The UK election gave us a night of electoral drama so unique for its unpredictability and upending of deeply held assumptions that it is impossible to find anything comparable. This truly was ‘new politics’, not in the Irish sense of a political cliché to hide paralysis, but in the sense of people, particularly the young, galvanised by a vision that things could be different and defying the carefully crafted regime of the privileged.
It is difficult to remember a political leader so vilified and insulted by a large swathe of his country’s media, so demonised and dismissed not just by opponents but by many in his own party as is Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, amid this, he built a base of solid support, honed a message of hope and change, and within a few weeks turned the tables on the establishment. And all was done with calm and courtesy. Yes, this truly is new politics, and it is here to stay.
The slogan ‘For the Many, Not the Few’ summed up succinctly the essence of the message that came to mean so much to so many over those few short weeks because it got things back to basics and cut through the obfuscating hype which so dominates today’s politics. Behind the slogan was a return to old-fashioned social democratic policies of redistributing from the wealthy to the less well-off, decent funding of public services accessible on the basis of need and not income, and giving priority to the common good of public over private interests.
To this extent, election 2017 was a return to old politics, the sort of politics that used to matter to people, that cemented life-long loyalties and identities because it protected against the ravages of the market and invested in bettering the livelihoods of the many. This was Corbyn’s success, to do the unthinkable and return politics to what really matters to most people, wrenching it from the grip of high finance and big corporations.
And it is telling that, in doing this, he also overcame the fragmentation that has come to characterise so many political systems as extremes of left and right seek to respond, often in crude, antagonistic and even violent ways, to the vacuity of mainstream politics. Labour showed that, when a major party begins again to stand for the interests of the majority, there is no further need for fragmentation, and a clear divide between the interests of the many and those of the few defines the political contest.
Though the Tories remain in power, nothing can hide the fact that election 2017 marks a fundamental shift in power. If leaders define eras and build new electoral coalitions and possibilities, then Corbyn now looks very likely to define a new era just as Thatcher and Blair have done in the past. But if their legacy was the imposition of neoliberalism by Thatcher and the attempt to give it a human face by Blair, then Corbyn’s emergence marks its decisive demise. How this happens over the coming years is not at all clear; what is clear is that he is putting in place the necessary elements – a strong and energised base of support, a political party being re-formed, the seeds of a post-neoliberal project – to bring it about.
And in the person of Theresa May we are reminded once again of the dangers of political hubris, of refusing to engage with citizens, of taking power for granted. Her day is over and she may go down as one of the shortest-serving leaders in British electoral history. It is all her own doing, in the belief that she could hoodwink the electorate. Without an opponent of the calibre of Corbyn, she might have succeeded.
After the French and British elections, it is now clear that if the narrative of 2016 was right-wing demagogic populism, the narrative of 2017 is shaping up to be the re-invigorating of politics. Macron and Corbyn are very different figures, with quite opposing ideologies, but the similarities hold important lessons. Both are outsiders that built a social movement to propel them to leadership and both have had unpredictable impacts on the politics of their countries. Each looks likely to reshape their societies in different ways; how they do it and what the outcomes are will be fascinating to watch.
This is the ‘new politics’ we so badly need in Ireland. However, Leo Varadkar became leader of Fine Gael on an ashamedly neoliberal platform and his failure to win the support of the party membership both mark him out as being of the old elitist and neoliberal style of politics. It is ironic that Fine Gael opts for the most overtly neoliberal leader ever to have led a major Irish party, just as other countries are moving beyond the neoliberal era. As always, Ireland arrives ‘a little breathless and a little late’.