09/05/2016

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The Strange Endurance of Jeremy Corbyn, and Other Mysteries of British Politics

London — In September 2015, only four months after David Cameron’s Tories pulled off an unexpected victory in Britain’s general election.

I was asked by the newspaper the Australian to explain a strange paradox in U.K. politics: The Labour party had just elected an extreme Marxist and IRA sympathizer to its leadership, and nobody seemed at all concerned.

If anything, the mood of complacency that spread throughout the political world immediately after the Tory win, as if old-fashioned two-party stability was again the political norm, jelled and deepened. Tories told themselves that since Labour’s new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was unelectable, that his triumph guaranteed their remaining in office more or less indefinitely. And though many Labour members of Parliament agreed gloomily with this, they also felt unable to throw out a party leader only days after he had been elected in a landslide. Corbyn, Labour, and Britain seemed stuck with each other — and the Tories looked immovable.

At the same time this stability existed nowhere else. Governments were collapsing in Mediterranean Europe, dragged down by the euro and stagflation; insurgent populist parties were threatening established parties from France to Greece, in Poland and, with the UKIP, at home here in Britain; and in America, two outsiders, a Vermont socialist and a New York billionaire, were challenging experienced and well-financed leaders of their own parties for the presidential nomination with surprising success. With so much turmoil and instability everywhere else, surely they would spread to the U.K. too? But how?

RELATED: Meet Jeremy Corbyn, the New Loony-Left Socialist Leader of Britain’s Labour Party

In the fall of 2015, I suggested six possibilities that, taken together, would shake Britain and the Cameron government out of their complacency and reorder the settled patterns of U.K. politics. How do they stand up? Here they are, not in their original order, and shortened or accurately summarized (with my original observations italicized).

  1. Corbyn, like Donald Trump, is a beneficiary of the anti-political mood sweeping the advanced world. Both gain in particular from the conviction that previous leaders have betrayed the cause (socialism in Corbyn’s case, America in Trump’s) and their followers. That partly explains the oddity that neither seems to be damaged by gaffes and mistakes that would ruin other leadersTheir followers reason that since they are bravely fighting powerful evils, they will naturally be opposed and slandered. This gives Corbyn more staying power in a crisis than he might otherwise enjoy.

This has been proved beyond all measure. Corbyn appointed a shadow cabinet that included a man who had once wished that he could murder Margaret Thatcher. Corbyn failed to sing the national anthem at a service to commemorate Battle of Britain pilots. He recently so mishandled accusations of anti-Semitism within Labour that he has now had to appoint a commission of inquiry to investigate them. Yet his followers have remained loyal to him, and his Labour opponents have been afraid to strike.

  1. The Tories are deeply unpopular in much of modern Britain, notably inner-city Britain. It is common to hear Tories in general spoken of in terms, of sneering contempt and savage hostility, that would never be used for any other group. In some political circumstances it would also make them less legitimate and less able to act effectively in defense of democracy or order.

As this week’s local and regional elections demonstrate, this is increasingly true with one modest exception. Conservatives are a shrinking minority in England’s inner cities, in its North, in Northern Ireland, in Wales, and in London, which immigration has transformed into a safe Labour city. They lost votes overall in England this week, gaining only 30 percent of the total and falling one percentage point behind a staggering Labour. The modest exception is Scotland, where the Tories rose from the dead, came in a distant second, beat a demoralized Labour into third place, and kept the Scottish National Party from obtaining an absolute majority in the Scottish Parliament. It looks as if the SNP has peaked. There will now be no second referendum on Scottish independence in the foreseeable future. And it’s been shown that a political party can rise like Lazarus from the dead — which these days is good to know.

  1. Throughout his career as a Labour MP since 1983, Corbyn has been an advocate of extra-parliamentary, or revolutionary, socialist politics. He may never lead any kind of insurrection, but he is also unlikely to resist and condemn, as earlier Labour leaders did, extra-parliamentary violence in support of political strikes.

We haven’t had in the past year the kind of events that would put Corbyn to the test on this point. But even under serious pressure he has shown great reluctance to renounce his earlier ties with extremist groups such as Hamas. Make this the Scottish verdict: Not proven. But keep a watch on the fellow, Sergeant.

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  1. The wild card is the possibility that another world financial crisis, on the order of 2008, or even a smaller market correction could halt or reverse the U.K. economic recovery. Any such setback would be disproportionately damaging to the government, since the growing prosperity of the country was probably the main reason that the Tory vote rose last May at all.

Well, the second of those possibilities is now about to hit the British economy: All the indicators are that U.K. growth across the board — manufacturing, services, construction — is slowing down against a worrying background of a current account deficit equal to 7 percent of GDP. It looks genuinely worrying, writes Allister Heath in the Telegraph: “It could soon be time to don the tin hats.” And all while Britain is still in the EU. This is one time when economic bad news could have a massive political impact.

