An unenviable choice

As most readers will be aware, the United Kingdom goes to the polls on Thursday. I haven’t focused on this as much as I did on the French presidential election, for a couple of reasons.

Firstly, it’s just not as interesting in electoral terms. France saw four evenly-matched candidates fighting for a place in the runoff, three of them representing anti-establishment political forces. In Britain, however, we know that one of the two major party leaders will emerge as prime minister: either (most likely) the Conservatives’ Theresa May or (much less likely) Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn.

In France there was an unprecedented shakeup of the party system. Britain may be heading for that in the not-too-distant future, but as far as this week goes, it’s the same old players in the same old game of trying to win a majority out of 650 single-member districts.

But the second reason is that I find the choice so depressing. Neither leader is at all inspiring, either in personal or policy terms. The Tories under May seem committed to implementing withdrawal from the European Union in the most destructive way possible (even though May herself supported “remain” in last year’s referendum), while Corbyn seems the last relic of an old-fashioned Eurosceptic socialism that did so much damage to the party and the country back in the 1970s.

As the Economist‘s editorial last week puts it:

Though they sit on different points of the left-right spectrum, the Tory and Labour leaders are united in their desire to pull up Britain’s drawbridge to the world. Both Mrs May and Mr Corbyn would each in their own way step back from the ideas that have made Britain prosper—its free markets, open borders and internationalism. They would junk a political settlement that has lasted for nearly 40 years and influenced a generation of Western governments (…). Whether left or right prevails, the loser will be liberalism.

Like the Economist, I would support the Liberal Democrats, partly in the hope that they may one day form the nucleus of a new liberal-centrist party if Labour or the Conservatives should split. But on all indications they are heading for disaster, and as their base narrows they become more fertile territory for conspiracy theorists and crazies of all sorts.

I’m not convinced, however, that the Conservatives will be “much better” than Labour. In fact, while I would hate to have to choose between them, at the moment I would be leaning towards Corbyn.

It seems to me that the key issue of today, in Britain as elsewhere, is the fight against neo-fascism (or “right-wing populist extremism”, if you prefer). There is a powerful international movement, supported by the leaders of the world’s two largest military powers, that aims to dismantle the institutions that over the last two generations have brought the world a large measure of peace, freedom and prosperity, and turn the clock back to the nationalism of blood and soil.

Whatever our differences on economic policy or cultural trappings, those of us who believe in the values of enlightenment civilisation need to stand together. On that issue, while neither party is at all satisfactory, I think Labour is more likely to do the right thing – although Corbyn is far from being the champion I would choose in this struggle.

The editorialist at the Economist thinks that May “is in a different class from Mr Corbyn,” but I’m not sure that’s true either. Moreover, while Corbyn is about the worst that the Labour Party has to offer, May is by no means the worst of the Tories – and as “Brexit” demonstrated, a Tory leader can be at the mercy of his or her nativist backbench. The collapse of the UKIP vote means that even more of the far right will be making its home within the Conservatives.

In my colleague Guy Rundle’s report last Thursday, one line in particular stood out. Referring to May, he said “Her early performance was smart and slick. But that was, in part, because she was being compared with Boris Johnson.” I think that’s spot on. After the referendum result and David Cameron’s resignation the sane element of the Tory Party (and indeed Johnson himself) were shell-shocked; the subsequent sense of relief when May took the leadership made them forget the underlying reality of how badly the party had damaged itself.

Those who voted “remain” are a minority, but a very large minority, and those of them who had previously voted Conservative are now looking for an alternative. (This is where the Lib Dems should have been able to capitalise, but they’ve proved unequal to the task.) Democracy isn’t just about making choices for the future; it’s also about putting the right incentives in place, and it’s important that bad policy should be punished electorally.

An even more obvious candidate for punishment is the early election itself, a piece of shameless opportunism that has clearly driven some of the shift towards Labour in the polls. Once again, it’s fascinating to note how oblivious the political class is to this issue: because they thrive on elections, the more the better, they fail to understand how unpopular they are with the general public. (Or if they do, they keep very quiet about it.)

Comparing again with France, it’s also interesting to note that none of the “things have to get worse before they get better” crowd who supported Marine Le Pen (and before her Donald Trump) show no enthusiasm at all for Corbyn. Yet if western political establishments really are so corrupt and ossified that they need an agent of disruption, change at almost any price (which is pretty much what Adam Creighton told us), how could you go past him?

