United Kingdom: Could Jeremy pull off a British upset?

by Phil Gasper
The Progressive
June 6, 2017

Can the British Labour Party pull off an astounding come-from-behind victory in the UK general election this Thursday?

The odds still favor Theresa May’s Conservatives (known as the Tories), emerging as the biggest party. But on April 18, when May called the surprise election, her party was over 20 points ahead in the polls, and looked to be heading towards a landslide win.

Instead, Labour’s left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn has led a spirited campaign that has steadily closed the gap, with one recent poll showing Labour now just one percent behind the Tories.

The recent terror attacks in Manchester and London have also added to Corbyn’s momentum. He has expressed sympathy with the victims while also criticizing Britain’s support for the “war on terror” and military intervention in the Middle East, which he argues has only led to more terrorist attacks.

There were howls of outrage from Britain’s mainly right-wing newspapers in response to the speech Corbyn gave after the Manchester bombing, but a survey soon revealed that a majority of the British public agrees with him, and Labour continued to rise in the polls.

Corbyn was elected party leader in 2015, after Labour’s defeat in the last general election. To the shock of the party establishment, he won the overwhelming backing of rank-and-file members, tired of Labour’s drift to the right over several decades.

Since then, Corbyn has been derided as “unelectable” by the media, while most Labour MPs, who are well to his right, have tried to undermine him. Following the unexpected vote in favor of Brexit in last year’s referendum, Corbyn’s internal opponents attempted to replace him, but instead he won a second overwhelming leadership victory.

The party infighting has helped to keep Labour well behind in the polls for the past two years, and May’s decision to call an election three years early—supposedly to give her greater authority in negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union—at first seemed like a brilliant tactical choice.

But brimming with overconfidence, May has run a terrible campaign. Her party’s manifesto, with calls for greater austerity, has managed to alienate a good portion of the Tories’ usual supporters. A proposed policy of making people sell off most of their assets to pay for social care was immediately dubbed the “dementia tax,” and the Conservatives had to water it down in the face of massive opposition.

May has also attempted to treat the election as a coronation, turning down most interviews, making only staged public appearances, and even refusing to participate in a televised debate between party leaders, sending one of her surrogates instead. The result is that her personal popularity has dropped sharply since the campaign began.

Meanwhile, Corbyn has barnstormed across the country, drawing huge crowds at his rallies, attracted by his plainspoken rejection of the neoliberal orthodoxy.

To the astonishment of the media and political establishment, Labour’s call for higher taxes on the wealthy to pay for improvements to the National Health Service, increased social spending, and the abolition of student fees, has struck a chord with millions of people, particularly the young. Corbyn is currently supported by nearly 60 percent of voters under thirty.

There are obvious similarities with Bernie Sanders’s presidential run in the United States last year, but Corbyn’s program is even further to the left. He calls for the re-nationalization of the railways and utilities under democratic control, and as a longstanding anti-war campaigner, he advocates radical changes in Britain’s foreign policy.

The outcome of the election is still unclear, but it is looking more and more likely that the Tories will lose seats and may even lose their majority entirely.

At this point, everything depends on turnout. Two million new voters registered in the last few weeks, many of them young Corbyn supporters. No one knows if they will actually come to the polls on Thursday, but if they do, the UK could be about to experience the most remarkable election turnaround in its recent history.

Phil Gasper teaches philosophy in Madison, Wisconsin, is editor of The Communist Manifesto: A Road Map to History’s Most Important Political Document (Haymarket Books), and is on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review.