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“It Will Feel Like Bernie Winning the Election”

With Jeremy Corbyn surging in the polls ahead of Thursday's UK elections, Labour's Paul Mason talks about how the British left came back from Brexit—and the message it sends to Democrats in America.

Christopher Furlong/Getty

The “Brexit” referendum in June 2016, when voters in the United Kingdom chose to depart the European Union in a campaign shot through with anti-immigrant fervor, was seen by many as the first hint for many that Donald Trump could win in the United States. In Europe and here, right-wing nationalism was on the rise, riding a wave of xenophobia in the years since the 2008 financial collapse. Meanwhile, liberal and social-democratic parties were splintering apart, with forgotten leftists like Bernie Sanders and the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn surging unexpectedly to the center of the debate as Millennials rebelled against the liberal establishment. The far right was rising, on both sides of the Atlantic, and the left was a mess. 

One year later, the U.K. may be poised to send a very different political shockwave across the Atlantic in Thursday’s parliamentary election. On the back of an unapologetically leftist election manifesto, Corbyn’s Labour Party has made a historically unprecedented surge in the polls, closing to within a few points of Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tories, after trailing just weeks ago by as many as 20. Even a close outcome would be a Trump-sized upset, and demonstrate just how dramatically the politics of both left and right have shifted in Europe and the U.S. since Brexit—and since November 8.

Last week, left-wing British journalist and activist Paul Mason, formerly of the BBC and Channel 4, spoke by Skype with New Republic contributor Sarah Jaffe from Wales, where Labour is surging. Mason, who left broadcast journalism last year to engage more directly with politics, is now a Guardian columnist and Labour activist who’s a key Corbyn ally. The author of several books tracing the aftermath of the 2008 financial collapse (Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed), the uprisings of 2010 and 2011 (Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere) and the future of our economic system (Postcapitalism), Mason talked to Jaffe about the reasons for Corbyn’s unlikely surge—and why the year of Brexit and Trump have turned unexpectedly into the year of Corbyn and Resistance. 

I just read a story that featured a Conservative Party source saying, “We fully expect to fall behind Labour in a poll in the coming days.” [Since this interview was conducted, at least one unweighted poll indeed shows that.] That clearly wasn’t what they were expecting when they called this election after Brexit.  

No, clearly not. For eight or nine months, Labour had been doing really badly in the polls, around 25-26 percent, while the Conservatives were hitting close to high 40s. This is because when Brexit happened, you had this huge split within the progressive half of UK society. Some people feel very existentially challenged by Brexit, and were really critical of Labour for saying, “We have to accept the result.” Lots of liberal white-collar workers, lots of globally-minded people, lots of young people were feeling quite sore with Labour for accepting the result of the referendum. This emboldened the Conservatives to call an election. The split in the progressive camp looked unhealable.

That was April 18. How did everything change so dramatically in just a few weeks? 

We did two things in Labour. First, we spent several weeks designing a manifesto offering ₤50 billion extra taxes to be spent on universal services in Britain: education, healthcare. It then got leaked in an unprecedented manner,  but weirdly the leak dramatized the election. It was this point when the polls started to move.

Since there’s no equivalent of the manifesto in American politics, can you translate why it’s been so crucial? 

There is no constitution in Britain. But by custom, if you put something in a manifesto it is then very difficult for other parties to try and use parliamentary maneuvers to try and stop it. An equivalent would have been Obamacare. If Obamacare is in the manifesto, you can’t filibuster it. You can’t stop it.
But the Labour manifesto goes far beyond an Obama agenda, right?

For forty years, the Left has worked within this straightjacket of neoliberalism, saying, “We will only promise what we can pay for.” This meant sometimes they had to go into elections promising austerity, sometimes they were agonizing over very tiny reforms. Corbyn’s finance guy, John McDonnell, started by saying, “We will only promise what we can finance, but we will finance it with a huge tax raise on the rich, on big corporations, on tax avoiders. We are going to be able to offer quite a lot.”

The most important thing they have offered is free university tuition. A generation of young people saw university tuition go from being free to being ₤3,000 a year, to being then ₤9,000 a year, to you leave college with ₤27,000 debt plus what it costs you to live. We have this thing called a financial transaction tax or sometimes called a Robin Hood tax. Corbyn was able to say, “By taxing the wealth of the rich we are going to pay for your college education.” And something like a million young people registered to vote on the back of that. 

You spent a while covering the student movements in London and thereabouts in 2010. Can you talk a little about how that laid the groundwork for the Corbyn surge?

