DERBY, England—In a world where disaffected Brexit voters have knowingly sabotaged the British economy and there’s an impetuous blowhard in the Oval Office, lots of voters in Britain are asking themselves, “Why the hell should a political outsider and left-wing populist be considered out of bounds?”
At the start of Britain’s six-week election campaign, the polls, the pundits and the political establishment all suggested that Jeremy Corbyn was a no-hoper who would not even win over traditional Labour voters. But a shock poll on Tuesday had the Conservatives’ lead over Labour down to 1 point—it had peaked at a whopping 24 points at the start of the campaign.
Young voters, in particular, have rejected the advice of Britain’s political establishment, including moderate Labour voices who have opposed Corbyn ever since he took control of the party. A huge majority of under-24s now say they are happy to risk whatever remains of the status quo and opt for a hard-left prime minister for the first time in British history.
U.S. President Donald Trump has blundered into helping Corbyn directly in the final week of the campaign by attacking London’s Labour mayor, in the aftermath of the London Bridge terror attack. In the face of Trump’s goading, Sadiq Khan has remained dignified as he leads London’s defiant response to those grotesque murders.
While Corbyn leapt to his Labour colleague’s defense, Theresa May has repeatedly refused to stand up to the U.S. president despite intense media questioning, just as she failed to rebuke him when Trump pulled out of the Paris climate accord last week. May has been left looking weak—and, in the eyes of Britain, she is on the wrong side of the fight.
Trump’s impact on this election runs deeper, however. British voters are fully aware that the old political rules have been torn up; after his runaway victory in the Republican primary we’re still waiting for Trump to pivot to the center ground. The U.S. media found that dragging up old clips of the candidate smashing the political orthodoxy did little to deter his supporters—in fact, it seemed to galvanize them.
When Corbyn swept to the party leadership—and he had to do it twice because the Labour equivalent of the #NeverTrump movement refused to accept him as their leader—it was near-universally agreed that Corbyn would have to moderate his views, which are considerably to the left of the average Labour voter, if he was even to secure the support of his own side at a general election.
Corbyn’s personal approval ratings were historically bad—even in the eyes of Labour voters—and he had led his party to such a low place in the opinion polls that May seized the chance to call a snap election. She intended to crush her opposition and secure the huge majority she felt was needed to successfully negotiate the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union.
“Less than a year ago we were discussing whether a very unpopular candidate would actually attract the loyalty of his party’s electorate—that person was Donald Trump,” said Matthew Goodwin, author of Revolt on the Right. “In the end, Republican voters fell in line with someone they didn’t regard as being highly popular, charismatic and competent. Party identification eventually trumped that. I think with the Labour vote, you’re seeing Labour voters coming home.”
After Trump’s electoral success, the threat of losing your party’s traditional support in the general unless you stick by the party establishment seems to be losing its edge. Trump and Bernie Sanders have inspired leaders around the world to believe that you don’t have to accept what the mainstream party elites are saying. You can disregard them, you can attack them directly in the press, and then you can remake the party in your own image.
Standing in the shadow of a broad sycamore tree in the city of Derby in central England on Saturday, a tall Californian in a flannel shirt was teaching more than 100 Corbynista volunteers the techniques of “persuasion canvassing” that had been tried and tested on the Sanders campaign.
Jeremy Parkin, who worked for Sanders during the Democratic primary, was here to share what the insurgents had learnt about transforming a grassroots movement into an army at the polls. He and his colleagues from the campaign also brought digital assistance in the form of phone banking, activist location and peer-to-peer texting apps that have never previously been used in Britain.
“It’s working,” he told The Daily Beast. “The trainings have been bigger and bigger every time. They want to hear about what was useful for Bernie, what we used successfully, and how they can bring it over here because I think it applies very well.”
Parkin sees a lot of similarities between the mood of the electorate in Britain and the United States, where the conditions were set for an extraordinary Trump victory. “People are angry at the establishment, people are angry at not being taken care of, they feel like politicians don’t represent them anymore,” he said. “That’s why Trump got elected. They saw Hillary Clinton—she’s been around forever, she’s the establishment candidate and then regardless of the terrible things Trump said, he was new, he was different, he was promising a change.”
He was reluctant to come right out and say it but, in short: Bernie would have won.
Parkin has volunteered to help Corbyn, whose Bernie-like campaign succeeded inside the Labour Party—giving him the opportunity to put his populist case to the wider electorate. The Labour manifesto promises to increase taxes on businesses and wealthy families, to increase funding for health and education, to nationalize water and rail, to make university tuition free, to reduce the voting age to 16, to grant free childcare for 2- to 4-year-olds and introduce four additional bank holidays, to name but a few proposals.
Interestingly, Parkin is not here working for the Labour Party; he is attached to Momentum, a leftist organization set up in 2015 in support of Corbyn. Moderate Labour MPs feared the group was set up to help purge them from the party, but Momentum organizers say they merely want to help reshape the party.
When Sanders was eventually defeated, Parkin went on to work for the pro-Bernie, Democratic primary challenger to Debbie Wasserman Schultz. The attempt to primary the former Democratic National Committee chairwoman was perhaps the most brazen attempt yet at a takeover inside the Democratic party.
