This has been a dreadful campaign, as shallow and mean-spirited in its way as the Brexit campaign last summer, its proximate cause.
In a remote Greek beach village, accessible only by sea, I woke with a start before dawn last Saturday. What if I had been stubbornly wrong in dismissing Jeremy Corbyn’s chances of defeating Theresa May in the ‘Me’ snap election she unexpectedly called on April 18? Even in distant Crete, land of myth and divine retribution, we had been hearing about May’s negatively inept campaign, how the Conservative lead was shrinking in most polls and of enthusiastic crowds greeting the Labour leader at his rallies.
Might Corbyn really be heading to Buckingham Palace – Britain’s regal Knossos – to form a government on Friday afternoon? It didn’t quite happen, did it, though shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, ever the optimist, was not ruling it out as the final votes were counted. My wobbly Minoan moment passed and I resumed my complacent assumption that, one way or another, May would prevail in the end, despite a string of egregious, self-inflicted errors. So did most people who are supposed to know about these things and called the result of our self-absorbed 2017 election with misplaced arrogance.
Then came the political equivalent of the famous Santorini volcanic eruption, the one that destroyed Knossos’s Minoan palace civilisation in 1,600 BC. As Big Ben’s 10 o’clock bongs signalled the end of Thursday’s voting the David Dimbleby – as much a dignified feature of the constitution as Her Majesty – astonished himself and us all. He revealed that the BBC’s exit poll (I was polled myself) was pointing to a hung parliament with the Tories reduced to ‘largest party’ status and May politically crippled, head of a minority government, at least for now.
Austerity? It will be harder to sustain, but also harder to wind down. Brexit? Downing St’s abrasive, ill-judged insistence that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is probably dead meat. But to be replaced be what – or whom? With a justified smile on her face Labour’s Emily Thornberry called on May to ‘consider her position’ as early as 10.20pm, joined in the sentiment by her leader around 3 o’clock. By breakfast time sober figures, including former cabinet secretaries, neutral Whitehall grandees, were openly saying May lacks the skill set or judgment to remain prime minister. So, more tactfully, did outspoken pro-Remain Tories like Anna Soubry MP. Brexit supremo, David Davis, backed May, which must be scant comfort. After his absence from most of the campaign, ‘Where’s Boris?’ suddenly takes on new meaning. As in the post-Cameron leadership contest, May’s strongest card is the absence of an obvious successor. Amber Rudd’s narrow escape in Hastings takes on new significance.
If she wants to stay on – a big if – it will not be any of them who decide May’s fate in the coming days and months, but backbench Conservative MPs. Many of them are fair-weather friends of their ex-Remain leader, secretive and imperious in her governing style. They are famously ruthless (‘absolute monarchy, regulated by regicide’) in dispatching failure – even Margaret Thatcher in 1990 – as Labour is not. To hang on May will need those 10 pro-Brexit Democratic Unionist (DUP) votes and – not to be overlooked – the historic boycott of Westminster (though not its cash) of Sinn Fein’s record tally of seven MPs.
But that will not be enough to secure the ‘strong and stable’ regime – how hollow her campaign slogan sounded by polling day – she promised and the country needs. As jittery markets, as smug as the rest of us, promptly confirmed, we are in for even more uncertainty. The clock is still ticking on the Brexit timetable. Formal talks are supposed to start in a few days. They may have to be postponed, as EU officials were quick to indicate.
Will this extraordinary result – as unexpected there as at home – revive hopes in Brussels that the Brexit referendum verdict can be reversed, as ‘wrong’ results in EU ballots so often are? Probably. Nigel Farage toured the studios warning against it, but his party was crushed on Thursday. Barely discussed in any serious way during the campaign, Britain’s road map towards Brexit is even less clear than it was before May’s catastrophe.
What a humiliation for Downing St and those arrogant Tory strategists, for May’s overbearing chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, for Sir Lynton ‘Dog Whistle’ Crosby, May’s over-priced Australian election guru! ‘The Parliamentary party is very angry and unforgiving,’ texted one senior Tory. So is the Daily Mail which campaigned shamelessly for May, even urging a tactical vote for the hated Nick Clegg to keep Labour out of Sheffield Hallam. Voters ignored that too. May, strained and suddenly talking again about ‘us’ instead of ‘me’ at her Maidenhead count, will be vulnerable to pressure from both left and right of her party, from a perky and revived Labour party, from some mightily relieved Lib Dems too, and a wounded, angry SNP.
