The day Britain ‘Woke’.

Jun 9th, 2017 | By | Category: Articles

Today marks the start of something massive and as yet undefinable for UK politics. This morning, for the third time in two years Britons of the left woke with trepidation as they turned to their news feeds to check the final results of a national vote. Too many times in living memory victory has been stolen in the early hours of the morning as forecasts of a Labour win have been overturned. The unexpected Brexit referendum win and Donald Trump victory in the US did little to soothe fears of a landslide win for May. However, at 9.45am and with the results of the 2017 UK General Election having been largely counted there is a rare feeling of positivity among the left as the ‘hope’ Corbyn asked supporters to grasp onto in these weeks has delivered major gains. Labour have not won the election, yet in the midst of one of the dirtiest media campaigns in UK election history (with Corbyn under personal attack from every major media outlet in Britain since he became leader of the opposition in September 2015) a left of centre party have defied all odds in redressing the power balance at the parliamentary level. Never has a party so far left won so many votes in the UK. Though beyond the voting statistics, which will be pored over for weeks, this has been a victory for a grassroots campaign which pitched rallies, doorstep canvassing and social media against the mass media juggernaut. Further, this is a reassuring response to all those - myself amongst them - who feared that the incendiary political capacity of the internet had been co-opted by a neo fascist fringe, in the form of the alt-right, which dominated UK news headlines following Trump’s election to office. At that point it was feared that the left could find no response to the appeal of digital age far right extremism which has lured young people in the US and UK with its anti establishment message. It’s not that the far right always has the best memes, yet to a generation who have been expected to take --for example-- multiculturalism, as an immutable fact of living, the alt-right has presented a thrilling divergence from the elder generations’ narrative.

The difficulty in countering the both the alt-right and mainstream right is that the left simply cannot match the perniciousness or aggression of its messages. Apparently, both a sizeable number of young adults looking for kicks and a majority of pensioners seeking ‘strength and stability’ (Theresa May’s mantra during election campaigns) are more moved by, for example, anti-immigration rhetoric than by a message of social cohesion. However, yesterday’s election results point to a turnaround in this situation as over 52% of the UK electorate voted for parties with a progressive social message (Labour 40%, Liberal Democrat 7.2%, SNP 3.0% and Green 1.6%), with the UKIP’s vote slashed from 12.6% to 1.8%.

Of course, it is worth reflecting again that Labour have not won this general election in any calculable or objective sense of the world. In fact, to be momentarily cautious and to pour cold water on a day of celebration, Corbyn’s party have lost the popular vote as well as the total number of seats (taking 40% to the Tories’ 42%). And yet, there is the very real sensation that if an election was to be called in the next year, Corbyn -- who has weathered every imaginable form of public insult over the last two years -- would win hands down. The momentum is with the left, whilst the far right rejection of mainstream politics -- which had seemed so ugly and so alien to everything the left holds dear (worker’s rights, gender equality, multiculturalism, gay rights) -- now has a strong and decidedly left wing response.

Beyond this we have seen a massive rejection of austerity as a Labour leader who has made pledges to tax the rich and to make university level education free again today seriously contemplated, if only for a few hours, the possibility of entering 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister. Whilst apparently thwarted by May’s proposed coalition with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, it remains that a costed manifesto has proven the viability of free tertiary level education. It is here worth recalling that the Tories swingeing cuts began (under a Liberal-Conservative coalition) with a withdrawal of funds to humanities and arts courses and a raise in tuition fees. This brought about the most incendiary moment in UK politics for a generation as street protests were brutally suppressed by the Police a stone’s throw from parliament. It is no exaggeration to say that in that movement the seeds of a resurgent left were sown. It is tribute to Corbyn that the bitter aggression felt by the young, the disaffected and by demonised racial minorities has been channelled in these weeks into harmonious rallies full of song, positive chants and the free use of the word ‘hope’.

To be sure, one could ask how May managed to avoid obliteration after threatening the savings of the over 65s and being exposed as incompetent on security following two major lapses leading to terror attacks in Manchester and London. Yet the real risk there was to Corbyn who--all facts aside--was cast by the mainstream media as a friend of terrorists. May’s closeness to Saudi Arabia and her voting record on Iraq, Syria and Libya (pro war each time) should, of course, have been more damning. However, the mainstream media is adept at burying these foreign conflicts as over intricate facts that the public would be better off ignoring. Any real engagement with issues surrounding UK foreign policy would entail levels of soul searching the average beleaguered and impoverished voter has no time for. In Britain, deference to power is as strong a tendency as ever. As such the simple portrayal of Corbyn as an unpatriotic terrorist sympathiser (and a Republican, no less) seemed likely fatal to him. The last opinion polls published on election day --emblazoned across national newspapers-- had the Tories on a 12 point lead. The Sun ran with the headline ‘Don’t chuck Britain in the Cor-Bin’ warning of ‘nuclear surrender’, ‘open immigration’ and ‘Marxist extremism’. For once, a paper that has historically had a knack for calling and producing the election winner has been rejected as young people turned out in record numbers to vote for Corbyn’s brand of peacenik-xenophilia and marxist capitulation. Reports that Murdoch --the Sun’s owner-- stormed out of the room upon seeing yesterday’s remarkably accurate exit poll serve to demonstrate the real story here, and it’s one that won’t appear in any of Murdoch’s many publications. The mainstream media is losing it’s grip on power and the internet is still a viable platform for leftist organization. Look out for attempts by May -- or whoever leads the Tories -- to deliver on recent pledges to control the net. Such threats were never about terrorism.

An old order is giving way to something as yet unnameable. This could be seen in the speed at which the BBC’s attacks on Trump during his first 60 days turned to attacks on Corbyn as May’s called a snap election. The inconsistency with which BBC Two’s Newsnight turned it’s venom from a right wing plutocrat to the Western world’s clearest hope for stemming the nationalistic tide embodied by Trump and Brexit perfectly conveyed the mainstream media’s chief purpose today: to shore up the neoliberal order at all costs. This morning it is clear not only that the battle is being lost but that the left is still a political force.


Mike Watson is an art theorist and curator based in Italy. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from Goldsmiths College and has curated for Nomas Foundation and at both the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale. He published ‘Towards a Conceptual Militancy’ for ZerO books in May 2016 and has written regularly for Artforum, frieze, Art Review, Radical Philosophy and Hyperallergic. Mike's is writing his second publication with Zero, entitled This is So Contemporary: 21st Century A e s t h e t i c s (projected for a 2018 release).

 

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