LONDON – Jeremy Corbyn has never been treated as a prime minister in waiting. During the 21 months since he was first elected leader of the Labour Party, apart from a tiny band of fanatical believers, no one, certainly not the MPs of his own party, ever saw him as more than a temporary figurehead. An accidental candidate, never a real contender.
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Has that changed now? Now that Corbyn has defied everyone’s expectations and lead Labour through a general election in which it increased its share of the vote by nearly 10 percent and added 30 seats in Parliament, the obvious answer is yes. He may not have won a majority and remains for now leader of the opposition, but Labour under him is currently within striking distance of power, and facing a critically weakened Theresa May, who finds herself presiding over an angry and divided Conservative Party and a minority government. Another early election in which Labour overtakes the Tories is a distinct possibility.
Just about every pundit, including this one, wrote off Corbyn’s chances seven and a half weeks ago when the early elections were announced. Can he go one step further in the face of mainstream opinion and actually win the next election? To answer that, we need a better idea of why he did so well this time around.
The emerging narrative of this election is that a combination of young voters and those who voted against Brexit in last year’s referendum joined together to punish the Conservatives, thus contributing to Labour’s surge. We are still awaiting the detailed breakdown of the vote, but there is obviously some truth in this narrative. Labour did well in seats where there are above-average proportions of young and Remain voters. But it is already clear that this was only part of the story.
As far as the share of the national vote goes, the Conservatives, who lost 13 seats and with them their majority, actually went up by 5.5 percent. Together with Labour’s gain, that’s 15 percent of the national vote added to the two main parties’ joint tally, and that came mainly at the expense of one party – the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), which was nearly wiped out, crashing down from nearly 13 percent of the vote in 2015 to less than 2 percent this time.
The polls at the start of the election campaign, less than two months ago, predicted UKIP’s downfall. But those voters who two years ago had ticked the box of the far-right, anti-European party were expected to switch their allegiance to the only slightly less right-wing and Europhobic Conservatives. At least half of them seem to have defied conventional wisdom and switched over to Labour instead. They are as responsible for Corbyn’s last-minute surge as the young voters and the Remainers, perhaps even more so.
Why did those who only two years ago voted for the xenophobic, immigrant-hating UKIP move so quickly to the opposite end of the political spectrum? These were the very same voters who enthusiastically voted last year in favor of Brexit. Where do they fit in the narrative?
It looks like many of Labour’s new voters were united by one thing: giving the British political establishment a kick up the backside. Some did so because they are angry about Brexit. Some are young voters who feel, with a great deal of justification, that their concerns have been overlooked for too long, and some just hate the establishment for whatever reason. Which is why they voted UKIP and Leave. Corbyn’s true achievement was playing up May’s obvious weaknesses as a tired, hesitant and detached establishment candidate, while identifying himself as the ultimate anti-establishment figure. But can Labour rely on the protest vote to actually deliver a majority the next time around?
Corbyn has never run a government department, not even been a member of the shadow cabinet (except as leader of his own). He has spent his entire career – and he’s never had a real job outside politics – as a protester. He has always defined himself in opposition to the establishment, as much his own party’s as that of the Conservatives. He did well in this election because the one thing he is undoubtedly good at is campaigning as an insurgent. He loves the elections bit. Being out and about, pressing the flesh with the voters – in sharp contrast to the reclusive May, who is incapable of hiding her social awkwardness and discomfort in settings that are out of her control.
In an age where too much political campaigning is done through the black art of micro-targeting the Facebook accounts of swing voters in up-for-grabs constituencies, Corbyn is an old-fashioned politician in the best sense of the word. He still believes in meeting real voters, in person, speaking to them as human beings. If it wasn’t for his old-fashioned views, his unreconstructed radical dogma, there would have been a few more voters actually willing to entrust him with the keys to 10 Downing Street. As it is, he maxed out on all the factors going for him in this election. Which is a major achievement, but to make more headway in the next election, he has to rely on the wave of anti-establishment feeling growing in Britain, on the voters who voted for him in protest and some of those who didn’t actually consider him as a prime minister, and on the Conservative Party fielding another flawed candidate like May and running a repeat of their catastrophic 2017 campaign, and they almost certainly won’t make those two mistakes again.
Corbyn has been in protest-campaign mode practically his entire life. He almost seems relieved not to have won these elections and be spared the tough work of being prime minister and making the necessary compromises and pragmatic decisions, the kind of things he always protested against. He is still extremely unlikely ever to make it to Downing Street. He’s much more cut out for the role of protester-in-chief.