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In Conservative landslide, pain for Labour

The U.K. poll was about which political personality people hated less; Corbyn and his party are now at the crossroads

The 2019 election in the United Kingdom was dominated by Brexit leading to a Boris Johnson victory. Much to the chagrin of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, they could not steer the issues enough towards the much loved National Health Service (NHS) or the austerity measures that caused so much suffering, especially for the vulnerable over the last decade of Conservative rule. The election also became polarised between two very different personalities who were in contention to form the next government. Remarkably, both Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are unpopular among vast swathes of the electorate. The election became about which one people hated less.

Taking down the red wall

To add to the irony, the manifesto drawn up by Labour under Mr. Corbyn was hugely popular, perhaps a little too popular, leading some to think that it may be too good to be true. The rather depressing election result for Mr. Corbyn and Labour will of course mean a rethink of his leadership and the rather radical socialist direction that he was taking the party down. Labour seems to have suffered especially in its traditional red wall bastion of the North and the Midlands because it did not take a clear and unambiguous position on Brexit. This was very unlike Mr. Johnson’s simplistic slogan, “Get Brexit done”, which despite its vapidity, or perhaps because of it, worked brilliantly.

This election underscored how egregious Machiavellian mendacity tends to get rewarded in elections. Mr. Johnson has been considered to be more prime ministerial, despite his duplicity and deceptiveness. He evaded open questioning by not giving an interview to journalist Andrew Neil. He refused to take part in a Channel 4 debate on climate change and just a day before the vote, he reportedly retreated inside a large fridge at Modern Milkman, a business in Yorkshire, to avoid being asked questions by the “Good Morning Britain” team. The bigger the lies uttered, the greater seem to have been the electoral returns Mr. Johnson harvested.

What has been referred to as extreme Machiavellian mendacity has also been helped along by the remarkable influence of the right wing Rupert Murdoch-owned press in British politics. Since 1979, prime ministerial candidates endorsed by the bawdy tabloid have consistently gone on to win and this includes a successful Labour Prime Minister (Tony Blair). Any assessment of the difficulties that more left-wing Labour candidates such as Mr. Corbyn or Ed Miliband have faced in election campaigns would necessarily have to take into account this baleful influence.

It is remarkable that the Conservatives successfully portrayed Mr. Corbyn as an Islingtonian elite, a reference to the North London constituency he has represented since 1983. In the greater hatred that the electorate has expressed towards Mr. Corbyn, it appears strange that his supposed Islingtonian elitism should be considered worse than Mr. Johnson’s established Etonian elitism. Further, Mr. Corbyn is considered a greater threat to national security than Mr. Johnson, perhaps owing to the fact that in these hyper-patriotic Brexit times, Mr. Corbyn is not considered sufficiently patriotic. Mr. Johnson of course could easily get away with this one, perhaps confirming the other Johnson’s (Samuel) adage of patriotism being the last refuge of the scoundrel.

Labour and the future

With all his limitations, there has been a plodding, for his admirers, even a principled consistency in the positions that Mr. Corbyn has taken in his over three decades as a parliamentarian, most of them spent on the Labour backbenches. He was perhaps right on the Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq, when he opposed British foreign policy and its tagging along with the Americans. He has been a vocal supporter of Palestine and a staunch critic of Israel. There are numerous allegations of anti-semitism levelled at the Labour Party for which Mr. Corbyn has been accused of not having done enough, with an Equality and Human Rights Commission inquiry instituted recently. Both Britain’s mainstream parties and their respective leaders have been accused of racism, anti-semitism and Islamophobia. Mr. Johnson has remained electorally unscathed by the accusations against him despite a profusion of outrageously racist remarks that he has himself made.

It is inevitable that Mr. Corbyn will at some stage step down as Labour leader. The question is which way the Labour Party will go? Should it go back to its 1990s and 2000s Blairite moorings that brought rich electoral dividends but isolated the party from its working class roots? Or will the movement of Labour be to the left that Mr. Miliband started and Mr. Corbyn accelerated continue? As for Mr. Johnson, with his dearth of detail, expect nothing new, apart from ad nauseum nostrums about free market capitalism and getting Brexit done. As The Wall Street Journal commented in 1975, “Good bye, Great Britain, it was nice knowing you”.

Amir Ali teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi. He is currently writing a book on ‘Brexit and Liberal Democracy: Populism, Sovereignty and Nation-State’

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 11:59:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/in-conservative-landslide-pain-for-labour/article30323346.ece

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