In a year when Britain decided to leave the E.U. and the U.S. decided to elect a reality TV star with a penchant for Twitter rants, it turns out voters weren’t looking for strong and stable after all. Who’d have guessed?
I for one didn’t think it could happen. I was saying to a friend yesterday that I now understood how people had so much trouble seeing Trump as a possibility – I really couldn’t see how anyone could possibly think that Jeremy Corbyn, paleo-socialist and friend of the IRA, would make a suitable Prime Minister. He won’t even sing the national anthem for goodness’ sake. But let that be a lesson that what seems impossible may just be a blind spot in your own thinking.
To be fair, Corbyn didn’t actually win – quite far from it in fact. Labour are still a long way from being able to form a majority government and, with the collapse of sympathetic third parties, it is not clear where that majority might now come from. Expectations for Corbyn were so low that even an historically poor performance is being hailed as a huge victory.
One of the big questions coming out of last night is whether it represents a high water mark for Corbyn’s Labour or if, now that he’s seen as a legitimate contender, he will be able to build on Labour’s gains.
Another question is about the reliability of the youth vote in future elections. Again it was just the other day I was saying young people never vote and so won’t vote for Corbyn. Turns out this time they did, with 79% turnout among 18-25s, although it’s unclear whether they voted in support of Corbyn, anger about Brexit or despair about their future prospects under a government promising more of the same. But is this the start of a new age of youth engagement, or a singular rebuke to a political system they will now go back to ignoring?
To be fair to May, she did increase the Tories’ share of the vote and, thanks to Ruth Davidson, did spectacularly well in Scotland (where, in perhaps the most significant long-term result, the tide of Scottish nationalism appears to have been decisively pushed back). But it was an abysmal campaign, relying solely on fear and taking voters for granted. People simply don’t believe when politicians try to scare them anymore, and are tired of being bullied by an elite they don’t respect.
In relation to Brexit, Project Fear Mark III clearly backfired – if negotiations are going to be that difficult and acrimonious, why has May been so gung-ho about pushing for the cleanest break possible? To some extent Brexit was always going to be a poisoned chalice. Last June no one, including ‘Brexit means Brexit’ May, really knew what Brexit meant. In deciding to take a hardline approach, May gave voters the chance to say that they would prefer something a bit less antagonistic, a chance they have taken up with gusto. Already we’ve heard Boris Johnson, perennial Tory leadership candidate, saying that he was listening to voters’ concerns – is that a coded indication that as PM Johnson would pursue a less strident form of separation (perhaps the Norway option)?
The good news is that because of May’s authoritarian style and the fact that the reckoning came quite quickly, last night’s result is likely to be seen as an indictment of May and her specific, often quirky policies (why in the world are we still talking about fox hunting?) rather than the Conservatives as awhole. Given that no one else in the party seems to have had any input in or even knowledge of the disastrous manifesto, the Tories will have no trouble jettisoning things like the much-derided ‘dementia tax’, and the public will probably forgive them their association with a now irredeemably damaged Prime Minister.
Conservatives can also take heart from the fact that, given the closeness of the election, there were any number of things which, had they gone slightly differently, would have resulted in a comfortable Tory majority: a properly vetted and costed manifesto, a campaign message that captured the anti-politics mood of the electorate, a leader that could connect with people and who would deign to participate in debates (it’s worth noting that for the last 20 years in British politics, and 25 years in the States, the candidate who’s won has been the person you’d rather have a beer with – not a coincidence).
So the obvious solution for the Tories is to jettison May and hold another election, both in short order. But getting to that point is going to be tricky. It seems like May is going to try to remain Prime Minister as the head of a minority government with the support of the Irish Unionists. But minority government is difficult at the best of times – given May’s reputation for holding her cards very close to her chest, it’s impossible to see how she could create and sustain the goodwill between herself and MPs of different parties required for a viable government.
May is also in a very different position from where David Cameron expected to be in 2015 – head of a minority government after having exceeded expectations. If that had been the situation in 2015, Cameron would at least have had the goodwill of his party, and a large part of the public, on his side. May, by contrast, enters minority government with a party full of MPs angry about her handling of the election campaign, and with a target on her back. Knowing that Labour will table a motion of no confidence at the first inevitable stumble, how confident can we be that a handful of Tories or Unionists won’t agree (or abstain), causing the government to fall? That would be a disaster for the Conservatives, since it would probably mean having to fight another general election with May still at the helm. But it’s not clear that having another Tory leadership election now, and then calling another general election later this year, would endear the Conservatives to an election-weary public.
Despite the short-term uncertainty, however, last night was, like Brexit, a dramatic affirmation of the fundamental strength and wisdom of the British democratic system. It has been said that the quintessential image of British democracy is a removal van outside Downing Street. British democracy can be cruel – MPs who lost their jobs last night were forced to hear the results standing on a stage next to the victors (imagine Hillary Clinton doing that). But there is no question that British politicians have ‘skin in the game’ – that they are accountable to the electorate, and that voters will not hesitate to sack those who (rightly or wrongly) do not live up to their expectations.
The Conservatives have been in power for 7 years. The adversarial nature of our politics requires that power periodically shift between parties – it is not healthy for one party to dominate for too long, or a significant proportion of the population feel left out of the political process. There has been much talk, both in Britain since Brexit and the U.S. since Trump, about the increasing divisions in our society; between old and young, urban and rural, north and south. If Brexit reflected the concerns of the older, more rural population, last night showed that young urbanites are also feeling left behind.
One should never let a good crisis go to waste. Let’s hope we can use the lessons of these elections, in this time of instability and uncertainty, to prompt us all to listen to each other, seek common ground and, to coin a phrase, build a better Britain, together.