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.

Posted by The Piping Shrike on Monday, 12 June 2017.

Filed under International relations

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6 responses to “The confusions of anti-politics: UK edition – an update”

  1. Cavitation on 12th June 2017 9:35 am

    Another factor was the collapse in the UK third party vote. The smallest proportion of voters for a generation voted for parties other than Tory or Labour. May’s Tories got 48% of the vote, a figure that is a record for them in recent times. But Labour’s share of the vote jumped too, by more.

    It seems settled that currently voters don’t like the Establishment. But, and possibly as a direct consequence to Trump’s election, they don’t want anyone, now, who is too much non-establishment. They, now, are keen on anti-establishment figures, who also have some establishment credentials. Thus Macron, not Melenchon or Le Pen. Or Trudeau, or Corbyn or potentially Shorten (going by his campaign strategy).

    And as an aside, it is amusing to see that (Sir) Lynton Crosby ran a campaign for the Tory Party that was a direct copy of the one run at the last election here. And got the same result! A too long campaign, a simple slogan repeated at every opportunity, obsession with the ‘leader’, policies regarded as irrelevant, media cheer squad… The definition of crazy? Repeating the same actions and expecting a different result. History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme, it seems.

  2. MrDenmore on 12th June 2017 12:29 pm

    Crosby is like a former champion rugby player into his fourth season. Everybody long ago worked out his goose-step and his offloads and his inside ball, but he keeps doing them anyway because that’s all he really knows how to do. He was clever for five minutes 15 years ago and has been living off his one hit ever since.

  3. The Piping Shrike on 12th June 2017 3:46 pm

    Crosby’s formula didn’t seem adaptable to what was going on. There seems to be an assumption that the young would not turn out and vote which in this case was not true.

    On the minor parties, UKIP was always mainly a European party and only did well during European elections, kind of ironic. With the LibDems, there was an assumption they would do well with their opposition to Brexit stance but there was little appetite for a rerun of the referendum, even from Remainers.

    I think Corbyn Labour better tapped into the anti-Brexit/Trump vote as he keyed into fears of instability, there was a lot of community/coming together stuff in his speeches.

  4. Mark on 26th June 2017 5:55 pm

    I am disinclined to agree with you on class, so looking for a way to reinterpret the FT chart. Social grade C comprises half the workforce, so every second person is as likely to vote Labour as Tory. Social grades D/E had an uptick at this election, but hasn’t changed all that much in 30 years. I imagine if social grades A/B were charted separately the trend would look similar.

  5. End of Empire: UK politics today - Green Agenda on 27th June 2017 9:31 pm

    […] extent shows that there can be a way forward with a positive leftist approach. I’ve read some analysis of the UK election that suggests that one of the key determining factors was age; that age is now […]

  6. The Piping Shrike on 27th June 2017 10:47 pm

    Mark, fairly open to the idea that ABC1 may be an incomplete definition of class. But other angles, education, regional and particular seats won suggest the same thing: Corbyn Labour at the very least confirmed the declining role of class in British elections, if not accelerated it.

    This may seem counter-intuitive compared to how some prefer to see Corbyn Labour, but it seems to me there’s a danger in interpreting what is going on in society by what is going on in politics, rather than the other way round.

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