Tue | Sep 19, 2017

Editorial | UK in a Jamaican mirror

Published:Sunday | June 11, 2017 | 6:00 AM

The result of last week's general election in Britain was, at one level, a sound repudiation of conventional wisdom, many of whose lessons may be relevant to Jamaica, but not all of which, our politicians must be aware, are - if they are tempted to think so - directly translatable to our circumstances.

Like the Jamaica Labour Party in our Parliament, the Tories enjoyed only a thin Commons majority, with which they emerged from the previous election two years ago. When she became prime minister a year ago in the fallout from the referendum vote for the UK to leave the European Union, Prime Minister Theresa May repeatedly vowed not to call an early election.

Yet, that is precisely what she did, predicating her reversal on strengthening her political authority to negotiate the best Brexit deal for Britain. That may have been a tangential gain if Mrs May had achieved her expected outcome, but there were two more plausible reasons why the prime minister called the early poll.

One is the 20-percentage-point lead the Conservatives had over the Labour Party in opinion polls at the time she called the election. The second was at the heart of the conventional wisdom: that Labour's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was intrinsically unelectable.

Mr Corbyn, who once spent time teaching in Jamaica, has spent more than three decades on the left wing of his party, often ridiculed as a loony who is out of touch with the modernity wrought by New Labour and the realities of British politics, generally. In fact, when he ran for Labour's leadership, he was a more than one-to-one outsider, whose nomination papers were only signed by a handful of colleagues as a gesture to the Left.

 

LABOUR WIPEOUT EXPECTED

 

Mr Corbyn won the support of approximately 60 per cent of the delegates. Yet, within a year, 172 Labour parliamentarians voted no confidence in Mr Corbyn, triggering a leadership election. He easily won again.

That is the context within which there was a widespread expectation last week of a Labour wipeout and with many in his party anticipating his removal. As it transpired, the Tories lost 12 seats and will have to rely on a parliamentary alliance with the small Northern Irish Democratic Union Party to stay in government. Labour gained 31 seats. It increased its share of its votes to 40 per cent, two percentage points behind the Conservatives, and 10 points more than they got in the 2015 general election under Ed Miliband's leadership. The upshot: a weakened Theresa May and a strengthened Jeremy Corbyn, who insists that the centre of politics in the UK has shifted decidedly to the Left and away from austerity.

A significant factor of the election was the participation of young people, in the 18-28 age group. Seventy-two per cent voted, which was three points above the overall turnout and nearly 20 points higher than in 2015. Most cast their ballots for Labour, which promised free university tuition and other social interventions in favour of the young. Further, Labour proposed increased taxes on high earners, greater state intervention in the economy, and stepped-up public spending in a full-throated reprising of Keynesian economics.

Labour's engagement of young people is worthy of emulation in Jamaica, where the youth are estranged from, and cynical about, politics. But Jamaica, with its debt-to-GDP ratio of more than 120 per cent - Britain's is 89 per cent - and high cost of borrowing must be circumspect about how it borrows to spend.

Past performance also makes us wary of heavy government involvement in the economy. And it is not about the Washington Consensus.