IAN MCAULEY. Learning from the UK election

Jun 12, 2017

There are many local factors explaining the comparative fortunes of Theresa May’s Conservative Party and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party in last week’s UK election. Issues around Brexit are unique to the UK, and May’s campaign was inept. But Corbyn’s comparative success, in defiance of the assumptions of the media and self-appointed policy elites, carries a message that goes beyond Britain, all the way to our own democracy.

Political stupidity is one explanation for the shock outcome of the UK election. Whatever reason Theresa May might have had for calling an early election, the general (and usually correct) public belief is that governments call early elections when they believe there are tough times ahead. And even the British, conditioned as they are to condescending Tory patriarchs, must have found her haughty arrogance unattractive.

Then there was her basic policy platform, centred on her desire for a mandate to take a hard and aggressive stance in Brexit negotiations. This is in a country where just under half the voting population, only a year ago, wanted to stay in the EU, and where many of the other half are coming to have second thoughts.

The deal she has done with the ten members of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party will be troublesome. While she may be comfortable with their general far right orientation, it should be remembered that in last year’s referendum Northern Ireland voted strongly to remain in the EU. Northern Ireland shares a porous land border with the Republic of Ireland; its economy is closely integrated with the Republic’s, and in a reversal of historical conditions, the Republic is more prosperous than Northern Ireland.

It’s hard therefore to see how the Democratic Unionist Party representatives can be persuaded to go along with May’s “hard Brexit” policy.

A political realist in May’s situation might have chosen an agreement with the twelve members of the Liberal Democrats, allowing herself to be seen to be pushed towards a softer deal with the EU, or even a re-run referendum. But in rejecting this possible face-saver she has confirmed what many of her critics have asserted: she wants to re-establish a British separation from and a hostility towards the rest of Europe.

These are specific British issues with little relevance for Australia. There was a time when political and economic problems in the UK would have spelt problems for Australia, but that country now accounts for less than four per cent of our exports.

Some commentators have suggested that the election saw a return to the normalcy of a two-party system, and indeed both the main parties picked up support at the expense of minor parties: Labour by about ten per cent and the Conservatives by about five per cent. But this movement has to do with local factors, including the collapse of UKIP. In countries with one-shot first-past-the-post election systems a two-party system tends to become entrenched (as it is in the US).

The unexpected success of the UK Labour Party, however, may have relevance for other democracies, including ours.

Paul Kelly of The Australian has been quick to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn is a left-wing version of Donald Trump, riding a populist wave of discontent, but that interpretation is not borne out by early analysis published by the Financial Times. Labour did well among the young, among the well-educated, among Londoners, and among those who want Britain to remain in the EU. This is almost the diametrically opposite demographic of those who voted for Trump, and of those who have been voting for far-right parties in mainland European countries.

Also, unlike Trump, Corbyn is an experienced politician. That experience is not in his connections with the party machine (in that regard Kelly correctly describes him as an “outsider”), but in his connections with the party’s supporters. Like Trump (and unlike Clinton and May) he spoke without recourse to scripted speaking notes, but unlike Trump he did not resort to dog whistles, lies, and ad-hominem attacks on his opponents.

He spoke about things that matter to many people – the failure of privatisation, widening inequality, the need to sustain important government services, the loss of meaningful jobs, and, above all, the way the current political and economic systems have delivered the young such a bad deal.

Corbyn’s critics have tended to represent him as out-of-touch, a dreamer, a utopian, or even as a sentimentalist who yearns for the postwar economic settlement – when state-owned enterprises were overstaffed and over-bureaucratised and a protected manufacturing sector produced unreliable and expensive cars. But Corbyn’s stance in last year’s referendum was clearly in support of economic openness – remaining in the EU in particular – and it’s sloppy and misleading logic to suggest that anyone who opposes privatisation supports turning railroads and other utilities into featherbeds for the work-shy.

Corbyn’s policies constitute a carefully-considered social-democratic platform, a platform that would be considered quite orthodox in any mainland European democracy – and seem to be so-regarded by a significant proportion of Britain’s voters.

Although there are significant cultural, institutional and historical differences between Britain and Australia, Labour’s success in the UK election has a message for our own Labor party, and for others who lay claim to represent “progressive” or “left” viewpoints.


Ian McAuley is an Adjunct Lecturer in Public Sector Finance at the University of Canberra and a Fellow at the Centre for Policy Development.

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