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November Editorial: This is hell, nor am I out of it

by | November 1, 2019

History is a ‘strange teacher’, wrote Zbigniew Herbert. It supplies its survivors with ‘a dense and dark material’. What is the dense and dark material of recent years telling us?

Everything that Jeremy Corbyn has achieved has been against all odds: winning the Labour leadership, defeating the coup, wiping out May’s majority, scoring a record increase in the Labour vote. In 2017, he walked into a general election which almost everyone, friend and foe, thought was an elephant trap. With the Conservatives leading by twenty points in the polls, Theresa May’s popularity leagues ahead of Corbyn’s, and much of the parliamentary Labour Party gracelessly sabotaging their own party’s campaign, it couldn’t have looked worse. The dynamic political force in the country, for years, had been disaster nationalism. The Left had been in recession for decades. By the end of the campaign, however, we had seen the euphoric first stirrings of another, better nation.

Going into an election now is, once more, a gamble. There are huge unknowns. Labour is proceeding with what looks, pending the Clause V meeting in which the manifesto will be decided, like a far more radical prospectus than in 2017. Most of its announced policies, such as a three-day weekend and a Green New Deal, appear to be popular. But the question of whether such a policy mix can attain sufficient electoral support is simply untested. Also untested is whether the party’s proffered Brexit compromise, of a referendum choice between some soft, yet-to-be-negotiated Brexit and no Brexit, will be enough to undercut the Brexit culture wars that – far more than in 2017 – subtend this election.

Labour started out once again polling in the twenties, while the Liberal Democrats picked up more of the Remain vote than did Labour. There are early signs of a shift in Labour’s favour, but it remains far behind. The Conservatives, having plunged under May, are now back up to around 40 per cent of the vote, in some polls. Among the imponderables is the likely effect of the Liberal Democrats’ campaign strategy, which aims to cobble together an alliance of Blairites and Remain Tories. Similarly opaque are the effects of the Brexit Party’s declared intention to run in all constituencies, campaigning on the argument that Boris’s Brexit deal isn’t really Brexit. Above all, there is the mystery of the polls. Based on the current polling, the psephologist John Curtice predicts a record number of seats for parties who are neither Labour nor the Conservatives. Curtice is certainly among the sharper pollsters, but as regards prediction, he may as well read the I-Ching. The current polling system was not built to cope with political volatility, and the figures we see now, whatever they measure of the moment, are being used to model and soothsay about an electorate that, in these times, we have no reason to believe still exists – indeed, given the repeated failures of poll-based prediction over recent years, we have every reason to believe that it does not. The amnesia of the commentariat is astonishing on this point.

This is not to insist that the uncomfortable numbers measured are wrong– though some polls of course are more accurate than others, and it is unclear how well or badly they model likely turnout among different demographics – but that what is done with those numbers by the prediction-mongers is predicated on category error. Again. Whatever the numbers, it’s therefore impossible to say with certitude how deep the support for Labour goes, its nature, how resilient the Remain protest vote would be in a Westminster election, what demographics may be persuaded to vote, and how fractious the Brexit vote will be. The point is not that the Left should be confident of winning: it is, rather, to insist, against torrents of middlebrow common-sense, that, polls notwithstanding, to refuse to be sure of losing is not only optimism of the will, but rigour.

What is already clear, from the first few days of campaigning, is that Labour is running an excellent campaign, and that the Tories’ is flopping terribly. Labour fund-raising has drawn record sums of money, and volunteers have flocked to the campaign. Its social media campaigning has been light years ahead of the Tories. Even its news management has been better than usual. Boris Johnson, meanwhile, has been booed out of a hospital on one of his first publicity visits. The Tories have been forced onto the defensive over the NHS and austerity, compelled to respond to Labour accusations that they will sell the NHS out to US corporations. Johnson’s first social media video was a lacklustre affair in which he grumpily explained the need for an election from the back seat of his chauffeur-driven car. He has also had to put up with the unhelpful public support of Donald Trump.

Privately, Tory MPs are briefing that they’re nervous about the election, particularly as Boris Johnson’s particular weaknesses will be drawn to the fore. Whereas May’s major psychological weakness was her brittle inability to interact with human beings, Johnson’s appears to be that he is incoherent, lazy and emotionally unstable. He is a proven success as a political careerist. Having been effectively made a national celebrity by the television program Have I Got News For You, only one of the baleful hangovers of Nineties satire, he was able to groom himself for national leadership by twice winning the London mayoral election in a left-leaning city. But Johnson is not built for handling unpopularity, and – charismatic and amusing as he can be to the easily-pleased – he appears to descend into ill-tempered and arrogant gibberish when angered. And better foils for the highlighting of such traits than Jeremy Corbyn are rare. Nor is Johnson, any more than is his vastly overestimated amanuensis Dominic Cummings, any kind of tactical genius. Almost every major call they have made has been wrong.

And yet. Hope there is, but its limits are quickly reached. Despite months of calamities for the government, Tory support hasn’t waned. Indeed it has strengthened. It would be a mistake to overestimate the ‘optics’ and to underestimate the galvanic power of nationalist reaction. Unless Labour makes an equally compelling offer to its base, and strives to expand it, the poujadists and their periphery will indeed win.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they have the capacity to make some mischief for Labour and win some Tory Remainer seats. At this stage, however, their strategy looks like a dud. Their approach, under Swinson, is to pretend to believe that they can outright win a general election on a commitment to revoke Article 50, and ignore the Brexit referendum result. Beyond the Remainer hardcore, this is not only a genuinely risible lie, but a vote-loser. As their education secretary Layla Moran discovered on Question Time, it is impossible to coherently defend in public. Few people will buy the line that Jo Swinson is a future Prime Minister. Her squirming under pressure from Andrew Neil on this score evidences what everyone knows, that she doesn’t believe it either. The tactic of flooding social media with rigged polls claiming that the Liberals are winning in seats where they have zero chance – abetted by the ludicrous ‘tactical voting’ website, Best Britain, which claims to believe that the Liberals can gain 180 seats – is generating much deserved ridicule.

