British election shows that left wing politics can appeal to millions

The general election result in Britain is a stunning vindication of Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing leadership and a damning indictment of all those on the right of the Labour party who have, since his election as leader in 2015, tried to bring him down. It is also an indictment of the right in Australian Labor, which has for decades resisted any left on the grounds that it would only lead to the electoral wilderness.

The extent of the turnaround in Labour’s fortunes, compared to both the 2015 election and the recent polls, is worth spelling out. In the face of every mainstream commentator predicting annihilation under Corbyn at the outset of the campaign, the Labour party polled 3.5 million more votes than in 2015, boosted its share of the vote by nearly 10 points and increased its number of seats by 29.

Tory seats tumbled across the country. Seven Tory frontbenchers were ousted, including the author of the party’s manifesto. Home secretary Amber Rudd only narrowly squeezed home in the normally safe seat of Hastings. Labour increased its majorities in places as diverse as the former industrial towns of Yorkshire and Lancashire, along with seats in east London and Bristol. Had Labour not been stuck with a colourless leader in Scotland, who failed both in addressing the national question and the class issues of direct interest to many potential Labour supporters, Labour’s total seat haul would have been even bigger.

Labour may have not won as many seats or share of the vote as the Tories. But given the avalanche of hostile media, not just from the right wing rags like the Sun and Daily Mail, but the liberal media like the Guardian, this was a remarkable outcome. Theresa May may yet suffer the ignominy of being Britain’s sixth shortest serving prime minister. With only 331 days at the helm by polling day, she only narrowly edges out the Earl of Bute, who in 1762 served for 317 days.

The main line of attack on Corbyn from within the Labour party was that he was “unelectable”. A decent chap, but just not leadership material capable of winning over the party’s demoralised supporters. This was shown up as nonsense – Corbyn’s campaign energised the party and enthused millions of its supporters.

This enthusiasm was evident at the big turn-up at the leader’s rallies in towns across the country. Corbyn received strong support from young people in particular. One million people aged 18-34 registered to vote in the seven weeks from the calling of the election on 18 April to election day. And Corbyn was greeted by chanting crowds when he appeared on stage at concerts. On the day, voter turnout among 18-25 year olds was 72 percent.

But it wasn’t just younger voters who were inspired to vote Labour. Turnout was up across the board, to just shy of 70 percent – the highest since 1997. In Labour strongholds, the increased vote was notable: in Newcastle East, where Labour boosted its majority to a massive 46 percent, turnout was up by 14 percent. Nationally, commentators described the ballot as more like the Brexit referendum in 2016 – when people felt that their vote would actually count for something – than the normal humdrum general election.

Labour’s campaign was successful in whittling away the Tories’ huge poll lead of 17 percent on the day the election was called to just 7 percent by 8 June. It was the biggest campaign turnaround since polling first began. Its gains demonstrated that the Labour Party could win people on the basis of a left wing reform program, including hiking taxation on the top 5 percent, committing to boosting social welfare and reversing years of neglect of the National Health Service and the education system for the benefit of the great majority.

The promise to axe tuition fees, and to gradually wind back the accumulated student debt of graduates, helped rally young people behind the party. In the week of the election, the Labour held a 46 percent lead over the Tories among the young. But it wasn’t just young people. Labour’s program included a boost to the minimum wage, a reversal of the run-down of public housing, and renationalisation of the Royal Mail, the railways, and the water system. Labour also promised to end attacks on social security recipients and trade unions.

Labour’s success also points to the way that the far right can be tackled. In 2015, the racist UK Independence Party scored 13 percent. After the Brexit referendum, support for the party collapsed. Tory campaigners were confident that most former UKIP voters would shift to the Conservatives, but early analysis suggests that Labour was able to win up to half of UKIP’s former supporters. This was not by pandering to its racism, but by standing strong on class questions – jobs, renationalisation, social welfare and the National Health Service.

The same was true, but from a different angle, with Brexit which was supposed to have been a serious threat to Labour with its supporters ranging from strongly pro Remain voters in London and the university towns to strong Leave supporters in the north and north east of England. Labour was able to overcome this division and saw handsome swings to the party among both elements of the electorate. The party won 46 of 73 seats in London, 25 out of 29 in the north east and won several seats from the Tories in the north west on the basis of emphasising issues of working class and community interests in opposition to the Tory agenda of slashing the welfare state.