The difference in the media coverage has been equally striking. Even before his recent surge, the polls were very clear that Corbyn was more likely to end up as prime minister than Le Pen ever was to end up as president. Yet until the last week, you would never have guessed that from reading the papers.

I am still not a Corbyn fan; I think he has an unpleasantly authoritarian streak, and his views on economics belong in a museum. But he has real strengths as well. As much as anything, people are looking for authenticity, and a leader who seems to believe in something – even if it is not quite the something that the voters had in mind – has a natural advantage over someone like May, whose philosophical grounding is, to say the least, difficult to discern.

And of course on some policy questions, such as the obscene uselessness of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Corbyn makes such obvious sense that comment seems superfluous.

Finally, a factor in Corbyn’s favor is the perception that he won’t win, and that a protest vote can therefore be safely indulged. I think that perception is probably right, but British opinion polls have been badly wrong before, and an election with such large opportunities for tactical voting is always difficult to pick (again, contrast with France). The spectre of terrorism has thrown another major uncertainty into the mix.

Dark times ahead for Britain, either way.

5 thoughts on “An unenviable choice

  1. I’ve given up on the Brits. They go from bad to worse. So I am all empathied out. Brexit was the last straw. Such a petulant destructive and ignorant thing to do; and indeed by such a small margin (it would have taken only 1.6% of voters to change for the opposite result; or worse, just a small number of the under-24s to actually bother voting!).
    And I have little confidence that they have learned anything from seeing what happened in France. But Corbyn is no Bernie and I doubt he will manage to get out the youth vote (who would vote much for Labor than the Tories if not necessarily because of Corbyn).
    May is a disaster and things will get worse. Brexit will be terrible and no matter how slim the winning margin the Tories will claim a mandate to do whatever destructive nonsense they want. Because of the various consequences, austerity will get worse and cost of living even worse. Another 5 years of NHS and education system decline.

    The only thing one would say about Corbyn is that the most likely scenario is a thin margin and ability to form a government with the help of SNP and LibDems. That means there would be moderating influences. Indeed for the irredeemably hopeful like me, maybe even a feasible path out of Brexit back to Remain (with Macron’s help). But a big question is whether Corbyn has the leadership abilities to lead a coalition like that. He can barely lead his own party.

    I can’t even see any silver lining or glass half-full out of any of this. Could some new centrist party emerge from the ashes of Labor and LibDems? Seems unlikely and it might yet have to contend with Blair attempting some kind of comeback via this route. And most attentive observers would blame Blair for this horrible situation to begin with. (In Oxford at the time and as a Commonwealth citizen I voted in the ’97 election that brought Blair to power. I voted Lib-Dem (might have still been called SDP then?) and was appalled at Blair. I simply couldn’t understand how people couldn’t see the oleaginous creep he was behind that grimace of a smile. I can only think the Brits were desperate after 18 years of Thatcherism.)

    Looking at any of the Anglophone polities is pretty depressing. It appears to have come to an end of the line, with no clear path out of the mess. By comparison with the other developed countries you’d have to say we are a dumb, uninformed and capricious bunch of voters. Who could say we don’t deserve what we get?

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    1. Thanks Michael – I think we’re very much on the same page there. I confess I was mostly pro-Blair until Iraq, altho I was always concerned about the lack of philosophical centre – and unlike you I wasn’t (apart from a brief trip in ’99) observing it on the ground. Agreed that in principle there are possibilities in a anti-Tory coalition, but like you I’m sceptical about whether Corbyn could manage such a beast, and I don’t think the numbers will be there for it anyway. Certainly I see nothing to hope for within the Tory Party; the sunny promise of Cameron now seems an eternity away.
      As you say, deep problems across the Anglosphere, which I would attribute in part to our voting system: New Zealand, which wisely abandoned it in the ’90s, has done reasonably well.

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      1. I only agree in part about voting systems. I think the awful British one and the bizarre US one are just “enablers”. True, ours tends to lock in the two-party system and that is the real problem across the Anglosphere. Plus the shocking state of most voters. This is nominally an election about Brexit but it has barely been mentioned–because it is bipartisan avoidance as none of them have a blind clue as to what they really want, what they might reasonable manage to negotiate and how they would try to get there. Those ignorant sods they keep cherry-picking for tv soundbites don’t have a clue but insist on it being better.

