The election has confounded Teresa May and many others. It is a vote against austerity and for a less abrasive Brexit, and it marks the revival of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn
June 9, 2017
Theresa May was not the only person who seriously misread the public mood during the 2017 general election. But she is the one whose misreading has had by far the most devastating consequences at the finish. To call an early election in the hope of winning a landslide mandate and then to lose 12 seats and your overall majority is a humiliation almost without precedent for any prime minister in the era of universal suffrage in Britain. Perhaps only Ted Heath’s self-inflicted defeat in February 1974 bears any comparison. Yet this is the fate that Mrs May, and effectively Mrs May alone, inflicted upon the Conservative party this week. It will haunt her reputation for ever, and rightly so.
What Mrs May and many others did not see was the mood for change among the British people. After seven years of fiscal austerity, with deep cuts in public services and a steady fall in real wages, millions of voters wanted a better and fairer way for Britain. Mrs May herself partially understood that, as her embrace of the just-about-managing and her disapproval of greedy City executives showed. But she failed to turn those words into deeds. Instead she campaigned as an inflexible ironclad, spurning debate, parroting inane slogans, insulting her opponents and botching her manifesto launch. It was an emotionally unintelligent campaign. At times it verged on the delusional and hubristic. And it ruthlessly exposed Mrs May’s many failings.
To make things worse for herself, Mrs May announced at the start that this was to be a defining election about Brexit. Yet she then campaigned as though there was no problem in Britain’s relationship with Europe that could not be overcome by intransigence and being “bloody difficult”. This worked well with the Thatcher-besotted and Europe-hating Daily Mail and the Murdoch press, which had election campaigns that were almost as insulting and useless as her own. But it ignored the genuine concerns of the pro-European half of the population, who were treated at best as irritants and at worst, to quote the Mail on day one of the campaign, as “saboteurs”. In the end, it is hardly surprising that a campaign that treated pro-Europeans almost as traitors, while promising a dementia tax on old people and the return of fox hunting, not only failed to win hearts and minds but positively riled and mobilised many millions against the Tories.
An out-of-touch PM
Mrs May still doesn’t get it. Her response to what was unquestionably an immense electoral rebuff and, in some ways, a defeat, was to behave today as though nothing has changed. She was clearly stunned on election night. But she then circled the wagons, made a secret deal with the reactionary Democratic Unionists, headed to the palace and returned to Downing Street to promise business as usual, Brexit talks starting on schedule, and no policy change whatever. A few hours later, she gave an interview regretting the Tory losses, but still in shocking denial about the outcome.
If Mrs May continues to behave like this, she will not deserve to remain at the head of her party or be in charge of this epochal moment in Britain’s relationship with its best and nearest allies in Europe. She needs to face what has happened and to respond more nimbly and less rigidly. In particular, she must come clean about the terms of her deal with the DUP. This is a party that has some odious social attitudes on gay rights and abortion, is in denial about climate change, seems increasingly relaxed with the suspension of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, supports the Brexit that a majority in Northern Ireland opposed, and which has questions to answer about its leaders’ own connections with the proscribed paramilitary UDA. Mrs May has spent weeks implying that Labour could not be trusted to work with the entirely democratic-facing SNP. But she herself has embraced the DUP without a second thought in her very own coalition of chaos.
The Tory campaign in turn helped to make Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour much more credible than the initial polls had suggested. Yet, just as Mrs May squandered her advantage, so Mr Corbyn seized his. He offered hope, fairness and a better Britain. The party’s ambiguity on Brexit, one perhaps of accident rather than design, helped attract ex-Ukip voters while simultaneously keeping remainers on board. It was all delivered by a leader who surprised not just the electorate but probably also himself with the warmth of the response to his authenticity and honesty. On the campaign trail and in the interview studio, Mr Corbyn displayed all the empathy that Mrs May so singularly lacked. By the end of the campaign, Labour was a revived and effective party. It was rewarded by a surge in votes that carried it to a 40% share of the ballots cast for the first time since 2001. Those who said Mr Corbyn was unelectable look foolish today. Although much uncertainty still exists about the party’s capacity to work together, Labour must try to do so. There must be a recognition that this is Mr Corbyn’s party now. Labour’s recovery is a shot in the arm for British politics, which have floundered during the party’s lean last decade of post-2008 eclipse.
Audacity and hope
Labour’s manifesto may have been idealistic, but its ideals were ones that cut through, especially to the young voters who turned out in force this week and to many others who had ceased to vote. The audacity of wiping out tuition fees at a stroke opened doors to higher education for many young people that had seemed closed. Labour’s slick online campaign, featuring clever memes and interviews with grime artists, outgunned the Tory press, whose vitriolic attacks appeared to have fallen flat with the electorate. The leftwing grassroots movement Momentum boosted the party’s internal structures and provided a Corbynite organisation to make sure that voters turned out.
Labour’s striking return from the dead in Scotland on Thursday was accompanied by the return of the two-party duopoly in England and Wales. For the last 40 years, it has seemed as though the Tories and Labour were unable to prevent the steady dealignment of traditional voters, and the spread of more volatile multiparty politics. Yet, in a Britain where so much has changed, the two main parties have again captured more than 80% of the vote between them, for the first time since 1979. Neither the Greens nor Ukip could win more than 2% of the vote. The Liberal Democrats did better, finishing on 7%, but their share declined, and their 12 seats are a limited advance. The loss of Nick Clegg robs the party, and parliament, of one of the few British politicians who thinks instinctively as a European. The long campaign for a fairer electoral system for the UK parliament took a serious hit this week. But Britain has a record number of both ethnic minority and LGBT MPs and more than 200 women MPs too.
A better way
The challenge facing the new House of Commons and the second Theresa May government is now twofold. The first need is to rethink the approach to Brexit. This does not mean ignoring the referendum result. But it does mean recognising that the national mood is to fashion a Brexit that helps the British economy, that keeps the UK together, and that works with the EU not against it. Not the least interesting aspect of this election is that the overall move to the centre and to the left this week is in line with every major electoral verdict in Europe since the traumatic election of the dangerous Donald Trump in 2016. Mrs May and her reappointed senior ministers would be messing with the national interest if they do not grasp this. But the second need is to understand the national mood of hope. A year ago, this country followed a counsel of despair and anger when it voted for Brexit. Twelve months on, while not overturning its 2016 decision, the country demanded a better and different way, and an end to the burdens which austerity imposes on the least well off and the young. Britain has rejected Mrs May’s divisive banalities. The result this week was very unexpected. But it is also very exciting. It is the cry of the revived possibility for a better and fairer Britain than we have known for at least a decade.
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