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Tom Gallagher: Corbyn is in tune with disaffected youth


Corbyn’s Labour Party pulling off a hung parliament is by no means a fluke result. It simply matches the power relations that exist in contemporary Britain.

A left-wing opposition party with an angry, confrontational message has come within an ace of being in government. In the process it has overcome many obstacles which would have tossed it into the wilderness not so long ago.  A party with no coherent economic strategy for governing the country would have been electorally thrashed as happened in 1983 with Michael Foot and in 2015 with Ed Miliband. A leader with Jeremy Corbyn’s personal biography would similarly have fared ill. His decades of agitation against British foreign and defence policy, support for violent Middle Eastern extremists and, above all close alliance with Irish Republicans in their savage epoch, would have disqualified him from high office.

Perhaps it was the consideration that Corbyn was unelectable for such reasons that prompted Prime Minister Theresa May to listen to advice that her majority could be enhanced  if she went to the country this spring. Perhaps the terrorist acts carried out by people whom Corbyn and allies have often found excuses for, steadied the Prime Minister’s nerve. Her manifesto had badly misjudged the mood of the country and her campaign was formulaic and without vision by the time 22 people had been killed in the Manchester Arena nail bomb attack. But who could imagine people in the capital or in Lancashire endorsing a party led by someone with Corbyn’s inexperience and far-left credentials?

Besides, Corbyn was surrounded by parliamentary colleagues who both feared and despised him in equal measure. Calling a  snap election meant that it was impossible for his apparatchiks to purge the Labour moderates and replace them with far-left loyalists.

But advised by Seumas Milne and others who hated the Conservatives and threw themselves into the fight with gusto, Labour hurled everything it had at this contest. It searched for and found plenty of alienated and disaffected youth. It won their loyalty by reaching them via music, agitprop and humorous online sketches. It was unfazed by the serial gaffes of the shadow home secretary Diane Abbott and so were its youthful converts in university towns like Canterbury and Warwick. Corbyn’s intention to scrap the Trident defence system at a time of international tension caused by rogue states didn’t hold him back.

Millions of Britons have become desensitised to terrorism at home and international tension abroad. They do not factor in these matters when making electoral choices. In our noisy, mobile society there is a belief that there is an acceptable level of violence and disruption which just has to be coped with.

There is also scepticism when a leader like May makes a speech after the Tower Bridge killings and says this cannot go on. Tony Blair sounded much the same in 2007 yet Britain has evolved into a society where thousands of pro-jihadi citizens now roam freely.

Her concern appeared to be with regulating the internet rather than preventing returning jihadis committing more barbaric acts , or dealing with the spread of extremism in our schools and universities where it is often common.

The second reason why Corbyn, Milne and others in the far-left crowd are now crowing on top of the political heap  is that they are no longer marginal figures in British life. Individuals who demanded violent confrontation with the police over austerity, supported the IRA, opposed the Falklands war and regretted the demise of the Soviet Union are now mainstream figures.

They could have been taken on and worsted by an Anne Widdecombe but pugnacious, self-confident politicians are not prominent on the political right. May is tenacious and has a sense of public duty, but this election exposed her not only as inept but also afraid of the noise of electoral battle.

Jeremy Corbyn is far less marginal than Ramsay MacDonald was in 1924 or even Clement Attlee in 1945. Tony Blair ensured that over 40 per cent of young people went to university where those doing soft subjects too often emerge not with mature minds but with a sense of deep naivety about how the world works combined with angry rejection of most power and authority. Difficulty in finding fulfilling work, a steady relationship, and a permanent home make many of these people suckers for the Corbyn world view.

In his scepticism about needing to defend Britain, manage the nation’s finances, and keep his distance from the country’s obvious enemies, Corbyn has successfully pulled off the trick of appearing to be the voice of an abandoned generation. He is fully in tune with a listless and disaffected bunch of younger people who had been encouraged to see themselves as victims.

The ground of politics has violently shifted under the Conservatives feet. It looks as if Brexit could be a victim of their unpreparedness. They might be shot out of the water like the French Gaullists were  by the emergence of a Macron-style centrist party in time for another election before the close of the year.

The young, in particular, are just no longer swayed by evidence of .duty or competence in a leader. They are now looking for novelty and drama. Last night showed millions of them  were prepared to give a serious look at a challenger with a wretched and ugly political past. The important thing is that Corbyn & Co connected psychologically with the restless and unfulfilled citizens of Britain. It was a brilliant operation.

It just needs to be briefly pointed out that much of the media play to this anti-authority, hedonistic and risk-taking mood, from the free Metro newspaper to the battery of BBC correspondents.

In a way, the Tories have had this mighty fall coming to them. They focused on technocracy and on making populist concessions to the radical consumer and lifestyle culture. From Thatcher onwards they totally failed to see that culture counted, that failing to assert a moderate, long-term perspective which enjoyed heft in broadcasting and education could one day be their ruin.

The story of the night was somewhat different in Scotland. Here the cultural left is even more entrenched than in the rest of Britain. But the Scottish National Party made much bigger losses proportionately than the Conservatives.

The big Scottish gainer in terms of seats were the once despised Conservatives. For the past five years they have been at the centre of an elemental battle to decide whether Scotland still remains part of the United Kingdom. It has prompted the party to drop its patrician amateur aura and become a modern grassroots party in touch with some of the most vital elements in Scotland.

An able political general like Ruth Davidson has persuaded Scots to take a close look at the left populism of the SNP  and unprecedented numbers now agree with her that they don’t like what they see.

Scots have been looking into the abyss and they have decided to draw back. In England voters charmed by the spirit and novelty of Corbyn and crew may  have a longer and more painful epiphany before good sense prevails. But moderate politics have no chance of prospering again in England unless the approach of Conservative politicians to their profession fundamentally alters.

Tom Gallagher has just completed a novel called ‘England Possessed’.  It describes how inter-generational conflict leads to indiscriminate violence in the England of the early 2020s. Expressions of interest from publishers large or small would be welcome.

(Image: Garry Knight)

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Tom Gallagher
Tom Gallagher
Tom Gallagher is a retired political scientist. His political thriller, Flight of Evil: A North British i Intrigue, is published this week. His Twitter account is @cultfree54.

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