Economics and politics - comment and analysis
3. April 2017 I Will Denayer I Countries and Regions, Europe, General, General Politics

Jeremy Corbyn, Theresa May, Henry VIII and Britain’s future. Part 1: Corbyn, the PLP and the great betrayal


This is a two part series on Britain. The first part deals with Labour. The second part is about May, who is, rightfully, being accused of a sweeping “power grab” after she unveiled plans that grant her ministers the ability to rewrite reams of British law without parliamentary oversight – the so-called “Henry VIII” powers. May has until the 29th of March 2019 to broker a deal with the EU. This is a complete mission impossible. But let us first talk about Jeremy Corbyn and Labour.

Jeremy Corbyn

Corbyn continues to sink in the polls. Even a majority of 2015 Labour voters are of the opinion that May makes a better PM than Corbyn (the survey results can be found here). In the population at large, 51% thinks that May ‘makes the best Prime Minister.’ Only 13% think that Corbyn would ‘make the best Prime Minister.’ Corbyn has had the worst effect on his party’s voting intention of the major party leaders. People see Corbyn as “unfavourable across all social classes, regions, age groups, gender – and, as said, even Labour voters.  According to a YouGov poll of last February, 16% of labour voters see him favourable, 28% see him  somewhat favourable, 26% see him somewhat unfavourable and 20% see him very unfavourable (10% are unsure). Compare these figures to May’s: she is both more popular than her Conservative Party and less unpopular. Tim Farron is less popular than the Liberal Democrats, but also less unpopular. New UKIP leader Paul Nuttall is similarly less liked than UKIP, but also less disliked (see also here).

As The Mirror writes, it would be great if Corbyn could turn these figures around, but given how he has been alienating Remain voters and voters in Scotland, there is no chance. Corbyn is not winning back Scotland. Without Scotland, Labour cannot win the election. Labour’s decimation at the 2015 general election was in large part due to the routing in Scotland. Labour lost 40 seats, all to the SNP. Its share of the vote was 24.3 per cent. When Corbyn ran for Labour leader in the autumn of 2015, he argued he was the candidate to win back Scotland, after years of decline. The YouGov polling tells another story. In Scotland, 34% of voters have a “very unfavourable” opinion of Corbyn and 29% “feel somewhat unfavourably.” Just 5% feel “very favourable” and 22% feel “somewhat favourable” towards him. This is really bad. Even May’s “unfavourability” rating (32%) is better than Corbyn’s, despite the fact that the Tories have been unpopular in Scotland for much of the last 40 years. Leaders Paul Nuttall (UKIP) and Tim Farron (Lib Dems), are also less unpopular than Corbyn, scoring 30% and 17% respectively (see here and here).

Corbyn did what he promised to do: bringing together leave and remain voters. Sadly, Corbyn brought them together in opposition to him. In order to win the 2020 general election, Labour has to win at the minimum 50% of the seats it lost in Scotland in 2015 (these are 20 seats). It has to target the votes of the young urban multicultural population (which is firmly pro Remain) and it cannot afford to lose too many of the votes of the old industrial class of the mainly pro Brexit hinterlands to UKIP (or anyone else). Most political strategists, including the infamous John McTernan (see also here and here) and many political scientists consider this mission impossible. I have explained in several articles that this is imminently possible. There is a clear strategy available. Sadly, it is not happening and it will not happen. Miracles aside, Labour will lose in 2020.

This is not just “my opinion.” It is backed up by political science research:  once you get that far behind, you won’t come back. According to John Curtice, professor of politics in Strathclyde, the apparent rule in British politics is that oppositions that fail to establish a poll lead early on are doomed to fail at the subsequent general election (see here). This is not an iron law. Being ahead in the polls at an early stage is no guarantee of subsequent electoral success. Miliband was narrowly ahead of the Conservatives in the autumn of 2011, yet he still crashed to defeat in 2015. However, Curtice explains, so far at least, being behind after sixteen months has always been followed by electoral defeat (see here).

