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Jeremy Corbyn’s poetic verse at Glastonbury spoke of the grand possibilities, however, amidst all this hope, the truth is harsher: nothing has changed.
After a brief, even perfunctory campaign, Britain told the Prime Minister to stick it in her ear. Politically, we’ve gone from a government that was merely very, very bad to one which wobbles like an amateur unicyclist just now discovering that the high wire may not be the place to learn.
The Conservatives do indeed have much to lament: Theresa May called a general election to secure a mandate for Brexit and managed instead to convert a 20% lead into the loss of her majority. The mooted landslide turned out to be a blocked drain, backing up and spewing the homophobic, Islamophobic and creationist DUP all over her shoes. She ran a campaign that was by turns invisible, obnoxious, contrived and robotic, occasionally toxic and almost always specious, and which amazingly couldn’t land a punch on Jeremy Corbyn – a man who is from a Conservative viewpoint made almost entirely out of chin.
May’s manifesto (always hers, never the Conservatives’) promised to deliver a broad misery to the poor, the disabled, the old and the young; refused to rule out tax hikes for Tory bedrock voters among the middle class and the wealthy; savaged pensioners; barely mentioned the environment save to say that it probably needed a bit of polluting to keep it honest; and confined itself on the issue of Brexit to the revolutionary information that it means Brexit and must be good because the public, armed with this comprehensive understanding, voted for it. This document was for some reason strangely unappealing to voters. If there was a way in which May could have done herself more damage, short of torturing a puppy live on Good Morning Britain, it’s hard to know what it might have been.
Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, was apparently eaten by an alien pod and secretly replaced by Corbyn 2.0, a feisty and charismatic populist who kept his temper in check, by and large stuck to his party’s positions, and introduced a vigorously sexy agenda that was both traditional and radical, sketching an architecture of borrowing and taxing for the wide public good or, if you’re feeling cynical, promising everyone enormously desirable presents to be paid for by everyone else. A couple of awkward moments to one side, he flew. Flush with the magnanimity of victory, his more avid followers have subsequently taken to Twitter to excoriate the Blairite fifth column that haunts their nightmares, and promise that now is the moment to root out corruption. Purity of (Labour) Essence is paramount and the Red Tory Filth cannot be allowed to steal Britain’s triumphant vital essences.
We Brits just love a plucky underdog story, and this one is a gem. Theresa May makes a superb stock villain, taking not only milk but actual lunches off the tables of children, then turning around and adding that, sadly, she’ll need your house as well.
That is, of course, the most obvious and least sayable truth of this election: Labour didn’t actually win. In fact, they got 57 fewer seats than the worst Conservative effort I’ve ever seen. Not even Iain Duncan Smith, whose drive for Number 10 was more donkey trap than thundering stallion, and even made the word “lacklustre” seem so perilously racy. And yet Corbyn’s abruptly dazzling campaign, which pulled over 70% of the fabled Youth Vote from its burrow and recaptured large parts of Labour’s strayed base, couldn’t draw level. It’s as if Mo Farah ran a personal best and somehow still came second to a morbidly obese dachshund.
Yes, of course: Corbyn was from minute one besieged and assailed by a collection of vested interests pretending to be news organisations. Yes, his parliamentary party tried to dislodge him – though to my eye the “coup” had more in common with a man sitting on a hedgehog than a cadre of Cardinal Richelieus working the levers of the deep state. Yes, without question, he inherited a party fraught with deep demographic divisions, exacerbated by the mendacious pied pipers of the Brexit crew and their “wot-me-a-racist?” narrative of Turkish Muslim rapists and Bulgarian benefit cheats flooding into British hospitals and schools.
But also yes, though it sits ill with his jubilant fan base to mention them, he did some fabulously depressing things. His own shabbily foot-dragging part in the referendum fiasco makes him just as responsible as the buffoon-in-chief, Boris Johnson, for the single political decision most likely to cause economic hardship in the UK over the next decade. Since May fired the starting gun on her Oh Snap election, we’ve seen him sincere, furious, compassionate and compelling. His energy is infectious. The conviction that Ed Balls really only showed in Gangnam Style, Jeremy Corbyn found in himself last month, and it was wonderful. But it was also a bit like watching your ex who never made an effort, turn up looking like a movie star for someone they love. Face it, my friend: he’s just wasn’t that into EU.
One of the few fairly consistent features of the electoral vote was that Labour did well in Remain areas and less well in Leave ones. For lack of a better option, and in a feverishly polarised election, Remain went Labour. The papers are asking loudly what May’s defeat means for her pledges on the single market; they should ask what it means for Labour’s position on Brexit, too. John McDonnell, resolutely deaf to anything that doesn’t suit him, has just declared that the UK must indeed leave the single market in order to abide by the referendum result. What the UK feels about this, having just – consciously or not – produced almost the only result that could throw a spanner in the Brexit machine, we will find out if (when) May’s inevitable ouster and the collapse of confidence and supply triggers yet another general election.
