Tomorrow, the UK will vote in a general election, its third in the last four years. I can’t say I’m particularly looking forward to it. Since it was announced about six weeks ago, the date of the general election has stood as a sort of black hole at the end of the calendar, sucking everything else in towards it. Montaigne says somewhere that you can’t tell if someone has lived a happy life until after they die — even the most magnificent king could be deemed a miserable failure if, in their old age, their kingdom is suddenly invaded and they see their heirs all taken into slavery. Likewise, the result of this election will set the tone for the entire year: until we know what happens, we will be unable to say if 2019 was good or bad.
In a sense, the UK is in a politically very fortunate situation. In most of the rest of the developed world, the choice is usually between some variety of disingenuous fascist, crossing their fingers super-hard as they pledge not to set everything on fire as soon as they’re given executive power, and a weird careerist creep fronting an only nominally centre-left party who seems to have cribbed most of their personality from watching The West Wing. Recently, the fascists have been winning.
The UK has the disingenuous fascists, most certainly — that’s the Tory hard right, a loose coalition of sincerely committed racists and scorched-earth free marketeers whose deepest and most erotic dream is to turn our free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare system into a U.S.-style source of misery and fear (I’m not joking when I say this is erotic for them: see this video of Health Secretary Matt Hancock genuinely getting a lob on at the thought of what he wants to do to the National Health Service). The Tories have been in power for almost a decade now, under various leaders and either helped or hindered by various different combinations of parliamentary arithmetic. It has been a decade marked by slow disaster, as the country has gradually been strangled by the austerity economics pursued by former Prime Minister David Cameron and his chancellor of the exquecher, George Osborne: local councils are bankrupt; the national debt has doubled; and austerity has been linked to 130,000 otherwise preventable deaths. In most parts of the country, the evidence of one’s senses ought to be enough — there is more poverty, more homelessness, more shuttered pubs and shops. Under the Tories, across most of the country, things have gotten noticeably worse.
For a Tory party with no real ideas beyond “more money for us” and “fuck you,” Brexit has been the gift that has just kept giving.
Then, in 2016, a doomed attempt by Cameron to resolve a long-standing internecine squabble within his party backfired, when Britain voted to Leave the European Union — the joke option in the Brexit referendum, which the country was never supposed to choose. Brexit is for all intents and purposes politically impossible, which is why no parliament has been able to implement it. Any meaningful severing of the UK from the institutions of the EU would violate the Good Friday Agreement, thus bulldozing the peace process in Northern Ireland.
But for a Tory party with no real ideas beyond “more money for us” and “fuck you,” Brexit has been the gift that has just kept giving. By now, the Tories’ whole campaign message can be reduced to the single slogan, “Let’s get Brexit done!” Brexit, Brexit, Brexit: you people all want Brexit, and the only thing stopping Brexit (apparently) is that parliament does not have enough MPs from the party that has manifestly failed to deliver Brexit for the past three years. (Boris Johnson claims to have a Brexit deal “oven-ready” to just “put in the microwave” should his party win a majority — but in practice the deal would clear up precisely zero of the questions surrounding Britain’s ongoing relationship with the EU).
But what’s great about the UK is that, in 2015, we were able to sideline the West Wing creeps from the centre-left, and we now have an opposition party offering voters polices that are genuinely, well, actually left-wing. Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour party is running on a transformative “manifesto of hope” — a manifesto which, if implemented, will mean massive investment in public services (including free publicly-owned super-fast broadband, a major investment in a vital utility), and the most radical green plan offered by any major party anywhere in the world . Kids will even start to be taught about Britain’s colonial history in schools. If Labour wins, or somehow manages to form a government in its aftermath (most plausibly: in coalition with the biggest party in Scotland, the Scottish National Party) then the UK can finally be re-constituted as a country of which its citizens might reasonably be proud.
And yet. Say what you like about the British, but we are not a people who are particularly good at telling the difference between good things and bad things. No one can quite tell where the polls are, or even if the polls should be trusted at all, but every single one of them puts the Tories ahead — indeed, the polling organization which most accurately predicted the result last time has them on a terrifying 14-point lead (although most polls have the lead looking much smaller, with Labour closing the gap).
A years-long programme of character assassination has led to widespread suspicion of the grandfatherly, career anti-racism activist Corbyn, who The Sun tabloid has recently described as “the most dangerous man ever to stand for high office in Britain”. Labour activists have been attacked while campaigning in the streets — even four month-old babies are being called “fascists”.
Say what you like about the British, but we are not a people who are particularly good at telling the difference between good things and bad things.
