“Labour will get its strength back, the Lib Dems will fight by-elections wearing sandals and the Tories will bugger us all. The sun will rise, the sun will set and, like an episode of The Simpsons, everything will go back to how it was at the start.”
Full disclosure of my political biases: I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for nine years and I voted for them in the last two General Elections. Last year I voted for Sadiq Khan as Mayor of London and I voted to remain in the European Union. I voted for Jeremy Corbyn in the 2015 Labour Leadership Election and for Owen Smith in 2016. In my first two general elections, 2001 and 2005, I voted for the Liberal Democrats and can’t deny having heard their siren call since the Brexit vote. Ken Livingstone once rode in my car.
Here is a popular story at the moment: discontent at the economic consensus which has dominated western political thinking since Thatcher and Reagan has grown in both Britain and America in the wake of the financial crash. For many who feel “left behind”, especially older white people in working class areas, this has created a backlash against perceived elites, fomenting a populist right movement represented by Trump in America and UKIP and Brexit in the UK. In metropolitan areas that now feel marginalised by the way other parts of their country have voted, this has given a parallel sense of grievance to the left, resulting in Bernie Sanders in America and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. In the middle of this the Centre-Left that seemed so powerful in the days of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton looks hopelessly adrift. At every stage of the story we can insert two names: one British and one their American equivalent. Their story is our story. But, while America undeniably undergoes radical and alarming change, I’m not sure the same thing is happening in Britain at all.
I was able to stay up and watch the BBC’s by-election coverage until the small hours on Thursday. One by one, guests from different parties were mauled and harried by Andrew Neil as a tale unfolded of a disaster for Labour and a knock-out punch for UKIP. The only time Neil was left speechless was when Professor John Curtice (may he live forever) delivered his analysis of the political landscape in Britain. The most respected British psephologist of the age (in an age where very few psephologists have kept any respect at all) challenged the narrative I outlined in the first paragraph in a small but important way.
For the parallels with America to be perfect, we had to buy the common story about Labour’s “natural” supporters (whatever the hell that means- we should have smelt bullshit from the start) deserting us for UKIP. The reason this narrative has emerged is that quite a few Labour voters (but still probably less than a third) voted for Brexit and, in a considerable majority of Labour seats, a majority of the electorate did likewise. This was the logic behind Labour’s timidity in the face of the Article 50 bill as it sought to reconnect with what some saw as its “Northern Brexit heartlands.” The small but crucial detail undermining this idea, which I’d been wondering about for some time before Curtice’s number-crunching proved it, was this: in a majority of Labour-held constituencies, the people who would never vote Labour anyway turned out in large numbers to vote for Brexit. Meanwhile, a majority of those who voted Labour in 2015 as well as, crucially, a majority of those who had voted Labour in the past, voted to remain. This means, according to Curtice, that Labour would do much better if they spoke up at least a little more for “remain” voters- those liberal metropolitan elite, latte-quaffing, Guardian-reading Obama-loving Stewart Lee fans that we’re repeatedly told just don’t matter anymore.
But, perhaps more than in America, we’re still standing. There are loads of us: Labour voters, Lib Dems and quite a few liberal Tories, not to mention most of Scotland. And I’ll tell you something else about us: we vote. Perhaps because the voice of the official opposition is currently so thin and papery, we’ve lost our sense of self-confidence. But whatever happened, when the electorate did come to vote on Thursday, they didn’t embrace radical populism at all. On the right, Paul Nuttalls of the UKIPs got exactly what he deserved in Stoke while, on the left, Corbyn’s Labour took a battering from the people of Copeland. In Stoke, I was struck by an interview with some local people in which one of them, somewhat indignantly, told reporters: “just because we in Stoke voted in large numbers for Brexit, everyone thinks we want to vote UKIP. Yes, we voted Brexit, but Brexit isn’t UKIP.” Too many commentators have bought the stereotype that Brexit voters are all hate-filled Twitter racists and, while some undoubtedly are, the majority are rightly annoyed at constantly being associated with extreme Faragism. In Copeland, faced with an uncertain world, the voters did what, until Trump and Brexit, we always thought people did when they were scared: they went running to Mummy. Theresa May’s Conservative Party may be a bit mean and austere but at least they seemed to know what they were doing. If the populist howl of rage that Trump represents ever really did take hold in the UK, Thursday’s by-elections suggest it’s now nothing like as serious as the mood (so we’re told- FAKE NEWS!) in the US rust belt.
Britain isn’t the Rust Belt and Trump is extremely unpopular here. UKIP meeting their Waterloo on Thursday told us something we didn’t know for sure until then: Labour will one day govern again and the political landscape here hasn’t changed nearly as much as we’ve been led to believe. Yes, we’re leaving the EU (and under the right leadership, as Prof. Curtice demonstrated, there is every opportunity for the Labour Party to hold the government’s feet to a very large fire here) and yes, Scotland might become independent, but a remarkable appetite appears to have taken hold for things to, as it were, settle down a bit. Faced with a choice between a government that is soft and nice, or one that is tough and nasty, voters always seem to choose the latter. Paul Nuttall was soft and nasty- no one wants that. The challenge for Labour is to prove that it can be both tough and nice. For Corbyn, even if he doesn’t go immediately, this is basically the end of the line. After a tumultuous few years I’m starting to wonder if, apart maybe from in Scotland, British politics is actually doing the last thing anyone would have expected it to do: settle back down to its default setting. Labour will get its strength back, the Lib Dems will fight by-elections wearing sandals and the Tories will bugger us all. The sun will rise, the sun will set and, like an episode of The Simpsons, everything will go back to how it was at the start. Right now, looking across the Atlantic, it’s at least better than some of the alternatives I can imagine. And when the next Labour Prime Minister walks into Downing Street, we’ll look back and say this was the moment when everything started to change. These are dark times for anyone with what we like (somewhat sanctimoniously perhaps) to call “progressive” views but I actually believe Corbyn is still right about just one thing: “the fightback starts here.”