The only word to describe Theresa May’s unnecessary recent decision to call an early election in Britain is “hubris” and that hubris has now led to irremediable humiliation. “Strong and stable” could have described her political position before the election, but as a campaign slogan, delivered with numbingly motoric repetition, it became risible as “Jobson Growth” had been in Australia last year.
Beyond May’s trouncing, the election has also invalidated many British political verities: “Young people don’t turn out to vote” is, probably, the most significant of them and this is a healthy reminder that the future is theirs not (as with the referendum in 2016) that of the frightened older generation. Politics is more than the “reality” of hard-headed professionals; it is about hopes and dreams. Young people rightly have those; we oldsters have largely lost them. Ironically Jeremy Corbyn revealed a striking ability to combine the use of modern social media with old-fashioned mass rallies to persuade the young, especially women, to listen and to support them in their yearning for a better future. As a result, the overall voting turn-out (69%) was the highest since 1997 and exit-polls indicated that the increase was 12% amongst the under-35s. A post-election poll of over 50,000 people showed that the age cross-over in voting preferences occurs at 47, with increasing Labour support below that, reaching over 60% in those younger than 30.
Another challenge to conventional wisdom is that it is now accepted that threats to “law-and order” such as the recent terror attacks, no longer seem to favour right-wing parties. There may be a resonance in this for Australia.
For those of us who love data, consider the vote in Corbyn’s own constituency of Islington North: he won in 2015 with a 60.24% of the vote and a majority of 21,194; this year his vote was 72.98% and the majority 33,215. By contrast, consider Canterbury, amidst a sea of Conservative blue in the south-east, where a Tory ascendancy of more than 150 years has been turned from a 9,798 win in 2015 to a Labour majority of 187 (in a swing of 9.33%). Significantly, it is a university city.
The house next to where I am staying in London, displayed a “Vote Labour” poster, and vote Labour the constituency did, with a 30,509 majority for the member Keir Starmer, the former DPP and human rights lawyer. In fact, London (with 49 Labour seats, a gain of 4, to the Conservatives’ 21, a loss of 5), remains an astonishing Labour stronghold.
The overall national vote for Labour was 39.98%, very close to the 41% of the 2001 “landslide” for Tony Blair. This secured them 261 seats (a gain of 31 seats) compared to 318 to the Conservatives (with 42.45% of the vote and a loss of 12 seats).
But the traumas were for more than for the Conservatives alone. North of the River Tweed the Scottish National party has been reduced to 35 seats (a fall from 50% support in 2015 to 35% this time, at a cost of 19 seats). Another independence referendum there now looks pretty unlikely. The other loser – unsurprising, perhaps, because the 2016 “Brexit” rather pricked its balloon, leaving it “a rebel without a cause” – was UKIP (the “UK Independence Party”) which fell, overall, from about 13% to less than 2% of the vote, leading to the immediate resignation of Paul Nuttall, its third leader in a year after Nigel Farrage’s retirement; Nuttall finished an ignominious third (with only 3,300 votes) in the constituency which he contested.
So where does this leave the hapless Theresa May? And, more important, where does it leave Britain – without a plausible government and the Brexit negotiations looming within days? She has been looking weak and opportunistic in seeking a “deal” of sorts with the members of the so-called Democratic Unionist Party from Ulster (one of whom is the son of the Rev Ian Paisley), “our friends” as some shameless Tories have been calling them. She will find them uncomfortable allies, with special interests as well as regional and sectarian concerns. When a former Conservative PM strongly criticises this deal, as John Major did on radio a few days after the election, the political right looks as fractured as Britain, itself.
Yet, oblivious to all of that, May returned from an interview with the Queen on Friday 9 June and made a speech saying, “The government I lead will put fairness and opportunity at the heart of everything we do”, as if the Corbyn ethos and campaign hadn’t existed, and all of that would happen “over the next five years”. She appears to be the only person in the country who thinks that she can last even 5 months, let alone five years. Ever since the shock of election night, numerous members of her party have been trenchantly critical of her campaign and, no less importantly, of her performance as PM. Her two vilified senior advisers promptly resigned; it was as if, somehow, they were to blame because she listened to them so exclusively and ignored everyone else. Somehow the reality was forgotten that consequences flow from accepting advice: a politician (like everyone else) has the freedom to reject it. For example, I saw one former minister say that “Mrs May must now obviously consider her position after a dreadful campaign.” And a former Cabinet Secretary (Lord Turnbull) bluntly said that May “isn’t up to it……she doesn’t have the skill-set to be Prime Minister….and should resign”. May has prodigally thrown away her limited political capital, most likely having over-estimated it from the beginning.
Of course, the British political and historical perspective is limited. They seem to have a fierce aversion to coalition governments and hung parliaments (though te PM seems the one being hung this time) and fail to understand that such arrangements are the norm in many other successful (even “strong and stable”) societies. That word “hubris” comes to mind again. Meanwhile, as the political classes fret intensely, life for everyone else goes on: the fickle weather alternates between sunshine and bleakness, it’s still possible to do research in libraries and archives; there are still fine exhibitions to be visited. And there will be a record number of women in the Commons – more than 200. So there’s always a bright side in politics – we just need to look properly.
This piece first appeared in Stubborn Mule.