Friday, 9 June 2017

Earthquake! Election 2017

by James Burkinshaw

A victory for the Millennials? 
On reflection, it shouldn’t be a shock that last night went so different to expectations - and that pollsters and pundits have got it so wrong. After Brexit, after Trump, it is clear that there is a seismic level of dissatisfaction with establishment politics, with a status quo that seems to leave so many behind. 

What so many (not least in his own party) saw as a disqualifying disadvantage (decades on the backbenches, no Cabinet experience) proved to be Jeremy Corbyn’s trump card: his anti-establishment credentials (not to mention his formidable campaign skills, honed over forty years addressing marches, rallies). A surprisingly high number of former UKIP voters chose Labour this time – it seems that Corbyn’s outsider credentials appealed to those Kippers who wanted to stick two fingers up to politics-as-usual. Thus, Theresa May’s strategy of turning the Conservative party into UKIP-lite has been revealed as deeply mistaken. Yes, many former UKIP supporters voted Tory, but enough of them voted for Corbyn to enable Labour to retain their vital northern seats.  

And it does also seem that this election was the “Revenge of the Millennials”. Hundreds of thousands registered for the first time and it seems that, perhaps still angry at the decision made by their grandparents’ generation last June, a significant percentage (in contrast to previous elections and contrary to expectations of most pundits) showed up to vote. It seems that younger voters were a significant factor in Labour's historic win in Portsmouth South; for Labour to be picking up seats in the South-East is stunning. Canterbury has gone to Labour for the first time in 100 years.

Throughout the UK, younger voters overwhelmingly chose Corbyn over May, reminiscent perhaps of the septuagenarian Bernie Sanders' appeal to younger American voters. Like Sanders, Corbyn came across as authentic and natural, a man clearly comfortable in his own skin and genuine in his beliefs. The Conservative decision to run a presidential-style campaign focused on Theresa May and her “team” has, of course, been revealed as a catastrophic error. Clearly ill at ease meeting voters, restricted to pre-arranged set ups with loyal party members, averse to debates, she cut an awkward and uncomfortable figure. Presented by the Daily Mail as the reincarnation of Margaret Thatcher, she was exposed, on the campaign trail, as more reminiscent of Gordon Brown in his last, haunted months as PM.

And (by common consent) she ran the worst campaign in recent British political history. Calling the snap election, she argued that she needed a huge majority to stop opponents of Brexit acting as "saboteurs" in Parliament. This was transparently dishonest and cynical, particularly with the Labour Party supporting Brexit and voting for article 50. However, with the disastrous launch of the Tories' care home policy, debate moved rapidly from Brexit on to Labour territory: health and the welfare state. There is a definite sense that, after 7 years, voters are tired of Austerity. 

Even more damaging was the impact of the bungled manifesto on May’s leadership image: incompetent, indecisive, weak and (in her refusal to admit the policy had changed) mendacious. She has been exposed as an empty suit. And her approval ratings plummeted accordingly. And Corbyn’s soared. Another revelation of the election was the unanticipated professionalism of the Labour party’s management: an effective manifesto roll-out, popular policy choices, an inventive and effective communications operation. Even on security issues which have traditionally played to Tory strengths, following on from the terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London, former Home Secretary Theresa May was on the defensive during the final days of the campaign about cuts in police budgets. 

Corbyn not only proved to be far shrewder and politically agile than most people expected. He also offered a positive, optimistic message – in contrast to the Conservative re-running the “Project Fear” strategy that failed so demonstrably when used by the Remain forces less than twelve months ago. And May's personalised, vicious attacks on Corbyn (for example, an invitation to invite voters to imagine him naked) made her seem mean-spirited – particularly as Corbyn refused to make personal attacks on her. Certainly, the attempt by the Mail, Sun and other Conservative out-riders to demonise Corbyn failed badly.

I also think that people saw Theresa May’s decision to hold this election as high-handed; her essential pitch was "I am not going to tell you what I am going to do with regard to Brexit; give me a blank cheque and trust me to do the right thing." Labour received much criticism (not least from me) for what seemed their confused response to Brexit: the decision to support our withdrawal from the EU but to try to soften the impact in contrast to so-called Hard Brexit. I think it worked – polls show that most voters are neither passionate Remainers nor committed Brexiters but people who feel we have to follow the democratic decision of last year's referendum but without either putting the economy at risk or cutting ourselves off from countries, such as France and Germany, with whom we share so much culturally and politically. I think May's perceived slavishness to Donald Trump has also been a factor here. May's increasingly confrontational approach to Brexit not only seemed to many to threaten our economic future, but to alienate us from leaders such as Germany's Merkel and France's Macron and send us into the arms of a Trump administration whose values are fundamentally alien to those of the majority of the British population. This was crystallised (in the wake of the London attack) by May's pained avoidance of directly criticising Trump for his extraordinary attack on London's mayor, Sadiq Khan.

One thing is clear: this is a deeply divided electorate – Brexit versus Remain, old versus young, North versus South-East. Whoever becomes Prime Minister (for Theresa May is surely doomed) has extraordinarily difficult decisions to make in the next few weeks. And neither Labour nor the Conservatives are in a position, with the current make-up of Parliament, to construct a viable, long-term government. The Brexit negotiations due to start in 11 days (!) represent the greatest challenge Britain has faced since the end of the Second World War and we may not even have a functioning government by then . . .

Thus, it seems likely that we are looking at another election within a few months (our fourth vote (including the referendum) in less than three years):

The argument regularly made in favour of our unrepresentative first past the post system is that it brings stable and effective governments armed with large majorities, in contrast to the chaos allegedly caused by proportional representation. I am not sure that argument carries much conviction any more. It really is time we had a fair and representative voting system - surely, this is something that all the political parties can now finally agree on.  


  1. Excellent article! On proportional representation, the French actually envy the UK's first past the post system, as it avoids giving too much weight on very small parties. Marie

  2. You critique FTP because it is not delivering stable and effective governments. This is true. But it is not true to say that we should therefore have PR: this would just be another way of delivering unstable and ineffective governments albeit via a different mechanism. Your article is actually a good argument for a better form of FPTP: possibly a presidential system. This would allow a team or leader the power to execute for a set period of time and then be voted out if they have poor results.

  3. I appreciate the argument that proportional representation can give small parties undue weight, but the 2010 and 2017 elections have both left us with a situation in which small parties (LDs in 2010, DUP in 2017) have influence grossly disproportionate to their vote count/number of seats. I am also not convinced that a presidential system would be an improvement on our current parliamentary one: certainly, neither America nor France seem to offer particularly desirable models for presidential government. PR seems to work very successfully in Germany, Ireland and other countries, without causing instability or ineffectiveness. PR certainly couldn't lead to governments more unstable or chaotic than the ones currently being thrown up in the UK under FPTP; and it would at least be representative of the voting intentions of the British people (no tactical voting, wasted votes, etc).


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