Life in Britain in 2017 is increasingly redolent of what Joan Didion said about her experience of America in the late 1960s and early ’70s, in her brilliant essay collection The White Album: “I was supposed to have a script, and had mislaid it…. I was meant to know the plot, but all I knew was what I saw: flash pictures in variable sequence, images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement, not a movie but a cutting-room experience.” This is what it’s currently like being a political journalist in the United Kingdom, where there is no end of stuff to report, but also a febrile, almost hallucinatory atmosphere that often makes the telling of coherent stories all but impossible.
The country is in the midst of its most turbulent period in at least three decades. There have been three terrorist attacks since the early summer, one in Manchester and two in London. And on June 14, a terrible fire consumed Grenfell Tower, a housing project in West London, killing at least 80 people and highlighting years of neglect of public housing and the city’s ever-widening inequality. With good reason, some people have characterized the disaster and its aftermath as “the British Katrina.”
Meanwhile, the political landscape is shifting and buckling, with the ruling Conservative Party anxiously clinging to power while the opposition Labour Party, transformed by its new radical-left leadership, has just scored its highest vote share in 16 years. As a result, austerity—the watchword of British governments since 2010—may be in retreat.
Yet contradictions abound. The economic consequences of so-called Brexit—the biggest change in the UK’s affairs since 1945—are already starting to bite. There has been rising inflation due to the weak pound, and a looming threat of big financial interests leaving the country, which threatens one of the government’s few dependable sources of tax revenue. Every day seems to bring news of another complicated element of leaving the European Union that the people in power have seemingly failed to understand.
What all this signals is inevitably complex and, so far, uncertain. Above all, many of the summer’s developments highlight a new quicksilver reality—partly rooted in the failure of Western governments to find any convincing solutions to the deep problems exposed by the 2008 crash—that seems to careen from one unforeseen event to another. But somewhere in all the chaos, there may be a glimmer of hope. Thanks to Donald Trump’s jarring ascent, the UK’s vote for Brexit, and the rise of reactionary populism in Europe, many progressives had come to the fatalistic conclusion that the 21st century’s political entropy would only help the political right. Britain, by contrast, may just have taken an appreciable step to the left.
In retrospect, the UK’s increasing air of crisis was vastly intensified in April when Theresa May—the British prime minister and Conservative Party leader—decided to call a snap election. When she did so, her towering poll numbers suggested a landslide victory, but after a month of campaigning, her party’s lack of a coherent program and her own apparently terrified response to the demands of electioneering led to a sudden sea change. Labour began to gain ground, and May—whose stiff demeanor prompted a Guardian writer to mock her as “the Maybot,” a name that quickly caught on—increasingly became an object of ridicule. Having started the campaign with a lead of up to 25 percent in the polls, her party finished a mere two points ahead and lost its parliamentary majority. Among voters under 45, the Conservatives trailed Labour decisively, with 18- to 24-year-olds choosing Labour by a margin of 35 percent.
Naturally, numbers only tell a fraction of the story. I spent pretty much the entirety of the election period on the road, and the way the whole thing began to turn was a fascinating story. At first, the voters I met tended to either sigh with exasperation at the very mention of the election, or concur that May’s claim to offer “strong and stable” leadership was both an accurate picture of her talents and exactly what the Brexit moment demanded. Then, as she wobbled and Labour made its case with an increasing confidence, people quietly began to shift.
In Wolverhampton, a bellwether city in the English Midlands where the Conservatives were predicted to win a crucial seat from Labour, I spent a balmy afternoon watching Labour activists meet a newly receptive public, and encountering people who had backed the Conservatives in the past but were rethinking their loyalties. Echoing Labour’s big campaign themes, one woman talked anxiously of “sections of our society who are being made to suffer.” Another confessed that although she had been “100 percent Conservative,” after conversations with her Labour-supporting daughter, she was now seriously considering changing her mind.
Then came an electrifying election night spent in nearby Birmingham, where twentysomethings, crammed into the local nightlife district, talked about their new sense of political excitement and often joined in a chant, sung to the tune of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” that has since become something of an anthem: “Oh, Jer-e-my Cor-byn.”
Corbyn has been the Labour leader since September 2015, and his elevation to the role had two big initial effects: scandalizing the parts of his party whose politics had been forged under Tony Blair, while delighting his hundreds of thousands of supporters, many of whom were new to political activism. In the ensuing 20 months, Corbyn didn’t exactly prosper, but the snap election brought out a set of formidable strengths. Far from being the leftist ogre demonized by the right-wing press, Corbyn was revealed to be an avuncular, easygoing man with a talent for the banal rituals of mainstream TV. Perhaps more important, he is an instinctively energetic campaigner, able to personify the moral elements of his politics and to give the impression of someone largely free of self-importance.