An indictment of the right

As soon as he was elected leader, Corbyn faced every kind of attack from the right within his own party. After recovering from his shock win in the first leadership ballot, his opponents forced a second, in which they lost even more decisively.

The right wing majority in the caucus was backed by the entire news media. The Guardian in particular, traditionally viewed as being a Labour paper, played a notorious role. Its panel of columnists wrote a constant stream of poisonous pieces, all with one message: Corbyn must go. Rather than rallying around the leader after the election was called, these columnists became more feral.

For example, Simon Jenkins wrote on 18 April: “For Labour the news [of the election] is nothing but good. An election under Jeremy Corbyn is certain to be painful. But by autumn its sad flirtation with the archaic left should be over. A new era under a new leader can dawn”. Jonathan Freedland wrote on 6 May in the aftermath of local council elections: “No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for the meltdown … [I]f only Corbyn would get out of the way … a new leader could take the fight to Theresa May very rapidly”.

The hypocrisy is stunning. When the right has the upper hand, the left is always expected to compromise and make peace. But when the boot is on the other foot, no such restraint applies. No calls for “unity behind the leader” when it comes to Corbyn: it’s war to the end.

Corbyn’s critics should all be eating humble pie. The party’s election result puts the leader and his left wing supporters in the caucus in a strong position. They can justifiably point to the enthusiastic reception for a left reformist program as vindication of their stance.

There are some who acknowledge that the outcome was better than expected, but that this was more the outcome of Theresa May’s inept electioneering than it was any skill or positioning on Corbyn’s part. The corollary is that Labour could now be in Number 10 but for Corbyn.

This is rubbish. When Corbyn took over as leader of the party, it was in a dire state. Previously, there had been high hopes that it could at least force David Cameron’s Conservative Party to a close contest in 2015. Instead, thanks to Ed Miliband’s wishy-washy approach, the Tories improved their position and were able to govern in their own right, free of the Liberal Democrats.

At the 2015 election, the Labour Party lost some of its supporters to UKIP on its right; it was smashed in Scotland by the Scottish Nationalist Party after dominating there for decades; and its younger supporters stayed away from voting in droves. Corbyn’s election campaign was not an impediment to Labour’s success, but the reason for it. The party won back support from a decent chunk of UKIP voters, halted the SNP’s advance in Scotland and galvanised young people to vote in big numbers. Any idea that Corbyn’s rivals for the leadership, whether in 2015 or in 2016, could have done any better is fanciful.

This is a lesson for the ALP as well. Every sneering putdown of the left by the right wing and soft left of the British party has its echoes here. How often the ALP machine, its leaders, its student factions and their apologists in the liberal media tell those who criticise the party’s right wing program that anything else would make the party unelectable. Those who advocate genuinely left wing politics are dismissed as “utopians”, who just believe in “pie in the sky” and “can’t relate to the working class”. Workers are deemed to be at best capable of accepting a program barely two steps to the left of the Coalition. And this can be heard not just from the most craven right wing supporters of the capitalists but the party’s supposed left as well – have you heard a peep of protest from Anthony Albanese or Tanya Plibersek lately?

These figures have their supporters in the Australian media as well – found in the pages of the Fairfax press or the local version of the Guardian. Just like their British colleagues, they profess their support for the basic principles advanced by figures like Corbyn. But wearily, and more in sadness than in anger, they say that the public just won’t buy it. Columnist Van Badham wrote as recently as 12 May in the Guardian that the British Labour party should knife Corbyn if it wanted to win the election, just as Bob Hawke had knifed incumbent leader Bill Hayden in the 1983 federal election here.

The result of these messages of hopelessness and adaptation to the right is the steady abandonment of anything resembling a left in Australian politics. This has done nothing to advance the cause of the working class and has only sucked the life out of politics and generated cynicism. Corbyn’s success demonstrates that this is completely avoidable. Whatever else comes out of this election, one thing is certain: a left wing alternative can revive the labour movement in this country.