By Joe Montero
Being in Australia makes it difficult to get an in depth understanding about what happened in the recent British election. Nevertheless, it has received a great deal of attention here. Much of it is not well informed.
Although the specific conditions vary from country to country, the British experience does have some universal implications, and this provides a good reason for drawing out some properly investigated impressions.
The Brexit problem
This was an election about Brexit above all else. The Conservatives under Boris Johnson campaigned strongly for it, and there was no doubt about where they stood.
In contrast, Labour sat on the fence. Doing well in this election was always going to be an uphill Battle. By the end of the vote counting it proved to be a disaster.
Many had warned that this fence sitting would not go well. It persisted anyway.
Labour has found enormous difficulty dealing with this. Having historically beeing anti-Europe, its support base had long been welded on to taking this view. For years the argument was that the interests of working people demanded that Britain not be put under the dominance of Germany and France.
This is not only a difficulty for the Labour Party. It also affects the left outside it.
The problem is that the circumstances have changed and the necessary adjustment to fit the new situation has not taken place. The political leadership and will to do this has been absent.
Truth is that the United Kingdom is no longer the power that it used to be. Instead of being the major global economy and political actor, it has now been relegated to sixth position. A significant part of the British economy is now owned by American interests, and their influence has grown.
Today’s choice is not going it alone or integration into Europe. It is about either European or American integration.
There is a difference. Europe at least offers better protection for working conditions, higher welfare standards, more extensive public services, and even tougher environmental protection.
By contrast, the American camp offers much less on all fronts. It is bound to a higher-level drive to neoliberalism and all that this entails.
The European Union is far from perfect. But it is the better option.
Fence sitting on Brexit cannot be papered over with a lengthy manifesto, no matter how much it promises. Granted, it was not easy to wipe off ingrained dogma. But failing to take a clear stand one way or the other, pleases no one and breeds distrust.
In contrast, Boris Johnson stuck to his guns, looked like he believed in something, came across as decisive and led the Conservatives to a victory – with help from people in high places.
It was the Conservatives who best adjusted to the changed conditions, transforming from being enthusiastic fans of Europe to its staunch opponents. The growing influence of American economic interests has Growing American influence has penetrated this party.
In came Rupert Murdoch a key representative of American interests, who was able to turn the largest part of British media into the propaganda arm of the Brexit campaign and be the behind the scenes force behind the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP’s American connection, including with the far right of that country is no secret.
Working people are suffering
Ordinary British people want a better deal than they are getting. They want jobs and security. Parents want a future for their kids. They looked to political leaders to come up with some answers.
The Brexiters did a better job of communicating their message. They used the old arguments of the left, and some threw in a pinch of xenophobia. They had a better understanding of the extent of the disillusionment and anger of the population, and offered solutions.
We may believe that these re not real solutions. The point is that they offered something, while the alternative remained in a haze.
Solutions offered must be crystal clear and tap into how the population is feeling. If they are feeling that the situation they are in is not good enough, defendingthe status quo is not the best way to go.
Connecting at the emotional level needs decisiveness and punch, and in the context of the election required a push against the way things are through simple, clear and practical answers.
Labour’s “for the many and not the few” pitch might have enthused some. To most people it was too abstract, to much a feel good statement and not enough practical tasks to improve the lives of most.
A bag full of promises complicates and confuses the message. They may make up good policy. But this is not campaigning with an effective strategyb that wins hearts and minds.
Labour did realise the need to narrow down during the election campaign and elevated the defense of the National Health Service (NHS) to top billing. It was a mistake. Although there are very good reasons for defending it, the strategy made Labour look like a conservative force, defending the way things are, rather than being the champions of change.
Paradoxically, it was the Conservatives who were in the position to position themselves as the agents of this change.
The reality of power
Even if the first two difficulties did not exist, it remains that Labour with its progressive manifesto, faced the onslaught of an establishment, which has long held the real power in its hands, knows how to wield it, and is frightened about the potential for undermining its interests.