The trajectory of the 2010-2011 student movements, which became Occupy in Britain, was very similar to the one that happened in America. That is, the key activists did their PhDs, got into the workforce and spent five years opposing the Conservatives, finally ending up as of 2015 with the possibility of having a revolution inside the Labour Party. The difference is that our revolution succeeded and the Bernie revolution failed. Corbyn became leader.

Do we make too much of the similarities between Corbyn and Sanders?

Corbyn and Sanders are very similar within the terms of the political systems where they operate. They bring to it a very different mindset to the traditional Labour Party hack. 

And they’ve both faced a lot of blowback from the party regulars. 

In fact, those Labour Party hacks have been more or less on strike. They have been in some cases openly sabotaging what Corbyn is trying to do. We have a very technologically savvy, very professionalized, highly educated core of people grafted on to the traditional Labour membership. Almost nobody in the British media supports Corbyn. The Guardian, for example, doesn’t even support Corbyn.

Corbyn won the Labour leadership, but he never controlled the headquarters, nor did he control the national executive. It would be like Bernie winning the nomination, but not controlling the Democratic National Committee. As a result, Corbyn cannot get his own candidates installed to stand for election. There have even been really difficult moments where the headquarters have denied money to campaigns.

Corbyn differs from Sanders in this sense: Corbyn is a lifelong opponent of neoliberalism. He is also a lifelong critic of the British military, political, and security establishment. That means that for him to be leader of the Labour Party poses for the British establishment almost an existential threat. The Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci once said, “The state is not the main defense line of capitalism. Behind the state, there is line after line of trenches in which power and the elite defend themselves.” It is fair to say that one of those trenches runs right down the middle of the Labour Party.

If Corbyn comes to power, it will feel like an insurgency. It will feel like Bernie winning the election. But more than that. Because Corbyn is a lifelong critic, for example, of Israel. In this sense, we will be in very uncharted territory as a major nuclear power if Corbyn, who has opposed nuclear weapons for his entire life, gets into power.

The left and center-left have continued fighting in the U.S. since Trump won last November, and the battle lines are similar in Britain. But we’re also seeing the same fights in other countries’ liberal and social democratic parties. Why is this happening on a global level?

This is how I look at it: In 2008 neoliberalism as a system blew up. It has since been kept on life support economically by central banks. You can keep an economy on life support, but you can’t keep an ideology on life support. If people can’t see a viable and coherent story about how they get more wealthy generation after generation, they look for other stories. Now in Europe—Britain is not the only place—there has been the rise of right-wing nationalism, racism very similar to the kind of movement that stood behind Trump. But we had a pressure valve and that was the Brexit referendum itself. The Brexit referendum, where 51.9 percent of the people voted to leave the European Union, almost saved us from a movement such as the one that backed Donald Trump. Our xenophobic right wing party, UKIP, has actually collapsed in support.

Many of us assumed out liberal-democratic-type people would form their own party, sort of an anti-Brexit, pro-globalization, pro-neoliberal party, such as happened in France with Macron. They didn’t do that. So the election caught them by surprise. By calling a snap election, Theresa May placed that centrist traditional pro-neoliberal part of the Labour Party in a dilemma: Either they fight to win or they don’t. Some of them, a really small minority, came out and said, “We don’t want to win with Corbyn in charge.” But many white-collar workers are switching over to Corbyn, despite their misgivings, because the question is no longer Brexit. The question is: What has the country become? Is it going to become a xenophobic right wing anti-immigrant place or is it going to maintain its openness?

Many assumed that the Manchester attack was going to drive support to May and the Conservatives. But it doesn’t look like that is happening.

I do not think it is possible that Corbyn could even be within a shout of winning were it not for the fact that the Conservatives have completely messed up their own campaign. Because Theresa May is a career submarine, as we call it. She has never campaigned for anything. She has just sat in one office in Parliament. The Home Office runs the police force, the court system. She sat doing that for seven years. No major catastrophes. No major achievements. Never campaigned for anything. Then suddenly finds herself Prime Minister. She needs a mandate to negotiate Brexit and she has chosen to go down a very, very hard and catastrophic strategy for negotiating Brexit, which is effectively to walk away if they don’t get a deal, which would crater UK trade immediately.

I said at the beginning of this campaign, “I predict she will not meet one single member of the public.” And that has turned out to be the case. She’s done a bunch of stage-managed town hall meetings that almost have nobody in them.

This is where the strangest thing has begun to happen. Sitting for seven years running Britain’s policing and anti-terror was fine until now. Now we have had the worst attack since 2005, right in the middle of the election, and it turns out there are all kinds of questions that she needs to be answering about what she did in those seven years that would have led to this attack. And she is running really scared.

