Brexit Christmas Update
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The five weeks since the previous update have only corroborated the opening observation that a week in politics may as well be an eternity. As with the previous general election in 2017, this campaign has served to reassert the dominance of the Conservatives and Labour, the duopoly at the helm of Britain’s political structure. After Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and the centrist Liberal Democrats performed convincingly at the European Parliamentary election this May , the British electorate has largely resorted itself — according to The Economist’s poll tracker, the Conservatives head into the final week of campaigning with a 44-34% lead over Labour, which experts believe would yield a moderate Conservative majority. This raises the question — how and why have the vote shares of the two most unambiguous parties on Brexit (the Lib Dems have now called to immediately revoke Article 50 should they win a majority, which would immediately terminate Brexit) declined so drastically in an explicitly Brexit-defined election?
Part of the answer lies in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, which is also used in the vast majority of American federal and local elections. To be sure, there have been exceptions to the duopoly of the major parties. The 2010 Parliamentary election was briefly swept up by “Cleggmania”, and the pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) have become a formidable force in Scotland; but smaller parties (especially Nigel Farage’s pro-Brexit UK Independence Party in 2014) have appeared formidable in European elections before, only to fail to make much of a dent in Westminster elections. Brexit has, ironically, been another decisive factor. The Conservative membership elected Prime Minister Boris Johnson leader of their party because of his electoral credentials — having served as a liberal, cosmopolitan, and widely popular Mayor of London, he was clear-eyed about the appropriate electoral response to Farage. Johnson transformed the Conservative Party into an overtly pro-“Hard Brexit” party; by refusing to take a no-deal Brexit off the table well into October (despite Parliament passing a law explicitly taking it off the table until December 2020), he neatly checked Farage’s ambitions to outflank the Conservatives on Brexit, triggering a mass exodus back to the one-party willing and able to pursue a Hard Brexit, wherein Britain would leave most major EU institutions (including the European single market and customs union) at the cost of significant economic hardship but would have the ability to negotiate its own trade deals with third parties.
However, Johnson has accomplished this at the cost of alienating many Europhile Conservatives; former Prime Minister John Major recently took the well-nigh unprecedented step of openly advocating against a Conservative majority, arguing that Johnson’s divisiveness on Brexit has left behind the party’s moderate wing and that the Conservatives would propel the country towards a disastrous no-deal Brexit by the end of 2020 when Britain’s transition arrangement with the EU is set to expire (unless the two parties agree to a complicated trade deal before that). Given this worrying track record and concerns that the Conservatives would use a no-deal Brexit to slash workers’ rights, environmental protections, and other EU regulations. This analysis even ignores Johnson’s habitual untrustworthiness — he was openly laughed at by a debate audience when asked about the subject. Why then are the Conservatives leading by double digits, rather than trailing by that margin?
The answer lies in the Labour Party’s unique weakness, particularly that of their leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Rather than capitalize on this unique opportunity to secure a thumping majority, Labour have reverted to the failed Far Left politics of the pre-Tony Blair era — the party have campaigned on, among other things, comprehensive renationalization across multiple sectors to enhance the economic power of the state, utterly massive increases in public spending, appropriating 10% of large companies’ shares into employee-managed “Inclusive Ownership Funds”, and has resuscitated the divisive language of class warfare to match the Conservatives’ frequent race-baiting and susceptibility to Islamophobia. It is worth pointing out that under Blair’s much-derided center-left “New Labour” (which was nevertheless the most progressive British government in at least the last four decades), Labour won not just its first stretch of three consecutive elections, but its first stretch of two consecutive elections in its history as a party. Nevertheless, the most vocal party activists have repeated the failures of the 1970s that directly led to the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the very “neoliberalism” these activists so strenuously profess to detest.
Nowhere is this attitude more embodied than in the leader of this Old Labour — Jeremy Corbyn. However, Corbyn’s faults extend well beyond the typical criticisms of the Far Left. Aside from the economic harm, his policies promise to inflict on the British economy, he has notably refused to even pick a side on Brexit. While he has promised to hold a second Brexit referendum, he would first aim to negotiate his own “soft Brexit” deal (which, for all the nobility of compromise, offers neither the political freedoms pro-Brexit voters crave nor the economic benefits of remaining in the EU, all the while removing Britain’s seat at the table determining the tariffs and regulations they would have to abide by) and then claim neutrality during the referendum campaign. This lack of leadership on the foremost issue of the day explains why Labour lags behind the Conservatives, and while they have eaten into the Liberal Democrats’ vote share considerably since Halloween, the latter remain a formidable force.
However, to confine criticisms of Corbyn to the above would be to dramatically undersell the dilemma facing the moderate heart of the British electorate. Besides passionately defending brutal dictators like Nicolas Maduro and associations with the IRA (he invited two convicted IRA members to the House of Commons a mere two weeks after an IRA bomb killed five people and nearly assassinated then-Prime Minister Thatcher) and Hamas and Hezbollah (including calling them his “friends”). This last charge is particularly damaging considering the allegations of anti-Semitism against Corbyn and Labour — inducing the second ever Equality and Human Rights Commission investigation against the party. Recently, more evidence came to light about the sheer depth of the problem — besides Corbyn’s anti-Semitic statements in the past, influential party activists and members have received (at best) slaps on the wrist “likening Jewish people to killer viruses, labeling them ‘bent nose manipulative liars’ and calling for the ‘extermination of every Jew on the planet’”. Over 130 such cases remain outstanding, according to leaks of the investigation, which prompted the Jewish Labour Movement to abandon its support for the party.
As Britons head to the polls this Thursday, the dilemma facing them is clear — both major party candidates are utterly unqualified for the office of Prime Minister. While Johnson’s faults have been rehashed ad nauseum, Corbyn may well even endanger the future of the NATO alliance — in the grand tradition of his 20th century failed socialist worldview, his inherent mistrust of Western “imperialism” (well beyond completely substantiated and justified criticisms of actual Western imperialism) extends to the bedrock of the security of the post-World War II liberal international order — in 2011, he reportedly told a Labour gathering, “We… have got to be realistic that NATO is a major problem and a major difficulty, and we have to campaign against NATO’s power, its influence and its global reach, because it is a danger to world peace and a danger to world security." Finally, Corbyn would not even necessarily do a better job than Johnson at keeping Northern Ireland and especially Scotland in the United Kingdom; election analysts broadly agree that Labour would have to depend on SNP support to cobble together a majority. As SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has made clear, a second independence referendum is the price of her support (even if Corbyn averts Brexit, which Scotland overwhelmingly voted against in 2016) — a proposition that Corbyn has flirted with, bizarrely validating hitherto the most outlandish right-wing propaganda that a Labour government would threaten the very fabric of the United Kingdom.