Britain’s election result was a shock, even in today’s volatile political climate. The outcome is potentially disastrous, but it is unclear whether Corbyn could have pursued his agenda even if he had actually won.
As political own goals go, they don’t get much more spectacular or calamitous. Theresa May’s catastrophically misjudged decision to go to the polls early and give herself a mandate to govern will go down as one of the greatest unforced errors in political history.
To be fair, almost no one saw this coming. Given her commanding lead in the opinion polls when she called the election, she might be forgiven for feeling decisiveness was the order of the day. The fact that she was facing a supposedly hapless and unpopular opposition leader didn’t hurt either, of course.
Even though we should be used to surprises in the current increasingly volatile and unpredictable international political climate, the scale of the Tories’ losses and Labour’s resurgence are still quite remarkable. They tell us something about politics well beyond the increasingly dysfunctional and contested confines of the UK.
That Jeremy Corbyn was so seriously underestimated by the commentariat, his political opponents and even many of his comrades in the Labour Party is a telling indicator of our apparent collective inability to read, let alone understand the times we live in.
True, there were some appalling gaffes and misjudgments on the part of May’s supposedly brilliant team of advisors and spin-doctors: anyone who thinks that promising to make old people sell their houses to pay for their health care – quickly pilloried as the ‘dementia tax’ – ought to seek different employment.
Likewise May came across as wooden, robotic and unwilling to mix with the hoi polloi. Corbyn, by contrast, seemed genuine, guileless and the absolute antithesis of the sort of carefully managed and scripted politics that has alienated so many across the Western world. There is plainly a big lesson for professional politicians everywhere, but it is possibly one they are incapable of learning from or responding to.
The so-called Blairites who are so appalled by the rise of Corbyn are precisely the sorts of professional politicians who seem to stand for nothing, except perhaps the advancement of their own careers. The ALP in this country has more than its fair share of similar figures and it is also no surprise that its membership has declined precipitously over recent years.
The conventional wisdom is that this is a function of the decline of mass party politics not the ascendancy of the ‘faceless men’ (and women) who seem to stand for nothing. Corbyn’s remarkable rise has demolished this idea. On the contrary, his ascension has been driven by a grass roots support that has seen a dramatic expansion of the Labour Party’s membership, especially amongst the supposedly apathetic, disengaged young.
Like Bernie Sanders in the US, Corbyn has been able to galvanize a new generation into political action in a way that none of his rivals inside or outside Labour can begin to match. The policies of this startlingly uncharismatic figure plainly resonated with ‘the many’, even if ‘the few’ were predictably aghast.
Indeed, the conventional wisdom in the UK and Australia is that a Corbyn government would be the beginning of the end for Britain as a responsible, respected, even governable country. The specter of a ‘socialist’ government can still put the wind up the ruling class, it seems.
Whether all this angst is merited is quite another question. Francois Mitterand discovered just how difficult it was to impose ‘radical’ economic policies in the face of powerful domestic vested interests and the array of external forces subsumed under the rubric of ‘globalization’. A loss of confidence on the part of the international ‘investment community’ can crimp the style and ambition of even the most powerful international leaders.
Bill Clinton discovered this when he belatedly recognized the constraining impact of the bond markets – and he wasn’t even a radical. How much more difficult for a Corbyn-like figure to try and actually implement some of the policies that appeal to his core supporters?
The key question now is what happens after the limits of the ‘far left’ or – in America’s current case – the ‘far right’ are reached and revealed? Where do young idealists – or an increasingly disillusioned white working class, for that matter – actually go when their political heroes are revealed to be just as incapable of fulfilling their promises as their more conventional and discredited counterparts?
It would have been interesting to see what Corbyn made of Britain’s most powerful position given the chance. Even a constrained Corbyn would likely have broken the mold – and possibly the bank – if he had been able to follow through on some of his goals. As it is, the UK has added a dysfunctional government with a discredited and implausible agenda to its growing list of problems. It puts some of Australia’s alleged problems in perspective if nothing else.