Progressives peering over the pond in hope of a Labour Party win in the U.K. should brace for disappointment this week — but perhaps not despair.
On Thursday, Britain will head to the polls following a short campaign (mercifully so in comparison to the U.S.) which has generally gone well for the left-of-center party.
Written off when the election was announced in mid-April, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has surpassed all expectations of how he would perform on the stump and muffled the pundits who said his party was heading for its worst results in more than a generation.
Polls have narrowed to the point where some are suggesting a hung parliament, or one in which no party has an outright majority — an event that could conceivably pave the way for a Corbyn-led minority or coalition government. And as campaigning entered its final days, Corbyn remained on the front foot, addressing crowds of supporters while lambasting the reigning Conservatives over cuts to police numbers.
Don’t get too excited. Corbyn will in all likelihood still lose. But even in defeat, the election will still have some positive takeaways for those pushing progressive politics.
In large part this is a reflection of just how dire things looked for Labour just a few weeks ago. Having previously promised not to hold an early election, Prime Minister Theresa May opted in April to go to the polls on the back of Labour’s misery, confident of increasing her Conservative Party’s majority in Parliament ahead of Brexit negotiations.
But the race has not gone according to May’s plan. Run on a slogan of “strong and stable” her campaign has looked anything but.
First there was an embarrassing rethink on social care reform, a key part of the Conservative Party’s manifesto. In the face of a backlash over a so-called “dementia tax” — under which elderly people would have to pay for their own care through sale of their assets — she belatedly announced that there would be a cap on the amount people had to stump up.
Then a decision to duck out of a televised debate at which the leaders of most of the other parties were present badly backfired on her, making her look weak. Even a focus on security — perceived to be a weak area for Labour — after the London terrorist attack has done little to change May’s fortunes. Rather, Labour have driven the narrative by noting that, as Home Secretary, May presided over cuts that reduced the nationwide police force by 20,000 officers. Labor, in contrast are committed to adding 10,000 police members to the nation’s force.
Corbyn has had his misfires too. During a televised Q&A he floundered over his unwillingness to ever use the U.K.’s nuclear arsenal, eventually being helped out by a kindly member of the public who chastised others in the audience for their apparent bloodlust.
And in backing calls for May’s resignation over police cuts, Corbyn may have overplayed his hand.
But through the unfiltered televisual air of an election — U.K. broadcasters face strict impartiality rules once a date has been set — Corbyn has managed to circumvent the less-than-favorable media coverage he receives in the right-wing press and deliver his message to the public.
Moreover, the Labour Party produced a manifesto that has been well-received, and it is in that document’s popularity that those of the Left can take heart. Under the oddly Blairite title of “For the Many, Not the Few,” Labour prescribed a tax-and-spend program that included the scrapping of tuition fees, the nationalization of key industries including rail and water, increased funding for schools and the health service, and higher taxes on top earners.
And people seemingly liked it. A ComRes poll for The Daily Mirror found that 52 percent of people surveyed backed renationalizing the railways, with just 22 percent opposed. Similar results were recorded for nationalizing the Royal Mail and the energy market. The manifesto pledge to ban zero-hours contracts — an especially precarious kind of employment in which workers don’t get guaranteed paid hours — saw 71 percent of respondents in favor, 16 percent against. Two-thirds of those surveyed backed a hike in the income tax for those earning more than £80,000 ($103,000).
“There is a real appetite for change.”
A popular manifesto and a successful campaign contributed to an apparent surge of support for Labour. Polls during the campaign have been a little erratic, but the general trend has been a tightening race — from a Tory lead of around 19 points at the outset to a single figures advantage in the final days before Thursday’s vote. The latest prediction from YouGov has the Tory lead down to 4 points, with Conservatives falling short of an overall majority.
But pollsters are not infallible, as recent history has taught. And under the U.K.’s first-past-the-post system, the popular vote does not always equate to seats won. Moreover, Labour MPs are thought unlikely to make gains in the key marginal seats needed for this to be a transformative election.
“The challenge the Labour Party faces is the share of vote will be respectable, but a lot of those votes will be in the wrong place,” said Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabian Society, a left-leaning think tank. “It is much like Hillary Clinton in the U.S. election.”
In addition, there is concern that pollsters’ models may be overstating the turnout among younger potential voters, a demographic in which Labour holds a clear advantage.
Tom Kibasi, director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, thinks that the Conservatives will likely increase their majority on Thursday because of greater public trust in May over Corbyn, as well as the commonly held belief that Tories are more competent at managing the economy.
But he added: “This election has shown that the public care much more about the underlying causes of the Brexit vote — an unfair economy that doesn’t work for ordinary people — than the Brexit negotiations to come. After seven years of a government that has overseen severe cuts to crucial public services like healthcare and education, along with stagnant wages, there is real appetite for change.”
The U.K. is likely to wake up on Friday to the same Conservative government. But presenting a progressive platform that proved popular may bode well for Labour in its next electoral test. And given that Britain would have by then endured important votes in each of the last four years (two general elections, a Scottish independence, vote and the EU referendum) it might not be long before the next ballot — especially if predictions of a hung parliament prove true.