Brexit Looms Over Unpredictable UK Elections

December 6, 2019

National polls show the Tories leading, but conflict over Brexit could still result in a Labour minority government. Nation editor D. D. Guttenplan joins us for an eye-opening discussion about how Brexit, accusations of anti-Semitism, and the 'Green Industrial Revolution' will factor into the vote.

National polls show the Tories leading, but conflict over Brexit could still result in a Labour minority government. Nation editor D. D. Guttenplan joins us for an eye-opening discussion about how Brexit, accusations of anti-Semitism, and the 'Green Industrial Revolution' will factor into the vote.


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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to the Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us once again.

Well, as many of you already know, Britain’s election is coming up December the 12. And it’s looming hard, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. They are significant, I think in some ways, as a 2020 election is being faced here in the United States. Conservatives, according to the polls, are poised to win, but most of the voters might be shifting left, depending on how you read those polls. Could Labour form a minority government?

And then we have to look at what’s happening in the part of Britain called the Midlands or Northern England. That’s a traditional industrial mining Labour stronghold that seems to be shifting right and towards the Conservatives. Brexit is looming as clearly the largest issue in this election and has created strange political divides and alliances. And let’s throw into the mix the charges of antisemitism against the Labour Party. Will Britain shift hard right or can Labour, Scottish Nationalist and others set a different course? And will they?

We’re joined today once again by The Nation’s editor, Don Guttenplan, who spent over 25 years in Britain living there and covering politics there. Don, welcome. Good to have you back with us.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Great to be back with you, Marc.

MARC STEINER: Let me just start with just a straight political question. It seems when you look at the polls at the moment, the Conservatives are kind of pulling ahead of Labour. But then you can also look at Labour, the Scottish Nationalist Party, the Greens, and maybe even Liberal Democrats as left or quasi-left; they may even have the majority. But what does all this mean? How do you read this?

DON GUTTENPLAN: Well, that’s a really good question. And before I answer it, I should point out two things. One is, I’m a dues-paying, card-carrying member of the Labour Party.

MARC STEINER: Why am I not surprised? Yes.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Can you hear my bias in my answers? And secondly, The Financial Times has a great piece this morning about how difficult it is to make sense of the polls. I think the Financial Times can’t make sense of the polls; we’re allowed to find it a tough subject. Here’s another fact: which is that at this point, in the 2017 elections, the Conservatives were 10 points ahead and Labour ended up finishing two and a half points behind. You said that the Tories have pulled ahead, that’s not quite true. The Tories have always been ahead in the polls, ever since, Boris Johnson became prime minister, ever since Jeremy Corbyn became Labour leader.

But the question is, how much of a return to Labour… Because Labour, after all, was the dominant party. Tony Blair led the party through three elections successfully. How much of a return to Labour will there be, and how much of a factor is Brexit? How much of a factor is Labour’s incredibly visionary, radical manifesto calling for a Green Industrial Revolution­–which is, the British, they don’t want to call for a Green New Deal because they didn’t have a New Deal, but they did have an Industrial Revolution, so they’re calling for that. But it’s basically the Green New Deal in British drag. And then, how much of a factor is what we’ve been reading a lot about it in the United States, which is antisemitism? It’s a complicated landscape.

The other thing about the polls is that Britain has a parliamentary system, so it’s the national polls that have the Tories ten points ahead. It’s the national polls that had the Tories  ten points ahead at this point in the last election. And the national polls don’t really tell you anything useful because it’s a parliamentary system. And the question is whether the Tories will win a majority of seats that will allow them to go ahead in the first instance and take Britain out of the European union, thus fulfilling Boris Johnson’s campaign promise and also very effective campaign slogan, “Get Brexit done.”

MARC STEINER: So is it possible that the Conservatives don’t get an outright majority, that Labour could form a coalition government? Is that possible?

