The coming British bloodbath: Theresa May's "snap election" will be an epic disaster for the left. But why?

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party may be wiped off the map in the surprise British election. What the hell went wrong?

Published April 22, 2017 3:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Dan Kitwood)
(AP/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Dan Kitwood)

British politics has gone horribly wrong. Not as outrageously, garishly wrong as American politics -- our version of the post-liberal neo-nationalist horror show involves fewer special effects and a lot more slow-grinding dread and squashed-looking men trying not to sound racist on television. Which is what you’d expect, because we’ve less budget to work with. Nonetheless, it’s a nightmare.

The latest gory twist is the surprise general election that is now apparently happening in seven weeks’ time, after which more or less everyone anticipates that what remains of the British mainstream left will be in bits on the floor of the Commons, hemorrhaging goodwill from the atrophied stumps of its principles, giving the Conservatives carte blanche to finish off slicing up the welfare state and dragging us out of the European Union. How did we get here? What happened to the Labour opposition? Is Brexit not enough toxic drama for one season? Is nobody fighting back?

The first thing to understand here is that Prime Minister Theresa May has not, in fact, called a general election. She has called a bloodbath. The opposition Labour Party, which now looks set to be all but destroyed in June, could have prevented this. It didn’t. Wrong-footed again by right-wing backroom maneuvers and staring into the mouth of his party’s greatest defeat in a generation, Jeremy Corbyn — Labour’s embattled left-wing leader — simply told May to call it. I imagine him saying this in the manner of a television doctor solemnly disconnecting life support: “Go ahead. Call it.” Perhaps it’s kinder this way.

The second thing to understand is that almost nobody in Britain wants another election right now, including a great many people employed in Parliament, a fair few of whom are not waiting until June to start looking for new jobs. We are sick and tired of years of watching invertebrates and parasites suck the life out the body politic and being told this is what democracy looks like. May is ignoring all that and calling an election because she wants to, because it suits her, because she knows that if she calls it now she will win.

The third thing to understand is that yes, this is allowed. It is absolutely allowed, in a system that calls itself democratic and has not yet faced prosecution for false advertising. It shouldn’t be allowed, but it is. During his first term, former Prime Minister David Cameron instituted the fixed-term parliament rule, which was supposed to mean that general elections would take place every five years, rather than whenever the sitting prime minister happened to feel like having one, unless there were extraordinary circumstances at play.

This might sound like a noble gesture on Cameron’s part. It wasn’t. He was elected with a minority of a low-turnout vote as part of an unstable coalition government, and he wanted to be sure of those five full years in Downing Street. Cameron fiddled with the law to ensure he’d be in power for as long as possible. Now Theresa May is doing the same. In the process, she has abandoned almost all pretense of respect for the veneer of democratic decency lacquering the cracks in British civil society. Britain has never needed an opposition more. We are about to lose what little we had.

Just weeks ago, May was insisting that she wouldn’t be calling the election she’s just called because of the “instability” it would provoke in a nation already savaged by years of austerity and still shell-shocked by the ongoing uncertainty of Brexit. Now she insists that she must be granted one for the same reasons, and not — absolutely not! — because the polls look good for her party and she’d like a chance to hammer the Labour opposition while it is busy arguing about how best to roast, serve and eat its own young. Another definite non-contributing factor to the decision to hold an election right now is the fact that the Conservative Party is currently under investigation for possible fraud at the last one. And it absolutely isn’t because Brexit is a rolling trash fire with no clear outcomes apart from more uncertainty and strife, or because May is determined to squash as many dissenting voices as she can, while she can. You can see the logic. Anyone in her position would do the same, provided they were unencumbered with principles.

Lyndon Crosby, one of the Svengalis of modern electoral strategy who schemed and steered Cameron’s achingly unlikable Conservatives to a narrow electoral victory in 2015, was the inventor of the famous “dead cat gambit.” This is how it works: If a story that’s bad for your candidate keeps drifting into the news, take back the news agenda by plonking down a story or idea so sensational that nobody can talk about anything else — the equivalent of slamming a dead cat on the table at a dinner party. The dead cat can be anything: a scandal over your opponent’s emails, a shocking policy change, a small war. Anything, as long as it’s big and messy enough to change the conversation. In this case, the dinner party is the poisoned funeral buffet of the Brexit negotiations. And the dead cat?

That would be the Labour Party.

I really don’t want to have to write about the Labour Party. It’s awful and embarrassing and painful and frankly I would rather eat foil. There are several other parties in play, and I’m going to deal with them first to put off the inevitable.

There’s the Scottish National Party, which rose from moderate international obscurity to sweep the board at the last election, destroying Labour north of the border, a feat it pulled off by actually seeming to stand up for poor and working people, rather than just bending the knee to the Tory agenda. The Scottish National Party actually wants this election, because it wants to up its own chances of winning Scottish independence further down the line, and really, who can blame them? The people of Scotland voted against Brexit, as did the people of London who, sadly, don’t get to dash for the lifeboats, although it adds to what I still believe is a strong case for Scotland to do what it always used to do in these situations: make a deal with France and come storming down over the border with the tartans flying. I am no longer a supporter of Scottish independence. I am now an advocate of Scottish invasion. If they can make it as far as London, I’m sure the capital would offer only token resistance. Run, Scotland, and take us with you.

