Hours before UK votes, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn races to close election gap on Tories, Boris Johnson

In the final stretch of the election campaign, the Labour Party has shifted to a more defensive posture

The New York Times December 12, 2019 09:17:46 IST
Hours before UK votes, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn races to close election gap on Tories, Boris Johnson

Birmingham: The chants are the same as in 2017: "Oh JER-e-my COR-byn, Oh JER-e-my COR-byn." The message, taking on "the rich and powerful" and ending austerity with a burst of nationalisations and public spending, is largely the same, too.

Yet, two years later, the magic that seemed to envelop the Opposition Labour leader's campaign in 2017 and deprived the Tories of their parliamentary majority seems to be lacking.

With Labour mired in a continuing crisis over anti-Semitism, opinion polls suggest that Corbyn is struggling even to repeat his surprisingly strong 2017 performance, let alone score an outright victory for his brand of socialism in the General Election on Thursday.

But little of that pessimism was on display at a recent rally in Birmingham, where an eclectic blend of poetry, music and political speeches was met with deafening cheers.

A celebrity guest, a Birmingham-born singer, Jamelia, told the crowd that she had never voted before but will do so, at age 38, for Corbyn. "We all know the story," she later added, "of David and Goliath."

David, in this case, is Corbyn, a 70-year-old veteran activist who spent three decades on the fringes of politics, yet could become Britain’s most left-wing prime minister in living memory, albeit probably only at the head of a minority government.

That outcome in itself would be momentous, with big implications for the country’s future and, of course, Brexit. Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs to pile up a clear parliamentary majority if he is to take Britain out of the European Union next month, as he has promised.

Hours before UK votes Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn races to close election gap on Tories Boris Johnson

File image of Britain's Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn. Reuters

In the final stretch of the campaign, the Labour Party has shifted to a more defensive posture. That has meant pouring precious resources into traditional strongholds in the north and middle of the country — places that voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum — rather than trying to win Conservative districts in the south that voted to remain.

The hope is that Labour can lure undecided Britons and squeeze the vote of the centrist Liberal Democrats, whose campaign seems to have faltered. As Election Day approached, many opinion polls tightened, jangling nerves among Johnson's team.

Still, many Labour supporters had expected more, considering that nine years of Conservative rule have produced tough and unpopular austerity policies and more than three years of political chaos over Brexit.

"There is now some panic about whether Labour can hold some of their existing seats," said Steven Fielding, a professor of political history at the University of Nottingham. "It has now become a defensive campaign, and from the perspective of what we had been led to believe, that is a clear defeat."

Corbyn's leadership has been marred by factionalism and by persistent claims that he has tolerated anti-Semitism within Labour's ranks. The critics include the chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, the spiritual leader of much of Britain’s Orthodox Jewish community, who argued that "a new poison — sanctioned from the very top — has taken root".

Leaks of a submission from the Jewish Labour Movement to Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission included 70 sworn testimonies from current and former Labour staffers, and concludes that "the Labour party is no longer a safe space for Jewish people," The Guardian reported.

Frustratingly for many Labour supporters, Corbyn has resisted making flat-out apologies, refusing four opportunities in one TV interview before doing so, somewhat reluctantly, in a second.

Coming from the far left, Corbyn has always faced hostility from Britain’s media, which is dominated by right-wing tabloids. That, in part, is why Corbyn was written off by many in the 2017 campaign before confounding his critics.

But that was then.

In 2017, Corbyn was less well-known and benefited from the greater exposure broadcasters had to give him during an election under British law. Many voters were pleasantly surprised to see a personable, grandfatherly figure, a man who toils on his garden allotment, makes his own jam, rides a bicycle and was a multiple winner of Parliament's beard of the year competition.

His unashamedly socialist message struck a chord with many young people, and when he spoke after the 2017 election at the Glastonbury rock festival, the crowd chanted his name to the opening riff from the White Stripes song Seven Nation Army.

But that enthusiasm seems to have waned during two years of wearisome and fruitless haggling in Parliament over Brexit. After a huge surge, the number of Labour Party members has dipped, and persuading activists to campaign has been tough in a winter election that few wanted.

Back in 2017, success came partly from avoiding the bitterly divisive issue of Brexit and focusing instead on ending austerity and concentrating on core issues like healthcare.

But with the Brexit saga reaching a critical point, Corbyn has struggled to shift the argument, at least until the last days of the campaign, when the fate of the National Health Service leapt into the headlines.

Johnson has a snappy, if misleading, slogan — that he will "get Brexit done", even though most analysts think it will take years to hammer out a new trade agreement with the EU, not to speak of the United States.

But Corbyn has been slow to call Johnson out, partly because Labour's fuzzier Brexit policy was constructed to straddle internal divisions. Labour wants to negotiate a new exit deal with the EU and put that to a referendum, with remain as the alternative and Corbyn staying neutral.

At a news conference in London where Corbyn accused the Conservatives of misleading voters about their Brexit deal, a reporter asked him how he could make that claim when he himself refuses to say whether he would vote for or against Brexit in a second referendum.

In contrast to their austere 2017 agenda, the Conservatives now promise more public spending, encouraging Labour to double down on its austerity-ending platform of 2017. That has opened Corbyn to accusations of irresponsible spending.

Fielding thinks Labour did not expect the Tories to learn from their experience in 2017, and adds that Johnson, despite his flaws, is "not as bad as Theresa May; he's a better candidate and armed with his clear 'get Brexit done' campaign motif".

"Jeremy Corbyn is no longer the new face on the block, that's been and gone and you don't come back from appalling approval ratings twice," Fielding said.

Laura Parker, the head of Momentum, a leftist group that supports Corbyn, counters that her 40,000 members have been more active than in 2017, that their videos have been viewed 65 million times and that anything is possible even if voters seem weary about politics. "There could be as many as six million people who have not yet decided how to vote," she said.

At the rally in Birmingham — an attempt to recreate the energy of the 2017 campaign — Corbyn talked without notes, preaching to the choir in a stump speech about soaking the rich and showering benefits on the less fortunate that he has been making for decades.

Activists like Derick Johnson, an information technology expert, are delighted to hear a socialist, rather than a centrist, message from a Labour leader. "Everybody who listens to him likes him," he said of Corbyn.

If that is true, a lot of people are not listening. At the nearby bus station was Debbie Sexton, who once voted Labour but has switched to the Conservatives because of Brexit and Labour's economic policy. "Where is all the money coming from?" she asked.

The morning after his Birmingham rally, Corbyn was asked whether Labour might do better under someone else’s leadership.

"I think Marmite is really good for you," he replied, comparing himself to a salty British spread that divides opinion almost as much as Brexit itself. "Some people like it, some people don't."

Stephen Castle c.2019 The New York Times Company

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