In Britain, there's a sense of a growing rebellion against austerity

Jeremy Corbyn at Glastonbury.
Saturday, July 1, 2017

Few would have predicted, until recent times, that the biggest act at the Glastonbury music festival would be a 68-year-old socialist reciting a 200-year-old poem.

Yet Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s June 24 speech at Glastonbury attracted what was likely the largest crowd in the festival’s history, NME said.

Politics in Britain has shifted again since the June 8 election, in which the governing Conservatives lost their majority and the vote for Corbyn-led Labour rose by almost 10 points from the 2015 election. The fierce public anger over the criminal neglect that led to London’s deadly Grenfell Tower fire has been especially central to this shift.

There is a sense that a rebellion against the politics of austerity has been unleashed — and a sense that the enthusiastic crowds and lively protests will get bigger still.

In contrast to Corbyn’s growing popularity, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May can now barely appear in public without facing jeers and derision.

May was chased away by a furious crowd of locals when she made a belated appearance to speak to victims of the Grenfell fire. She was even heckled by sections of the crowd when she attended the annual Armed Forces Parade in Liverpool on June 24.

Labour is now consistently polling ahead of the Tories and Corbyn has become preferred prime minister for the first time. A Panelbase poll conducted between June 16 and June 21 put Labour on 46% of the vote, versus 41% for the Conservatives.

Meanwhile, a Survation poll held on June 10 put Labour on 45 points and the Conservatives on 39. A different Survation poll a week later gave Labour a three-point lead (44 to 41).

Another recent Panelbase poll asked whether May and Corbyn were perceived to be good at their jobs. Just 28% gave May a “good” rating, compared with 45% for Corbyn.

DUP deal

The Tories’ £1.5 billion deal with the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland, in return for the DUP’s support in votes on supply and confidence, is unlikely to help May’s flagging popularity.

The price of the deal, which secured DUP support for the Tories in Westminster, is more than the £1.2 billion needed to refit all of Britain’s council tower blocks with sprinklers. May has so far refused to commit to such a refit.

The government also provoked outrage when Tory MPs cheered while voting down a Labour proposal to lift the public service pay cap, including for emergency service workers such as firefighters who have faced Tory cuts in recent years.

The DUP deal also threatens the shaky peace process in Northern Ireland, a statelet made up of six Irish counties still claimed by Britain.

Part of the Good Friday Agreement, signed in 1998 to end the decades of violence known as “the Troubles”, was a power-sharing agreement between political representatives of the Irish nationalist community and the pro-British unionists.

However, a powersharing executive between the largest unionist group, the DUP, and Irish republican party Sinn Fein collapsed earlier this year. Sinn Fein refuses to take part in an executive with the DUP unless there is progress on equality and an independent investigation into a DUP-linked scandal over the misuse of public funds.

With no resolution to this stand-off in sight, the deal undermines British government claims to be a “neutral broker” in negotiations.

The DUP also strongly supports a “hard Brexit”, while Sinn Fein strongly opposes Northern Ireland being dragged out of the European Union despite a majority in the statelet voting to remain.

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams said the DUP-Tory deal “threatens the Good Friday Agreement” and makes a resolution to Northern Ireland’s political crisis much harder.

Push for elections

The Tory-DUP coalition will be unstable and possibly unworkable. Many commentators have speculated that an early general election may be unavoidable, perhaps within months.

Labour Shadow Chancellor and Corbyn ally John McDonnell has called for unions and supporters to mobilise a “million” people for the People’s Assembly Against Austerity march in London in July 1. The march will protest the anti-people agenda of the Tory minority government and demand new elections.

However, given the recent polls favouring the Corbyn-led Labour Party, a new election is something the Tories — and their DUP allies who despise Corbyn’s progressive politics and long support for Irish independence — will work to avoid.

Conservative MPs will come under immense pressure from the establishment — combined with their own sense of political self-preservation — to make the alliance with the DUP stick in the short term, no matter how damaging it proves to be in the long run.

The scale of the threat is not hard to see. At Glastonbury, Corbyn’s speech was interrupted several times by cheers and applause from the huge crowd. One of the biggest cheers was in response to Corbyn’s “message to Donald Trump: build bridges, not walls”.

Corbyn went on to say: “Politics is actually about everyday life. It’s about all of us ...

“What was fascinating about the last seven weeks of election campaigning around Britain is — you know what — the commentariat got it wrong. The elites got it wrong.

“The wonderful campaign that ... I was so proud to lead brought a lot of people back into politics because they believe there was something on offer for them. But what was even more inspiring was the number of young people who got involved for the very first time.” 

Corbyn said young people were “fed up with being denigrated, fed up with being told they don’t matter, fed up with being told they never participate and utterly fed up with being told that their generation was going to pay more to get less in health, in education, in housing, in pensions and everything else. That they should accept low wages, that they should accept low security and that they should see it as just part of life …

“Well it didn’t quite work out like that, did it?”

‘Ye are many’

Corbyn said that the new “politics that got out of the box [during the election campaign] is not going back in any box because we are there demanding and achieving something very different in our society and our lives”.

But the loudest and longest applause of the speech followed Corbyn’s recitation of the famous lines from Percy Bysshe  Shelley’s 1819 poem The Masque of Anarchy, which echo Labour’s election slogan of “For the many not the few”.

He recited the lines: “Rise like lions after slumber/in unvanquishable number/shake your chains to Earth like dew/which in sleep had fallen on you/ye are many, they are few’.”

Corbyn ended with a call for the festivalgoers to “recognise another world is possible if we come together … [and] understand the power we’ve got to achieve that decent better society where everyone matters”.

[Simon Butler is Green Left Weekly’s Scottish correspondent based in Edinburgh.]