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For the time being, though, Corbyn finally delivered what he was supposed to: a new vision of Britain that didn’t feel like a bargain bucket Singapore with lousy weather. It was high time, too – cornered by the nativist rhetoric over the EU, he’d seemed incapable of articulating anything concrete or inspiring. His low polling in March this year wasn’t purely because the Mail, presently reprising its 1930s glory days, wants him gone.
In part, it’s that polling that makes this moment look like a success. We Brits just love a plucky underdog story, and this one is a gem. Theresa May makes a superb stock villain, taking not only milk but actual lunches off the tables of children, then turning around and adding that, sadly, she’ll need your house as well. The Labour Manifesto, by contrast – unexamined in any serious way during the weird, loud silence of the Conservative election campaign – is made entirely of bold aspirations. In the end, though, all that energy and vision in the last six weeks just wasn’t enough. Labour lost. They did better by 30 seats than they did in 2015, when they also lost. If those 30 constitute a significant margin, how should we view May’s residual 57 seat lead? Corbyn’s gain in vote share was formidable, and today Labour are polling a few points ahead of the stricken victor. The fact remains: it wasn’t enough.
On the Conservative side, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hall have been unceremoniously shown the door. Timothy wrote a short parting note to the political world, which appeared so quickly that one pictures him studiously typing it while Sir Patrick McLoughlin’s boot was still in contact with his buttocks. (Before you object: buttocks are fair game after the campaign, which in a notably ghastly moment featured a paraliptic May simultaneously invoking and disparaging a nude Corbyn. She’s not someone who really gets the meat off the laugh-chicken at the best of times, and open mic bawdy wasn’t something anybody wanted from her. Unlike a reasonable policy on disability benefits.)
Timothy explains that owing to the increasing sophistication of modern campaigning, the Tory electoral myrmidons were focused on the “ever-narrower targeting of specific voters” with the result that they “weren’t talking to the people who decided to vote Labour.” This is no doubt true, and it demonstrates once again that while cock-up is available to all persons regardless of station, even today you can only reach true Hindenburg-class catastrophe by throwing fabulous amounts of money at a problem.
For now we still dream of having, please, an administration who will not require us constantly turn out for demonstrations because they can’t be left alone for half an hour without tanking the pound or buying a trade agreement from a bloke who happens to have a few going cheap in the back of his van.
But this is where Timothy and his Momentum counterparts are united: they’re not interested in pleasing as many people as possible. They’re interested in pleasing enough people to get elected. After that, they can enact their policy agenda for five years – well, in theory, if some idiot doesn’t decide to call a snap election – and everyone will realise how right they were. Whatever portion of the electorate doesn’t buy in – about 60% of the 69% percent who showed up this time, plus the remaining 31% who were busy doing something else and couldn’t be arsed – is just wrong. The problem with you people, these democratic champions seem to say, is that you’ve never really had a proper governing at all. When you’ve been thoroughly governed the way I do it, you never go back. You just lie around moaning in democratic ecstasy saying “thank you, oh god thank you god yes that thing you do with your tax policy!”
Now, a given percentage of the electorate may well be composed of irredeemable plonkers. Certainly in life one does meet people who, despite giving every evidence of being over the age of four, can’t be trusted with sharp objects, cash or their own emotional well-being. But you can’t just assume that 70% of the overall electorate is made up of Richard Curtis characters. When the Timothys of the world taxonomise the vote to find the surest collection of human Lego blocks and leverage their team into office, they aren’t just gaming the system, they’re missing the point. In this unique area of British life, you are not only supposed to blow the bloody doors off. You’re trying to unite a nation.
What would our government look like today if Labour had embraced the notion of the Progressive Alliance? Well, Zac Goldsmith almost certainly wouldn’t have won his 45-vote victory in Richmond Park, and we’d be spared the Thin White Dick’s astonishingly flexible version of environmental activism. That’s almost enough to justify the whole thing as a matter of national sanity, but there’s more. A few of Nicholas Perry’s Liberal Democrats might have put Peter Chowney over the line in Hastings, and May’s Sith apprentice, Amber Rudd, would be seeking gainful employment. St Ives would have returned Andrew George – a genuinely hard-working local Liberal Democrat MP – rather than the Conservative Derek Thomas, accused during the campaign of being essentially invisible between elections. The final tally depends on too many variables, but I suspect we’d be seeing Corbyn in Number 10 with a respectable Alliance majority. And at what terrible price? Brexit, again, no doubt. There’d have to be some commitment to a vote on the final deal. The horror.