Corbyn’s position puts him at odds with the two-thirds of Labour voters (near 67%) who backed Remain and fellow left-of-centre opposition parties in the House: the SNP, the Lib Dems, the SDLP, and the Green MP Caroline Lucas – parties and people that oppose austerity and want to rebuild a social UK but, as they oppose the Brexit, Labour is not interesting in working together (see here). Meanwhile, the Tories feel incredibly confident. With such opposition, they cannot lose.

The great betrayal

The situation is very difficult for Corbyn. He is the leader of one of the two Labour parties in Britain. The other is the Parliamentary Labour Party (see here). This group of MPs is dominated by the Blairites. The PLP includes individuals such as Blairite Rachel Reeves (see here). These people are backed up by “research” institutes such as the Fabian Society and “strategists” such as McTernan. That McTernan still has a voice within the part is a major scandal in itself (see here for his accomplishment). It is here that the crux of the problem lies. The game that the Blairites – New Labour – have been playing is utterly disgusting and completely counterproductive for Labour as a whole.

For the last 35 years, Labour did little or nothing for the old industrial working class. Work disappeared. Often enough, nothing came in its place. Old vibrant workers’ communities transformed into deprived areas. Social welfare became punitive. Poverty and social exclusion increased (or exploded) and with it came political exclusion, for from the moment social democracy stopped standing up for these workers, no one did. This story has often been told (see here about the ‘demonization of the working class’ and here on (against) the third way). As a result, these communities stayed behind without any real political representation. This is not only a British phenomenon. The same happened almost everywhere in Europe. No one listened to these people. The strategists of the main “democratic” parties reasoned that, if the old working class/the new unemployed class/the precariat became politically apathetic, so much the better. Give them betting, football and drinking and in case that does not do the trick there is always sheer repression.  There is, for example, Rachel Reeves (from Leeds) who “promised” that Labour would be tougher on benefits (esp. long-term unemployment) than the Tories. She said that Labour is not the party of “welfare recipients” (see here and here – the Guardian was of course one of the first to agree). Nothing has ever been heard about Reeves’ plan to increase employment or rebuild the deprived areas, but then no one expects that. A fair guess is that it resolves around cutting wages – how else?

It is because of this betrayal that people of the old industrial hinterland started to vote UKIP (and not, as Bo Rothstein says, because people “perceive” the quality of their government institutions wrongly – in one word, the perceptions of the white working class are off (see here)).

UKIP was a blessing for the main political parties for several simple reasons. UKIP could grow, it was not dangerous anyway (it is not in electoral terms – there is one UKIP MP in Whitehall). In the meantime, all the nonsense about Englishness, the best country in the world and the bashing of immigrants – as Frankie Boyle recently said “especially foreigners” – canalised popular distrust, frustration and anger away from the real culprits – the Tories and New Labour and their neo-liberal policies, their austerity, their lack of elementary human decency, their lack of empathy, their eagerness to commodify the universe, their privatisations, their despise for the public world, their programs to destroy the welfare state, their adoration for everyone who had money. That was the point. Money was the only point.

At the same time, the march of the right and the extreme right gave the centre the opportunity to present itself as democratic, open, inclusive, pluralist, in one word, decent. This ideological divide of us against them also had the function of obfuscating how much the “centre” itself has evolved to the right: so much that there was hardly a centre left. Mainstream parties have been playing this game all over Europe for decades.

In the year 2016, it transpired that there is a problem with this strategy, one that everyone could see. In the US, the Democratic Party went to the election proclaiming that they did not need the vote of the blue-collar workers. Completely alienated from the real world and feeling invincible (because Clinton had all the money, all the political backing, the whole press was behind her, the deep state, she had all the intellectuals, all the movie stars, all the singers and all the basket ball players, Obama, Sanders, Bush and an important part of the Republican establishment), Clinton campaigned for the continuation of Obama’s economic policies. As a result, the Democrats lost Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan and by ten o’clock in the evening of election day it was clear that Trump had won. Irish Labour noticed the problem in 2015, when it received almost 7% of the vote, its worst result since 1932. Dutch Labour noticed it two weeks ago (with a grandiose 6% of the vote and a loss of 29 seats). Of course, in 2015, Labour lost the election in Britain, after five years of austerity and after Miliband had been plagiarising the Tory’s agenda.

