As most readers will be aware, the United Kingdom goes to the polls on Thursday. I haven’t focused on this as much as I did on the French presidential election, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, it’s just not as interesting in electoral terms. France saw four evenly-matched candidates fighting for a place in the runoff, three of them representing anti-establishment political forces. In Britain, however, we know that one of the two major party leaders will emerge as prime minister: either (most likely) the Conservatives’ Theresa May or (much less likely) Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.
In France there was an unprecedented shakeup of the party system. Britain may be heading for that in the not-too-distant future, but as far as this week goes, it’s the same old players in the same old game of trying to win a majority out of 650 single-member districts.
But the second reason is that I find the choice so depressing. Neither leader is at all inspiring, either in personal or policy terms. The Tories under May seem committed to implementing withdrawal from the European Union in the most destructive way possible (even though May herself supported “remain” in last year’s referendum), while Corbyn seems the last relic of an old-fashioned Eurosceptic socialism that did so much damage to the party and the country back in the 1970s.
As the Economist‘s editorial last week puts it:
Though they sit on different points of the left-right spectrum, the Tory and Labour leaders are united in their desire to pull up Britain’s drawbridge to the world. Both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn would each in their own way step back from the ideas that have made Britain prosper—its free markets, open borders and internationalism. They would junk a political settlement that has lasted for nearly 40 years and influenced a generation of Western governments (…). Whether left or right prevails, the loser will be liberalism.
Like the Economist, I would support the Liberal Democrats, partly in the hope that they may one day form the nucleus of a new liberal-centrist party if Labour or the Conservatives should split. But on all indications they are heading for disaster, and as their base narrows they become more fertile territory for conspiracy theorists and crazies of all sorts.
I’m not convinced, however, that the Conservatives will be “much better” than Labour. In fact, while I would hate to have to choose between them, at the moment I would be leaning towards Corbyn.
It seems to me that the key issue of today, in Britain as elsewhere, is the fight against neo-fascism (or “right-wing populist extremism”, if you prefer). There is a powerful international movement, supported by the leaders of the world’s two largest military powers, that aims to dismantle the institutions that over the last two generations have brought the world a large measure of peace, freedom and prosperity, and turn the clock back to the nationalism of blood and soil.
Whatever our differences on economic policy or cultural trappings, those of us who believe in the values of enlightenment civilisation need to stand together. On that issue, while neither party is at all satisfactory, I think Labour is more likely to do the right thing – although Corbyn is far from being the champion I would choose in this struggle.
The editorialist at the Economist thinks that May “is in a different class from Mr Corbyn,” but I’m not sure that’s true either. Moreover, while Corbyn is about the worst that the Labour Party has to offer, May is by no means the worst of the Tories – and as “Brexit” demonstrated, a Tory leader can be at the mercy of his or her nativist backbench. The collapse of the UKIP vote means that even more of the far right will be making its home within the Conservatives.
In my colleague Guy Rundle’s report last Thursday, one line in particular stood out. Referring to May, he said “Her early performance was smart and slick. But that was, in part, because she was being compared with Boris Johnson.” I think that’s spot on. After the referendum result and David Cameron’s resignation the sane element of the Tory Party (and indeed Johnson himself) were shell-shocked; the subsequent sense of relief when May took the leadership made them forget the underlying reality of how badly the party had damaged itself.
Those who voted “remain” are a minority, but a very large minority, and those of them who had previously voted Conservative are now looking for an alternative. (This is where the Lib Dems should have been able to capitalise, but they’ve proved unequal to the task.) Democracy isn’t just about making choices for the future; it’s also about putting the right incentives in place, and it’s important that bad policy should be punished electorally.
An even more obvious candidate for punishment is the early election itself, a piece of shameless opportunism that has clearly driven some of the shift towards Labour in the polls. Once again, it’s fascinating to note how oblivious the political class is to this issue: because they thrive on elections, the more the better, they fail to understand how unpopular they are with the general public. (Or if they do, they keep very quiet about it.)
Comparing again with France, it’s also interesting to note that
none of the “things have to get worse before they get better” crowd who supported Marine Le Pen (and before her Donald Trump) show no enthusiasm at all for Corbyn. Yet if western political establishments really are so corrupt and ossified that they need an agent of disruption, change at almost any price (which is pretty much what Adam Creighton told us), how could you go past him?
The difference in the media coverage has been equally striking. Even before his recent surge, the polls were very clear that Corbyn was more likely to end up as prime minister than Le Pen ever was to end up as president. Yet until the last week, you would never have guessed that from reading the papers.
I am still not a Corbyn fan; I think he has an unpleasantly authoritarian streak, and his views on economics belong in a museum. But he has real strengths as well. As much as anything, people are looking for authenticity, and a leader who seems to believe in something – even if it is not quite the something that the voters had in mind – has a natural advantage over someone like May, whose philosophical grounding is, to say the least, difficult to discern.
And of course on some policy questions, such as the obscene uselessness of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Corbyn makes such obvious sense that comment seems superfluous.
Finally, a factor in Corbyn’s favor is the perception that he won’t win, and that a protest vote can therefore be safely indulged. I think that perception is probably right, but British opinion polls have been badly wrong before, and an election with such large opportunities for tactical voting is always difficult to pick (again, contrast with France). The spectre of terrorism has thrown another major uncertainty into the mix.
Dark times ahead for Britain, either way.