At the same time, Corbyn is being attacked as “pro-terrorist.”

Every hour the right-wing media is pumping out basically propaganda that tries to say Labour is responsible for the attack. Because in the 1970s and 1980s, Corbyn and the Labour Left were the only people who stood up in favor of human rights and basic standards of judicial procedure when the British state was fighting a dirty war in Northern Ireland. They always said, “What will happen is that these techniques will eventually be used against us and therefore we are going to oppose them.” And for saying that, they were always stigmatized as “supporting the terrorists.”

Corbyn was one of the leading people who did that. He never planned to be leader of the Labour Party. He thought he was going to be a kind of single issue, go-to guy on human rights in Parliament. So while Theresa May was suspending her campaign after the attack, the right-wing press didn’t suspend their campaign against Corbyn. 

Corbyn’s treatment by the media reminds me of a moment in the 2016 primaries that we talked a lot about over here: the night that cable news famously played 20 minutes of Trump’s empty podium, flashing “standing by for Trump to speak” on the screen, while Sanders was giving a speech. The media’s distaste for left-wing candidates doesn’t seem to be affecting the U.K.’s elections the way it did ours.

The difference between Britain and America here is very clear: We don’t have super PACs. We don’t have PACs. We have limits on spending; in fact, many candidates on all sides have already spent all the money they can on their local campaigns. Next, we have the state-run and state-regulated media. Anybody with a broadcasting license in the United Kingdom has to follow the same rules as the BBC. That is, complete impartiality. Although 90 percent of the print media is right-wing, in fact, on the right wing of Conservatism, we also have begun to have our own Left media here. Those sites have achieved, quite rapidly, quite high audiences. 

As a result, I think the balance is more favorable to a Left candidate here than it would be in the United States. By having a state-regulated broadcast media, fake news gets called out and shut down in a far more decisive way than it did in the Trump election campaign. If you were to get a piece of actual fake news repeated on the state-regulated broadcast media, not only would it be so quickly corrected that it is not worth doing it, but the people who repeated it would probably be fired.

If Corbyn’s surge continues through June 8, it’ll be political news with seismic repercussions across Europe and the U.S.—an almost Trump-sized shakeup in political assumptions. But the parliamentary system means that it’s more complicated than just Corbyn vs. May, winner-take-all—it’s possible for Labour to beat the Conservatives, but not have enough members of Parliament to form a governing majority. What’s the path, if any, for Corbyn to actually become Prime Minister?

The arithmetic is against Labour for this reason: After 2014, the Scottish independence referendum, Labour self-destructed in Scotland, which had been once its stronghold. There are forty-nine MPs there, and it used to have the majority of them. It now has only one. The Scottish National Party has been the strongest party in Scotland since 2014. This is like Democrats being obliterated in Chicago, Illinois.

Even if Labour carries on its momentum in the rest of the United Kingdom, it probably can’t win back many seats in Scotland. Therefore, there will likely be an anti-Tory majority in Parliament on June 9 that will contain a substantial contingent of Scottish nationalists. Until Corbyn took over, on many issues they were to the left of Labour. The issue is: Can there be a parliamentary arrangement that allows Corbyn to run the government and the Scottish National Party to play a part in it? 

The other complicating factor is two-thirds of the candidates for Parliament for Labour don’t like Corbyn. We have got some very serious pro-capitalist, pro-military industrial complex people inside the right wing of the Labour Party and I can’t predict what they will do. If it looks like the most left-wing socialist ever is about to win the election of a P5 country, they are not going to like it.

At the same time, the Conservatives could quite easily lose the election, but remain the largest party. In that situation, you get the opposite of what Theresa May is promising. She is promising strong and stable government, but it may be that we get a very unstable government. 

The big “If” right now is whether or not Labour can maintain its momentum. It has been relentlessly climbing in the polls. I have never seen anything like it. In fact, people who have been in psephology for 50 years have never seen a party come from the mid-20s to the high 30s in a space of three weeks.

Theresa May called this election to get a 100+ majority in Parliament. That is what was predicted. Whoever wins needs a strong majority to negotiate the Brexit. If she gets anything less than 100+ majority she has lost. If she loses MPs, she will have to resign even if she has the strongest party. But, my goodness, if Labour wins, this will be one of the most spectacular self-destruction events of neoliberal conservatism in history.

The polls told her she could absolutely wipe the floor with Labour. They assumed Corbyn was their secret weapon. It turns out he is our secret weapon.