The surprise is that we were surprised. The result of the UK general election is still generating shock waves and will do so for months, perhaps years, to come. Yet the outcome is part of a pattern and not an aberration. We should have seen it coming.
Ever since the 2008 financial crash UK politics has been wild and unruly. In 2010, what seemed like a freakish peacetime coalition was formed. In 2015, David Cameron won an overall majority, entirely unexpectedly. A year later he resigned as prime minister, a fall of unprecedented speed. In the summer of 2016, the two major UK parties held leadership contests simultaneously, another unique occurrence. Both battles were deranged: the Labour contest lasted months and at the end, re-elected the same leader; the Conservative battle was over in days, with so many candidates imploding that a new prime minister walked into No 10 untested by any real campaign.
As well as these volcanic eruptions the UK staged two seismic referendums. One endorsed Brexit, the other reframed all Scottish politics around the question of independence and in 2015, the SNP won 56 out of 59 Scottish MPs, reducing its rivals to just one each.
The result of the 2017 election, then, is just one more instance of the post-crash disruption where the unexpected happens. And the UK is not alone. In the United States, Bernie Sanders—a self-described socialist who’d only recently joined the Democrats—very nearly seized that party’s nomination. Then Donald Trump really did take the presidency, an outsider with no experience of politics, a seeming disqualification from power that became a weapon when wooing an electorate disillusioned with the mainstream.
In France, Emmanuel Macron has surfaced from nowhere without the buttress of a traditional party base, and become president; indeed, his main selling point, which has now worked in the Assembly elections as well, was that he offered the chance to stick it to those traditional parties. Back in January 2015, Europe saw an earlier swing to the upstart left, when Syriza was voted into power in Greece on an anti-austerity programme that made the old wheeler-dealers of the Socialist Party seem pathetically compromised, for having served in a coalition government.
But despite this history of unexpected disruption, cries of disbelief greeted the 2017 general election exit poll forecast of a hung parliament and significant Labour gains. The astonishment only deepened when, as the results were counted, it became clear that Jeremy Corbyn had added a full 10 percentage points to Labour’s 2015 vote share, the biggest jump in the course of a single election by any leader of a major party since Clement Attlee in 1945.
While of course Corbyn did not win the election, he did take Labour over the 40 per cent threshold, for only the third time in the last 12 general elections. It was, by any standards, a remarkable performance. And yet almost until it happened, most Labour MPs were as despairing about their prospects as they had been last year, when 80 per cent declined to back Corbyn in a confidence vote. They were convinced he was leading them to destruction—but why?
Because lazy assumptions about some fixed “centre ground”—defined by timeless ideological co-ordinates—warped all of their assessments. Brought up on the nervy expediency of the New Labour era, most Labour MPs—like virtually the entire media commentariat—assumed that any pitch to the voters a few millimetres to the left of Tony Blair would lead to electoral slaughter. This view extended to senior BBC broadcasters who reflected on air (wrongly) that Ed Miliband had lost in 2015 because he was too left-wing. They implied, insofar as they could within the rules of impartiality, that by moving further left, Corbyn’s Labour Party was doomed.
The centre ground this year was, many pundits said, both entirely empty and aching to be filled. Tim Farron, the now former leader of the Liberal Democrats, was initially hopeful he could do just that. In the end, however, he achieved 7 per cent of the ballot, actually a touch down on the 8 per cent the Lib Dems received in their Waterloo year of 2015. The centre could not hold. Why? Because an entirely different narrative was taking shape in what has proved to be a change election. For in the UK—as across the western world—it has now transpired that much deeper forces than those studied by the pseudo-science of ideational topography are at work.
To see how the discourse has been reframed, just consider this general election campaign, and compare it with the previous two. Right across the political spectrum this time, no real attention was paid to the timetable for eliminating the deficit. No senior political figure went out of their way to stress the need for deep spending cuts, and no interviewer pressed the leaders on their plans to cut the size of the state. In the 2010 and 2015 campaigns, the deficit had been more or less the only issue. George Osborne framed the Conservatives’ 2010 campaign around his pledge to wipe out the deficit in a single parliament. Five years later, despite having failed to do this, he had the chutzpah to make the same pledge again. A gullible or partisan media danced to his tune.
