The confusions of anti-politics: UK edition – an update

Monday, 12 June 2017    


Back to the 1980s! Not.

When the British Prime Minister called an election seven weeks ago, it wasn’t just the pundits who thought she’d romp home in a landslide, so did the public. Theresa May was facing one of the most unpopular opposition leaders in modern political history leading a party scraping historic lows in polling.

And it was not just the polls. Since Corbyn took over the leadership, Labour had gone backwards in more than half the contested by-elections, highly unusual for an opposition, and in Copeland four months ago, lost a seat it had held since 1935 and made the Tories the first to win a seat from government for 35 years. The council elections held only just a month ago produced similar bad news for Labour. After being in power for seven years, the Conservatives had their best local election performance for years, and made inroads into Labour heartlands in Wales and the Midlands that would have previously been unthinkable.

Probably the public’s most devastating negative perception of Corbyn was that he was “weak”. There was some justification given the stalemate the party was in since some MPs, who had no wish to see Corbyn as leader, put him up as a candidate to spice up an otherwise dull contest. Corbyn faced overwhelming opposition from MPs, 80% of them declared no confidence in him, refused to serve under him and openly undermined him in the media at every chance they could get. Corbyn entered the election campaign under a Westminster system that meant he had to campaign to be Prime Minster leading a parliamentary party that wanted no such thing.

Corbyn rarely took them on directly, partly because of his weak position but also because he appeared to be pursuing a parallel strategy, building a “movement” in the party membership that could eventually oust the MPs. But after a string of lousy electoral results, even the membership was reported to be starting to lose enthusiasm. The general election last week was expected to be such a disaster for Labour that it would surely allow the MPs to finish Corbyn off.

Corbyn’s perceived weakness should have underlined the strength of the government’s case for re-election. Tough Brexit negotiations were coming and May could present herself as in the strongest position to get a good deal for Britain. This enabled the Conservatives to not only attract those who supported Leave, but also those who voted Remain but wished to minimise any fall-out from the result.

Brexit had delivered a body blow to the political establishment. All the major parties had campaigned for Remain and the public had rejected them. The impact was immediately felt on Labour where MPs grabbed the opportunity, offered by the disappointment of Labour’s largely pro Remain membership at Corbyn’s lacklustre campaign, to launch a challenge, albeit with no success. Labour was torn between a voting base that was mostly Remain but a traditional working class base that was mostly Leave, an indication of how far removed from that base its support now was.

But the Conservatives were not immune either. While they closed up quickly after the resignation of Cameron and the collapse of the Leave campaign leadership, the last year revealed weaknesses in the May government. One of this was over Brexit itself. There were still divisions over the conditions by which the UK would leave the EU, and one reason why May wanted to avoid a parliamentary vote on leaving was to prevent those divisions resurfacing. When the High Court forced the government to hold a vote on triggering Article 50, May was reported to have made strong assurances in private to Remain that she would seek a soft Brexit in contrast to the “Hard Brexit” noises she made to Tory Conference a few months before.

Discord was not just over Brexit. The weakness of the government was momentarily shown over a rapid and embarrassing U-turn for the government over tax hikes that had contradicted an election promise.

These weaknesses were to emerge during the campaign and influence it. While May said the campaign was on Brexit, the government was reluctant to go into detail in case differences within the party emerged. So “Brexit means Brexit” was replaced with the equally bland “Strong and Stable leadership”. Avoidance of any future U-turns over broken promises was probably also why the manifesto was fairly up-front with some unpopular measures, against Lynton Cosby’s usual preference for a “small target”.

As a result, the Conservatives’ Brexit campaign quickly wandered off track and ended up being focussed on measures in the manifesto, especially the unpopular proposals over social care. One effect of this was to undo some of the inroads May had made into traditional working class voters as old suspicions about the Tories returned.

However, the second problem was what the Conservatives did to bring focus back to the campaign by targeting Corbyn.

There were two possible approaches to Corbyn. The first was to highlight his weakness and his inability to deliver. This might have been effective as it best described the reality of his leadership of a parliamentary party that didn’t want him. The second was to highlight his left-wing credentials. This might not have been so effective, especially among former Labour supporters the Conservatives were trying to attract. But it would have helped unify the Conservative party and mobilise its supporters behind a weak campaign. So this is what they did, especially focussing on Corbyn’s supposed links to the IRA and meetings with Gerry Adams in the 1980s.