DON GUTTENPLAN: Yeah. A hung Parliament is theoretically possible, which means nobody gets a majority. And if there’s a hung Parliament and Labour wins more seats than the Tories, which seems to me very unlikely but theoretically possible, then the Queen would have to ask the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, first to form a government. In that instance, he would be able to form a government because the Scottish Nationalists have basically said they are happy to be in coalition with Labour as long as Labour promises another Scottish referendum. Of course, that would mean the end of the United Kingdom if the referendum passed, but the referendum failed last time. And in fact, public opinion polls in Scotland still show that the majority of the population support staying in the United Kingdom, although if the United Kingdom is out of Europe that might change.

This is one of those elections where, as they say in Britain, there’s all to play for. If there was a hung Parliament and Boris Johnson or the Tories got more votes, Johnson would be asked to form a government and he might find that more difficult because the Scottish Nationalists have said they wouldn’t go with a coalition with him. And the last time the Social Democrats, who were the kind of centrist party in Britain, the last time they went into coalition with the Tories, they paid a very high electoral price and they were destroyed. Also the STP, the Social Democrats, their basic platform is “no Brexit” and the Tory platform is “get Brexit done.” So it’d be like matter and antimatter in a coalition.

MARC STEINER: Is it fair or unfair to say that some of the press paints it that the Labour Party is muddled on Brexit? Is that the reality when you think it through?

DON GUTTENPLAN: They have a complicated position. And a complicated position both reflects the truths of their base and also is a handicap in an election. Jeremy Corbyn’s problem is that a lot of the seats in the Midlands and the former industrial heartlands of Northern England­–so Manchester, Birmingham, Staffordshire, places where they made plates, places where they made steel, places where they mined coal–those constituencies tended to vote overwhelmingly for Brexit in a way that was similar to the Trump vote here. In fact, when I saw that Brexit passed in Britain–I voted against it, I was against it, I’m still against it–a friend of mine who was for Brexit said, “Now you have to worry because if Brexit’s possible, then Trump is possible.” And that came true.

MARC STEINER: Interesting.

DON GUTTENPLAN: What Corbyn had to do was find a way to thread the needle through staying true to Labour principles of socialism and redistributive economics and ending austerity and hopefully delivering industrial revival, but also not promising to remain in Europe because that would lose Northern seats or for people who care more about Brexit than other things, that would lose their votes. The truth is, a lot of those voters who were Labour voters do care more about Brexit. And my gut is that it’s likely that they’re going to vote Tory and my sense is that it’s likely that the Tories will win a majority.

MARC STEINER: Let me talk about that for a moment with you. Because going back to this whole idea of the Trump and Tories and the connection here… I mean, the Midlands, as I told you before we went on the air, I know because it’s where my mother grew up and where she’s from, in coal country, outside of Birmingham and Dudley. The Midlands have always, as you said, been pro-Labour because it’s an industrial area. So what does this shift mean? In part, it says to me that all the contradictions inside of capitalism in Britain, as here, have pushed this working class far to the right for a number of reasons: racism, immigration, fear of the future, losing jobs. How does that play into all that?

DON GUTTENPLAN: I don’t think that’s true.

MARC STEINER: Okay, why? Tell me why.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Well, because I think all of that happened under Margaret Thatcher. The portion of the working class that was detachable from class politics was detached by Margaret Thatcher’s rhetoric of “us against them” and “loafers versus workers” and the idea that the welfare state was really only for loafers, and that’s all been disproven. The alienation that we see now in the North is not about that, it’s a reaction to globalism and to neoliberalism and the failure of neoliberalism. But I don’t think that the fact that these people are going to vote in large numbers for Tory candidates means that they’ve moved right or that they’re reactionary or racist or any of those things any more than they were before when they were voting Labour. I don’t think their politics changed.