In the immediate aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, while May played to type by initially avoiding any public meeting with the disaster’s survivors, Corbyn was pictured listening to their grief and pain. Little more than a week later, he made a triumphant appearance at the annual Glastonbury festival, a 200,000-capacity outdoor spectacular whose other attractions included Radiohead and the Foo Fighters.
What is all this about? Judged by the ideological standards of recent Labour leaders, Corbyn and his inner circle are indeed radical leftists. But their program at the election was also straightforwardly populist, built around the renationalization of the UK’s railroads (sold to private companies in the mid-1990s, with disastrous consequences), the abolition of tuition fees paid by university students, and free meals for school students. Above all else, Labour offered the prospect of an end to the seven years of austerity that have crippled many public services and begun to eat into Britain’s beloved National Health Service.
Rhetorically, Corbyn talked in clear moral terms about such glaring issues as increased homelessness and the rise of food banks, and successfully conveyed the idea that May’s low-tax, small-state vision of Brexit was bound up with the cruel, divisive aspects of her party’s social policies. She tanked; he shone.
Now his political tribe is understandably ecstatic, and in the emotive environs of the online world, there is an ongoing frenzy that has recast an admirable advance as nothing less than victory. As his approval ratings leave May’s in the dust, the latest meme is the claim that “Jeremy Corbyn is the prime minister.”
Yet there were limits to the Labour surge that Corbyn and his people need to think about. Labour still trails the Conservatives by 54 parliamentary seats and must win 64 to achieve a majority. Despite Conservative Party losses, its lead in the election among people over 70 was estimated to be 50 percentage points. Echoing the Democratic Party in the United States, Labour also has a problem with some elements of its working-class base, as evidenced by a handful of defeats in the English North and Midlands, and other places where the Tory vote went up thanks to voters supposedly at the ragged end of Conservative austerity.
Labour’s electoral coalition came together very quickly, galvanized not just by a tilt toward the political left, but by the huge shock of last year’s Brexit referendum. But the politics swirling around this defining issue are surreally complicated. Corbyn campaigned only halfheartedly last year for Britain to remain part of Europe and has been accused by some of his detractors of actively sabotaging the official pro-EU effort. He has a long record of skepticism about the EU, shared by all of his key people. And his party’s success at the election was partly based on the smoothing-over of a big fault line among its supporters.
To younger, more metropolitan voters fearful of leaving the EU, Labour sent out the message that it would resist the Conservatives’ “hard” Brexit by prioritizing jobs and safeguarding the rights of EU citizens living in Britain. But it also assured the parts of its base that had backed Brexit that it accepted the result of the referendum and its consequences, including new restrictions on immigration. In the haze of post-election euphoria, the fragility of this balancing act was temporarily forgotten, but as negotiations between the UK and Europe get going, it is beginning to reveal itself anew. As the doom around Brexit gathers, holding these two bases of support in place—let alone widening Labour’s reach—will require a level of political skill even greater than Corbyn demonstrated during the campaign.
To hear some of his supporters talk, Corbyn’s advance is proof of the demise of the politics minted by Blair’s so-called “New Labour” and Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats.” Given that this approach had no answers to the huge issues crystallized by the 2008 financial crash, that would not be a bad thing. But the truth may be that 21st-century politics is much more uncertain, and the way that Corbyn went from zero to hero in a matter of weeks looks like further proof of how politics flips around in the topsy-turvy reality in which we find ourselves.
His newfound success has two elements. One, paralleled by the rise of new left parties in Europe, grows from the failure of orthodox social democracy to answer the demands of an age of inequality and insecurity; it is born of the sense that politics in the West remains in an interregnum between the end of the Thatcher-Reagan period and the possible birth of a more collectivist, economically interventionist era. But the other factor is harder to frame in such conventional terms, and it’s bound up with a period of accelerated technological change, ever more volatile electorates, and the rise of a new spirit of antipolitics.
In the latter context, authenticity is a huge asset, and what were once perceived as shortcomings can be recast as advantages (for example, Corbyn is a pretty lousy public speaker, but his followers seem to love it). The danger is that content always comes second to novelty and that great surges can quickly subside, as proved by everything from the retreat of Scotland’s pro-independence movement to the way the once-insurgent forces of right-wing populism in Europe seem to be in abeyance, at least for now.
That Corbyn, like Bernie Sanders, embodies a revival of the left is unquestionable. But this is the 21st century, not the 20th; events now seem to move at warp speed. And look at how wildly the political pendulum swings: from Obama to Trump, from Europe supposedly splintering into fragments to the hegemonic leadership of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, and from Brexit to the British election. As the cliché goes, no one knows anything anymore—but that also includes the people on the left now claiming that they somehow have the key to the future.
In the UK, the progressive challenge is to ensure that Labour’s surge is not another short-lived part of the ongoing entropy, but a solid answer to it. That doesn’t amount to a counsel of despair, but it does point to a sobering imperative: as the jubilation subsides, to be as self-critical and realistic as this most complex of political moments demands.