The pretense of change offered by the Conservatives and pro-Brexit camp is one thing. The tilt, even if it could have been explained better, threatened to stand on some very privileged toes, and it could not be allowed at all costs. There was always going to be an unprecedented campaign from the existing establishment, and it was going to use all means at its disposal.
Former Labour heavyweights were brought out to attack Jeremy Corbyn. Even some current Labour members of parliament joined in the kicking. They joined a chorus from the towers of privilege money and power.
Corbyn at Downing Street will will bring hell on Earth, they warned. Day in and day about he was accused of alternatively being dangerous, not all that bright, anti-Semitic and a supporter of terrorism. This is dirty politics, using the old trick of sowing fear to manipulate an already insecure population.
Big media played a major role, as the mouthpiece of fear and c ridicule, and acting as the propaganda arm for Brexit and a Conservative victory.
It also showed that a great deal of political power exists outside elections and parliament. Key institutions outside this, and economic power, are in the hands of a the few, with the means to manipulate the electoral process.
Bringing about any major change requires a means to overcome this.
An answer may be found in building an organised movement from the ground up. Not in the sense of a Labour Party electioneering machine. It would be much broader than this, and a means to create a new wave of people power.
How did they really vote?
The conservative victory is not as overwhelming as it has been presented. It did not come from a sudden massive rise in popularity of Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. It was the outcome of a turn against Labour. The blow was not given for having gone too far. It was for the failure to convince them that it offered the needed answer.
If the Conservatives were not themselves on slippery ground, it would have been much worse for Labour. The real swing to them was contained. Many did not vote to support a party. They voted against which they thought they trusted the least at the time.
The Conservatives only got a 1.2 percent swing towards them. This is hardly a landslide. When you consider that UKIP lost 1.8 percent of the vote, and most of this went to the Conservatives.
Labour still suffered a swing of 7.8 percent against it. This is more significant. But very little of it went to the Conservatives. Most went to the pro-Europe parties.
This included the Liberal Democrats, whose share went up by 4.2 percent, even if they did lose a seat. The Greens won a 1.1 percent increase. In Scotland it was the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) that benefited and increased its vote by 0.8 percent. Northern Ireland saw the republican Social Democratic Labour Party and Alliance do well. These parties secured a collected swing of 6.4 percent towards them.
Another important feature of the election is that fewer people voted than at the last election. in England the number of voters fell by 3.6 percent. In wales it was 2 percent. Labour lost out here as well.
With the British electoral system, the proportion of votes does not equate to the number of seats changing hands. For the Conservatives a small increase meant 48 seats gained. Labour lost 60 seats. The Liberal Democrats lost a seat, despite a substantial increase in their vote. On the other hand, The SNP gained 13 new seats. Northern Ireland’s gained SDLP and Alliance won 2 and I seats respectively.
The inescapable conclusion is that the voting shifts were largely over Brexit, and the way the seats are handed out shows, that the claim that all votes are equal is somewhat exaggerated. The result also makes it clear that the electoral system favours the Conservatives.
What about the future?
Reeling form its failure, Labour faces a major decision. Will it retreat into being more like the Conservatives, or will it learn from its mistakes, consolidate and find a better way to move forward?
A good point to finish on, is to return to the idea of an organised movement from the ground up. This is not to try and tell British how to suck eggs, but to raise the type of discussion going on in other countries facing similar conditions.
In line with this, such a movement would be bigger than single political party, bringing together all those who wish to participate in an effort to build collective action to go further than lobbying politicians.
Instead of this, the emphasis would be on communities learning how to look after themselves, build their own networks of mutual support, stimulate local economies and create jobs, while relying less on institutions controlled by others.
The potential is to involve millions in building the confidence to work towards a counter force that challenges the ability of the minority to use their money and power to enforce their will on everyone else.