By Daniel Margrain
No sooner had PM Theresa May announced her decision to go to the country in a snap election predicated on a single issue Brexit strategy, the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, was quickly out of the blocks in his attempts to wrong-foot her. Corbyn’s first General Election campaign speech and Q&A in which he outlined a broad set of policies to tackle growing inequality and reverse years of Tory austerity, was a tour de force.
The Labour leader’s critics – including many within his own party – argue he is unelectable. However, Corbyn’s political record would suggest otherwise. In his constituency of Islington North, Corbyn inherited a majority of 4,456, which is now 21,194. He’s one of the few Labour MPs whose vote increased between 2005 and 2010, when he added 5,685 to his majority. It must also be remembered that Corbyn’s record during elections is exemplary, and that pre-coup, Labour led the Tories in three polls in a row over 41 days.
Furthermore, London and Bristol now have Labour mayors, rolling back years of Tory dominance, while Labour’s majorities in by-elections have generally increased. It’s true that the by-election in Copeland was a major disappointment but this was largely offset by Gareth Snell who took the Stoke seat.
It is also worth noting that Labour won three local government by-elections – two off the Tories and one off the SNP. In last May’s local elections, the party overtook the Tories in the share of the vote, coming from seven points behind at the last election.
Meanwhile, the party haemorrhaged 4.9 million votes between 1997 and 2010 under the ‘triangulated’ leadership of Tony Blair. The man who took the country to war in Iraq under a false prospectus, and who lobbies on behalf of some of the world’s most brutal and corrupt dictators, claimed in a moment of Orwellian doublespeak that Corbyn is a disaster for the party. Given Blair’s toxicity, this can only be beneficial for the current Labour leader’s fortunes.
There are other potentially toxic issues that Corbyn can capitalize on. For example, May’s unpopular campaign focusing on grammar schools is likely to play into Corbyn’s hands. Unfortunately, this gain could be offset by his misjudged Brexit strategy prior to May’s announcement which I commented on here. But, as I contend below, this situation is not irreversible.
Other issues that the Tories won’t be able to hide away from, is the chaos in the NHS and social care sector, the scandal of zero hours contracts, in-work poverty and welfare cuts among others.
Ultimately, the implication the public don’t necessarily favour Corbyn’s politics is wrong. His position on the NHS and the re-nationalization of the railways, for example, are universally popular. Rather, it’s more the case that the elite political-media establishment know Corbyn is incorruptible and therefore feel they are unable to win him over on their own terms. Consequently, they realize that the longer Corbyn remains at the helm the more likely it will be that those sympathetic to him and his policies will be elected into positions of power.
The fact that the media barons are constantly drumming it into the public’s heads that Corbyn is useless and should resign, is a testament to his unflinching endurance to see through the mandate entrusted upon him by the rank and file. If both the right-wing Tory media and his political opponents are so convinced that he has no chance of winning the election, why would they keep insisting that he resign?
Moreover, the criticism often leveled at Corbyn that he provides weak opposition at the dispatch box during PMQs, is belied by the fact that under his leadership the Tories have been forced into some thirty policy u-turns.
Cracks have already started to appear in the Tory armory. As Left-Foot Forward have noted, both the PMs press secretary, and her director of communications and long-term adviser, have departed company with her. In addition, “May’s two closest advisers have a long history of intra-government feuds – both were forced to leave May’s home office team after rifts with other members of David Cameron’s cabinet – and the trend seems to be continuing in Number 10.”
“The string of departures from Number 10 has been linked to May’s highly controlled leadership style. Government officials frequently report that power over government messaging and media strategy is heavily concentrated in the hands of ‘the chiefs’… and that more junior members of staff have limited freedom to operate.”
May’s authoritarianism has arguably been the motivating factor which has led to what the Canary reported (April 24, 2017) as the resignation of a third senior adviser from Downing Street within a week. The PMs control freakery is underlined by what Ash Sarkar, describes as “a moment of short-term political opportunism which actually has potential catastrophic affects in terms of a concentration of power in the executive.”
It’s May’s totalitarian instincts that are symbiotic of the rightward drift in politics over the last four decades, that has culminated in some of the most severe attacks on our civil liberties within living memory.
Five months ago (November 20, 2016), former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray, published a blog piece that is apposite for the current situation. In it, he illustrates an example of the PMs total contempt for democracy legitimized by what he accurately terms as “an over-mighty executive government backed by corporate wealth which controls a corporate media.”
“Her [May’s] default position is to retreat into secrecy and blatant abuse of power. That is precisely what we are seeing over Brexit, where there is no plan and much to hide. May’s natural instinct is to brook no opposition, debate or discussion of her actions, but to proceed on the basis of executive fiat, with as little information as possible given to parliament, devolved authorities and – Heaven forbid – the public.”
