What They Don’t Talk About Not Talking About

I was going to restart this blog for the summer with a post about a relatively technical paper on Anthropocene stratigraphy. But today doesn’t seem the time (stay tuned!). Instead it’s the time for a dozen hot takes on the UK general election. Right?

(I’m writing on Sunday afternoon, as the Conservative–DUP deal seems to be running into the sand after slick initial progress, a fired-up Corbyn is talking about trying to press some Labour policies through parliament with support from Tory rebels, and the immediate future of the Brexit negotiations – as indeed of everything else – looks like an utter shambles)

  1. It was a gleeful, joyous night. I’ve had such a series of sleepless nights watching defeats unfold in big votes: Scottish independence, the 2015 general election, the 2016 local elections here in Leeds (when the Greens were hoping to make a breakthrough, and didn’t), the EU referendum, the US presidential. I’d forgotten what a good one feels like. And this really was a good one. Almost ten years after the crisis of neoliberalism became visible in the UK (the bank run on Northern Rock started on 14 September 2007), a response from the left with real potency has finally emerged here, and changed the sense of what’s possible.

Lots of people have noted that Labour’s share of the vote increased more than in any other election since 1945: Corbyn put on 9.5%, exceeding Blair’s 8.8% in 1997. But in fact it’s even more impressive than that. Turnout fell in 1997, but on Thursday it rose. John Smith and Tony Blair took five years to attract just under two million more Labour voters between 1992 and 1997, with the help of Black Monday, Major’s “bastards,” cash for questions, the cones hotline, the endorsement of the Sun, et al. In two years Corbyn added more than 3.5 million Labour voters, in the teeth of solid opposition from the right wing of his own party onwards. A minor Bennite has made the kind of electoral progress that Foot and Benn themselves could never accomplish, thanks to his unambiguous socialist credentials, his genial sincerity, a certain snaggle-toothed charisma, and, mainly, being in the right place at the right time.

Chris Leslie was on the radio yesterday morning pouring cold water on Labour’s progress and implying that a centrist leader would have done better. That’s a nonsensical claim. There are far too many variables involved to be certain either way, but it’s hard to imagine Andy Burnham, Liz Kendall or (even) Yvette Cooper, the defeated candidates in the 2015 leadership election, getting this result, Brexit or no Brexit. There was much dismal talk after the 2015 general election that Labour would find it impossible to recover fast enough to win as early as 2020; a Labour majority this year no longer seems absolutely impossible, though still unlikely. (In any case, Labour did have an anti-Corbynite leader in this election, in Scotland. And there it was Ruth Davidson, not Kezia Dugdale, who made the running in taking unionist votes back from the SNP.)

The truth is that Corbyn and the Labour left owe hardly anything to anyone else after this week. The right-wing press, both broadsheet and tabloid, have shot their bolt. About four-fifths of the Parliamentary Labour Party came out directly against the current leadership in Owen Smith’s challenge last year; the Labour right is a broken-down machine with close to zero electoral nous or potency independent of the party’s left. Labour made few concessions to centrist orthodoxy during the general election campaign. The manifesto was a skillful rallying-cry that filtered, but largely didn’t dilute, Corbynism. My local Labour MP didn’t mention Corbyn in his leaflets, and he and many other incumbents evidently have something of a personal vote, but it’s nonetheless obvious that the national picture dominated the results.

  1. And yet. New Labour took votes directly from the Tories in 1997, whereas Theresa May got well over two million more votes this time than David Cameron did two years ago. Blair won, and Corbyn lost. We didn’t need this week to tell us that the left can do heroic failure all right.

The fear that Corbyn was an electoral liability hadn’t come out of thin air. Labour did very badly in the local elections just last month. (That said, Thursday’s result does make Labour’s incremental closing in the polls in early summer last year, just before the hopelessly panicked leadership challenge, look more real and more significant than it previously had.) And although Owen Jones has now recanted, the sympathetic but disillusioned analyses of Corbyn and Corbynism that he and Tom Crewe have previously offered point to weaknesses that were ameliorated but not resolved by seven weeks of barnstorming campaigning. It would be unwise to forget last summer’s stories of managerial and policy-making dysfunction by Corbyn himself and those around him, or that toe-curling Vice documentary.

The most radical thing about Corbyn is his basic disaffection from the complacencies and folderols of the military/colonial British state. That’s what made him at least sympathetic, it seems, to the interpretation of the IRA’s military campaign as a decolonial struggle in the 1980s. Given that, he sure is a fan of the party-based first-past-the-post system that manages the state’s relationship with democracy so effectively.

Seeing Corbyn speak often reminds me of the old line about Labour owing more to Methodism than to Marx. Corbyn’s moralism is the reason for his current success, but in the end it might also be what limits him.

