will never be reconciled to the party’s shift to left under his leadership. It is dangerous to allow these figures back into prominent positions, including the Shadow Cabinet. They will seek to disrupt a real fight for the manifesto policies at every step. It is more necessary than ever to democratise the Labour Party, allowing expelled socialists to re-join while giving the rank-and-file membership the ability to cleanse the party root-and-branch of Blairism through measures such as mandatory reselection of MPs.
John McDonnell has also rightly called for a million protesters to take to the streets to try and force another election and oust Theresa May from Downing Street. Since the election, Labour has taken the lead in opinion polls. The Trades Union Congress should prepare the ground for a general strike which can shake the battered and bruised Tories from power and allow the election of a government for the many, not the few.
By Kevin Henry