The thing I wrote about the 2017 election.
Rallies, chanting, indifference to facts, reflexive racism, claiming everything is rigged and that news media is biased against him, are just a few easy parallels to draw between Donald Trump’s populist support and Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘people’s movement’. And it’s perhaps not a coincidence that the two mainstream parties shaken by anti-establishment surges are the two that were in power through 9/11 to the economic crash.
There are differences though. Donald Trump’s manufacturing of simple perceptions then whipping these up into emotion, has propelled him into power, while Corbyn’s fully costed manifesto has just lost an election against a remarkably silly Tory campaign. But the most significant difference seems to be that Corbyn can’t be accused of exploiting the expressions of frustration that emerge from traditional working class communities now struggling and feeling forgotten and trapped in economic stagnation. Corbyn’s populism seems primarily to be an expression of self-regarding moral virtue. Where’s that coming from?
Extending support beyond a traditional working-class core was the key to Labour’s long term of government. NewLabour was largely about aligning policy with the economic systems that were the reality, rather than the ideal, and consequently aligning with people benefiting from the system, thus broadening the appeal of the Labour Party to include more middle-class voters — a mixed demographic that could make Labour the UK’s natural party of government. That was the plan.
Then came the financial crash. Low interest rates inflated the value of assets and the very rich were getting richer, while, for many, paid employment became increasingly part-time, temporary and insecure. Asset-poor workers who found their living standards falling were not consoled by salaried management’s blurb about ‘flexibility’ as an essential skill or as some sort of perk they should be grateful for. Suddenly class seemed to be back on the political agenda, and The Labour Party started losing elections.
Ed Milliband believed that the effects of economic flux could move the electorate leftwards and so that was the direction Labour would look to begin shaping a new consensus. But Ed Milliband’s Labour Party suffered from serious failures to communicate, eventually carving into stone some vague ‘pledges’ that weren’t even addressed to the beneficiaries of the policies that they didn’t describe. Those unable to recognise their political expression in Labour’s proposal had been increasingly looking towards smaller, populist and nationalist parties or to emerging extra-parliamentary movements like Occupy or People’s Assembly. In 2015 the Labour Party wandered into an election defeat despite five years of a punishing Tory government.
Corbyn’s leadership resulted from the desire to bridge a perceived gap between party and people, by offering any self-declared “supporter” a vote in the contest that followed Milliband’s resignation. This invitation was taken up by mischievous Tories and Greens, as well as by fringe-left forces far to the left of Labour with little interest in parliamentary politics. Corbyn’s leadership victory was followed by a transfusion of membership which left the (mostly unsupportive) PLP impotent, and has swept Corbyn towards the unassailable position he is in today.
Corbynism has lost the general election, but it has won control of the Labour Party, and the thought that this might be a mutant final stage of the Blairite ‘middle-classing’ of the Labour Party was hard to avoid in a campaign that promised to abolish university tuition fees and introduce grants while describing reversing Tory cuts and unfreezing welfare benefits as unaffordable. Trump’s right-wing populism is all about ‘forgotten’ working class communities. Corbyn’s left-populism seemed to forget about them. So far it seems to have brought a left-wing radicalism and a methodology of protest to be knitted within NewLabour’s systematic appeal to middle-class self-interest, and it is wrapping all this around the traditional bourgeois fantasy of the authentic individual.
While the Labour Party courted middle-class youth Mrs May imagined exploiting the alienation of Labour’s older core vote to build a new working-class Toryism. She did at least recognise that reconciling market forces with social cohesion is central to contemporary working-class demands even if it’s not clear how she’d achieve that, but she’d told us the election was all about her mandate for Brexit negotiations when it was more likely just an opportunist move against an opposition in disarray, and the electorate are not blind to those games. After a bizarrely self-defeating social care policy was immediately followed by an apparently panicked change of mind, it seemed May’s “strong and stable” slogan was all she had, and now she couldn’t say it again without being mocked. Conversely, Corbyn seemed to grow in stature during the campaign. He seemed to acquire style and lucidity while May increasingly seemed distant and awkward, and this matters so much because so much had been made of their relative personal qualities by ‘the Maybot’ herself.
Corbyn was heavily criticised for his disinterested demeanour during the EU referendum, and now Brexit wasn’t a key issue within his election campaign. May had also quite bashfully said “Remain” and then vanished, re-appearing after the referendum with her promise to ‘make Brexit work’. The SNP promised to resist Brexit and coupled this with independence, weirdly forgetting the muddled reality that a majority of Scots don’t want independence and a significant proportion of independence supporters had voted for Brexit. The Liberal Democrats launched their campaign with a single-issue pro-EU message that left them little room for manoeuvre once it became clear that resigned “Re-Leavers” were emerging as a large new group within the electorate.
What began as a ‘Theresa May and Brexit’ election seemed to end with the understanding that Theresa May isn’t all she’s cracked up to be, that the Remain vote is fading into a mass of resigned shrugs, and, less unexpectedly, that UKIP has no need to exist. The smaller parties that have been persuading Labour voters for a decade or more had all messed it up this time, and the result pushes UK politics back towards a 2 party system. The voters who switched had been voting for the smaller parties that shape the opposition rather than govern, and those switching to Labour still are because working-class switchers mostly switched to Tory, and the Tories clinched it.