The first immediate problem with this is that it ignored the efforts of the last 35 years to rehabilitate Adams from the Sinn Fein leader whose very voice was banned on British media in the 1980s, to the pillar of the Good Friday political settlement with the quirky loveable social media profile that he is today. So intent was the political establishment to do so that even the Queen, whose family member was blown up by the IRA, was dragged in front of Adams to shake his hand.

Worse, for anyone under 50 who only remembers Adams as the peacemaker rather than the political leader of a defeated military operation he actually was, portraying Corbyn as having some role in it looked a virtue. In doing so, it allowed Corbyn to pose as an anti-Establishment figure with principles despite running on a manifesto whole chunks of which conflicted with those principles. It put him in a position such as seen with the rise of Mélenchon in France and Sanders in the US and able to capture the realignment against the political system that not only produced Brexit in the UK but the collapse and humiliation of established parties elsewhere.

Several charts by the FT from Ashcroft post-election surveys indicate the nature of that realignment. The most important is probably the one that best explains that political realignment, the declining role of the most important factor that determined British political arrangements in the 20th century: class.

Contrary to what some Corbyn supporters might claim, the 2017 election continued the diminishing importance of class over the last 30 years. In fact, for the first time the upper and middle classes were no more averse to Labour than the general voting public – and indeed slightly less averse than skilled workers. This partly explain why, despite getting nowhere near even a majority, let alone a landslide, Labour was able to capture seats it had never won before, like Canterbury and, the UK’s richest constituency, Kensington.

The irony is that after being criticised by Blairite MPs for threatening Labour’s carefully crafted cross-class appeal, Corbyn has only solidified it. While this might seem counter-intuitive given the “eat the rich” posturing of some of Corbyn’s supporters, perhaps it also reflected the change over the last forty years from Labour representing a union movement with enough social force to bring the country to a halt and earn the contempt of the middle class, now presenting itself as the hero of victims of inequality, the “poor” and the “left behind”, more deserving of compassion and pity.

Yet while the erosion of the polarising influence of class in British politics has been long-standing, if reinforced under Corbyn, what has suddenly emerged since Brexit a year ago are new polarisations.

The first is Brexit itself. While May’s Brexit led strategy floundered, Brexit remained an underlying determinant of voting intention with the biggest Conservative gains being in Labour/Leave seats and Labour making biggest gains in Tory Remain seats.

However, the most dramatic polarisation, and the one that created the most uncertainty over the polling and the result, was age. While younger ages have traditionally been more pro Labour, the 2017 election saw a striking polarisation between the generations. The portrayal of Corbyn as an anti-Establishment maverick tapped into this, but the age polarisation was already starting in 2015 and really took off in the Brexit referendum in between.


The replacement of the class polarisation that underpinned 20th century politics with the generational polarisation that has emerged is likely to profoundly shape the nature of British politics going forward, even if on the surface the two-party system might seem intact.

For Labour, while MPs might quickly be giving mea culpas, their antipathy to Corbyn is unlikely to change because the real driver of it remains in place. Their eroding position in the party against the membership is likely to, if anything, accelerate as the Corbyn leadership will be even more intent on building the “movement” in the membership as a counterweight.

What has happened now is the impact of Brexit and the realignment is now open in the Conservatives as well. It will add even further to the pressure to smother Brexit and a push to do so from both sides. This was always going to happen because the political establishment had no interest in delivering it. What is now clear is that even if they did, neither side could.

3 comments

The fracturing – an update

Wednesday, 26 April 2017    

Don’t get too comfortable.

The first round of the French election confirmed what should now be clear, a profound political realignment is underway across Europe and the US. Yet the nature and extent of that realignment is being continually distorted because it is looked through the left-right prism of the past, or its current version, “globalism versus nationalism”.

