Sometimes Our Nightmares Don’t Come True: the Tories Lose Their Majority

Photo by Afshin Darian | CC BY 2.0

When Theresa May called a snap election a few weeks ago, she enjoyed a 20-point lead in the opinion polls. Translated into votes, this lead would create a huge Tory margin of victory of around 100 seats in parliament.  The Tory working majority after winning the 2015 election was 12 seats.

At the same time, Labour’s prospects looked dire.  The unceasing sprays of venom directed at him by the billionaire tax-dodgers who own the right-wing media, and by the supposedly neutral BBC and the supposedly “liberal” Guardian, were compounded by the Blairite backstabbers in his own party, who made desperate attempts to unseat him as party leader.  Corbyn has long said that Blair should stand trial at The Hague for war crimes, so it is just as well that Labour did not beat the Tories, even if it prevented them from having an absolute majority.

Blair would be adding experts in the laws of war to his legal team had Corbyn prevailed.

The factors which caused May to lose her majority just before Brexit negotiations are due to begin on June 19 (apart from the gamble she took in calling an election well before the Conservative term in office expired in 2020), will become clearer in time, but already the contrasts between the two main parties responsible for the outcome of the 2017 election are discernible in the very different party campaigns and the leaders who fought them.

The Tory campaign was pathetically inept.  Confident of victory and with their base seemingly secure, the Tories went after “patriotic” Labour voters (“patriotic” taken by the Tories to mean “wanting a hard Brexit”). The Tories were heedless of the fact that many Labour voters in the UK’s rustbelt were the prime victims of the austerity policy implemented by the Tories since 2010, and simply could not countenance another 5 years of the Tory boot on their collective necks, even if they were inclined towards Brexit.

The Tories in their carelessness and indifference had simply lost count of the victims of austerity–  not just those who are unemployed and underemployed, but also the working poor, as well as the disabled and homeless, those in increasingly unaffordable rented accommodation, those having to rely on the burgeoning number of food banks, students crippled by debt, poor children who would lose free school lunches, nurses whose wages have been stagnant since 2010, the police and firefighters who have lost their jobs in the tens of thousands since 2010, the growing number of homeless veterans, even the civil servants who have seen their numbers cut by one-third (even as they are being asked to deal with the repercussions of Brexit, the UK’s greatest postwar administrative challenge), and so on.

All this was taking place while the National Health Service and education were undergoing a stealth privatization (even the national blood transfusion service was flogged-off to Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital), local councils were having their budgets slashed, funds for emergency disaster relief were drained, legal assistance for those unable to afford it was cut to the bone, and so forth.

These were the people very much at the heart of Ken Loach’s award-winning film I, Daniel Blake.

At the same time, the stock-portfolio class was benefitting from tax cuts, as well as a “light-touch regulation” of the tax-dodging wheezes used by many of this class, and an elimination of taxes on their mansions and inheritances.

“Austerity” is a shameless hoax attempting to magic the banking-induced crisis of 2007-2009 into a crisis of the welfare system.

The Tories said there were no “magic money trees” when it came to dealing with the deficit, though Dodgy Dave Cameron and his finance minister George Osborne deliberately chose policies that increased it (e.g. by reducing taxes on the rich).  The deficit has risen steadily since 2010.

The Tories and their banker pals were determined to make ordinary UK citizens pay for the bankers’ mistakes by sacrificing their wages and pensions, health care, education, prospects of decent employment, and adequate social services.

In the end, the victims of austerity resorted to May’s robotic slogan “enough is enough”, and shoved it into her face.  May never seemed able to move beyond such vapid soundbites, “Brexit means Brexit” was another, and “strong and stable” repeated ad nauseam became an object of fun for the television comedians.

Labour’s campaign pitch was simple but effective– this is what the Tories have been doing to anyone who is not wealthy, and we undertake to reverse what they have done.

The party manifestos reflected this state of affairs—while the Labour manifesto pledged to undo what the Tories had done, the Tory manifesto only promised more of the same, though this time with “compassion”, accompanied by a plethora of lies.

Oh, and the Tories were the only party which could deliver on Brexit.

Sufficient numbers of the electorate saw through the Tory ruse.  May and her handlers were stealing the clothes of the far-right pro-Brexit UKIP, which had the effect of wiping-out UKIP in this election, but also turning-off voters repelled by the idea of having to vote for what was in effect two UKIPs– the official UKIP and May’s “UKIP lite”.  Judging by the results, many voters called a plague on both these houses.

The discrepant campaigns were reflected in the glaringly different performances of May and Corbyn in the hustings.

May was known to be a “details” person, able to master reports and briefings, but whose preference was for the cabinet room and not the rough and tumble of the campaign trail.

Her exposure to the public was a disaster for the Tories and May herself.  Her handlers made the crucial mistake of thinking that a 20-point Tory lead when she called the election could somehow be conjured into a manifestation of her popularity with the electorate.  It took a few days of campaigning to shred this notion.

May is unable to think on her feet, so she refused to take part in televised debates with the other party leaders.  A substitute was sent in her place, which made May’s absence even more obvious.

Her one-on-one TV interviews with Andrew Marr and Andrew Neil were car crashes, so that was the end of that.

Her public walkabouts were just as disastrous.  Unable to deal with jeers when she visited a social housing estate, and flummoxed by a distressed person with learning disabilities who asked May why her benefits had been cut by the Tories, May’s “appearances” were soon limited to carefully staged settings with bused-in Tory activists.

In the meantime, Corbyn was relishing the public campaign.  UK electoral law mandates equal television coverage for the main parties, so he could engage with voters who were now seeing a Corbyn not filtered by the rancid portrayals pumped out by the right-wing media.

Corbyn made a few gaffes, but his ease when meeting voters, and engaging with them, was evident.  Moreover, he was very much on message— the Tories couldn’t campaign on their cruel and irresponsible record of austerity (in fact they had to avoid mentioning it), but Jeremy could!

In a way, the media depiction of Corbyn as a cultish figure of the “looney left”, allegedly out of touch with the commonsensical electorate, did him a favour.  It overlooked his 40 years of campaigning experience as a politician, mostly on behalf of causes not obviously popular, which gave him a resiliency, and an adaptability to situations, which May clearly lacked.

Corbyn (in the main) kept his principles intact and adapted to the campaign’s circumstances, while May adapted her principles to the campaign while being unable to deal with its circumstances.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves– Labour lost this election, and Corbyn and his supporters conducted, at best, a successful holding operation.  They arrested Labour’s slide into oblivion by reverting to social democracy after the “Thatcherism lite” of Blair and his successors, but deeper and more lasting transformations are still to be awaited.

The Tories, to put it mildly, are in a mess.  May’s government survives courtesy of the Ulster Unionists, an even nastier lot than the avowedly nasty Tories.  The Unionists are against abortion and gay marriage, as well as providing a home for climate-change deniers.  Their leader, Arlene Foster, is implicated in a corruption scandal.  Any “understanding” with them is bound to be brittle.

Meanwhile, the knives are out for May within her own party.  Widely derided for her “own goal” performance in this election, she can hardly afford to take a false step from now on.

The election was meant to strengthen May’s hand in Brexit negotiations, but the opposite has happened– she will now go to Brussels absolutely bereft of bargaining chips when she deals with the vulpine Eurocrats.  They took Tsipras and Varoufakis to the cleaners when Greece wanted to renegotiate the terms of its eurozone membership, and May can expect a repeat performance.

There is a two-year timeframe for the completion of Brexit negotiations, and it may be safe to assume May won’t be prime minister by the time these are completed.

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Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.

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