  1. Within the next seven weeks, there will be a referendum on Britain’s membership in the European Union. In the immediate post-election atmosphere, the mood in Whitehall was that this would be quite easy for government to win (i.e., obtain a vote to remain in the EU). Accordingly, Cameron scaled his demands for reform of EU institutions down to trivialities — indeed, almost to an acceptance of the status quo. That now looks short-sighted. The crisis over the refugee influx into Europe via Hungary; Angela Merkel’s invitation to more Syrians to settle in Germany; Jean-Claude Juncker’s declaration that the EU would allocate migrants to EU member-states by quota; and the scenes of migrants in Calais rioting and boarding trucks to sneak into Britain — all these are moving British opinion in a Eurosceptic direction. It can move back, of course, but the refugee crisis shows no sign of ending, and another twist of the euro crisis might occur before June 23, when the referendum will be held. Cameron might lose the referendum — or, what is a little more likely, he might win n­­arrowly but lose a large bloc of Tory voters to UKIP, maybe permanently. Either way he, and the government would be in trouble politically.

All the events described above nine months ago have continued moving along the same path. If anything, the euro and refugee crises have grown worse, and the European Union has devised no generally agreed solutions to them. As a result, both referendum campaigns have been more evenly matched than I might have thought. And what I did not foresee — or at least underestimated — was the divisive impact on the Tory party. Whatever the result of the referendum in June, there will be a struggle for the leadership and, more broadly, for the soul of the Tory party, between Leavers and Remainers. Unless Remain wins in a landslide, Brexit will stay on the political agenda.

  1. If we accept the conventional wisdom that Corbyn will be box-office poison, we can’t be sure where the votes he alienates will go. As we saw in the 2015 election, not many Labour voters will switch to the Tories — that’s too large a chasm to leap. Some predict that the lion’s share of them will go to the Liberal Democrats on the left. No doubt some will, mainly from Labour’s distressed Blairites. But the Labour voters most repelled by Corbyn are likely to be blue-collar voters who have socially conservative views and patriotic instincts. In the last eletion, they already began to move rightward, not to the Tories but to their new right-wing rival, UKIP.

Well, up to a point. What is most striking about this week’s local elections is that the political framework has changed dramatically. It is almost as if there are now five separate political regions with their own distinctive debates in the U.K. — England, London, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It’s a much more disunited kingdom — think Canada and Quebec. That massive change was the result of last year’s general election. But it has been more or less ratified within each of these “regions” in last week’s local elections.

It is as if voters were digesting previous changes — in Scotland, the collapse of Labour and the rise of the SNP; in England, the collapse of the Liberal Democrats and the rise of UKIP; in London, the big swing to Labour — before facing other major decisions in the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. So Labour did badly in England but not as badly as predicted; Corbyn remains leader until at least the next disaster. Labour also did badly in Scotland, but that was no more than a consolidation of last year’s collapse; Scots also decided that they had over-egged the SNP’s pudding last year and denied it an overall majority this year. UKIP lost a little ground in England but advanced into Wales for the first time. The Lib-Dems began a modest recovery but seem also to have lost ground to the Greens. The success of the Scottish Tories masked serious signs that the Tories in England are losing popularity (and that David Cameron is losing authority) in the crucial runup to the referendum. And the remaining Blairites are now columnists in the Tory press.

All the signs are that a restive left-wing Labour Party could advance quickly once it was liberated from Corbyn’s leadership.

All this is more threatening for ministers than either they or the commentariat(both under the spell of Corbyn’s incompetence) have grasped. All the signs are that a restive left-wing Labour Party could advance quickly once it was liberated from Corbyn’s leadership. And since there are almost four years to go before a general election, that will almost certainly happen.

All the possibilities discussed above are present in modern British politics. They point away from the two-party stability of, say, 1955, when almost all voters cast their ballots for either Labour or the Conservatives. Some of them in combination — an economic turndown, a weak and divided Tory government, a major political strike, a left-wing Labour leader playing to the gallery — could midwife a major political crisis from the angry Left. That is broadly the outcome that in my Australian article I suggested was likely. But they don’t mean that crisis and instability are inevitable, either.

In a mature democracy, major changes can and often do occur constitutionally. Constitutions exist so that revolutions may be rendered unnecessary. Last May the voters brought about tectonic political shifts in the political landscape without anything like a revolution. They destroyed some existing parties and lifted other parties from nowhere into prominence without a single window, let alone neck, being broken. This week they prudently decided to sustain those changes but not to take them any further for the moment, maybe even to correct them at the margin. Corbyn is one undeserving beneficiary of their prudence. And if this complicated reordering of U.K. politics in the last two elections had been carried out by a single individual lawgiver rather than by a mass electorate, wouldn’t we be praising his judiciousness?

#related#With a referendum vote approaching fast, the voters will soon have to determine the greatest constitutional change that Britain has made in her long history. That is so whichever result —Remain or Leave the EU, become a province in a federal Europe or regain full U.K. sovereignty — is selected. Both are leaps into an unknown future. What distinguishes these choices is that Remain gives the ultimate governing power to deal with this unknown future to the “qualified majority voting” of 28 former nations while Leave restores it fully to the British voters who made this week’s decisions.

All the established parties are telling Brits that they can’t hack it in a Remain campaign saturated in defeatism. Will they feel that? Or will they feel that, when all is said and done, they did a pretty good job this week and trust themselves? That’s a test going deeper than constitutions and policies.

Original article here.

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