        I enjoyed Marina Hyde’s takedown of all and sundry today (she’s a peculiar mix of Oxford and seeming Home-counties m’am plus dry Pythonesque comedic skills):

        A couple of days after she had called the election, the Sun’s Harry Cole revealed that he’d “had [a] second old-school Tory refer to the prime minister as ‘Mummy’ on the phone today”. Well. It is not for us to probe the psychosexual dynamics of the Conservative party too closely, but both of them – and who knows how many others? – will now be feeling a rare sense of guilt and shame over those particular fantasies.

        There is something to this. When you see the usual old suspects in Oz (Greg Sheridan, Tony Abbott et al) fawning over Theresa May there is something particularly creepy, in the same way it was over Maggie. Something the opposite of the same suspects reaction to an actual woman leader like Angela Merkel, Hilary Clinton or Julia Gillard. It is perfectly described by that most English (despite his name) of poets, Hilaire Belloc:
        (final lines to poem Jim, Who ran away from his Nurse and was eaten by a Lion)

        And always keep a-hold of Nurse
        For fear of finding something worse.

        In today’s paper Sheridan was making grave warnings if May was not elected: “a devastating setback for the Western alliance” seemingly approving of her promise to roll back Human Rights (which has nothing to do with their membership of the EU and will be unchanged); and presumably agrees with old reliable George Brandis who wants to turn the judicial system over to an elected politician (himself as AG and the state equivalents). As Hyde wrote:

        Given May’s huge limitations, it was no surprise that she didn’t dare turn up to the TV debates. The political version of a Westworld host, May frequently short-circuited when events forced her off-script, with Tuesday’s rattled announcement about ripping up human rights legislation being a case in point. It was the kind of speech so dangerously irrational it made you want to memorise her face while she was delivering it, just to help police with the efit.

        It is disappointing that the LibDems have failed to pick up any of the gigantic disillusioned voter contingent, but not surprising since there simply indescribable stupidity in going in coalition with the Cons 6 years ago. I blame that idiot decision as part of Brits inability to conceptualise a fair electoral system: Clegg gave as the reason, that it was only fair as the Cons had won more than anyone else, completely missing the function of a coalition which is to reflect the overall intent of the voters: Lib-Dems + Labour won the majority.

        I am expecting the Brits to make the worst possible decisions this time too. And perhaps most irritating of all will be the low turnout of millenials too distracted by their FB accounts to bother taking a half hour to go vote. They will get what they deserve–and as I said I have run out of any empathy for the sods–and of course it won’t be any good for the rest of us either. Especially with a bunch of regressive Anglophiles wanting to hang on to nanny’s coat-tails …

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      2. Indeed. I’d be kinder to Nick Clegg; while Labour + Lib Dems did indeed have a majority of the vote, they didn’t have a majority of seats, and putting together a majority coalition would have been fiendishly difficult. I think it was a fair call at the time to go for stability. And yes, agreed on the creepiness of our Groupers; I’m no Corbyn fan, but the claim that he would mean “a devastating setback for the Western alliance” is hardly credible when it comes from people who are falling over themselves to make excuses for Trump.

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      3. Quite apart from Sheridan’s hyperbole, the Western Alliance doesn’t have too many runs on the board over the last several decades. And one thing is obvious, and a bit Corbyn-esque, it isn’t an Alliance so much as an American superpower out of control and totally resistant to listening to anyone else. (And with Trump … well, it is the glass-half-full scenario that this folly we have all been suffering for–from GFC to Iraq and ME meltdown–has finally been revealed in its Emperor’s new clothes.)

        Re Clegg, no I will never accept that. It was too important to make such a crazy decision: against their own policies and philosophy, and of course against their own voters and members. (They were 5 off a majority and there were 28 “other” at least one of which was a Green, so 4 needed. Not impossible. As Gillard showed.) Political stability would be entirely empty, as it has turned out: without that, there would be no Brexit. Much better to try to establish a coalition of like-minded and see if it lasts. If not, back to a new election. Not the end of the world.

        Of course if they had a preferential system it would have been roughly 262 Labour, 78 Lib-Dem producing a very solid majority against the Tories on 281. FPTP has killed their democracy which is why the Tories want to retain it. If Corbyn loses, the non-conservative parties will probably fall further into disarray. Why should we expend our limited emotional empathy on them anymore? The only glass-half-full for me is that surely it tells Australians to finally get over their mummy issues re the UK. I hate that our politicians turn to them to model everything we do. Recently they were even trying to convince themselves the Brits had a solution to a housing crisis that was entirely of their own making and shows zero signs of being solved! Instead let’s look at other more successful and less unequal societies.

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