So where on Earth do we go from here?
The New Internationalist has never been aligned to any political party but the UK election result cannot be interpreted as anything else but a catastrophe for all the values for which this magazine has always stood.
Faced by a climate emergency, the urgent need was for a government prepared not just to take immediate action but to embrace the profound social change that would be represented by a Green New Deal. After a decade of austerity and rampant inequality, and after four decades of neoliberalism, what was clearly needed was a 1945-style reset that not only restored broken public services but re-established faith in government as an enabling, protecting force. In a world increasingly damaged by populist nationalism and xenophobia, Britain could have sent a different message and helped to turn the tide.
Instead, Britons have rewarded with absolute power a gleefully immoral narcissist who glories in his own inability to tell the truth, whose racist, sexist and heterosexist remarks are so legion that they seem to be part of his DNA. Very probably the most inept government of my (longish) lifetime – that of Theresa May – has now been succeeded by the most extreme rightwing government we have ever known, in which all who do not share a fundamentalist faith in a hard Brexit have been expelled.
The peculiarities of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system are long established but may still need explaining to people from other countries with more rational procedures. This crushing victory for the Tories was achieved by a party that took a minority of the votes cast – 43 per cent, which is only 1 per cent more than the much-excoriated government of Theresa May achieved in 2017. The victory of the Scottish National Party in Scotland can undoubtedly be termed a landslide, with 48 of the 57 seats there, yet this too was achieved with a minority of the votes cast. And in what will be certainly be remembered as the Brexit election, in which Johnson’s strategy received a ringing endorsement from the electorate, a majority actually voted for parties supporting a people’s vote to decide the issue.
Inevitably much of the media concentration in the wake of a disastrous electoral defeat has been on the losing parties – on the Labour Party, which has its worst post-War result in terms of seats (though not voting share), and on the Liberal Democrats, who not only took a step back but whose leader, Jo Swinson, lost her place in Parliament.
In relation to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, this is the result that many commentators have been waiting for – including many in the more progressive press outlets. From the moment Corbyn (to his own amazement) won the leadership, they have sought to paint him as a leftist ideologue who is totally out of step with the British people. They were shocked when people were inspired by him to join the Labour Party, giving it a mass membership of half a million, and when he won a second leadership election despite facing outright rebellion by the majority of his own MPs. And they were even more shocked when Labour’s modestly social democratic manifesto in 2017 led them to big gains and to achieve a hung parliament.
This disastrous result will undoubtedly result in a campaign from all sides for Labour to return to what is called ‘the centre ground’ – by which is meant the approach of the Tony Blair years. But that cannot and will not happen. It is clear that Jeremy Corbyn should get out of the road and allow the Labour Party to choose a new leader and a new way forward. He is a decent man who had leadership thrust upon him and has been unjustly vilified in a co-ordinated campaign that gathered more force after the 2017 election proved him to be a serious threat. But it is undeniable that he was not particularly well equipped for the job, whether in terms of projecting charismatically to the electorate or of managing the business of opposition through the Party machine.
Any attempt by Corbyn and John McDonnell to control the ‘succession’ and smooth the way for their favoured candidate would be both misplaced and probably counterproductive. They should have confidence in the new mass membership of the Party and allow free debate about the way forward. For example, the scores of young volunteers who so enthusiastically poured in to the constituencies where I was also volunteering during the campaign – in the two Tory marginals in Milton Keynes – would not accept anything less than the kind of radical agenda that was to be found in the latest manifesto and is so desperately needed in society. That agenda should clearly be advanced, however, by a younger leader more capable of communicating it to the country in an inspiring and creative way.
But, as Labour launches into an entirely necessary period of reflection, it should surely consider one major change – embracing electoral reform and a more proportional voting system. I have argued on many occasions in recent years with ‘Lexiteers’ – people who supported Brexit on the grounds that the European Union is a neoliberal club and a leftist government would be unduly restrained by its rules. The great flaw in their argument, I contended, was that if you took away the restraints and compromises involved in EU membership, you might well end up with a radical government able to make a real difference – but it was infinitely more likely (based on past experience) to be a government of the Right than of the Left.
That nightmare scenario has now come to pass – and boundary changes are going to make it even harder for any future Labour government to win power under the existing system. In the light of that, it is surely sensible both to pursue more co-operation with other ‘progressive’ parties and to embrace the cause of electoral reform.
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