Two hours south of Derby, Bernie Sanders himself had addressed a crowd of young voters the day before Parkin’s training session. His central message, which was cheered to the 17th-century Sir Christopher Wren-designed rafters of the Sheldonian theater in Oxford, focused on remaking mainstream parties to reflect the insurgent mood of voters.
He said Trump had correctly identified the voters’ desire to tear down the political establishment. “It wasn’t so much that Trump won, it was that the Democrats lost,” he said. “So what I’m trying to do is to fundamentally rebuild the Democratic party—fundamentally transform the Democratic party from a party that is top-down to a party of working people; to a party of young people; to a party which has the guts to stand up to the billionaire class.”
Sanders clearly feels Corbyn’s approach to his party is much the same as his own. “What he is trying to do is to revitalize democracy and remake the Labour party into a more grassroots party,” he said. “I appreciate that.”
During a short book tour across southern England, Sanders has offered warm support for Corbyn but always stopped just short of an endorsement. When The Daily Beast asked why he wouldn’t endorse, Sanders refused to explain: “I just said what I said.”
His brother, Larry, who is standing for the Green Party in Oxford on Thursday, was more forthcoming. “First of all, it’s probably normal not to endorse people from other countries,” he explained. “But I think also the second thing—the Green Party is actually somewhat ahead of Corbyn.”
It’s extraordinary to think Corbyn’s hard-left Labour Party isn’t ideologically pure enough for the Sanders brothers, but Larry did tell The Daily Beast last year that they were “genuine socialists” who backed class warfare.
Nonetheless, Larry said he would support Corbyn in the unlikely event that he was elected as the Green Party’s second Member of Parliament. “He is doing very well,” he said.
Whether it passes the Sanders’ purity test, many on the hard left in Britain feel this is the party’s best manifesto since the end of the second world war when they pledged to establish the National Health Service, a welfare state and nationalize key industries.
“It was the younger generation in 1945 that said ‘enough’ and the younger generation have got that power in their hands now,” said Chris Williamson, Labour’s candidate in Derby North—who lost his seat in 2015 by just 41 votes. “I’ve been campaigning for 40 years and there was a lot of apathy, we weren’t offering hope to people. We are now: this is probably a better manifesto, in fact, than 1945—the best ever!”
Williamson’s enthusiasm is undoubtedly genuine. He talked of a lump in his throat and the hairs going up on the back of his neck when he saw footage of the Labour leader’s appearance at Libertines gig last month when a crowd of teenagers broke into chants of “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn!”
“I’ve never known it frankly,” he said, complaining about the years when he felt he had to apologize for the center-ground politics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, which became known as the New Labour project. Blair and Brown rejected the more left-wing policies and electoral wilderness of the 1980s and, in exchange, they won great success at the ballot box, with Blair becoming Labour’s longest serving prime minister by far. The hard left remained upset that the party had sold out.
Williamson said the unexpected success of Corbyn’s campaign had vanquished the Blairite analysis that only a moderate Labour Party could win. “It’s bullshit, it’s bullshit,” he said. “And that’s what led to huge cynicism in this country, and that’s what led to a disconnection with politics. There was insufficient difference between us and the Tories.”
Labour moderates had hoped that electoral defeat for Corbyn would see him step down as leader and allow a more conventional candidate to replace him. Williamson, who has been described as Labour’s most pro-Corbyn candidate, insisted that whatever the result, Corbyn was going nowhere. “He’s won the argument. There’s no going back to New Labour—this movement is here to stay,” he said.
On a rainy Monday in Gateshead, North East England, Jeremy Corbyn started the last week of the campaign by addressing 10,000 people. John Prescott, who was deputy prime minister to Blair, said even the 1997 glory days of Labour’s first election landslide since 1945 had not seen such huge crowds.
Corbyn, whose confidence has bloomed as the campaign progressed, playfully told the cheering multitudes to ignore the pundits down in London who said crowd sizes were irrelevant.
“The cynics who calculate these things in politics say ‘bleep beep eeeh aaaar,’” he said. “And what does that mean? Well it means that ‘We down here really fully understand this system and all those people out there that are turning up at Labour rallies? They don’t… really… understand it.’
“Well, I tell you this: We absolutely do understand it! We understand what this popular movement is about and the kind of world we can create.”
He’s right, the political analysts and pollsters do ignore the crowd sizes, but they cannot deny that something has fundamentally shifted during this campaign.
John Curtice—Britain’s beloved answer to cult psephologist Nate Silver—says this election has seen the most dramatic polling swing he has ever come across.
“Labour Party entered the election with a lower position in the polls than either Labour or the Conservatives have ever gone into an election with—and they have managed to consistently increase their support,” he told The Daily Beast. “Jeremy Corbyn looked like a basket case.”
The president of the British Polling Council said the change in fortunes began before the parties published their manifestos but has since accelerated, partly because of the reception for Labour’s populist policy pledges. “If you tell people you are going to improve public services, you’re not going to increase taxation [for 95 percent of voters], and you’re going to clobber some industries that are not terribly popular, there’s something in that,” he said. “Some of us were never convinced that the Blairite analysis was right.”