When Miliband failed to mention the deficit in his pre-election conference speech in 2014, it was reported as an act of breathtaking incompetence. But in 2017 neither May nor Philip Hammond, her Chancellor, raised the deficit. Nor did Corbyn. The media attacked him for many things, but made no protests at this omission. Instead both main parties, and the others, focused more on how improved public services and infrastructure should be funded, a near revolutionary departure in UK elections. In the aftermath of her effective defeat, May felt obliged to assure her MPs that the austerity era was over. The last rites were read with barely a whimper of protest from anyone except Osborne, who bears a personal grudge since she sacked him. In the battle of ideas, the austerity argument—which for seven long years had taken the economic debate back not so much to the Thatcherite 1980s, as to the pre-Keynesian 1930s—had quietly been lost.
There were also the stirrings of a more intelligent debate on public service reform. To take one example, some Conservatives had begun to despair of the fracturing of the NHS. The internal market, which had shifted from being a Thatcherite brainwave to an icon of “centrist” respectability during the Blair years, was suddenly being questioned, on the right as well as the left. Indeed, May’s manifesto promised to “review” its workings with a view to removing “barriers to the integration of care,” which to senior NHS staff with long memories sounded like a plan to revert to the health service of old. Why are things moving this way?
Shortly before the election, I spoke to a senior health official in Lincolnshire who was privately a Conservative and had been an enthusiast of the Blair/Cameron reforms. He had, however, come to despair of them, pointing out that seven different agencies were now theoretically responsible for the NHS in his county and therefore none was accountable. One agency could only flourish by undermining another. There was no patient “choice” but only chaos. He concluded that much greater central control and accountability was needed and was confident that, because the chaos was unsustainable, this would happen. Health and other services have been subjected to the so-called public choice theories of 1970s Chicago economists for a generation, and it is ever-more difficult to have faith in the results. Consequently, at the political level, the era in which only this one shallow version of “reform” was a test of being a “moderniser” is also drawing to a close.
When the ideological currents move from right to left, it should not be surprising that a leader of the left—like Corbyn—is a beneficiary. A leader decidedly to the right was, after all, an even bigger beneficiary in 1979 when Jim Callaghan, the out-going prime minister, noted a sea change rightward, and muttered that there was nothing much he could do about it. May’s comeuppance is a symptom of similar tidal shifts.
“If the ruling assumptions of many politicians and commentators are mistaken, the gap between the elected and the electorate will become an even more dangerous chasm”
A vivid sign of this arose during the Brexit debate. A new phrase surfaced across the political spectrum. Leaders agreed that voters felt “left behind.” The term became ubiquitous, and yet was under-explored. To the extent that it was interrogated at all, it was rapidly taken to mean that many voters loathed immigrants and supported Brexit in the hope of kicking them out. Few stopped to ask exactly what it was that disgruntled citizens in former industrial towns or the depressed east coast felt “left behind” from, or what might make them feel more connected. Yet the answer was obvious. As they complained about long waits to see a GP, the struggle to find secure work and the fear of debt, they were looking to the state to reconnect them. They were not calling for less government, but rather for more.
All this was reflected in the 2017 election. The contrast with Labour’s 1997 landslide could not be starker. The overwhelming themes then were the Blair-Brown vows to stick to Tory spending plans for two years, and not to raise income tax for an entire parliament. After 18 years of Conservative rule, New Labour’s big message was that although they knew the fabric of the UK was rotting, they only planned to change the ashtrays. Understandably, after four successive defeats, Labour had agonised over how to avoid being trapped in a “tax and spend” caricature. Every penny was accounted for and there would not be many pennies available. To prove their financial prudence, senior figures came to sound like accountants in interviews. Prudence became a fetish: Blair hailed his “iron chancellor.”
By contrast, in 2017 the debate had moved definitively leftwards. The publication of Labour’s manifesto was a pivotal moment in the campaign, and on the evidence that Labour picked up much more than the Tories slipped back, it proved to be more important than the launch of the Conservative programme. That was disastrous, but it is notable how—since the vote—so many commentators on the centre and right have explained away their surprise at the result by pointing to the crooked planks in the Tory platform rather than reckon with the popularity of Labour’s.
Corbyn’s manifesto was far from an accountant’s manual. It offered hope to those “left behind,” whether it was students worried about debt, young people wondering where to live, commuters despairing of sky-high fares for poor train services or those reliant on, and working in, under-funded and fractured public services. With confidence and conviction, Corbyn and John McDonnell, his shadow chancellor, put the case for government when some voters—and not just the poorer ones—were crying out for the state to act. While May distanced herself from her manifesto, never once explaining it or making a case for some of its interesting ideas, Corbyn took his with him wherever he went.
In much of the media, Labour’s manifesto was portrayed as a vote-losing document that marked a “return to the 1970s.” Many Labour MPs were privately alarmed. There had been excited chatter about the formation of a new “centrist” party for Labour “moderates” (a conveniently ill-defined term) to come to the rescue after the electoral slaughter. But the manifesto enabled Corbyn and a few other Labour figures to escape from being accountants, and connect those who look to government for assistance with those—like him—who are willing to use it.
