Not all victories are made equal. Against the backdrop of self-made chaos, they were able to stand out as the no-nonsense party of action, as Remain parties scrapped for tiny slices of vote share, and Labour’s attempt at a unifying strategy lost them votes to both sides of the aisle – with Leave votes delivering historically unthinkable losses. The Conservative vote rose by only 1.7%, but Labour’s fell several times that. Labour won more votes than it did in its 2005 victory – and suffered a devastating defeat.
The Tories have clawed their way to triumph with outright lies, hate-mongering and double-dealing: by shifting the story from “Tories will sell off your healthcare” to “Corbyn Russia leak”; by reheating the oven-ready chauvinism that says a man of peace cannot be trusted with the keys to Number 10; by shifting the blame for austerity onto black and brown people (years of Labour triangulation on the issue of migration made this all the easier). They dressed up in Keynesian drag to argue the case to the public – promising more funding for healthcare, schools, and youth centres. These promises were rapidly exposed either as lies or as woefully insufficient. But they were nonetheless necessary. They promised to “get Brexit done”, converting imperial nostalgia and political exhaustion into cold, hard votes and a fabled moment of national renewal into a pain in the arse to be gotten rid of as swiftly as possible.
Let’s not sugar coat it: this outcome means more people will die. It unleashes a manifesto which, according to the IFS, “bakes in” the austerity that has torn millions of ordinary people’s lives apart. Meanwhile, the 1 in 3 of the UK’s 151 billionaires who donated to the Conservative Party have really gotten their money’s worth.
That the Tories were able to win after a decade of disaster is a testament to the terrifying power of a billionaire-owned media incapable of imagining a less cruel politics. The feat is even more astonishing given a hollow manifesto which promised little more than fewer potholes and more punishing prisons, and a template for making those in power even less accountable to the people. Instead, they promise to channel wealth even more smoothly into the pockets of the super-wealthy, whilst buckling to a spurious US trade deal.
Not all losses are made equal. In 2010, the anti-austerity movement turned hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to kick out the Tories. At the time, however, austerity was not a dirty word but the only option for sensible politicians forced to make “tough choices”. So confident were the Conservatives of austerity’s popularity that they mocked Labour’s social democratic policy platform – and it worked.
The Conservatives are by now fully aware that austerity is hugely unpopular, having been discredited by everyone from Universal Credit users to the IMF. Yet they remain doggedly uninterested in any economic strategy other than Thatcher II: Thatcher Harder. Even Thatcher attempted to mount a defence of deindustrialisation as a bitter pill for a bloated body politic. Yet her successors have not argued for themselves, but have instead deflected, dodged, denied. We shouldn’t underestimate what this means. It means that anti-austerity sentiment is now so mainstream that anyone still clinging to “there is no alternative” has been forced to pivot to “the end of austerity”; that the adults in the room have been sent packing, their Remain flagship in tatters; it means a new kind of politics is in town.
This new politics, embodied by Jeremy Corbyn, has lost in its first electoral showdown. But the circumstances of its defeat should embolden us. In the words of Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, “An old world is dying, and the new cannot be born. Now is the time of monsters.” The creatures struggling into the new political landscape are unrecognisable to a political “mainstream” that runs from One Nation Conservatism to Blairism.
On one hand is an emboldened far-right that now occupies the mainstream of the Conservative leadership. Theirs is a doctrine of national pride via racial and economic dominance that scapegoats migrants and minorities for the failures of our economic system.
On the other, a millions-strong mandate to meet the challenges of the 21st century with bravery, compassion and a clear-eyed vision of what must be done. By European standards, Labour’s spending plans were modest. Yet its ambition to restructure our economy and society was radical. Those who fought for it on the streets, who manned phone banks and strategised on social media, will be devastated. But they will also be determined: to rebuild the lost faith in Labour Leave areas, to build a cross-racial electoral coalition, and to look beyond Westminster for the immediate task of survival. Over the past six weeks, the many I’ve spoken to have been of a single mind: that whatever happened on December 13th, they would be back on the streets soon afterwards. Losing this battle was always an option. Losing the war is unthinkable.
Today people will wake up to unpayable bills, insecure jobs, eviction notices, benefits sanctions and climate breakdown. Teachers will be begging for money to buy pencils; nurses struggling through 40-hour shifts; rough sleepers scrambling for shelter from a December cold made all the more bitter by the absence of hope.
Yet David Orr wrote that “Hope is a verb with its shirtsleeves rolled up.” Hope is not something you feel, in other words – it’s something you do. The thousands of activists who for the past six weeks have been pounding the pavements have been practising hope. And with practice comes mastery. This is just the beginning.