I think what’s happened in Britain is that those areas of the country were ignore by Westminster. British politics is much more London-centric. American politics has to cope with the reality that although there’s Washington, there’s also New York and California. There isn’t this one place that sucks up all the political air. Politics all happens in London and it’s very easy, even for people who are elected from the North, once they get to Westminster, to forget about the people who elected them, which happened under Tony Blair just as much as it happened under Theresa May and David Cameron. And so Brexit, getting those people a chance to have a role, to have a voice and to basically say “fuck you” to the system, and they did. And they voted for it and they didn’t get it, so they’re still pretty pissed off about it and it’s been very easy for the Tories to paint this election as the people against Westminster. Westminster, you voted for Brexit, Westminster kept you from getting it, we’ll deliver it.

The tragedy of this election is that Boris Johnson and the Tories always wanted a Brexit election because Brexit is the only issue they have that cuts against class lines and British politics has always been much more class-based than American politics and it was returning to a class-based politics, which is why the Tories were losing and losing and Brexit allowed them an issue that operates as a very powerful wedge to split the British working class. The Tories have a clear line, which is get Brexit done. Jeremy Corbyn has had to say, “Look at the fine print. The Brexit you’re going to get done is a terrible Brexit for workers,” which is true.

MARC STEINER: Right.

DON GUTTENPLAN: “It’s a temporal Brexit for the British economy,” which is true. It’s a Brexit that shreds all of the social safety net and working conditions, safeguards of the European Union, and basically bids to turn Britain into Singapore on the Thames. No welfare state, no social guarantees, no health and safety, capital rules the world republic and what Corbyn is saying is, “Yes, this is a terrible Brexit vote for Labour and maybe you’ll get a better Brexit.” That’s almost certainly true, but it’s almost certainly not a message that’s going to penetrate.

MARC STEINER: I’m glad you mentioned the thing with Blair and Thatcher because that saves me asking you a question, that was the good response before I even asked the question. But let me ask you another piece here is, just very quickly, this is a short clip with Jeremy Corbyn being interviewed on BBC about antisemitism. Let’s just watch this for a moment. I want to talk about how this will play out or not play out in this election.

ANDREW NEIL: Wouldn’t you like to take this opportunity tonight to apologize to the British Jewish community for what’s happened?

JEREMY CORBYN: What I’ll say is this: I am determined that our society will be safe for people of all faiths. I don’t want anyone to be feeling insecure in our society and our government will protect every community against–

ANDREW NEIL: So no apology.

JEREMY CORBYN: …against the abuse they receive on the streets, on the trains or in any other form of life.

ANDREW NEIL: So no apology. I’ll try one more time.

JEREMY CORBYN: No. Hang on a minute, Andrew. Can I explain what we’re trying to do?

ANDREW NEIL: You have, and you’ve been given plenty of time to do it. I asked you if you wanted to apologize and you haven’t.

JEREMY CORBYN: Andrew, I don’t want anyone to go through what anyone has gone through–

ANDREW NEIL: And you’ve said that several times. I understand that, Mr. Corbyn. I was asking you about an apology. Let’s move on to Brexit.

JEREMY CORBYN: Well, hang on, can I just make it clear? Racism in our society is a total poison.

ANDREW NEIL: You’ve said that several times. We get that. I’m not arguing about that.

JEREMY CORBYN: Be it Islamophobia, antisemitism, any other form of racism.

ANDREW NEIL: And you’ve said that too. Let’s move on to Brexit.

MARC STEINER: I’m very curious here, how deep do you think this will affect this election? There’s Jewish communities mostly, it’s usually been pro-Labour for the most part, the majority, they’re only 0.5% of the electorate and they’re anti-Brexit, for the most part.

DON GUTTENPLAN: That’s right. The Jewish community, historically, has been split. Margaret Thatcher was an MP from East Finchley, which is the most Jewish constituency in the country. It’s always been up for grabs, it’s not the same as… That’s the thing that Americans don’t get, is Jews in British politics are nothing like what they do in America. First of all, they’re pretty evenly divided between the parties. There have always been Jews in the Labour Party, they were Jews in the British Communist Party. But there are also always been Jews in the Tory Party. Natural balance is about 50/50. But the more important fact and the fact that Americans find hardest to get our minds around is the Jews just don’t matter in British politics. There are 250,000 Jews in all of Britain and they are the deciding votes in maybe three constituencies out of more than 500. People who care about the Jewish vote, maybe you’re stretching it to five constituencies.

