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Two Labour victories and the politics of modesty

Now that the British general elections are sealed by leafy Kensington turning to Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, one might start to make some sense of what could be said about last week, which, between Malta and Britain, saw two Labour victories that couldn't be so different in terms of political direction and historical circumstance.

Admittedly, Theresa May is still PM, thanks to a dangerous alliance between British and Irish Unionism. However, one would be both blind and immodest to fail to recognise Jeremy Corbyn's Labour victory.

Almost a year ago, in a blog entry that I wrote on July 7, 2016, I reflected on the Chilcot Report, which revealed the complex yet misguided politics that led to Britain's participation in the Iraq War. There I reflected on the trajectory that stretched between Blair and Corbyn. I am citing what I said there because it gives context to my current reflections on these elections.

"I remember very well when Blair was the winner,” I wrote.

"He was unassailable. The Tories were in shambles. Everywhere voted Labour (…) And yet now, those who were delirious about Tony would be inclined to label the man a warmonger and a liar."

Then I reflected on what was going on with Corbyn's election as leader and how the Blairites were undermining the mandate of thousands and thousands of Labour members: “Those boring bearded lefties were always suspicious. But then again, they are always like that — as some would say. And indeed the left is always grumpy for one reason or another. And yet when it comes to trashing the old regime of the old politics that was once new, we go back to the bearded lot and seek some words of wisdom.”

Here I am not saying that Corbyn’s Labour is a safety valve offered to a tired and angry electorate. My comment was ironic in that it seems that the major excuse for a victory of the Left is always explained as a simple reflex action where, once prosperity is restored, voters will go back to the Blairites and Tories of this world.

Though poverty and austerity where a factor in Corbyn’s success, one must also remember that this was also the drive which boosted support for Brexit. This result is much more complex.

Unlike Blair, Corbyn did not need to tell everyone whether he was pro or anti-business. Unlike Foot he did not promote a redistribution of wealth with the clenched fist of socialism

Corbyn was not widely seen as an alternative until very recently. Those who were interested, could see that he was not the old commie wearing a Lenin cap. His politics are closer to the classic Austrian and German model of Social Democracy, than some romantic throwback to workerist autonomism. This was evident for those who cared to look. Tories and Blairites alike wanted to simplify Corbyn’s politics. But voters knew otherwise.

When the Labour manifesto 'For the Many Not the Few' was leaked, the Tory strategy was in shambles. For the first time in decades, people read and liked Labour’s manifesto. Unlike Michael Foot’s “longest suicide note in history”, Corbyn brought the party together and reached consensus on a programme that was not only costed and viable, but which attracted the electorate.

Unlike Blair, Corbyn did not need to tell everyone whether he was pro or anti-business. Unlike Foot he did not promote a redistribution of wealth with the clenched fist of socialism. Neither did he ever offer (as Kinnock once did) to squeeze the rich until their pips squeak.

More so, I would argue that Corbyn did another thing which gave him back those working-class votes that went to UKIP in 2015. He respected democracy and accepted Brexit as a fact. Unlike the LibDems, he did not call for a second referendum on Brexit. Unlike the Tories he did not ignore the desire of many to have a reasonable Brexit that would allow Britain to retain a fruitful partnership with the EU.

Labour took a position which at first flustered many remainers (including yours truly) as it appeared to be pro-Brexit, when in fact it was reflecting the British people's overall feeling that was spread evenly for and against Brexit. Accepting a democratic mandate, Corbyn showed respect to everyone and this rewarded him a huge vote.

My argument is that Corbyn exercised himself and his party in the politics of modesty by accepting, in word and deed, the will of the electorate. This he did by not seeking to manipulate or change it.  

So what about Malta?

In Malta the electorate spoke and gave a strong mandate to Joseph Muscat's Labour, which we all know, is very different from Corbyn’s. Muscat’s second term reminds me of Blair's second term. This is not meant as a critique but as a reflection on how politics work at a time of stability.

I disagree with those who argued that the Maltese voted Labour for bread and butter issues. Most Maltese were treated well by those who saw in them potential beyond their party allegiance, so much so that many Labourites criticised Muscat for working with people of all persuasions.

The Nationalists never accepted the first huge mandate that Maltese voters gave to Muscat’s Labour

In so many ways this was Blair's virtue then as it is Corbyn's now. More Blairite than he would ever be a Corbynista, Muscat learnt from the past that when people are undermined, he would lose. When Blair ultimately undermined his electorate he lost. Cameron did the same when he gambled his premiership over the EU and May has just done the same over the few months since she became PM.

The Nationalists never accepted the first huge mandate that Maltese voters gave to Muscat’s Labour. PN leaders ignored their own problems and lived in denial. Like the Tories they undermined their opponents and more so the electorate.

Like Theresa May, Simon Busuttil failed spectacularly because he lived in a bubble, chose to focus on one issue, and botched everything else by listening to one side of an argument instead of consulting with his wider Nationalist base and move beyond it.

On the other hand, I’d add that learning from its mistakes in office, Muscat’s Labour needs to keep in mind the huge mandate with which the people privileged it. This is a heavy weight on the Labour movement in its current evolution but also in its historical sense — as the party of labour.

Being a party of Labour, it means that it owes responsibility to all of us who gain our living from our labour. And as Corbyn has shown, that’s not just old lefty garbage, but a reality which we all feel when we receive our salary and try to make ends meet. As long as they keep this in mind, Labour parties of all stripes stand to win again, and again. 

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