Yet again, a Conservative Prime Minister in Britain has misread the mood of the nation. Gambling on right-of-centre populism to increase her authority, Theresa May, like David Cameron before her, has seriously underestimated the potential of protest to radically reconfigure the political landscape.
On the 18th April 2017, three years ahead of schedule, less than a year after the EU Referendum, with a confident twenty-point lead over Labour in the opinion polls, and after having repeatedly denied that she would take this course of action, Theresa May called a snap General Election. Why was this political manoeuvre such a worrying prospect? Why has it failed?
In June 2016, UK voters decided in a referendum to leave the European Union. In a recent article, I explained why this outcome, known as Brexit, was the result, in part, of the Labour Party having abandoned its traditional working class supporters in the post-industrial urban heartlands of Britain. I showed how the political vacuum created by this abandonment made space for the growth in popularity of the populist far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP).
UKIP had reconfigured class politics into a new nativist logic based on a combination of anti-European Union, anti-immigrant cultural nationalism and anti-establishment populism. This brought together, across the political divide, the protest votes of older white, less educated, working-class men and women of formerly opposing Conservative and Labour persuasions. With just one Member of Parliament in the House of Commons, UKIP won 4 million votes in the General Election of 2015, and proved that it was a force to contend with. Trying to contain the Euroskeptics in the Conservative Party, who were beginning to defect to UKIP, David Cameron agreed to a EU Referendum and hoped to call the bluff of a growing right-wing movement.
In the build up to the 2016 Referendum, UKIP only gained in credibility, adding a middle class support base inspired by a Conservative rebel leadership, and Euroskeptic supporters who were keen to jump on the populist bandwagon. Spurred on by the perfect storm of a migrant crisis in Europe and growing anti-Muslim feeling in reaction to terrorist incidents in Europe, the Leave campaign succeeded and shocked a nation oblivious to post-industrial discontent and falsely confident in its metropolitan, multicultural vision of progressive society. Suddenly, the Brexit vote made it clear that the political landscape of Britain was shifting to the right and that nothing could be taken for granted as the idea of society was opened up for renegotiation.
After such a catastrophic political miscalculation, David Cameron had little choice but to resign, and Theresa May won the leadership contest to replace him. Immediately, it became clear that the determination of the Conservative Party under Theresa May was to hold the centre ground in British politics by shifting to the right. Backing Brexit, promoting UKIP causes, and adopting UKIP rhetoric as its own, the Conservative strategy was to mop up those UKIP votes and neutralise UKIP in the process. Part of the reason for Theresa May’s confidence in calling the General Election is that this strategy appears to have been successful. Support for UKIP is now almost non-existent, because the party leadership has imploded, important by-elections have been lost, and voters have shifted allegiance. Branding herself as a safe pair of hands, the message from Theresa May to the nation was that she is the only person who can provide “Strong and Stable” leadership in these most precarious of political times. The reason this was a worrying prospect, in so far as her initial clear lead in the polls suggested the likelihood of her success, is that having neutralised the far-right by incorporating its causes and rhetoric, the Conservative Party legitimised and made mainstream that which was only marginalised before. The ultimate success of UKIP, then, has been to make palatable what was once unspeakable, which is an anti-immigrant British nationalism (built on an English version of cultural parochialism) that puts it on the same playing field as Trump’s America and in alignment with other adjustments in European politics where the populist, racist far-right is forcing the hand of social democracy in crisis.
The problem for Theresa May has been that she inherited from David Cameron a government with only a 12-seat majority in the House of Commons. This means that it has been easy for opposition parties, like the Scottish National Party, to be a thorn in her side, and for the House of Lords, and rebel MPs to disrupt her attempts to drive Brexit forward and handle the negotiations with Europe in the way that she feels her continuing popularity requires her to do.
With a greater parliamentary majority, Theresa May could have bolstered her position and lent increased authority – Margaret Thatcher-style - to the right-of-centre populism that she has forged. This would have brought her increased bargaining power in Europe, lending more seriousness to her attempts to negotiate a hard-Brexit way out for Britain. A convincing General Election success would also have meant that Mrs May could have led in relation to a new Conservative manifesto of her own making, rather than having to deliver on the promises of policies forged under the leadership of Cameron whose legacy she is desperately trying to distance herself from.
All the immediate signs, after Mrs May called the snap election, were that the Conservatives were set to increase their majority in the House of Commons from twelve to one hundred, representing a massive increase in popularity for the Conservatives, and an uncontested mandate for Theresa May to lead the way forward. Her timing depended partly on the fact that post-Brexit the Labour Party opposition had been in disarray and appeared to have been incapable of unifying behind the socialist leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Infighting prevailed and the Conservative ascendancy appeared to be unstoppable as calls were repeatedly heard, even as late as February 2017, for Corbyn’s resignation.
So, on the morning after the General Election, how have things gone so horribly wrong for Theresa May? How has her gamble so spectacularly backfired? Apart from the fact that the policies she unveiled proved to be unpopular, leading to embarrassing u-turns, and disregarding the growing sense that after all, she is not naturally good at engaging the public, or the media, Theresa May has made the same fundamental error as David Cameron: she has underestimated the potential of a populist protest movement to turn the political tide. Leaving aside the counter-cultural projects of an underground resistance in music and the arts, which has seen pop-up protests take the successful form, in the last few weeks, of a “Strong and Stable, my Arse” poster campaign and a song about Theresa May entitled “Liar, Liar” reached the top of the download charts, what has been most significant is the transformation of Corbyn’s political fate.
With nothing to lose, Labour took the reins off Jeremy Corbyn, and let him lead as what he is, which is an Old Labour-style socialist, conviction politician. Lending the populist political technology to a new kind of content, the Labour Party has skilfully marketed Mr Corbyn as an authentic man of the people - “Letting Corbyn be Corbyn” - and connected him with new kind of publics, which has, among other things, bolstered the youth vote, and found unlikely popularity for him among never-before-voters in parts of society that prefer to make music out of politics rather than go to the ballot box to seek social justice.
The ‘others’ in relation to whom Corbyn pits his left-wing populism are the media establishment who are accused of being against him, (because he is a socialist), and the wealthy elite represented by the Tories, whose version of austerity Britain - right-wing, elitist, and self-serving – is rejected for having severed the economy from its commitment to society. The brand for Corbyn’s campaign, “For the Many, Not the Few” has proved to be popular, and some of his policies, to protect the NHS from privatisation, to renationalise the railways, and abolish university tuition fees have become political symbols of the idea that Labour presents a genuine political alternative.
Labour voters in the former heartlands of the Northeast appear to have been convinced by this revitalisation of Old Labour-style politics, and abandoned their flirtation with the far-right. Despite the tragedy of two terror attacks that rocked the nation during the campaigning period, Theresa May could not convince the nation to have complete confidence in her and Corbyn has destroyed Theresa May’s mandate to lead. Now one thing is for certain, Theresa’s May’s gamble has not paid off and a hung parliament will plunge Britain into political uncertainty again. The difference this time is that uncertainty is good news, because a left-wing populist uprising has given hope to a new generation that society can be reclaimed from the far-right, negotiation can begin about restoring public services to the people, and not the private sector, and that voting really does make a difference after all.