When Theresa May called a snap election seven weeks ago, having repeatedly denied this possibility, she had every reason to feel smug. The British left was in pieces. The Labour Party was projected to win just 24% of the popular vote and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was among the least popular leaders of any party for many years.
Now, with just 48 hours to go before polls open, this reality has been turned on its head. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings are plunging, while her much-maligned opponent has now, after decades of ridicule, established himself as a legitimate statesman in the public eye. Polls vary considerably, and after the shocks of Brexit and Trump, not to mention the complex shifts in political allegiance resulting from the former, it is hard to take them at face value. Most, however, have shown a considerable and unexpected swing towards Labour. What was conceived as a straw ballot has now become a genuine contest.
A British Remontada
So how, in just over a month, have Labour seemingly turned it around so dramatically? And what are the prospects going forwards?
Credit must be given where it is due: firstly to the strength of the manifesto, the campaign, and Corbyn himself. The programme Labour have proposed is confident and clear, a decisive break with the hesitant document put forward in 2015, outlining, on the contrary, a plan to directly confront and undo seven years of brutal conservative austerity. The NHS will be given more funding, with £22bn of hospital cuts and the process of privatisation “reversed”. The Tory sell-off of council housing will be halted and over 100,000 new ones will be built. Water and railways will be nationalised and university tuition fees abolished. There is even a commitment to funding the arts. Crucially, each of the proposals has been costed.
There is even a commitment to funding the arts.
Labour has campaigned around these issues effectively online, in squares and on doorsteps. Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has defied expectations in his public television performances adopting a calm manner, abandoning his sometimes-sanctimonious attitude for an inoffensive zen demeanour in the face of aggressive questioning. It has been astonishing to see slogans like live, work, play emblazoned behind a mainstream politician and, most importantly, to hear people talking about the issues. While the word surge has not taken root more than one friend has compared this last minute turnaround to Podemos’s remontada.
A second reason, and in stark contrast, is the undeniable collapse of May’s brand. She called the election but has refused to campaign it: declining to participate in public debates with other parties leaders and, more recently, even to give interviews on BBC radio. Instead she has resorted to crass ad hominem jokes, for example describing Jeremy Corbyn naked and alone in Brexit negotiations, “and none of us want to see that”. Decorum is an important part of British politics and society, politeness and respect, and this is something the Tories have historically enjoyed claiming as their own. May has failed this while Corbyn has been, on the whole, patient and respectful.
She called the election but has refused to campaign it.
The Conservative manifesto, meanwhile, is not costed and includes proposals such as further tightening of the surveillance state, more disability cuts and raising national insurance payments for the self-employed. And while the specific social care reforms are not as awful as they may initially sound, as Anthony Barnett among others has argued, the labelling of the dementia tax is a clear victory for Labour. All that the electorate really has before them are the same palindromic platitudes: ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Enough is Enough’ repeated ad nauseum, ad infinitum.
A fuck off to Westminster
Yet there are deeper factors that require a broader look at British political society, and it is ultimately these that make the polls a poor barometer for predicting the results of this election.
The first is Brexit itself. For all her posturing May, for better or worse, has not managed to position herself as the voice of this broad movement. The British public know that there is no plan, as do politicians within her party and indeed across Europe. Even Nigel Farage is against her. What was the Brexit vote? It was certainly not a rational decision about pluses and minuses of EU policy. It was, to be somewhat reductive, a fuck off to Westminster, to Cameron in particular. That fuck off has now, confusingly, and unexpectedly, found renewed energy in Corbyn’s campaign. The hope, then, is that this frustration could potentially be channelled into a more progressive agenda under Labour.
Even Nigel Farage is against Theresa May.
If the more optimistic polls are correct then the liberal left who opposed Corbyn for his stand on Brexit – myself included – have begin to fall into line, mainly as a result of the strong manifesto. Is it that Brexit is not so important after all then? Or simply that people have recognised the diversity of problems the UK is facing and concluded Corbyn is the best choice? Either way Labour have the considerable advantage of being able to campaign among both remain and leave constituencies with a greater fluidity than the Tories.
The most important aspect, however, is youth mobilisation. Certainly, in a country with such overt generational dynamics as Britain, turnout among under 25s will be key to the final result. Those who follow UK politics will know that Corbyn has fended off two leadership challenges in part thanks to a mass joining of young people to the party. This (re)connection of the party with youth has continued well into the campaign: #grime4corbyn is a great example (though potentially confined to South England and the Midlands) but the Labour leader has also been on the cover of NME, the popular indie publication, and Kerrang! the rock and metal magazine. If this translates into turnout on the day it will have a real impact. Labour are quite right to be emphasising, in stark contrast to the Tories, the imperative to Get out and Vote.
The more people hear the Labour leader speak, it seems, the more they agree with him.
One final important reason for the sudden spike has been the softening of mainstream media in their presentation of Corbyn. After months of bear-traps, of being thrown to the wolves, he now has some kind of platform through which to speak directly. The more people hear the Labour leader speak, it seems, the more they agree with him, though the landscape is still relatively hostile. The political editor of the Sunday times described him as “commie terrorism lover” on twitter following the London attacks (comments that were promptly deleted) while the BBC refused to cover his very rational and statesman like response, to take two recent examples. Despite this, the idea of the party leader as a mad old communist is starting to fade and even the most dogmatic tabloids are now struggling to keep up the masque.
There are reasons to stay sober. The Labour campaign has not done enough to convert older voters. Over 60s are still largely supporting the Tories. The best hope is that the seeds of doubt surrounding May’s governance could cause more of them to abstain than usual, though this would be highly unusual. Meanwhile it should be remembered that polls tend to overestimate Labour’s performance, and it’s entirely possible that the surge is smaller than it looks. Finally, on top of this all, Saturday’s terror attacks may yet play in May’s favour. Given that the Prime Minister has been Home Secretary for the past six years this should be bad news for her. But historically security issues favour the party regardless. Likewise on the economy, despite their awful track record, people continue to see the Tories as the party of competence. These are two of the biggest concerns for voters.
At this stage every vote really does matter for boosting the party in both the popular vote and in terms of seats. Low turnout will certainly be bad for the left. On the other hand a hung parliament is still possible if the above factors translate into a strong Labour vote from the young and a low participation from over 60s. Failing this, in the case that Corbyn ‘does not succeed’, a smaller, reduced, majority would still slow the Tories down, enabling greater challenges to Theresa may’s ‘dirty Brexit’ while paving the way for, one would hope, a Labour majority in four years time – for which the 2017 manifesto is a great blueprint.
At this stage every vote really does matter.
The result is all to play for and the polls and discrepancy between them only reinforces this. Jeremy Corbyn is now more popular than Ed Miliband and armed with confidence, direction and a bloody good programme, a miraculous turnaround in no time at all. Whatever happens, the idea that this leader could get this far with this programme should shut up the neoliberal left and Blairites within Labour once and for all, shifting what is politically plausible in the UK to the left in the process. The result matters and will impact millions of people of course. But this election, more than any in recent memory, is clearly about more than just the ballot box.