Down 21 seats in Scotland, its prospects for a second independence referendum are now stalled by the bouncy Scottish Tory leadership of Ruth Davidson, so evidently superior to May’s. Battered Labour picked up seats too, as it did in Wales – against most predictions. As in Northern Ireland, the enhanced chances of a softer Brexit, perhaps some accommodation with the EU’s single market and customs union even, should be some consolation for first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. But she has lost her Westminster leader, the reliable Angus Robertson, and (surely a mixed blessing?) her predecessor, Alex Salmond. Amid all the uncertainty we can be sure that smirk will be back. Talk of a ‘progressive alliance’ to run Britain is shelved for now. But talk of a second election in the autumn is not. It happened twice in the 20th century – in 1910 and 1974 – but produced near identical results.
What a vindication for the Labour leader, abused and patronised in equal measure (by me, among others). Corbyn emerged 30 seats up on Ed Miliband’s defeat just two years ago. Voters do not like to be taken for granted, they do not like unnecessary elections, they do not like a remote prime minister whose appeal rests crudely on ‘do you want Corbyn or me?’ and who ducks both television debates with rivals, one who seeks to milk those grim terrorist attacks in London and Manchester for party political gain.
But Corbyn’s success was not simply a negative achievement, about not being May. Evidently sincere, reluctant to indulge in personal mudslinging, the antithesis of the slick soundbite politics which have come to grate with so many voters and make them hungry for authenticity, the Labour leader campaigned hard and drew large enthusiastic crowds. Activists whose alibi for defeat – they lost on Thursday, but it did not feel that way – would have rested heavily on the hostility of the media should remember that the press is never as influential as it pretends.
Charges that Corbyn and his message concentrated on shoring up the heartland vote – keener to maintain the left’s control of the party than win the election – were valid and remain so. But you cannot argue with a leader who has defied the pundits and clocked up 10% more votes – 40% to May’s 42% – and exceeded Tony Blair’s 36% win in 2005, at least in terms of votes.
Corbynism managed to fire up young voters, especially in the big cities, without – as predicted – driving older, less educated Labour voters, especially in the Midlands and Northern England (some of them deserters to UKIP in 2015) in May’s direction. As the UKIP bubble burst, the Tories gained 6%, but Labour much more. Two party dominant politics – so often dismissed as a doomed dinosaur – has again bounced back.
Pollsters will take time to drill down into voting patterns. But it looks as if those young ‘Jeremy, Jeremy’ voters who registered on the electoral roll in droves since April 18 were motivated to vote this time, as they so often have not in the recent past. Civic participation is always a public good. Turnout was a healthy 68.7%, almost 3% up on 2015, 10% up on William Hague’s ‘save the pound’ car crash against Tony Blair in 2001. Labour’s more effective campaign on social media – and May’s failure – may turn out to have been important.
It goes without saying that 68-year-old Corbyn’s leadership is secure, buttressed for now – like May’s – by the absence of a clear alternative. Unless the Corbynites are more saintly than they are, it is his vocal critics, deputy Tom Watson to the fore, who are vulnerable. But even among pundits who got it all so badly wrong two serious qualifications may legitimately be registered against Camp Corbyn.
One is that his energetic campaign contrasts sadly with his feeble, very token support for the Remain campaign in 2015. A lifelong anti-European, a protégé of Tony Benn, Corbyn was forced by his then-shadow cabinet to back Remain. Two thirds of Labour voters backed Remain on June 23 too, but the other third made a difference to the close result. Many did not know where their leader stood. They were led astray by Brexit promises on immigration, cash for the NHS and much else that were rapidly abandoned.
That will rankle, even more than it did before Thursday. It smacks of duplicity, an accusation which has always hovered over Corbyn’s wholesome image, far more so over key members of his entourage, some of them with a hard left past, overtly hostile to Labour and to electoral success.
Corbynite Labour had a very good night, but it still lost. That leads to the second legacy problem arising from Thursday night: Labour’s manifesto was awash with promises – the ‘retail offer’ in current consumerist jargon – to many interest groups which it would have found hard to fulfil in office, even without the headwinds of the Brexit negotiations and a faltering economy.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) may be staffed by micro-economists with limited political imagination and conventional minds. But it is not the Daily Mail, either on the Brexit maths or on party manifestos. All were judged pretty baleful in terms of economic plausibility by the IFS – and many others. May’s most disastrous campaign failure (the bearded Nick Timothy got the blame) was the U-turn enforced upon her over social care of the elderly, a threat even more tangible than Brexit lorry queues at Dover or global warming, both neglected too.
