Despite recent disruptions in the comfortable world of electoral punditry – Brexit, Trump, even Macron – when Theresa May called a British general election in April, the only question was how many additional seats the Conservatives would win.
The Prime Minister enjoyed a relatively high level of popularity. Jeremy Corbyn, the Leader of the Opposition since 2015, was largely regarded as being hopeless. A pacifist and probably the most left-wing Labour party leader ever, he was reluctant to condemn organisations like Hamas and Hezbollah, while praising the social policies of leaders such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Even apart from his challenging ideology, he was widely portrayed as an incompetent buffoon. The Murdoch press and the Daily Mail were merciless. Beyond his 1970s socialism and palpable lack of interest in holding Ministers to account in Parliament, his shabby bicycle, his allotment in Islington, his ill-fitting suits and his apparent disdain for the monarchy all contributed to an almost universal view that he was the unelectable loser from central casting.
Having survived two challenges to his leadership, when the majority of Labour MPs voted against him, he had been forced to populate his shadow cabinet with second and third tier players, some of them former Communists. Many of his despairing colleagues were privately resigned to a heavy loss for their party in the election as the only way of finally putting a stake through Corbyn’s heart.
But, like the Revenge of the Nerds, the triumph of the reviled underdog can make for attractive theatre. Corbyn turned out to be an appealing candidate, adopting a refreshingly honest, old fashioned approach with some similarities to Gladstone’s Midlothian campaign. Warm, natural and avuncular on the hustings, he continued doing on a much larger stage what he has done best for most of his life – campaigning passionately and eloquently for the socialist agenda in which he has always believed. Eschewing the robotic slogans beloved of the modern election strategist and, as ever, refusing to descend to the level of ad hominem attacks, as the campaign went on Corbyn increasingly struck a chord with a frustrated electorate simply looking for a reason to vote for a leader who believed in something and delivered a strong message of hope. By the end of the campaign, his public rallies were attracting more people than had Tony Blair two decades earlier.
Corbyn’s manifesto was also carefully crafted and full of appeal to an electorate weary of austerity and the rank inequalities it concealed. The sad truth is that in the UK the average real wage is still below its level ten years ago while the social wage, in terms of health and education at least, has also declined since the GFC. The National Health Service in particular is chronically underfunded. Yet many people in London, including financial sector executives who should have accepted some responsibility for the GFC, appear to have increased their wealth over the last decade and can avoid reliance on the State by taking out private health insurance and sending their kids to private schools.
Thomas Piketty’s identification of increasing inequality in western societies was echoed resoundingly in Corbyn’s single election slogan, For the Many, not the Few. He promised an end to a decade of austerity and an increase in public investment in the NHS and education. Most importantly, he had a message of hope for young people, struggling with high youth unemployment and generally dismayed by Brexit, stimulating in them a greater interest in politics than at any time in the recent past. He promised not only an abolition of HECS-style higher education charges but also a probably undeliverable write-off of existing student debt, valued at £32 billion. To pay for this he proposed higher taxes directed at the rich, an approach widely regarded by contemporary election strategists as a likely fatal own goal.
By contrast, after first stating categorically she would not call an election and then almost immediately doing so, the Prime Minister ran an egregiously ham-fisted campaign. At the outset, the Conservatives enjoyed a lead in the polls of about 20 points over Labour. Immediately they began to undermine this with their own mistakes. First of all, Theresa May turned out to be a poor campaigner, wooden in her public appearances and unwilling to discuss any matters of substance, while endlessly repeating trivial slogans about strong leadership and Brexit meaning Brexit. At the same time she attacked Jeremy Corbyn while refusing to debate him. Her manifesto reflected Churchill’s offer of ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat’ but without any vision of attaining his ‘broad sunlit uplands’. Austerity would continue, exemplified by constrained funding for health and education, and taxes would increase but not for the rich. Immediately nicknamed the Dementia Tax, a levy would be introduced aimed squarely at the poor and the sick.
What does all this mean for Britain? While Corbyn remains an unlikely Prime Minister, he has re-written the rules of contemporary political engagement. Increasingly it seems the electorate views inequality as an issue that needs to be addressed and is no longer willing to entertain the mindless slogans, possibly originating in the Antipodes, that substitute for a contest of ideas on policy.
Of immediate importance is the sense that the Brexit issue has been re-opened, not necessarily in terms of the principle of Brexit but rather the kind of Brexit that should be pursued. May’s hard Brexit is the model desired by the right of the Tory party, where the economic benefits of remaining in the customs union would be cast aside in return for strong controls on immigration. This may no longer be able to command a majority in the House of Commons. It is not difficult to see Boris Johnson as Prime Minister pursuing a very different model.
A soft Brexit would have many benefits, including shoring up the integrity of the UK as a nation. The election itself, which resulted in a significant loss of seats by the SNP, has already much reduced the chances of a Scottish secession and this would be enhanced by Britain remaining in the single market. At the same time, nobody with any memory of ‘the troubles’ would like to see the border between Ulster and Eire re-instated, as would be required under a hard Brexit.
Finally, Australian politicians will be drawing lessons from the British election. Bill Shorten and Chris Bowen will be encouraged both in their tentative steps towards making inequality an issue and in their willingness to put forward strong policies. Malcolm Turnbull, on the other hand, will take heed of the dangers of not seeming to stand for anything very much and of sacrificing once clearly held beliefs in order to appease the hard right of his party. To the community’s great benefit, both sides of politics will surely be wary of basing a future election campaign on catchy but vacuous slogans.
Jon Stanford is a Director of Insight Economics and a former senior officer in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.