The Prospect editorial: The election revealed that the elite was stuck in an echo chamber

Prospect editor Tom Clark on Election 2017—and how the writers in our new issue make sense of it
June 22, 2017
The educated classes spent the last year despairing at know-nothing Brexit and Trump voters. “Post-truth” was named OED word of 2016, and it’s now the title of three new books (all reviewed by Simon Blackburn). Anxiety abounds about ignoramuses sealing themselves off to trade in what Kellyanne Conway calls “alternative facts,” the echo chamber effect.

But a stunning election result has revealed that those who imagine themselves experts on politics know a great deal less than they thought. Jeremy Corbyn was written off as doomed by the media, and four in five of his MPs. He may not have won, but he topped 40 per cent of the poll, adding 10 points to Labour’s score and depriving Theresa May of her majority. There were seemingly-solid pointers against this outcome, such as the Copeland by-election, but there were other straws in the wind—like the surge in party membership. And about these, Gary Younge charges, too many journalists were unforgivably incurious. In other words, politicians and pundits—few of them personally touched by the austerity that has long gnawed at the country, especially its young (Shiv Malik)—were sealed off. Talking to themselves. In an echo chamber of their own.

In the aftermath of their shock, commentators have placed most stress on May’s dismal campaign. Her failings are real (Rachel Sylvester), but were surely less important an explanation than Labour’s manifesto. May, after all, ultimately notched up an impressive 42 per cent of the ballot, a score she achieved after making decidedly post-Thatcherite noises about harnessing the power of the state on behalf of left-behind communities. But her disparate thoughts were never knitted into a convincing story, and she was caught out by a late shift to Labour, which cut through with clearer, and more confident offers to insecure workers, students and exhausted public servants.

The success of Labour’s pitch is a reminder that economic populism can be popular, and no form of populism is without problems. Many of the numbers in the “costed” manifesto were decidedly optimistic, and John McDonnell’s last-minute suggestion of a VAT cut would only make the daunting challenge of sustaining the welfare state (Paul Wallace) more difficult. On the other hand, the sudden vulnerability of arid, unimaginative and self-defining “centrism” (Steve Richards) is a wonderful moment in which all kind of questions that have been closed for no good reason could open back up. Since the Brexit vote, immigration has been presumed to be not just a concern but an obsession of the centre, but there is now a chance to put the economy ahead of border control in future relations with Europe (Hugo Dixon).

But there could be a far wider disruption, too, if politicians stop self-censoring with a “respectability” test. Would they, for example, still pretend that short prison terms or the war on drugs work? Would they maintain the fiction that Britain’s nuclear deterrent was independent? And would they insist on the ludicrous lie that hacking away at the schools budget will move us down the path to prosperity? That has, after all, been the “respectable” consensus over the last seven years. If election 2017 has killed it off, then I, for one, will take the blushes for failing to see it coming.