by Rajan Philips
Those of us who dismissed Jeremy Corbyn as an untimely infliction on the British Labour Party must now eat humble pie, huge portions of them. The good thing is that we on the left can also celebrate his electoral performance very heartily while eating the humble pie. Mighty kudos as well to the band of Sri Lankan cricketers for pulling off that stunner of a victory against India at the London Oval on the day of the British election. Whatever happens tomorrow against Pakistan, the win against India will remain memorable for a long time. Nothing against the talented Indian cricketers, but defeating them is the only way to give India’s cricket establishment the occasional kick on its backside for its bankrolling arrogance. But unlike a cricket win, an electoral win without a majority in parliament, however memorable, is not the most potent political reward. The sum of Thursday’s British election is that Prime Minister May lost her majority while Jeremy Corbyn won without a majority. A fractured British electorate has delivered a hung parliament. That is another way of putting it.
On the other hand, across the Channel, and in a contrasting tale of two countries, France is demonstrating almost perfect correspondence between its electors and the elected. The French have found a way to dismiss their two major parties and still put in place a seemingly stable government. The two-step parliamentary election in France that will be held today and next Sunday, is expected to reaffirm last month’s election of Emmanuel Macron as President, by giving his new-found party the majority he needs in the legislature. In contrast, the British voters are stuck with their vaunted party system, and the system is facing the greatest challenge in its long history as it struggles to translate the verdict(s) of the voters into parliamentary governance.
On election night, the magnitude of this challenge was underscored not by Theresa May who clung to the illusion that the country needs her to remain as PM for its stability, or by Jeremy Corbyn who called on May to resign immediately but is in no hurry to form a minority government himself, but by Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party (LibDem) and Deputy Prime Minister in the Cameron government before 2015. Mr. Clegg, a fine politician and statesman, was speaking while conceding defeat in his own riding after representing it in parliament for decades. The LibDems, staunch supporters of the Remain side in the Brexit referendum, were expecting to do well and bring down the Tories by replaying last year’s campaign. They barely did well increasing their tally from eight seats to 12 seats in parliament.
But they did contribute to bringing the Tories down from their five seat majority at 330 seats (out of 650) to an eight seat deficit at 318 seats. The Labour, mocked as ‘unfit to lose’ by The Economist, which I gleefully quoted in these pages, increased their seat total to 262 from the 232 seats they won in 2015. The real story is that Prime Minister May called the election when the Tories had a 20 point lead over Labour, and the latter seemed all but sure on the path to self-destruction through infighting and irrelevance. May was forced by the new British law (now copied into Sri Lanka’s 19th Amendment) to get a two-thirds majority in parliament to allow a premature election – full three years before its time. And the opposition parties went along with her for the ride by supporting the government motion in parliament.
Each party had its own agenda. And the people had theirs with variations along age, class and geographical boundaries. The Tories were dreaming in excess of 400 seats and a 100-seat majority no less. May wanted a numerically stronger governing party to silence her backbenchers, and to take a strong hand to the Brexit negotiating table. Corbyn relied on his instincts and launched a platform of sweeping egalitarian measures focussed on young people. He was dead set against Conservative austerity. The LibDems were hoping to revisit the Brexit referendum. The Scottish National Party (SNP) wanted to send another message that the Scots were serious about their unique position in Britain and in Europe.
In Brexit terms, May was insistent on ‘hard Brexit’ (i.e. Britain could somehow leave EU on terms advantageous only to Britain); Corbyn was open to ‘soft Brexit’ (negotiate a mutually acceptable way out); LibDems and the SNP wanted to test their ‘no Brexit stand’. The people have told them that they have moved beyond Brexit, and left the politicians to deal with the details. Prime Minister May is now hoping to form a government with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP – the old Ulster unionists) who are for union with Westminster but want nothing to do with Brussels. She has no claim to any mandate. The LibDem’s no Brexit position hardly found traction with the electorate. The SNP and its usually well calibrated leader, Nicola Sturgeon, had their knuckles rapped by the Scottish voters for being presumptuous about another referendum for Scottish independence.
Overall, the country may be closer to Corbyn’s position even though he was reviled within the Labour Party and by the ‘Remain campaign’ forces for his lacklustre performance during last year’s referendum. The challenge, however, is for the hung parliament to somehow herd its members into taking a coherent position on Brexit negotiations. In Europe, the EU backers must be pinching themselves in delight to make sure of the sharp turnaround in their fortunes. After the double blow of Brexit and Trump in a span of six months last year, Europe has many things to cheer now. Theresa May’s cynical move to turn Britain’s back hard on Europe and strike an opportunistic alliance with Trump’s America has ingloriously backfired. How it came about is the story of the British election.
The Election Story
People can see through political cynicism and manipulation and are ready to punish it as much as they can regardless of other consequences. That is what is common to Hillary Clinton’s defeat in the US and Theresa May’s setback in Britain despite their vastly different contexts. Large numbers of voters are also ready to go as far as they can, supporting political leaders and positions that are authentic and sincere, and not calculated and contrived. To wit: Bernie Sanders in the US, Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, and Emmanuel Macron in France. The British election has also shown that young voters care to vote when they are properly motivated, and for that all credit is due to Corbyn who projected a sincere vision of a strong government providing affordable health care and educational opportunities to its young citizens. What are states for if they cannot raise the children of their nations?
Specific to Britain, the election results show the interplay of demographic distinctions, urban/rural divide, electoral fluidity of class and the dynamic of regional differences. The young and the urban mostly voted Labour, while the older and rural voters kept their faith with the Tories. Labour did well in Wales, while in England the implosion of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP and the force of much nuisance during the Brexit referendum) was expected to exclusively benefit the Tories. As it turned out, UKIP voters deflected to Labour as much as they went to the Tories. The Tories also overplayed their hand, for example, promising to their decadent aristocratic class the return of fox hunting!
The shocker was in Scotland. The SNP lost 21 seats from its tally of 56 it won in 2015. Its founder and former First Minister, Alex Salmond, and the current parliamentary leader Angus Robertson were both defeated. Surprisingly, the Tories gained most from SNP’s losses, rising from the current one seat to 13, its best performance after 1983 and the long winter that began under Margaret Thatcher. In the end it was Scotland that saved May’s bacon, albeit in a hung parliament.