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Corbyn and McDonnell repeatedly shot down the Alliance idea. No deals with those terrible reactionaries and their, erm, social democratic liberalism. Or indeed, in the case of the Green Party, eco-socialism-possibly-a-bit-more-authentically-left-than-Labour-don’t-tell-anyone. Next time around, of course, they’ll refuse again, even more confident now that voters will be more flexible and politically adroit than they’re prepared to be, and save them the ideological embarrassment of compromise. The lesson of May’s stunning failure, which politicians across the board are desperate not to learn, is that support in this increasingly reflexive political environment is not owned but lent.
Theresa May’s mad dash into a deal with the DUP is an example of the same continuing hubris, and symmetrically rotten. What does Britain get? A compromised Tory leader reciprocally propping up a DUP leader herself compromised by Cash for Ash, jeopardising London’s ability to mediate a pre-existing crisis in the crucial Good Friday Agreement, so that May can attempt to implement the worst Tory manifesto in living memory and claim the mandate that specifically eluded her to practice a religious zealotry of hard Brexit. The DUP can put her over the line, albeit in a pathetically unstable way. They can’t make her right. We need more than a numerically victorious party, we need a government people can believe in. More: we need a government that treats the mandate as granular and variable rather than as Carte Blanche. A majority of your party’s voters might back a given policy while a majority of the country firmly does not. 40 years ago you could just have declared “we won”. Now, though, that just reads as profoundly autocratic. Politicians like to have a free hand. In 2017, ordinary people seem increasingly to feel they can’t be relied upon and need supervision. The concept of representative democracy is in doubt, and more and more we expect our politicians to respond to evolving situations and public perceptions rather than claiming blanket permission from a vote which may be 12 months old. Elections can be won, but modern democracies can’t.
What I longed for on that Friday morning, with the loneliness that comes from knowing you won’t get it, was the announcement that May and Corbyn took Brexit, climate change, poverty and industrial/informational automation, our ageing population and our fractured, post-Imperial society so seriously that they were going to abide by the election result and form a Unity Coalition. That they were going to sit down and work out ways to respect the wishes of 80% of those who voted, get serious about the difficulty of leaving the EU (something they have both, bluntly, treated with a frivolity it does not merit) and actually govern.
Listening to Corbyn and May discussing Brexit – on the rare occasions they did, as opposed to just name-checking it – you’d think it was a walk in the park… And so here we are – again.
The difficulty of squaring May’s austerity-driven free traders with Corbyn’s investing nationalisers is obvious, but that’s the point. Britain is divided on many issues, but this business of having to babysit our politics still feels like an imposition. Perhaps we’ll end up with a direct democracy out of this mess, but for now we still dream of having, please, an administration of practical, compassionate compromisers who will make things run on time while also housing the poor and healing the sick; who will regulate the banks but leave room for a brilliant soul to make a few bob; who will ensure that our children get a great education; reject ugly prejudices and murderous ideologies; protect our planet; and perhaps most of all, who will not require us constantly to get upset and turn out for demonstrations and elections and plebiscites because they can’t be left alone for half an hour without tanking the pound or buying a trade agreement from a bloke who happens to have a few going cheap in the back of his van.
The sheer moonshot difficulty of running a Unity Coalition is what makes it worthwhile. Our politics is increasingly the politics of simple answers to complex questions, as if governing a country were best done in the manner of a medieval quack doctor. Got a urinary infection? Quick course of leeches’ll sort you right out. Cancer? Probably best to go with leeches. Cholera? Eat this mouldy bread! No, I’m having a laugh, stick with leeches. Listening to Corbyn and May discussing Brexit – on the rare occasions they did, as opposed to just name-checking it – you’d think it was a walk in the park. We wouldn’t necessarily get poorer, Corbyn explained, and we’d certainly be able to enjoy the benefits of the single market while managing migration. Leeches are amazingly versatile.
And so here we are – again. Theresa May lost the election and is therefore still our Prime Minister. Jeremy Corbyn lost it and that’s a triumph. Hardliners on both sides are saying that next time it’ll be different: they’ll do it more, do it harder, and that’ll mean they win and can govern us all so much we’ll learn to like it. The gospelisation of policy in a polarised nation is a poison. It kills proper scrutiny and fertilises nonsense. May’s Brexit agenda remains a fog. Corbyn’s manifesto costings – based in part on similarly fatuous assumptions about Brexit – may well be entirely too optimistic. We simply can’t afford, in any sense, to keep stepping back and forth across the Rubicon they have created. Nor should we have to: three quarters of the country identifies as some sort of centrist, yet both sides assume that the centre is just filled with ditherers. The centre isn’t the territory of shameful compliance or pathetic indecision, because politics is not truly a series of points on a line. It just suits the main parties to define it so and keep us in artificial opposition.
And so here we all are, stuck in the flicker of the political strobe, wishing they’d just meet us in the middle and get on with it.