The French election has been described as a break in the upsurge of right wing nationalism from Brexit to Trump but that requires a mis-reading of both those events. Read more …

2 comments

No resurrection

Tuesday, 18 April 2017    

David Rowe AFR

Let’s get something clear from the outset. What is going on in the Liberals right now is not a re-run of the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd years. This is worse. Much worse. Read more …

4 comments

A morbid symptom

Monday, 13 March 2017    

In the run up to the WA election, with the focus on One Nation, several vox pop pieces came out to explain its support. They were presented as empirical evidence from which political conclusions could be drawn but in reality they were the reverse Read more …

2 comments

Entitlement

Tuesday, 17 January 2017    

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David Rowe: AFR

The age of entitlement is over. The age of personal responsibility has begun.

Joe Hockey, 2 February 2014

Four discussions are going on right now that tells a lot about the current state of play between Australian government and society: means testing on pensions, the Centrelink fiasco, MPs expenses and the implementation of income management through the BasicsCard.

Actually, tell a lie. Read more …

5 comments

2016: The fracturing

Friday, 30 December 2016    

One of the fascinating things about Australian politics is its sensitivity to global politics, a sensitivity that is often disguised unconvincingly by politicians and those with an interest in pretending that it all emanates from the security compound on Capital Hill – even though much of the public is fairly wise to the fact that it doesn’t. It has been useful looking at Australian politics over the last decade because it gives some details on a period in global politics that is now coming to an end. Read more …

6 comments

A mini Menzies ice age

Tuesday, 27 December 2016    

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Howard’s attempt to rehabilitate Menzies this year on telly may have been unconvincing, but its timing wasn’t too bad, since right now Australia is going through a late Menzies period – politically paralysed in the face of international change. Read more …

1 comment

Shock!

Friday, 18 November 2016    

That other basket of people are people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change.

It doesn’t really even matter where it comes from. They don’t buy everything he says, but he seems to hold out some hope that their lives will be different. They won’t wake up and see their jobs disappear, lose a kid to heroin, feel like they’re in a dead end. Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well.

– The empathy bit in Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” speech

There is a persistent confusion in most political commentary, and the election of Trump shows that this had better be sorted out, and quick. This confusion rests on the relationship between politics and society, and especially an increasingly common habit of projecting what is going on politically directly on to society. Read more …

4 comments

Equality – an update

Wednesday, 19 October 2016    

On the issue of marriage, I think the reality is there is a cultural, religious and historical view around that which we have to respect. I do respect the fact that’s how people view the institution.

Penny Wong 2010

I do find myself on the conservative side in this question. I think that there are some important things from our past that need to continue to be part of our present and part of our future. If I was in a different walk of life, if I’d continued in the law and was partner of a law firm now, I would express the same view, that I think for our culture, for our heritage, the Marriage Act and marriage being between a man and a woman has a special status.

Now, I know people might look at me and think that’s something that they wouldn’t necessarily expect me to say, but that is what I believe.

Julia Gillard 2011

Personally speaking, I’m completely relaxed about having some form of plebiscite. I’d be wary of trying to use a referendum and a constitutional mechanism to start tampering with the Marriage Act. But in terms of a plebiscite — I would rather the people of Australia could make their view clear on this than leaving this issue to 150 people.

Bill Shorten 2013

Questions of marriage are the preserve of the Commonwealth Parliament. Referendums are held in this country where there’s a proposal to change the constitution. I don’t think anyone is suggesting the constitution needs to be changed in this respect.

Tony Abbott 2015

Marriage is primarily a social institution rather than a legal or political one. If some whacky law was passed tomorrow annulling all marriages, they would of course continue to be recognised by society, both by those in them and everyone else. Society is constantly evolving and so naturally does its view of marriage and its relation to the family. Decades ago, divorce had a social stigma and children born out of marriage were considered illegitimate. These days, every social attitude survey and opinion polls indicates that society recognises marriage between same sex couples and so you’d think the law would be changed to reflect that.

You’d think. Read more …

5 comments

Failing state

Monday, 1 August 2016    

Isn't that what elections are for?

Isn’t that what elections are for?

When Howard announced the intervention into Northern Territory indigenous communities in the run up to the 2007 election, it was widely seen as a political masterstroke, comparable to the storming of the Tampa that was supposed to have won the 2001 election (so mis-reading both elections).

At the time this blog suggested that the invasion of Iraq might be a better comparison. Read more …

1 comment

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