British democracy undergoes another political test

Eyad Abu Shakra
Eyad Abu Shakra
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In a small street corner restaurant situated between Asharq Al-Awsat’s old office building and The British Museum in central London, I met her. She is a waitress who is infatuated with national politics.

This single mother of Irish descent rarely misses a demonstration called for by the Labour Party or Leftist groups, and whenever possible, she would take her little daughter with her.

It is a weird sort of mixture. In the heart of the British capital, here we are at a French restaurant owned by an anti-Khomeini Iranian exile, frequented by Arab expats and looked after by a lovely Irish waitress eager to talk about politics; more so when she knew that I and most of my guests were journalists and writers.

Her hero was Jeremy Corbyn, the current leader of the British Labour Party, who during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s was one of the most vociferous young politicians against Margaret Thatcher’s policies, including her tough stances against Irish Republicanism. In fact, many conservative politicians and media people even accused him of being a sympathizer of Sinn Fein and its military wing, the IRA.

In addition to the Irish ‘emotional link’, my dear waitress loved Corbyn because to her, he was a ‘true Leftist’ (his parents were peace activists who met during the Spanish Civil War), who portrays himself as the ‘defender of the underdog and downtrodden’ everywhere in the world; even those confronting British troops.

We met after Corbyn’s election as Labour leader in September 2015 thanks to the huge support of local party activists as well as the bloc votes of the trade unions.

She was ecstatic, as if living a dream she doesn’t want to end. For her, what happened was nothing short of a timely ‘revolution’, although for the majority of the Labour members of parliament it was an unwelcome shock. For most of these MPs Corbyn was simply too leftwing and radical to lead the party back to power.

Furthermore, many other moderate and pragmatic Labour figures have always believed that winning elections is incumbent on both the major parties, the Conservatives to the Right and Labour to the Left, to win the larger chunk of center ground and secure the votes of uncommitted – or ‘floating’ – voters.

They usually justify this position by pointing out to the fact that Labour suffered its worst election defeats in 1983 and 1987 when it was led by the radical Left, and likewise the extreme Right led the Conservative Party to its worst defeats in 1997 and 2001.

Based on this logic, most of Labour MPs voted against Corbyn during the leadership election campaign; but their opposition meant little against local party activists – mostly from the younger generation – and trade union bosses.

Thus, the Left regained Labour’s leadership for the first time since one of their former ‘stars’ Neil Kinnock (party leader between 1983 and 1992) led the ‘war’ against the radical ‘militant tendency’ wing primarily made up of Marxists and Trotskyists; bringing Labour back to the political pragmatism of the mainstream.

After Kinnock’s Labour loss to John Major’s Conservatives in 1992, Kinnock resigned and handed over the reins to the ‘moderate’ John Smith, but only after clearing the deck for him, spared him the obstructions of radicals and extremists.

However, Smith (55 years old) died suddenly in 1992, and was succeeded by Tony Blair, another ‘moderate’. Blair managed not only to lead Labour back to power in 1997, but also to win three consecutive general elections.

My pro-Corbyn waitress remembers nothing of the 1983 defeat, although the current Labour surely does.

All she and her generation are aware of is that Blair – in her words –‘was an opportunist right-winger who masqueraded as Labour’ and that he ‘betrayed the working class’ then became a ‘poodle for George W Bush’ and a henchmen in his foreign wars and policies.

Given my ‘experience’ gained from being a living witness to that period, I told her “Well, the problem with Mr Corbyn – whom I know and used to like a lot – is that he cannot win!”, but immediately she replied “How do you know? He is very popular… just look at how many new members are joining the Party now!”

In a vain attempt to tell her that “those joining Labour would have voted Labour anyway.

They do not represent any added value; but the opposite is true, as many centrist voters would flock to the Conservatives”. But she won’t agree. “No, many never bothered to vote in the past because they felt there was no difference between Blair and the Conservatives. Today, however, we see a zeal that wasn’t there before… people like me are eager for change!”.

I must confess, I didn’t take what the lady said seriously; but many momentous development took place since, that have created doubts in my understanding of Western democracy, and politics in general.

Since the British voted to leave the EU (Brexit), and Trump’s earthquake in the USA, and later the failure of the two mainstream Right candidates (Gaullist Republicans’ Francois Fillon) and Left (Socialists’ Benoit Hamon) in France’s presidential elections, it is now obvious that there is an emerging political current that is going further than mere ‘protest’. It is really going for ‘change’.

Eyad Abu Shakra

Since the British voted to leave the EU (Brexit), and Trump’s earthquake in the USA, and later the failure of the two mainstream Right candidates (Gaullist Republicans’ Francois Fillon) and Left (Socialists’ Benoit Hamon) in France’s presidential elections, it is now obvious that there is an emerging political current that is going further than mere ‘protest’. It is really going for ‘change’.

We are witnessing a seismic shift against formerly accepted concepts and practices. The old power elites have lost their immunity. Globalized capitalism is creating its own enemies.

Free democratic elections, long viewed as a weapon to insure stability and defend responsible and broadly-based consensus, are now being used by the exclusionist Rightists and formerly marginalized Leftists as a weapon against democratic institutions.

So regardless what the British voters decided on June 8, one has to accept that we are going through real change the repercussions of which may continue for years to come. Brexit, Trump’s and Bernie Sanders ascendency in the USA, and Emmanuel Macron’s and Marine Le Pen’s popularity in France, are not isolated phenomena any more.

It may be wise to remember two famous quotes attributed to former British Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson. The first is “Oppositions do not win elections, governments lose them!”; and the second is “One week is a long time in Politics!”.

This article was earlier published in Asharq Al-Awsat.

Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with Annahar newspaper in Lebanon. He joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances. Eyad tweets @eyad1949.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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