There’s the Green Party, who are actually quite sensible, despite being rammed with hippies, because all the real saucer-eyed wingnuts pledged to the cause of post-Leninist battle-reenactment have other parties to join. They have one MP, and she’s wonderful, and she happens to be my local representative. I’m going to give her my vote, my time and possibly my first-born child, presuming I can afford to have one after another few years of crushing Tory austerity.

Then there are the Liberal Democrats. They were a major party a few years ago, before they decided to turn themselves into a toadying, backbiting parody of every stereotype lefties and conservatives alike have about liberals. Their leader is facing a major challenge in his home constituency from, I kid you not, a fish finger. (In American parlance, I believe that would be a "fish stick.") The fish finger, and the man dressed as a fish finger who will be representing its interests in the upcoming campaign, was not expecting quite the degree of support it has garnered, but has promised to attended to its duties in government in the event of its election, and I for one support the breaded snack and all who sail in its crumby wake. It may turn out to be less fishy than the liberals.

Yeah, I went there. Give me a break, I’ve still got Labour to get through. The contractions are starting, earlier than planned, and we’ll just have to get through it together. Deep breaths. Let’s get it over with.

The British Labour Party, re-imagined as a once and future workers’ party under the leadership of principled former backbencher Jeremy Corbyn, has spent two years tugging defeat from the jaws of populist victory. Jeremy Corbyn is, by all accounts, a very nice man with a beard with a very strong commitment to his own set of beliefs, a sort of weaponized geography teacher, and for a long time I truly wanted to believe that this would be enough to stand up to the public-school bullies in power. His coterie started out with a reasonable amount of goodwill. They faced unrelenting attacks from the beginning both from the right-wing press and from centrists within their own party, who clung from the start to the belief that Corbyn was unelectable despite the fact that he kept beating them in elections.

All of this might have been surmountable if Corbyn or anyone on his team were able to strategize their way out of a wet paper bag. Or if they didn’t come from a long and proud tradition of extreme leftist infighting that would make me want to gnaw off my own fingers even thinking about it if there weren’t enough spurious cannibalism going on already. Corbyn has made a lot of very silly decisions, including forcing his party to support the government’s triggering of Brexit before going on a march against it shortly thereafter. It’s very upsetting and I don’t want to think about it and I deeply resent that I’m going to have to.

The Labour Party has gone horribly wrong in the way that a great deal of parties full of well-meaning progressives go horribly wrong. You know the parties I mean. You’ve been there for half an hour and the unspoken personal drama is thick in the air and everyone is drinking way too much to forget about it, and everyone has a different plan for what to do with the evening, and the hosts are making a series of increasingly terrible decisions and you can’t leave because you’ve given them your keys and part of your heart.

You watch the whole thing get messier and messier because everyone deeply believes in the idea of the party and wants to make it work, and you have the vague impression that people are doing horrible things to one another in the back bedroom and you don’t want to hear about it because that might make you complicit. People stoned on bad theory and romantic resentment are arguing over the soundtrack, shuffling between the power playlist and the principles playlist and ending up with a jarring mashup that nobody can dance to. Fights break out over whose job it is to go to the store for more booze and snacks. Nobody is actually having a good time, but if we just see it through to the end, if we just keep believing, we might have one eventually, and by the time it starts getting light it’s way too late to see off the hangover or the crawling understanding that some people are just determined to sabotage themselves, and belief is not enough by itself to keep your friends alive. I don’t want to go to that party again.

But the only other option is May’s Conservative Party, which is the sort of party Milton Friedman might have thrown if he’d ever seen Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut” — a slimy shindig full of rich white people wearing expensive human masks, where if you’re not on the guest list you’ll end up serving the drinks while the rest of them smash up what’s left of the furniture, and you just know that by the end of the night you’ll end up getting ineptly screwed by some hedge-fund manager who can’t stop crying and calling you mother. I don’t want to go to that party either. Please don’t make me.

The major party animals are prowling for another round, but the rest of us just want to go home. We’re exhausted, we’re sick of parties, and we want to go home. That’s more or less what everyone voted for in the Brexit referendum last June, but unfortunately a lot of people imagined “home” as a fantasy village in the 1970s where everyone has a well-paid factory job, the health care system works, there are no immigrants living next door, women know their place, pork pies grow in every front garden and all the woodland creatures sing the national anthem in harmony, including the verse about slaughtering Scotsmen. Nobody wants this election, but it’s happening anyway, because nobody has the energy to complain anymore. Seven years of Tory austerity saw to that.

If you’re wondering how a government so weak, so unpopular and so obviously inept can nonetheless manage to crush the opposition, you’re wondering the right way. If you’re wondering how a nation can anticipate a landslide victory for the party in government while the majority of its people are angry, confused and deeply worried about the uncertain future they are facing, you’re not the only one. The answer is that Britain doesn’t do crypto-dictatorship with as much braggadocio as other nations I might mention, but we do it all the same. The answer is that British democracy is broken, and the pieces are on fire, and the people picking them up, the people trying to reassemble a fractured future for themselves in the shoddy rubble of this fucked-up country, will never work in Westminster.

By Laurie Penny

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