The Muslim vote in Britain is the deciding factor and probably 50 constituencies. That means that there’s a brutal electoral calculus that says that if the chief rabbi condemns you and low-information, Jews decide that the chief rabbi says you’re bad, so you must be bad, then low-information Muslims may well say, “Oh, the chief rabbi is against these people, they must be good.” So electorally, it actually helps Labour rather than hurts them. Now, do I think that’s okay? No. Do I think Jeremy Corbyn has adequately responded to the reality of antisemitism in Britain or the Labour Party? No, he hasn’t.

But the question that British voters have to decide, Jewish voters and non-Jewish voters, is whether Jeremy Corbyn’s very real failings on antisemitism and as a leader are more important than Boris Johnson’s very real failings as a human being or the reality that Boris Johnson is going to take Britain out of the European Union. Whether Jeremy Corbyn is leader or Boris Johnson is leader or even the leader of the Brexit Party’s leader, Jews in Britain are not going to be in danger, it’s going to be safe for it to be a Jew in Britain in a synagogue, I can tell you, as someone who’s often been a Jew in Britain in a synagogue, than it is to be a Jew and United States in a synagogue. Although there are guards at the doors of British synagogues, you don’t really worry in the same way that somebody’s going to come through with a machine gun the way you have to worry about it now in the United States.

The stories that you read in the American, particularly the American Jewish press, that people are packing up and leaving Britain because they don’t feel safe, that’s the most ridiculous and something that’s been drummed up to help the Tory vote. But that doesn’t mean I approve of Jeremy Corbyn or his stance on antisemitism. This is definitely, for people who care about this–which I do or believe that all forms of racism are unacceptable–it’s a lesser of two evils choice. And you could throw into the balance the fact that the Labour manifesto is probably the most progressive manifesto of any social democratic party in the world.

MARC STEINER: That was really, really important, how you put that, I thought. It was free cogent and clear. That’s something people should really think about and explore. Before we close this out, one quick question here. The United States here, we’re arguing about Medicare for all is being part of the battle in this presidential election. But then these things that just come out with Jeremy Corbyn saying that the Tories are going to make a deal with Trump to undermine the national healthcare system in Britain. What do you make of that? How much is that going to play into this election, do you think?

DON GUTTENPLAN: I suspect, sadly, it’s not going to play into it as much as it should. I think it’s absolutely true. I think that once Britain leaves the European Union, their only help for a non-collapsing economy is a deal with the U.S. That’s going to mean that Donald Trump is going to dictate the terms, that Boris Johnson is going to be desperate for a deal and yet, as you saw last week at the NATO summit, Boris Johnson did everything he could to not be in the same frame as Donald Trump because if Labour could make Donald Trump his running mate, then they have a real hope. They’re trying, and probably with a more neutral British press they would have a better chance. But the other thing about Britain is, with the exception of The Guardian, which is sympathetic to Labour and the FT, which is relatively down the middle, the press is overwhelmingly Tory.

MARC STEINER: That’s interesting. Well, we’ll see if there is Corbyn future, a Corbyn-Sanders future. We’ll see what happens.

DON GUTTENPLAN: I would resist the notion that they’re equivalent.

MARC STEINER: Yeah.

DON GUTTENPLAN: left just like to think so, but I don’t think so. I think we’re much luckier here, having Bernie, than they are with having Corbyn.

MARC STEINER: I don’t disagree with that at all. Don Guttenplan, thanks so much once again for joining us. Look forward to more conversations. And folks, Don Guttenplan, editor of The Nation. Check out The Nation, the recent issues are really interesting, and Don, thank you for being with us.

DON GUTTENPLAN: Always a pleasure to talk to you, Marc, thanks for having me on.

MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. Take care.