Corbyn’s pitch was also part of a wider pattern. Although unrecognisably different, Trump’s pitch to voters in the US was also about the benevolent power of government, albeit of a highly personal “L’État, c’est moi” sense. Trump was the state. Trump would protect US industries. Trump would build a wall with Mexico. Trump would increase capital spending in unprecedented ways. Parallels can even be drawn with the liberal Macron; he is certainly not a heavy-handed big state man, but in a highly personal way, he drew a connection between what his government could do, and the voters seeking hope and reassurance. Further to the left, Syriza’s victory in Greece occurred on the basis of an active state defying austerity imposed from Brussels.
Given that Corbyn was part of this wider pattern, why were so many amazed when the exit poll proved accurate and May’s majority wiped out? The question matters because if the ruling assumptions of so many politicians and commentators are mistaken, the gap between the elected and the electorate will become an even more dangerous chasm.
The answer, at least in the UK, is rooted in Labour’s recent past. Blair is too easily blamed for all that has gone wrong in the world. Being a Labour prime minister for 10 years is tough and, in some respects, he is unfairly vilified. But one of his legacies is toxic. Towards the end of his leadership, Blair’s governing philosophy became fatally shallow. He declared “what matters is what works,” a phrase that reduces politics to a managerial vocation. Yet the essence of democratic politics is an ideological battle about what works but also why. Blair was adopting policies that attracted the support of many Conservative-supporting commentators.
In an act of self-absorption, Blair implied that his own unusual “post-political” posture was the only one that made sense in an era of ideological cross-dressing, where parties could adopt each other’s policies. He discussed his own personal political journey, in which he had gone from youthful idealism towards a middle-aged determination to work with the powerful unencumbered by ideological baggage, as if it were some sort of a global phenomenon. He declared that the era of “left” and “right” was over. This was vacuous nonsense, yet given his brilliant record of winning elections, a generation of Labour MPs and commentators came to assume that Labour could only win on the “centre ground” as he hazily defined it.
“Lazy assumptions about some fixed ‘centre ground’ warped all assessments of Labour’s electoral chances”
What is that “centre ground”? Blair has recently waffled about defining the centre-ground as “the cutting edge,” but in recent years the real litmus test has in practice been economic. During the 2015 Labour leadership contest, before Corbyn joined the fray, the nervy candidates scrambled to the centre, which they then took as requiring them to accept that the previous Labour government had overspent. They did so because the self-proclaimed wise centrist heads in the media had insisted that a Labour leader could only be “credible” if he or she acknowledged the profligacy of the past. Such was the Blairites’ conviction on this point that between 2010 and 2015, Miliband never succeeded in refreshing Labour’s story on the economy, because there were always so many noises off insisting he had to talk about the debt and the deficit before he could hope to be heard. Now the deficit is no longer at the centre of the debate, this fixation with only one number—in an economy filled with many worrying statistics—looks more like a crankish obsession than a pre-requisite for being considered mainstream. Osborne, too, claims to be on the centre ground because he is a “social and economic liberal.” But this economic liberalism propelled him towards an approach to the deficit, public spending and the role of the state arguably to the right of Thatcher.
Commentators refer reverentially to “moderate” Labour MPs and Tory “modernisers” (of whom Osborne is deemed a leading light). Labour “moderates” are juxtaposed with the “hard left.” But these terms have become meaningless. In their refusal to co-operate with Corbyn and their misjudgment that he would lead them to electoral meltdown, the “moderates” might as well be termed the “hard right.” In his refusal to contemplate starting wars or pressing the nuclear button, Corbyn might be described as “soft” rather than “hard.” The terms “modern,” “moderate,” “centrist,” are equally slippery, and yet they have been endlessly applied in the last 20 years—illuminating nothing, and shaping the many misassumptions and orthodoxies now overturned by the 2017 election.
“Now the deficit is no longer at the centre of the debate, the fixation with it looks more like a cranks obsession”
Beyond the fetish for “the centre ground,” there is another reason why leaders and commentators chose not to see what is in front of their eyes. Not understanding the new future that is unfolding, they turn to the recent past for guidance. And the past is treacherous terrain. Back in the 1970s, corporatism was collapsing in the UK just as starkly as Reagan/Thatcher economic liberalism failed in the crash of 2008. Yet leaders in the 1970s repeated the mistakes with the support of the commentators of their day—even though it should have been obvious that the policies were not working. Heath, Wilson and Callaghan all opposed income policies when they entered No 10 and yet ineluctably moved towards them. The past was all they knew. Haphazardly Thatcher dared to look ahead in 1979. And, haphazardly, Corbyn has dared to break free now, after leaders responded to the 2008 crash by embracing the same policies that had caused the crisis in the first place.
