Letter from London

Jeremy Corbyn had spent years being a terrible opposition leader, since he didn’t oppose Brexit

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate with flags outside the House of Parliament on March 11, 2019 in London, England. / JACK TAYLOR / GETTY
LISA APPIGNANESI
LISA APPIGNANESI Writer and Chair of the Royal Society of Literature

So there we are. The British people have spoken. The Scots apart, the Brits prefer to be led from the playing fields of Eton, that ancient elite public school that has shaped twenty prior prime ministers, to being led from Socialist Central. They seem to trust the first, whatever the fact checkers may tell them. 

On election night I was with a group of London friends of all ages, but united in our pro-EU and left inclinations.  As the exit polls flashed onto our screens, gloom filled the room. The predicted victory for the Conservatives was massive, showing Labour more decisively beaten than at any time since Thatcher’s prime. 

I tried to lighten the mood by reading out a text that had just arrived from a witty young friend in Australia. "Who would’ve thought the promise of free broadband wasn’t enough…"

It wasn’t –certainly not in the aging Labour heartlands in the North of England where access to a Twitter account is not a key to the good life. 

Nor were all the fine promises in the thick and carefully worked-out and costed Labour Manifesto ranging from substantial investment in the failing National Health, in social and prison services, in transport, and the green economy,  alongside the abolishing of hated tuition fees –all of these arguably crucial in a system starved by the stringent austerity of Tory Governments since the crash of 2008

The problem was the Manifesto had the feel of a student syllabus, even without the promise of the re-nationalization of utilities. Traditional working-class Labour voters just didn’t believe in it; even those of us who put hope in it knew that it would inevitably be tailored and take several parliaments to put in place. Then there was the Brexit problem. 

Jeremy Corbyn had spent years being a terrible opposition leader, since he didn’t oppose Brexit. Now the promise of a new deal, and a second referendum just spelled a delay that an impatient electorate both for and against leaving the EU, couldn’t stomach. But the biggest problem, the campaigners who went from door to door reported, was the Labour leader himself, a 70-year-old man whose 70s version of the left, and old radical loyalties seemed to make him less than loyal to queen, country and national security. A good rally speaker with the young, he had little charm in front of the TV cameras, or, it’s said, on the doorstep, and hated journalists. 

By contrast, Boris Johnson, London’s former Mayor is all wit and charm and rogueishness. There was little of substance in the Tory Manifesto, a few promises on more hospitals and nurses, yet more stringent prison sentences. But crucially there was the oft-repeated mantra, Get Brexit Done. 

The hope for those of us who want close links with the EU and Europe is that in order to get it done quickly -and given that he now has a huge majority that makes it possible– Johnson will by-pass the free market ideologues at the far right of his party and find a deal in the interests of everyone, on in which the UK maintains regulatory parity with the EU in order to facilitate ongoing closeness.

Johnson has promised in his first address to rule for the whole nation. Let’s hope he does. It won’t be easy, given that the triumphant Scottish National Party under the brilliant Nicola Sturgeon wants a second referendum on independence he has said he won’t allow – a scenario the Catalans may understand too well. 

Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn hasn’t stood down.  The country will need a strong opposition leader to hold the large Tory majority to account.  Let’s hope we get one and don’t become a vassal state to the US.

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