At 10:01 pm on Thursday, June 8, British left-wing Twitter exploded with delight. The exit polls for the UK’s snap election had just been declared, predicting a hung Parliament. Seven weeks earlier, when Conservative leader Theresa May called the election, her party was polling 20 points ahead. She was expected to win a landslide majority, dominating the country with a narrow, Little England ethno-nationalism. And the Labour Party, under its relentlessly derided left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, was going to be wiped off the political map. Or so we were told. Repeatedly.
Instead, Labour did better than the exit-poll predictions, claiming 40 percent of the vote, a level not seen since its postwar peak. The commentators who had told us that lefty Corbyn was disastrous for the party now misread the election result as well. It wasn’t a vote for Corbyn (don’t be silly); it was a vote against May, who had run a terrible campaign, coming across as brittle, robotic, and weak, not “strong and stable” as her slogan claimed. Or actually, people voted Labour expecting it to lose, but wanting to prop up its fortunes a little. Or—by another theory managing to be both obtuse and patronizing—voters, especially the young, picked Labour because it would reverse the country’s referendum decision last summer to leave the European Union. Labour had accepted the result of that referendum. But never mind the facts; why would you assume that voters are this stupid?
Most of Britain’s punditocracy had been deriding, dismissing, and underestimating Jeremy Corbyn ever since he was unexpectedly elected to lead his party two years ago. He was deemed incompetent, while his leftism was viewed as out of touch, unelectable. But then, given the chance to pick him and his socialist policies, an unanticipated 12.9 million did so. It wasn’t enough to defeat the Conservatives, but how did Labour win so many people over, in such little time?
Most of all, the enthusiastic response to the party reflected a previously unmet appetite for left-wing politics. For decades, the UK Labour Party, much like its center-left equivalents in Europe and the United States, had pursued “third way” centrism. Espoused by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, this was about accepting economic parameters set by the right and letting an unfettered free market do its thing while tinkering at the edges to mitigate its more ravaging effects. Labour’s left, a diminished group at parliamentary level, had long argued that such policies led to desperate economic decline across the party’s traditional industrial base and caused voters to drift away, feeling abandoned by politicians. Between 1997 and 2010, the years when centrist Labour was in power, it lost 5 million votes.
The problem grew more acute after the 2008 economic crash and the swingeing Conservative austerity cuts that followed. With stagnating wages, spiraling living costs, a housing crisis, and a crippled welfare state, the economic strain spread to trouble all but a tiny percentage at the top, who seemed to be doing quite well out of the recession. Labour straggled after the Conservatives—at one point even failing to vote against a bill of welfare cuts certain to plunge more people into poverty. With the parliamentary party so far out of kilter with core Labour values that were still held by its own membership, perhaps the election of leftist outrider Jeremy Corbyn to its helm in 2015 wasn’t such a mystery.