Both Murray and Sarkar’s assertions, in addition to the public being denied a televised debate, May’s banning of both the public and journalists from Tory events and the insistence that her MPs sign a three lock pledge, reinforce the notion that the PM is refusing to participate in democracy.
May’s stage-managed autocratic style, indicative of her reluctance to allow proper democratic scrutiny, points to a lack of intellectual acumen and the paucity of her campaign policies underpinned by the repetitive mantra, “strong and stable” – amusingly parodied by Mike Sivier (April 27, 2017).
The former has been picked-up on by Craig Murray: “That May is intellectually out of her depth is plain even to Conservatives every Prime Minister’s question time in the Commons”, he said.
May’s lightweight campaign matches the Tories inability to present a package of policies to the public. Even the establishment columnist, Fraser Nelson, revealed in the Telegraph (April 21, 2017), that May’s election manifesto will be extremely light in both content and detail which a single hard Brexit strategy implies.
An illustration of the PMs lack of intellectual acumen and autocratic style, was perhaps most pertinently highlighted by constituent, Louise Trethowan, who related a fifteen minute encounter she had with May at her constituency office in Maidenhead.
“For me, it was an excellent opportunity to put all my fears – and the concerns of the 48 per cent – to the woman who will lead us towards the Brexit cliff edge. I expected… her to present some strong arguments that would counter my own.”
But what she witnessed was a rude, aggressive and finger-pointing individual who was unable to hold an argument.
“She [the PM] seemed petulant, defensive, tired and rattled… If the Prime Minister is so easily angered how on earth is she going to be the best negotiator for Brexit? I fear she will lose her temper and start jabbing her finger at people.”
The reliance on a constituency of right-wing extremists to argue the Tories’ case for returning an unstable individual to Downing Street based on a ‘blank cheque’ hard Brexit, while ignoring the key bread and butter issues, is a risky one and could easily play into the hands of her political opponents.
A major beneficiary of such an approach will almost certainly be the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats which could significantly split the Tory vote. Of course, the billionaire-owning mass media support the Tories with near unanimity. But the front page of the Daily Mail (April 19, 2017) which ran with the headline “Crush The Saboteurs” (see below), is likely to alienate 48 per cent of the population who voted Remain. Therefore, the right-wing media’s depiction of over 16 million people as “the enemy” could realistically backfire on the Tories.
Arguably, some of Corbyn’s biggest battles in the campaign ahead will be with the media and the disrupting forces inside his own party. However, those already writing-off the Labour leaders chances are, in my view, doing so prematurely.
It’s true that at the present time Corbyn is well behind in the polls but, as Craig Murray points out, this can be misleading. The downside for Corbyn, according to YouGov, is that Labour is losing out to the Tories for the vote of the oldest and least educated demographic – many of whom are traditional working class voters. Labour’s longer-term prospects are also hindered by the fact that society is ageing.
But on the other hand, YouGov found that Labour was leading the voting intention polls with under-40s. The problem for Labour, historically, has been that it’s this group who have been the least likely to go out and vote compared to their older counterparts. If Corbyn can mobilize this former hitherto relatively passive demographic group into voting, then the polls could be significantly closer than many pundits are suggesting. It is also worth keeping in mind that the last Tory PM to call an early election on a single issue while ahead in the polls was Edward Heath – and he lost.
It was music to this writers ears that Corbyn began his campaign emphasizing Labour’s policy plans in a lucid and persuasive way. But in my view, he needs also to ensure that voters are to be under no illusion that the hard Brexit May is offering is not what people voted for. He needs to come out and say so unambiguously. In this way he has every chance of capturing a great swath of the Lib-Dem vote. It was therefore disappointing that Corbyn’s team announced on April 26, 2017 that the Labour leader would not take the opportunity to do so within a live televised TV debate format.
Nevertheless, the two-pronged strategy of focusing on May’s shortcomings over Brexit on the one hand, and Corbyn’s emphasis on outlining policies to reduce inequality and create a fairer society on the other, could be the trigger required to get the young to come out and vote in huge numbers.
Whatever the outcome, it’s difficult not to agree with Craig Murray when he said:
“I do not think this will be a comfortable election for the Tories, as even the media cannot prevent the electorate from twigging May avoids people, avoids scrutiny, and is programmed with only three lines. But if Labour do suffer large losses in England, then Corbyn should look to Scotland for an example and take heart. Any defeated Blairites will not come back. They go away if you stop paying them. That should embolden him to carry on as leader. Politics is in an era of unprecedented volatility, and assuming May is re-elected, within two years she will be massively unpopular as the effects of Brexit hit.”
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