What is the reaction to all of this from the Blairite PLP and McTernan (who, as the main political strategist for Scotland, is personally responsible for the loss of 40 seats in the North in 2015)? What does the “research” of the Fabian Society and other “institutions” tell us? Their hypocrisy is infinite. After we have treated people like shit for forty years – and handled bankers, developers, entrepreneurs, tax evaders with gloves – we now need to respect their voting behaviour! We therefore need to … move to the right (where we ended up 40 years ago already and where we want to be). We need to accommodate the racists, otherwise Reeves and the Fabians warn, there will be riots in Leeds. Forget all this Labour stuff about employment, equal chances, investment in infrastructure, industrial renewal, rebuilding the welfare state (that we helped to destroy) – what we need now are, as our beloved electorate is telling us, restrictions to immigration!

If some academics write reports and articles that prove that immigrants are an asset to the country – they bring in more than they take out – to Reeves and the Fabian Society this is just living proof that these scientists do not understand politics. It is not facts that are important, it is all about sentiments, perceptions, beliefs.

This really means that if enough people would think that dogs ruined the economy of Britain, there is nothing else democratic Labour could do, except shooting the dogs, even if we do not believe for a moment ourselves that it was indeed the dogs. In fact, it was us and the Tories who declared war on the working class and made capital more dominant in Britain than ever. The trick now is to agree that it is the dogs, so the electorate will not take it out on us or, at least, not too much. Indeed, if we go so far to suggest ourselves that it were indeed the canines, we may keep some of the votes – and keep our seats, our jobs and our careers. If the price we need to pay for this is to support policies which will further harm the electorate of the industrial hinterlands, what is the problem with that? This is nothing we did not already do for decades. To hell with them. As long as they vote for us.

That is the great betrayal. It is the political oligarchy defending its position, its jobs, its careers against those that it is supposed to stand up for and represent. Or who do these people think they are? Are they universalist humanitarians (cf. the Fabian Society charter)? Are they reformist democratic socialists (cf. idem)?

No vision, no leadership

To his great merit, Corbyn himself has nothing to do with any of these people. Many things can be said about Corbyn, but not that he has no integrity. But that does not mean that he is not to blame also. Corbyn fell for the utterly fake argument that the ‘democratic will of the electorate has to be respected,’ instead of asking himself where this “will” came from to begin with. The answer should be from 40 years of horrendous neoliberal policies that Labour should fight tooth to nail. It is, of course, a weak argument to begin with, given that a majority of Labour voted to Remain and that the 52% who backed Brexit constituted just 37% of eligible voters.

Who understands the man? This week, Corbyn again denied that he was not on the leave side during the referendum (the Labour Party campaigned for remain, but Corbyn’s personal campaign was decidedly lackluster). He was, he said, for 7 out of 10 for remaining. Today, Corbyn is supporting the Brexit of the arch enemy, the Tories. Corbyn wants to leave the EU, but he wants full access to the single market. He opposes restrictions to free migration, which was the main revindication of the Brexit voters. Or perhaps he will agree to restrictions in the North, but not in London and the South. It becomes difficult to lead the opposition when you and the government agree upon the same course – a course that still cannot be articulated in any precise way (cf. May’s lunacy ‘to just drop out’ if there is no agreement (see part two)). But then, Jeremy Corbyn is no ordinary opposition leader. Only he could convene an “emergency” rally outside Parliament to protest against the triggering of Art. 50, then fail to turn up, while simultaneously whipping his own MPs to support it. Okay Corbyn, what is it going to be? A lot of well-meaning people have lost their patience already. Corbyn ended up on the wrong side of the Brexit divide and now Labour is losing supporters, members and voters.

What should happen now is by no means an easy question. The leftist pro remain social democratic opposition within Labour is growing by the day. But – and this is the ultimate tragic irony – Corbyn seems currently untouchable. Any attempt to organise a new leadership contest will most likely lead to the victory of a Blairite candidate. It looks really bad. If Corbyn would have stood up against the Brexit from day one, he could today perhaps be the most popular politician in the United Kingdom, a politician which could inspire the Left all over Europe. Instead, Labour is now sinking faster and deeper than under Miliband. It is a real shame.