Labour suffers from a weird “myth of incumbency” — in the British political imagination, time somehow stopped towards the end of Tony Blair’s premiership 15 years ago, which means that all the country’s problems end up getting blamed on his old party and not the people actually in charge. Against this, the Tories are able to bill themselves as insurgents against the political correctness and hostility to aspiration of the (alleged) powers-that-be. The UK’s first-past-the-post voting system means that, in the vast majority of constituencies, a vote for anyone but Labour is a de facto vote for the Tories — despite this, many natural anti-Tory voters like to spend their time umming and ahhhing about who they ought to vote for, or even whether to vote at all. This (frankly, self-indulgent) indecision is enabled by the Lib Dems, the third-largest party in England, who have spent the bulk of this election campaign spreading disinformation about so-called “tactical voting”.
Against all this, however, there is the fact that the polls were showing the Tories clearly ahead last time, in 2017 — when they won a massive 42.4 percent of the popular vote, but also managed to lose their parliamentary majority. This time, the Tories are almost certain to receive fewer votes overall, and face an uphill battle to retain seats in Remain-leaning areas like Greater London (which is also where London Mayor Boris Johnson’s seat happens to be) and Scotland. The Tories were expected to fight a very aggressive campaign, hoping to gain Labour seats in the North, but have instead been unexpectedly defensive, with Johnson’s pattern of campaign appearances suggesting the need to protect seats the party currently hold. There has been a massive surge of young people — who overwhelmingly support Labour — registering to vote.
The Tories tend to thrive on apathy, cynicism, and disinterest, but Labour have a huge and enthusiastic army of volunteers, many of whom have given up almost all their free time over the past few weeks to leaflet, attend rallies, and go door-knocking in marginal constituencies. On polling day, marginals will be flooded with Labour volunteers, ensuring that we get out every last vote.
Last time, it was Labour’s ground game that really made the difference. The UK is not a country with an at all good or healthy public sphere. It is a country where people feel increasingly isolated and lonely; a nation of inveterate curtain-twitchers where some of the most sustained engagement lots of people have with their local community is through comically divided local Facebook groups. But in 2017, a sense of real community began to emerge, precisely through the institution of the Labour party.
For me, joining the campaign was a wonderful experience, full of friendship and togetherness. Across the country, it felt like there was an immense outpouring of hope: at the start of the campaign, Labour had been completely written off and the Tories were expected to secure a generation-defining landslide; when we robbed them of their majority, I have to admit it felt like a victory. Corbyn appeared triumphant on stage at the Glastonbury Festival, the whole crowd chanting his name. Social media was awash with memes celebrating “big bags of cans” with “the absolute boy”.
This election is about something higher, and more urgent, and more beautiful than you as an individual.
But that election took place at the start of summer: the days were long and bright and gorgeous, and everything felt hopeful. Now it is a grim, cold winter. The whole top-left corner of the bedroom my partner and I share with our baby son is soaked with a damp that has gradually been swamping the plaster since torrential rain hit around the middle of October. There is snow and freezing rain forecast for polling day. Everything about the campaign has been terrible. It started off with the BBC trying to accuse Labour of being “anti-billionaire” as if this was an obviously bad thing and has only gotten worse. This has been a campaign characterized by lies, smears, disinformation, the loss of all pretence of accountability and open racism.
Labour’s broadband policies had middle-aged men screaming about being sent to the gulag. The last week of the campaign opened with people trying to find reasons to believe that a photo of a four year-old boy with suspected pneumonia sleeping on a pile of coats in a hospital corridor didn’t really exist, and a BBC journalist responding to the shadow education secretary detailing Labour’s plans to deal with climate change by asking her if she wanted to “nationalize sausages”. Whatever the result, it feels like the country is going to take a long time to recover from this campaign.
So I don’t really feel at all hopeful. All I feel is a sort of grim, shellshocked determination: a desperate drive to do everything I can to get the fuckers out. If there is a meme that sums up this Labour campaign, it is the deepfake of Corbyn seeming to deliver Newcastle United manager Kevin Keegan’s famous “I would love it if we beat them” speech, a stirring piece of left melancholy.
If you are British, then I beg you. I don’t care what you think about Jeremy Corbyn. I don’t care about any other caveats or quibbles you might have. This election is about something higher, and more urgent, and more beautiful than you as an individual: it is about our love for and responsibility towards each other; it is about what binds us, or not, as a community. It is about whether we want to work towards ensuring a decent standard of living for all, or remain happy to live on whatever nutrients we can scrape with our tongue off the super-rich boot. It is about whether we embrace the chance to elect the party who are offering us Good Things, or become the laughing stock of the world by voting in the one offering us a big plate of shit instead.
For the love of God, please vote Labour.