The people of the United Kingdom participated in a political game last week when they went to the polls. Of I were to characterize it as a contest between the party leaders for the title of prime minister, the pedantic purists would start yelling because that’s not how it works in the Westminster system where members are elected locally to represent their constituents. They’re not wrong about the process, but I can’t imagine that many international observers care deeply about which particular individual represents Ipswich or who represents East Dunbartonshire. The contest that I watched with interest was the one that played out indirectly in hundreds of constituencies. There are many traditions about how the “confidence of the house” is established but when it comes down to who gets to wear the biggest title, the measure that matters is which parties won how many seats.
Anyway, Corbyn’s Labour party had a much better showing than expected, but they lost. They significantly increased their seat count and proportion of the vote, which are good measures of how well the party is doing in the long term. These are, however, irrelevant measures of success in the electoral game. The ability of Labour to name a prime minister or to pass their legislative agenda isn’t much stronger now than when the Conservative party held a majority. These should be simple matter-of-fact statements, yet if you take Corbyn at his word that he can still be prime minister you’d think the result was something completely different than what it was.
So it’s clear that Labour is on an upswing and Corbyn’s critics within his own party have to eat a little bit of humble pie. That doesn’t mean he won. He’s in a good position to win the next round, but he’s most certainly not going to hold the title prime minister in a matter of days or weeks. Part of the problem is that there is no clear coalition to take down the Conservatives. It would be entirely reasonable to think that Corbyn could lead a coalition if Labour plus Liberal Democrats plus some smaller parties with similar agendas (Greens, perhaps) could form a majority. But they can’t.
To form a majority Labour will need every other party in the house to help topple the Tories. Not just every major party, every party down to the smallest. This reminds me of Canada in 2008, when our Conservative party was in a similar situation (plurality of seats but no majority) but was able to persist because the Liberals and New Democrats didn’t have a majority by themselves. They also needed the support of a regional ethnic nationalist party, the Bloc Quebecois, whose agenda wasn’t really compatible with the mainstream parties. They could agree that they didn’t like Stephen Harper, but that was about it. Then, too, we had partisans boasting about the Conservatives having “lost the popular vote” but it would be another seven years of Conservative government before a different party was able to win by the measure that counts: number of seats in parliament and confidence of the house. Perhaps Corbyn is in a better position today than Dion was in 2008, but he still has to grapple with the fact that his party needs the Democratic Unionist Party to topple the Conservatives. Based on what I have read about this party so far, “willing to go to an election at this time” appears to be the only possible common ground that a party of social democrats could have with right-wing ethnic nationalists. If I was a Labour guy, the thing I would want the most right now is to give a nod to last week’s result but to spend more time building than boasting, focusing on winning the next contest rather than dwelling on the numbers that I like the best.
Likewise, if I was American, I would want to cut it out with the Corbyn shows that Bernie would have won nonsense. Clinton came much, much closer to winning the top title than Corbyn did. If she had won, she would still be at the mercy of the house and the senate. Or, if the Democrats had won congress but lost the presidency, then Trump may have been president only for a “matter of days.” Again, the relevant measures have nothing to do with “popular vote” or numbers of marchers or tweet counts. These may be somehow useful data, but the real contests will be the midterm elections and 2020. If you are an American who has a problem with the current administration, it’s time to organize rather than time to gripe. Regardless of whether or not Bernie could have won, it’s now up to you to find someone who can and will win.
So, please: let’s not remain obsessed with irrelevant measures because they suggest that a loss for the team we cheered/played for wasn’t actually a loss. Get the results that count, then build a consensus for changing the rules. Let’s support adopting some form of proportional representation or abolishing the electoral college or making whatever other change in our respective countries that makes electoral contests better and more fair. But that requires a mandate, and to build that, your party needs seats more than it needs tweets.