There has been a significant misreading of the UK election and Labour’s achievement under Jeremy Corbyn, much like there was for Australian Labor’s election defeat under Bill Shorten.
Political parties need to win government to implement their policy agenda. This obvious statement seems to have been forgotten or ignored in the wake of the British election result where a significant Labour loss was heralded as “a win for Corbyn”, “the death of neo-liberalism” and had a lesson in that politicians “need to start listening” to the people.
This is a significant misreading of winning and losing an election.
UK Labour lost. The Conservatives won and have formed government. Specifically, the Conservatives won 318 seats, Labour have 262 seats, some 56 fewer than its main opponent. To be sure, there are a range of smaller parties holding the rest of the seats and a coalition is needed for a government to be formed, given that 326 seats are needed for an absolute majority. It is clear that the Conservatives have easily cobbled together such a coalition that will see it remain in government, able to pursue its agenda with very little in the way of compromise.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour, on the other hand, will remain in opposition and will implement none of its agenda. Zero. Not one part of Labour’s socially progressive platform on health, welfare, tax or anything else will become law despite Corbyn’s mythical “win” and the “death of neo-liberalism”.
To be sure, the election result was closer than the opinion polls a month or two before election day were suggesting. There was a palpable energy in the Labour campaign and a lethargy and staidness with Conservative leader Theresa May, which in the end narrowed the final margin. This is an interesting outcome from the election rather than the high level hyperbole about the success of Corbyn and Labour.
As for May, she ran a shoddy campaign and under-performed her own expectations and those of her colleagues. Her demise is not the point — and if or perhaps when she is replaced as Prime Minister within the Conservative ranks, May’s legacy will be a mark in history. The new Conservative Prime Minister will be delighted to govern. And in the off chance that there is some form of political stalemate and there is another election in the near term, Labour still may not win.
There are some noteworthy things to emerge from the election result that are encouraging for the progressive side of UK politics.
There was a jump in the turnout for young people, who overwhelmingly voted Labor. Older voters stuck with the Conservatives and its agenda.
There are some parallels in the UK result with the situation in Australia and the July 2016 election outcome. The conservative Liberal-National Coalition lead by Malcolm Turnbull was lambasted for a long and boring campaign backed by a policy agenda that entrenched inequality and favoured business tax cuts at the expense of education and health funding.
The Australian Labor Party, under the stewardship of leader Bill Shorten, campaigned well and had a policy platform that centered on the removal of tax breaks for the well-off and additional funding for education and health.
In the end, with the policy choices quite stark, Turnbull and the Coalition won and Labor lost even though the result was reasonably close.
Labor was lauded for its great campaign, like UK Labour, and were seen by some commentators and especially their own supporters to be the ‘winners’ of the campaign that will set it up for victory in the 2018 or 2019 election.
This remains to be seen, but there appears to be an undercurrent of complacency that all Labor have to do is turn up to win or that enough was done in 2016 to deliver victory next time.
To be sure, the Turnbull government is travelling poorly now but with an agenda of high spending, interventionist policies on energy and the escalation of national security issues, the election outcome is a toss up.
As both the UK and Australian election results show, winning elections is about getting the most seats in Parliament regardless of how well or poorly the campaign is perceived to be.
A well-fought second place based on sound policies, clear vision and goals is inferior to a strategy, however ramshackled, that wins power.