The Conservatives have largely stuck to the argument that the country can’t afford to pay for all of the giveaways in Corbyn’s manifesto—as they know that most of the measures are popular in themselves—but they haven’t succeeded in portraying the pledges as extreme.
Ian Lavery, Labour’s election co-ordinator, told The Daily Beast that people had been pleasantly surprised by Labour’s promises. “We’ve set out a manifesto and people are really wowed by what’s in that manifesto,” he said. “It’s about ensuring that people in all communities and all walks of life share the riches and the wealth of this country.”
Curtice says it has been equally important that Corbyn “hasn’t put a foot wrong” during the campaign despite the areas he knew he would be attacked, including his long-standing links to the IRA, Sinn Fein, and Hamas. The British newspapers on the eve of Election Day are even trying to paint him as a sympathizer of ISIS and radical Islamist groups such as al Muhajiroun.
Corbyn has been facing these questions for decades, and usually argues that he was working toward peace through dialogue. For older voters, his association with the IRA is disqualifying, but many of his younger supporters know little of The Troubles in Northern Ireland.
Indeed, it is the youth vote that explains Labour’s unexpected surge.
The polls suggest Labour have the support of approximately two-thirds of votes between ages 18 and 24, while the Conservatives have two-thirds of the votes of over-65s. Younger voters have always skewed left but not to this extent—Labour’s young vote has shot up 20 percent in the last six weeks.
Tracking voter turnout for younger voters is extremely challenging and explains the vast differential between polling companies. YouGov are expecting an increased youth vote and have been recording Conservative poll leads in the single digits, sometimes as low as 3 points. ICM, by contrast, are expecting a similar youth turnout to what we saw in 2015—they don’t buy the Corbyn bounce—as a result they are seeing Tory leads of more like 12 or 13 points.
If Labour are to have a chance of an upset, they need a surge in young voters—and that’s what Momentum’s get out the vote machine will be focused on.
Matthew Goodwin, a professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent, has his doubts that this strategy will prove effective. “The question is who would you gamble on to turn out in much larger numbers?” he said. “Labour is going to need mass turnout among non-voters.”
All of the pollsters agree that there has been a dramatic tightening of the polls, even if some still show a comfortable Conservative lead.
Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, told The Daily Beast that he was skeptical about reports that Labour had taken the lead in the polls in London. “Have they? Let’s see,” he said.
The foreign secretary said he remained confident that any floating voters who had been tempted by Corbyn’s giveaways would return to the fold on polling day. “I hope so very much,” he said. “I think it’s a crucial moment for our country and I hope they do the right thing on Thursday.”
The terrorist attack that killed at least seven people on Saturday has cast a dark shadow across the final week of campaigning. The conventional wisdom would suggest that an unprecedented outbreak of three terror attacks in three months should help convince voters to stick with the safe and conservative May premiership.
The Conservatives have sought to portray Corbyn—a lifelong pacifist—as weak on defense and security throughout the campaign. During the final town hall event on Friday, Corbyn was repeatedly pressed by the audience on whether he would be willing to use Britain’s nuclear weapons.
After the event in York, in the North of England, Sir Michael Fallon, the Defense secretary, said Corbyn’s reluctance to countenance the use of a nuclear armament threatened the nation’s security. “I was in the North East of England on Wednesday and Labour voters, particularly, understand it was a Labour government that committed us to a nuclear deterrent after the war, and was such a staunch member of the nuclear alliance within NATO,” he told The Daily Beast. “To hear a Labour leader say he would never under any circumstances use nuclear weapons I thought was completely irresponsible, he’s blown Labour support as a result.”
The prime minister clearly thought the terrorist attack the day after the town hall would highlight the issue of security. In an unexpectedly political speech on the morning after the attack, she pledged to review Britain’s counterterror policy and crackdown on extreme elements within the Muslim community.
On Tuesday she declared that if human rights legislation got in the way of counterterror strategy, she would scrap it.
While many voters will agree that “enough is enough,” May’s pronouncements have also focused attention on the fact that police numbers and control measures were cut when she was Home secretary. She has also faced calls to apologize for presiding over a security service that missed opportunities to catch Saturday’s terrorists before they struck.
Corbyn has pledged to reverse the police cuts that have taken place under the Conservatives and improve the pay and conditions of Britain’s public officials, but he has also taken an avowedly anti-establishment approach to foreign policy. Like Trump in the Republican primaries, he has argued that staying out of foreign entanglements would help protect the nation from terrorists.
It was a shock when Corbyn publicly reaffirmed those beliefs in the week after the attack on Manchester, but a poll published on Tuesday night suggests that 75 percent of the country agrees that interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have made attacks in Britain more likely.
May’s final blunder in a disastrous Conservative campaign has diverted the news agenda away from what should have been the central closing message: The Conservatives are the only party who can be trusted to deliver Brexit.
With the Conservative campaign in disarray, Corbyn has a chance to prove the Blairites wrong. We are about to learn if the centrists like Hillary Clinton and Tony Blair have been misleading us all along—can a leftist follow in the footsteps of Trump’s populist success and seize power in a major Western nation?