The U.K. snap election brought a bitter surprise to the optimistic Conservative Party. Prime Minister Theresa May barely escaped with her knitting intact after her party’s dismal showing at the polls. Just two months ago, the Tory leader was riding high, calling an election she was almost certain to win. With Brexit talks formally underway, and the Labour opposition led by a frumpy, incompetent, and all around unassuming bloke, May had the wind at her back and gumption in her sails as she steadily rode to a total routing of her enemies.
Well, it looks like that old Marxist allure never lost its charm. Britain’s youth, widely (and unfairly) panned for staying home during the Brexit vote, went all lovey dovey over Jeremy Corbyn, giving Labour some unexpected gains, ultimately preventing a total Tory majority.
From an outsider’s perspective, it was quite thrilling to watch. Political shakeups make for amusing television, especially when you get to view them from bleachers across the pond. Seeing stuffy politicians wipe egg from their face the morning after an unexpected loss gives one a sense of being history’s observer, witnessing an unfolding of consequential triumphs and errors.
Watching Corbyn go from meek and ineffectual to capturing a highest share of the vote since Attlee trounced Churchill was like watching a Rocky movie. The only parallel was staying up to the wee hours to watch Donald Trump’s victory speech.
I say all that, not just as an underdog-loving American, but as someone whose heart is with May’s “blue conservatism.” The Tory manifesto, released weeks prior to the election, takes a different tact from Thatcherite conservatism. Instead of emphasizing tax cuts and slashing business regulations, May’s declaration of principles takes a knife to free market fetishism. Conservatives “do not believe in untrammeled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism” the manifesto states, breaking hard with the Hayekian ideology that defined the right during the Thatcher years.
May’s communitarian call to arms didn’t just reject naked capitalism, it unapologetically embraced the welfare state, calling for an increase of benefits to pensioners, school students, and the National Health Service. And to bring it home fully to small “c” conservatism, the added benefits will be protected for citizens through a substantial reduction in immigration.
At a time of large-scale erosion in institutions and globalization’s attendant economic benefits having less of a positive impact on the lower and middle classes, May’s inward vision aligned nicely with contemporary concerns. Her plea for civic renewal invoked Burke in declaring “true Conservatism means a commitment to country and community; a belief not just in society but in the good that government can do; a respect for the local and national institutions that bind us together.”
Yet, for all its intellectual heritance and urgency to meet this political moment, May’s proposal was met with a sad trombone. Labour gained a massive 30 seats in Parliament, while the Tories shed 13. May’s demand for an election ended up being a strategic error of Gallipoli proportions.
So how did Corbyn do it? With a little help from his friends, namely Barack Obama mentor Arnie Graf, who, while advising Labour between 2011 and 2013, reemphasized its roots in working class Brits. The rumpled old socialist was also aided by politics’s most potent weapon: A facile phrase that tugs on the heartstrings. “For the many, not the few,” was Labour’s everywhere mantra. And it was genius.
Pure, simple, romantic; just saying the phrase, with its smooth syllabic flow, evokes the red-hot emotion of resentment. Kill the lawyers! Burn the bankers! Hang the billionaires! Give the gains back to the people!
How was Edmund Burke ever going to compete with that?
He didn’t. While older voters had experienced enough sappy multiculturalism to feel like strangers in their own homes, the young—namely the Millennials generation–lapped up Labour’s message. Even two terror attacks weren’t enough to keep them at home. Young voters just didn’t buy the Conservatives’ sudden shift to economic solidarity. “The Tories are the party of capital and the moneyed interest,” writes Adrian Pabst, and that image is one not easily shaken. Corbyn’s promising of a Santa Claus sack full of benefits, including free university tuition, with no concrete means to pay for the added goodies also appealed to the fiscally illiterate young.
An old-school socialist, the Labour leader doesn’t obsess over the intersectional oppression of transgendered beastility enthusiasts. As an MP, he voted against economic integration with the European Union. He has spoken out against Western internationalist organizations like NATO and the IMF. A door-knocking organizer, Corbyn avoids travelling by car when possible, opting instead for his bicycle or rail. And unlike May, Corbyn has actually reproduced, and has three children with his second wife.
Surely, a flea-market-shopping leftist is a welcome alternative to a Davos-attendee leftist. There are some worrisome aspects about Corbyn, namely his ho-hum attitude toward anti-Semitism in Labour, his IRA affinity, and his anti-monarchical views, but he’s not a belligerent internationalist itching to start a nuclear war with Russia.
Like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn has lived a life of progressive campaigning. He was never a London day trader, a litigious ambulance chaser, or a glad-handing schmoozer; he comes off as the wily pamphleteer you encounter at a state fair. That makes his rise to leadership, and resulting political success, all the more surprising. In politics, sometimes genuineness matters.
The neo-liberal consensus so prominent in the West needs a good kick in the rear. Trump is somewhat challenging it in the U.S. It will be interesting to see if Corbyn can use his newfound power to pose a bigger challenge to it in the U.K.
As for liberty? The anti-establishment streak cutting deep into the Western mind has not abated. The question of liberty will take a backseat until piqued feelings over the status quo calms. Interesting times ahead for all.