  1. FiveThirtyEight noted the day before the election that the polls suggested there was about a one in three chance of a hung parliament. The exit poll shouldn’t have been nearly as shocking to most people as it actually was. This might be a hostage to fortune, but psephology is a progressive science, and it’s starting to seem as if Nate Silver has solved the interpretation of polling data, just as John Curtice appears to have solved UK exit polling.
  2. Sinn Fein’s advance lowered the real threshold for a majority to 322. The Tories won 318 seats. They lost Crewe & Nantwich by 48 votes, Newcastle-under-Lyme by 30 votes, Dudley North by 22 votes and Kensington, miraculously, by 20 votes.
  1. But the Tories might be able to assemble a sort of majority anyway. A lot will depend on how progressives and liberals can frame the DUP over the next 24 or 48 hours. Northern Irish politics is normally ignored to a deplorable extent in England, and Labour have been pretty inept at banging the drum against their opponents ever since 2010. De-normalising the planned new alignment on the right means framing the DUP (accurately) as a sectarian initiative with antecedents in militant loyalism: “the Tories are so weak and desperate now that they’re in hock to the party of creepy men in red berets.”
  1. A confession: even though I’ve written about Percy Shelley, I’d somehow never grasped the allusion in the slogan “for the many, not the few.”
  1. Uncomfortable truths department: The Tories’ proposed ‘dementia tax’ was a highly progressive way of funding a state-led resolution to the crisis in social care provision. As Home Secretary, Theresa May took a courageous stand against the excesses of the Police Federation; Labour used the aftermath of a terrorist atrocity to criticise her de-escalation of the armed wing of the police. Labour’s “fully costed” manifesto (unlike the Lib Dems’) more or less signed them up to the Tories’ proposals for further cuts to social security.
  1. I suspect that the conventional wisdom this weekend is overstating the centrality of students and the young to Corbyn’s electoral coalition, and understating the importance of working-class votes. But we’ll learn more in post-election polling.
  1. The conventional wisdom also has it that this was the return of two-party tribal politics. That too seems hasty to me. The two largest parties took 82% of the vote this time, up from 65%: certainly a huge increase. But there were specific, one-off reasons why UKIP and the SNP fell back. The Lib Dems and Plaid lost a few votes, but they both gained seats. And Labour and the Tories’ Northern Irish sister parties were wiped out by rivals on their outer flanks. Only the Greens faced a traditional major-party squeeze.
  1. The Greens’ strategy was to try to thread a needle that they knew couldn’t be threaded, and to limit the losses that they’d sustain in doing so. 2015 was a high water mark: 1.16 million votes, nearly as many as the SNP. Since then, some voters and activists have simply switched to a rejuvenated Labour party. A more complicated challenge has been their remaining members’ and sympathisers’ increasing aversion to a plague-on-both-your-houses standpoint that would risk letting in the Tories in marginal constituencies. And Labour have been absolutely unwilling to countenance anything like an electoral pact.

That left only one option: unilateral disarmament for Labour’s benefit in several key marginals (here in Leeds that meant Morley & Outwood and Pudsey, both of which the Conservatives retained anyway), whilst urging undiminished support for the Greens over Labour everywhere else, and returning to a more distinctively environmentalist platform after putting social justice to the fore in 2015. That’s not an easy position to be in, and in the end their support halved, down to 525,000.

The exception was Brighton Pavilion, where the extraordinary Caroline Lucas has now turned the 1200 majority she first won in a three-way marginal in 2010 into a huge personal following: she took more than 50% of the vote. In Bristol West, where it once hadn’t seemed inconceivable that the Greens might chase down a nine-point Labour lead, they dropped to third, 38,000 votes behind.

  1. The commentariat have talked about how little talk there was of Brexit policy during the supposed Brexit election. But there’s something that they haven’t even talked about the parties not talking about. The environment was practically absent from this election.

I didn’t follow Bernie Sanders’ campaign at all closely, but I had the impression that one of his core rhetorical manoeuvres was to speak about economic, social and environmental justice in the same breath. Corbyn doesn’t. No-one around Corbyn does. Most of the celebratory responses to his incomplete triumph, including Owen Jones’s, sustained a deafening silence on the topic (I haven’t read everything; I’m sure there were exceptions).

It’s not that there was nothing in the manifesto. Labour’s platform was far better than the Tories’. The manifesto’s proposed ban on fracking and its advocacy for democratisation in the energy industry were both important stands. (There was also: “To safeguard the offshore oil and gas industry, we will provide a strategy focused on protecting vital North Sea assets, and the jobs and skills that depend on them.”) Its “Leading Richer Lives” chapter included a couple of benign if uncontroversial pages on neonicotinoids, tree planting, bottle recycling, puppy selling and the like. There was little on climate change per se; there was a passing promise to “consider” a land value tax. But whatever was in the manifesto, it was scarcely part of Corbyn’s pitch to voters.

It easily could have been. His pitch centred on helping out the young: free education, security in employment, better housing. A high-profile environmental/climate agenda would have fitted right in. But he avoided it. Why?

  1. It’s now clear that Corbyn was right after all to say that Ed Miliband’s milk-and-water social democratic strategy in 2010–15 was counterproductively timid. But Miliband, who had been an excellent secretary of state for climate change, was a dedicated climate hawk within the parameters that he believed himself caught inside. The centrist Sadiq Khan turned air pollution into a defining issue of his successful London mayoralty campaign. Compared to other recent party figureheads, Labour’s otherwise exciting current leadership have failed or refused to make progress towards a left-ecological politics in the UK.

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