By putting a £100,000 floor but not a cap on the amount that voters would be expected to contribute to their own care from their own resources (their legacy to the kids), she angered her own base and was glibly accused of planning a ‘dementia tax’. In truth it was a dementia lottery which more families would win than lose. The right answer is a tax formula which pools the risk among us all. The four-day U-turn made her look inept and also feeble. Brussels’s Brexit point man, Michel Barnier, must have smiled.
But at least May’s was an attempt to address a serious problem by taking a politically unpopular decision that would mostly fall on the better off and risked offending the Mail’s Paul Dacre. On tax and spending, on social care and NHS funding, £11 billion rebated on student tuition fees – a highly regressive policy – on VAT, income tax, on pensions, benefits and nationalisation and much else, the Labour manifesto offered mostly soft options. Promising only to increase taxes on the ‘rich’ and corporations, to fill black holes by squeezing tax dodging and over-optimistic growth/revenue projections, may impress students, but should not impress others.
How would prime minister Corbyn have coped amid such aroused expectations? Diane Abbott had already stumbled. How would those smug markets respond to television coverage of John McDonnell’s arrival at No 11? Would the old shadow cabinet’s Refusniks, experienced ex-cabinet ministers included, have been offered jobs, let alone accept them? If McDonnell’s hopes of a defeated Queen’s Speech and a minority Labour government – no deals, no pacts – prove more plausible than they first appeared, all this may become relevant.
The 2017 election result has been an exceptional event. Ted Heath’s 1970 victory was largely unpredicted. So was his defeat in the first 1974 election, the biggest upsets since Attlee’s defeat of Churchill in 1945. No political scientist can blithely say now that ‘campaigns don’t change much’. This one did. ‘Strong and stable’ became ‘weak and wobbly’. A derided Labour leader confounded his critics and touched those elusive Heineken corners. But what does it all mean?
Three major nationwide polls in three years have produced three contradictory results. David Cameron won a small majority, but was then rejected in the referendum. Theresa May briefly ruled the roost and has now thrown it all away. Does that indicate that most voters have had enough of austerity since 2008, just as – polls confirm – they want an end to immigration which keeps the British economy growing, albeit slowly? Is it a vote for soft options, Italian style? Have we lost our will as well as our way?
Yet immigration shows little sign of falling sharply and would be damaging economically if it did. As for austerity neither John McDonnell, Paul Stiglitz or even Will Hutton, can spend-and-borrow a vulnerable economy’s way out of a financial hole. The sums don’t work, the ‘kindness of strangers’ towards assorted deficits may not last forever – especially if Britain starts to look ungovernable.
Thus it was significant that no senior minister felt able to tour the studios on the morning of their humiliation to steady the Tory troops, not even Michael Fallon. A shameful failure of leadership in a party that prides itself on the leadership principle, indeed just ran an election campaign based on it. Where is the famous Tory officer class, even the NCOs? Labour’s leadership, led by a man described by admirers as one of nature’s ‘geography teachers’, sounded calmer and more assured.
Yet this most presidential of campaigns failed to throw up a plausible presidential figure. Most of May’s cabinet barely featured, nor did the name of her party on much of the campaign literature, social media targeting. Not even Margaret Thatcher in her glory days turned her campaign into a selfie. As for Labour the paradox was even more startling. Corbyn the anti-hero was just as much the focus of his party’s campaign. The jaw-dropping difference was that many Labour MPs defending those May-targeted marginal seats barely mentioned their leader at all.
In a real sense – as The New European has been predicting for weeks – everyone lost in 2017, little has been resolved. This has been a dreadful campaign, as shallow and mean-spirited in its way as the Brexit campaign last summer, its proximate cause. An opportunity exists for what must be an anti-Brexit majority in the Commons to combine – as it failed to in 2015-16 – to mitigate the impact of British withdrawal from its 43-year partnership.
On the evidence it must be a forlorn hope, but worth trying if the United Kingdom is not to reach an avoidable tipping point into decline. Minoan civilisation which collapsed so dramatically 3,600 years ago had an excuse: that exceptional volcanic eruption and tsunami. Posterity will not be so understanding if we fail.