Thus the claim quafact: what about desideratum? The party is trying desperately hard to be a personality cult, but minus, hélas, the personality. It plasters Swinson’s visage all over its literature and publicity on the assumption that she is a likeable, modernising face. For a party whose scale has previously been brutally calibrated by a baby-faced, rapping homophobe, Swinson’s middle-managerial energy is indeed a step forward. She can handle the chat sofa and social media. But she visibly shrinks faced with anything more taxing. The best that can be said for her conference performance is that few people saw it. And while to be mauled by Andrew Neil on the BBC may be considered a misfortune, to be taken apart by Piers Morgan and Susannah York looks like carelessness.

And yet. That uncertainty persists. If the Liberals are likely to be reduced to the Hard Remain core, it is currently unclear how big that core is. Those ‘current polls’ show them losing support, but all the above caveats apply.

On the face of it, Farage’s decision to stand Brexit Party candidates in all constituencies is an ultra decision that will be deeply damaging to the Conservatives. Farage prefers not to acknowledge this. Indeed, it has been his strategy since the effective implosion of the BNP in 2011 to rebrand his politics as those of an abandoned, Labour-voting, white working class. He was aided in this propagandistic claim when The Timespublished a racially inflammatory story about ‘grooming gangs’ in the north, which it falsely claimed was a problem distinctive to the British Pakistani minority. The Farageites accused local Labour councils of sacrificing children on the altar of multiculturalism. With this line, they excited a dormant right-wing vote, and as a result came second to Labour in a number of constituencies.

With the shift of his outfit to the Brexit Party, Farage attempted to bolster that claim of connection to working-class politics, including with the collaboration as candidates and cheerleaders of the preposterous eternal teenagers of Spiked!, now touting their very-long-dead genealogical link to the Left for the first time in decades. In truth, the Farageites, from then until now, have overwhelmingly taken Tory votes, even in the seats where they’ve come second to Labour. The only occasions on which they’ve ever won any parliamentary seats was when a couple of Tories defected, in solidly right-wing constituencies, to Ukip. Farage’s gambit is a wrecking move. He doesn’t expect to win, as indicated by his declining to stand for a seat himself, but he is a man who has never lost out from losing. His major leverage, always, has derived from his ability to ratchet up the crises and divisions in Conservatism in such a way as to drive it, and the national conversation, further to the petty bourgeois right. Indeed, one benefit of performatively claiming to be ripping chunks out of the working-class base is that, to the extent that it rattles Labour, it ensures that there is a defensive silence on the major issue on which politics polarises: immigration. The effects of Brexit Party campaigning, therefore, will be complicated. While they are unlikely to eat significantly into the Labour vote, they have proven that they can more effectively polarise situations to the right than can the Tories. Indeed, in the seats where they stood in 2017, the Tories did better, suggesting that the Brexit Party campaigning may be effective mood music for a swing to the (further) right.

The Conservatives have been in power for almost a decade, with an abysmal record on the economy, public services, and living standards. Britain’s lumpenbourgeoisie, from the billionaires to their outriders in parliament and the media, shows every sign of being willing to acquiesce in the Conservative Party’s death drive. They continue to see the Tories as the only serious obstacle to a Corbyn government, which eventuality terrifies them more than does crashing out of their major trading market on ‘no-deal terms’. The price of the Tories’ remaining on the lifeline of popular support, however, is that they have become effectively a single-issue party – and that issue is the one thing that catastrophically splits their class base. They are, admittedly, trying hard to change this. Boris Johnson has apprehended more fully than did May that austerity is fuelling Corbynism. In addition to their existing promises on police numbers and health spending, the Conservatives will probably make some auspicious announcements during the campaign. This shows that the current Tory leadership is not as complacent or dogmatic as its predecessor. However, the Tories’ spending pledges are vastly over-hyped. And they are for one year only, based on some creative accounting within the existing austerian framework. They have not yet broken from these confinements, and it is unclear that they can, or wish to.

This leaves a precariously balanced, fissile situation. Labour’s gamble in going for an election could be rewarded with a landslide no pundit predicts, or it could result in a worse catastrophe than the most lugubrious leftist fears. It could confirm a momentous shift in the political direction of the country, or it could bracket Corbynism as just a moment of crisis while confirming reaction in power. Or, of course, any number of intermediating possibilities. And yet, though history is a dark and dense material, the extent to which it is legible shows this gamble to be the best option that Labour had available to it. Of this, the immediate, galvanised excitement of the party activists has been salutary evidence. The idea of running away from a fight in full view of the public, while thwarting the resolution of a major constitutional stalemate, and then hoping that the electoral situation would be better in six months’ time, was absurd. Nothing could be more likely to enrage voters and destroy the opposition’s credibility. More absurd still was the claim made by Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell, that Labour could somehow have forced a referendum before having an election, when the whole point of this parliament was that it was a busted flush, able to decide only on how to constrain a reckless government. The fact that so much of the situation is incalculable, is exactly what shows that it contains the seeds of, among other things, hope.

Get ready, Corbyn is telling activists, for the fight of your lives. For once, in a national election, this is not hyperbole.