Britain: Corbyn’s poll surge panics establishment

Jeremy Corbyn at a campaign rally in Reading.
June 3, 2017

What seemed at first to be a depressing and predictable British election, with the hard right Tories under Prime Minister Theresa May set for a larger majority, has become a fascinating election contest.

Labour’s support has surged to the point where something unthinkable just weeks ago — a Jeremy Corbyn prime ministership — is now at least an outside chance.

Establishment critics have largely settled on a narrative to explain the unexpected turnaround, saying Tory Prime Minister Theresa May’s lacklustre performance is to blame. May has indeed performed badly, but most credit for Labour’s poll bounce should go to Corbyn’s energetic and hopeful campaign.

Universally written off by the mainstream media as a no-hoper, and undermined relentlessly by the majority right-wing MPs of his own party, the democratic socialist Corbyn is again defying naysayers.

When May first called the election, most polls had Labour languishing up to 27 points behind the Tories. But by the second-last week of the campaign, Labour had closed the gap to 5-7 points.

By May 21, in Wales, Labour had gained a 16 point swing in their favour since the election announcement — outpolling the Tories by 43% to 36%.

The biggest shock came with a YouGov projection for The Times on May 31 that said the Tories may not win enough seats to govern outright. The poll put Labour just three points behind the Tories — within the margin of error.

This is a huge change from just four weeks ago, when it was near impossible to find a media commentator who doubted the Tories were headed for a landslide victory.

Despite the gains, the odds remain against a Labour victory. Post-Brexit, votes for the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have plummeted due to the hard right takeover of the Tories, absorbing UKIP’s base. Most former UKIP supporters are switching allegiance to the Tories, keeping the incumbents’ vote share above 40%.

But much may come down to the turnout of younger voters on June 8. There is a striking difference in voting intentions across generations. Fifty-six percent of 65-75 year olds say they will vote Conservative. For voters aged over 76, the Tory vote climbs to 68%. Even as Labour’s support has surged among other age groups, the 65-and-older bracket has barely changed.

Conversely, as many as 69% of 18-24-year-olds say they will vote for Corbyn’s Labour. However, Labour’s problem is older voters are likely to turn up on election day, with younger voters having a recent history of much higher abstention.

There was a late surge in younger voters enrolling to vote, which can only help Labour. But it remains to be seen if the youth turnout will be large enough for an upset win.

Labour’s popularity boost coincided with the launch of its election manifesto. The manifesto embraces many popular policies and marks a departure from the neoliberal consensus that has dominated British politics for the past 40 years.

The manifesto promises to raise taxes on Britain’s richest 5% and increase company tax, although 95% of taxpayers would pay no extra tax at all under the plan. Labour also promises much stronger regulation of the financial industry.

A Corbyn government would commit to spending £250 billion on infrastructure over 10 years — with a big focus on building a high-speed rail corridor from London to Scotland, expanding conventional rail elsewhere and rolling out “universal superfast broadband” across Britain by 2022.

The Manifesto stands out from previous Labour electoral campaigns for its strong stance against privatisation and commitment to democratic public ownership. Corbyn’s Labour promises to bring Britain’s railways back into public ownership and reverse the privatisation of Royal Mail. The manifesto also endorses preliminary steps to renationalise the energy and water systems.

A big part of Corbyn’s election campaign success has been his emphasis on protecting the National Health Service (NHS), which has faced a deep crisis due to the Conservative government’s spending cuts and attacks on staff conditions. The Labour Manifesto pledges to reverse this trend by spending an extra £30 billion on the NHS. It includes scrapping the Tories’ controversial pay cap for NHS staff and dramatically improving public mental health services.

It also includes plans to increase funding for the social care of the elderly and disabled, as well as a rise in carers’ allowance payments.

The manifesto’s commitment to trade unions and workers’ rights is another reason for Labour’s rebounding popularity. The manifesto lists a 20-point plan for a “fair deal at work”.

These include the repeal of the anti-union Trade Union Act, guaranteed rights for trade unions to access workplaces, four new public holidays a year and a big rise in the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020 (it languishes at just £7.50 today).

The Manifesto’s environmental and climate change policies are mixed. They are far better than the Tories’ policies, but are still not ambitious enough a response to the looming climate catastrophe.

The positives include Labour’s promise to ban gas fracking and its plan to have 60% of Britain’s energy powered by renewables by 2030. The negatives include Labour’s unwavering support for the North Sea oil and gas industry, and its openness to new nuclear energy projects.

There are a few notably bad policies in the manifesto. These include a pledge to spend billions renewing the Trident nuclear submarine fleet (which Corbyn has previously strongly opposed) and a commitment to spend at least 2% of GDP on the military. It also backs some restrictions in immigration, even while being way ahead of the Tories — and most European mainstream parties — on the issue.

The Manifesto also reiterates Labour’s opposition to Scottish independence and its refusal to back a new independence referendum. Unsurprisingly, Labour’s poll results have remained relatively weak in Scotland — its one-time stronghold.

Despite a slight improvement in recent polling, Labour looks likely to win just two seats in Scotland compared with a projected 51 seats for the Scottish National Party.

It is not too surprising that Labour’s Manifesto combines a progressive agenda with some very dubious policies. It reflects that Corbyn and a small group of left-wing MP allies — who are backed by most grassroots Labour members and some key trade unions — stand at the head of a parliamentary party and Labour apparatus committed to neoliberalism. The manifesto represents an uneasy compromise between these forces.

Despite Labour’s poll surge, the Tories remains likely to be re-elected on June 8. However, if the polls hold, the Tories will likely be returned weaker and Corbyn will be in a stronger than anticipated position to resist a post-election leadership challenge from Labour MPs who want to junk Labour’s new progressive policies.

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