Reality Check: The Corbyn playbook

What lessons can the Israeli Left learn from the UK Labour leader’s surprising election performance?

By
June 11, 2017 21:45
4 minute read.
Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, makes a speech as his party restarts

Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of Britain's opposition Labour party, makes a speech as his party restarts its election campaign after the cross party suspension that followed the Manchester Arena attack, in London, May 26, 2017.. (photo credit: REUTERS/PETER NICHOLLS)

So there I was, on an i24NEWS Internet television program last week, two hours before the polls closed in the British general election, confidently predicting a safe majority for Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, in no small part due to the unelectability of Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn.

How wrong I was. Not only did May fail to win a majority in the House of Commons, but Corbyn managed to boost the Labour vote by squeezing the support of the other non-Conservative parties: the Lib Dems, Greens, Scottish Nationalist Party and even from the extremeright UKIP.

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Given that Corbyn was regarded, including by many in his own party, as a throwback to the days of 1970s British hard-left socialism that had first been soundly defeated at the polls by Margaret Thatcher and then extinguished from the Labour Party under the market-friendly leadership of Tony Blair, how did he manage this surprising performance? And are there any lessons the Israeli Left can learn from it? First of all Corbyn had one advantage that the Israeli Left cannot hope to replicate: he was challenging a weak opponent. May ran a disastrous campaign: in strictly controlled media appearances she came across as inauthentic, evasive and robotic, her election manifesto attacked some of the sacred cows of her core voters and she failed to frame the election against the backdrop of terrorism that has hit Britain.

As we all know, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu comes alive at election time, tacking sharply to the Right to ensure he captures his political base and ensuring that the election is always fought against the backdrop of national security. Unless the police finally finish their investigations into Netanyahu – how much longer can it take? – and Attorney-General Avichai Mendelblit decides to indict the prime minister on bribery and corruption charges, there is no reason to assume Netanyahu won’t be running again as head of the Likud come the next elections.

But Netanyahu is not unbeatable. As Ehud Barak showed back in 1999, Netanyahu can be turfed out of the Balfour Street residence he and his wife wrongly regard as their personal home. It takes some doing: determined leadership, a clear election campaign strategy and a connection to issues that resonate with voters, but it can be done.

Which is where Corbyn’s campaign has some clear pointers for the Israeli Left. Corbyn’s stance on defense issues is way to the left of most British voters: he has always opposed Britain’s nuclear deterrent and refused to say that he would ever give the order to use it should he be prime minister and the UK be under attack. He also blamed British foreign policy for the recent terrorist attacks on British soil, linking these attacks to the “wars our government has supported or fought in other countries.”

Such views, and his friendship with terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah, were the reason most pollsters and commentators, including myself, thought he was doomed to lead Labour into its worst election performance since the early 1980s. And this is where we were wrong: not because British voters suddenly shifted sharply to the hard Left on matters of defense and national security, but because they were voting on different issues entirely.

Surprisingly for a gray-haired, unfashionable 68-yearold, Corbyn managed to connect with and enthuse the youth vote. Labour campaigned hard on issues pitched at the younger generation: abolishing university tuition fees, reversing the decline in public services and ending the current era of economic austerity in Britain. And it worked.

Whereas the younger generation spectacularly failed to turn out and vote in last year’s European Union referendum, perhaps the crucial reason behind the shock result in favor of Britain leaving the EU, this time around about 72% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted, higher than the national average of 70%, and nearly double the 44% who showed up on polling day in 2010.

By generating enthusiasm around a message of hope and taxing the rich, Corbyn managed to galvanize voters, neutralize Conservative attempts to frame the election narrative around Brexit and national security, and pull off one of the most surprising, if ultimately unsuccessful, Labour electoral performances in recent history.

If the Israeli Left is to pull off an election shock next time around, it has too has to follow the Corbyn playbook.

Fighting an election over the future of the West Bank – despite it being the most important issue facing the country – won’t win over former Netanyahu voters. But waging a campaign over the high cost of housing, the unreasonable government subsidy of the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle and this government’s attempts to muzzle the High Court might just tip the balance back in favor of the Center-Left.

The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.


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