The keenest advocates of the “centre ground” seem to lack all curiosity about the world before the 1990s, or indeed about anywhere beyond the UK and the US. The world, as they know it, began with Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992. They admire that as paving the way for Blair’s win, and are entirely untroubled by the Clinton administration’s failure to bequeath a progressive legacy.
They are deniers of all pre-1990s history in asserting that elections are won in what they see as the middle. Thatcher overtly mocked this, pointing out that if she moved to the middle of the road she would get run over by traffic in both directions. A prominent centre-left figure of that era, David Owen, described the centre as full of “mudge and sludge” as he kept the SDP on the crowded political stage. Owen is a robust social democrat and was an admirer of Labour’s 2017 manifesto. On the eve of the election he made a donation to Corbyn’s Labour Party.
Harold Wilson won four elections on manifestos which in some respects were to the left of Corbyn’s—with more emphasis on planning and the state control of industry, and even food subsidies. In October 1974 Heath could not have been more “centrist” in tone, proposing a national government to address the UK’s problems. But he lost for the second time in that year. The idea that elections are inevitably won “on the centre ground” may sound like a tautology now, but it was always open to dispute—and much disputed among commentators and most MPs until 1997.
Beyond the hollowing out of the centre, another equally significant new pattern has emerged across the western political world. And it should give Corbyn pause. Successful outsiders win power: think of Trump, Macron, the Brexiteers, and—who knows now?—conceivably one day Corbyn. But, by definition, outsiders who win become insiders. The juxtaposition of “outsider” and “insider” is, however, another misleading set of labels. It reflects a dangerous lack of trust in elected political leaders who struggle with the constraints of power in the era of a globalised economy.
Until he had the misfortune to win the presidential election, Trump was the outsider accusing insiders of hopeless incompetence and criminality. Since becoming president he has found that democratic politics makes huge demands on leaders, and he faces accusations of extreme incompetence and criminality. At the other end of the spectrum, Syriza offered voters the perfect dream from the outside, keeping the euro while opposing the austerity imposed as a condition for remaining in it. After winning, Syriza’s leaders became insiders faced with the unavoidable constraints of power. They had intoxicated voters with a contradictory pledge. In government, they had to make a horrible choice—and went for more painful cuts to stay in the euro.
“Had Corbyn won, his vision would have become blurred very quickly”
The fate of outsiders who reach the inside is to dash inflated hopes. Nicola Sturgeon suffered deep disillusionment for the first time in the 2017 election, when her SNP lost 21 seats at Westminster, a third of their total. She had been the outsider pledging to take Scotland to the promised land of independence. But now she is an insider too, battling as first minister to meet the demands of voters for better public services and a more productive economy. Disappointment with her will feed on itself. That is not because she has changed but because she is now on the inside with limited space to move on the cluttered political stage.
May has no space to move at all. She is trapped by the composition of the new House of Commons, constrained by a newly assertive cabinet, terrified by a fickle media which has turned on her, dependent on Ulster Unionists, who have never knowingly underestimated their strength in a hung parliament.
Had Corbyn won, his vision would have become blurred very quickly. When, for example, the planned tax rises of the manifesto failed to cover the spending pledges. When the Brexit negotiations challenged Labour’s artfully evasive words. When the trains were still unreliable and expensive. If Corbyn had become the ultimate insider-—the prime minister—he would finally have come up against the constraints and compromises of power.
Our democratic politics is swamped with misunderstandings and false assumptions. Those politicians and journalists who occupy a vague centre ground or commentate from the right wrongly assumed that a leader to the left of Blair/Cameron would be slaughtered. Conversely, many voters fail to recognise the limits of power—whether exercised by long-term insiders, or outsiders who turn insiders by winning. In the turbulence of the 1970s John Birt, then a current affairs TV producer, declared a “mission to explain,” to tackle what he saw as a “bias against understanding” in the coverage of politics. Even more urgently, we now need a new bias in favour of understanding the true possibilities of power.
Being Labour leader of the opposition is an impossibly tough job. But moving to the inside and governing is even harder. Another lazy and wrong assumption is that the left is not bothered about winning. But in this sense, at least, perhaps Corbyn is better off staying powerless on the outside, compared with May who is so powerless in power.