Thursday, 8 June 2017

Have-a-go zeroes, Brexit dreamers and a tribune emerges: the UK General Election of 2017

‘He would probably have to move to Downing Street. He says: “I am very happy where I live. Others may wish me to move. I did not become leader of the Labour party to get a new house. There are going to be pressures. Security issues, no doubt. But I like where I live. My neighbours like me being there as well, most of the time.’[1]
So, election 2017... A weird, surprising experience; an entirely unnecessary party-political ploy by the Prime Minister, but one the left have made use of. If Corbyn wins it or (infinitely more likely) if there's a hung parliament, it will be the biggest political upset of... surely any!? The thing is, each day the prospect seems a bit likelier. Could events in Chris Mullin and Alan Plater's superb 1988 Channel 4 drama A Very British Coup actually come to pass...?

This has been, viewed objectively, the most incompetent Tory campaign you could imagine. In 2001 Hague-led, they were underdogs. Now, in 2017, they were massive, media-boosted favourites and yet... now face an entirely new political landscape. Labour will now surely at least gain 33-34% of the vote. All accounts point to a highly significant swing to the left among younger voters. The Labour manifesto and campaign has dragged the political "Overton Window" to the left. This refers to Joseph Overton’s theory of which policies are publicly considered acceptable within a given political context.[2] It can be argued that May’s duplicitous left-ish rhetoric also engages with the reality that neoliberal right-wing policies are now less acceptable than in their 1990s-00s heyday, and Corbyn’s manifesto will surely cement a general leftwards trend in which policies will be seen as not just desirable but possible.  

Whatever you think about Jezza, you simply cannot imagine Owen Smith or Liz Kendall pulling this off. The most important test for progressive politicians is how they affect the political centre of gravity. The affable but uncharismatic Ed Miliband's caution just did not work. This more cerebral leader hedged his bets on everything, didn't seem genuine. He lacked passion. Corbyn is now showing these qualities and it seems they may even advance beyond "shoring up the core vote"... Whatever happens, it is good to see that this is now not a walk in the park for the most arrogant, laughable politician in my lifetime, my namesake: T. May. In this, she may beat stiff competition from Michael "something of the night" Howard, Billy "14 pints" Hague and even the pathetic "Quiet Man" of British politics, IDS!
The mind-numbing political language of cliché and sound bite has, yet again, dominated. But, it has been good to see “Strong and Stable” widely mocked. “Magic money tree” needs to be as widely reviled – but then, public understanding of the complexities of economics is so low that such arguments may not easily find purchase. A telling moment in the debate was when Paul Nuttall decried Labour’s manifesto as set on taking the country “back to the 70s”. There was some scoffing and laughter, if not quite as much as when Rudd boasted of “our record”. Surely, a large number who lived through the 1970s would say it was a better time than now, in terms of a shared common culture, but also the diversity of subcultures and the power that working people had. It also saw the most significant developments in British feminism and environmentalism.
Worst of all has been May’s “no deal is better than a bad deal”, winning idiotic right-wing cheers for a paradox: no deal actually being the likely most punitive and economically devastating situation conceivable. In the Paxman interview, May was vastly more at ease talking about Brexit than domestic policies; this has been the Tory mantra this time, replacing the "maxed out credit card". It is believed. Many voters are willfully deluding themselves that an independent future will be rosy. They can kid themselves, as we won’t leave until 2019 at the earliest… They can still, somehow, cling to their own idealised visions of what “Brexit” will entail: a return to the 1950s, a return to metric measurements, more deregulation, more nationally focused regulation, fewer bendy bananas…
Therefore, it is the right-wingers in this country who are the dangerous dreamers and the next few years will make this amply clear – this wouldn’t be a bad election for Labour to narrowly lose, as dealing with Brexit is the ultimate poisoned chalice. These voters are ultimately deciding to focus more on their imagined “Brexit” panacea than thinking deeply about frankly absurd policies such as the expansion of grammar schools at the expense of the majority of children. Sadly, for a great many voters, the power of simple appeals to patriotism will outrank critical thought about the Tories' remarkably sectional domestic agenda: class war on behalf of the already sharp-elbowed and prosperous.

A more gratifying aspect of the election has been UKIP’s overdue eclipse. Unless they are able in the future to claim some sort of ‘betrayal’ of the Brexit ‘promise’, they are finished for good. Paul “Eddie Hitler” Nuttall is the most singularly unimpressive political leader the party has had, this year. My funniest moment of the campaign was when Andrew Neil questioned the pro-capital punishment scouser, following his reported comments claiming he’d like to pull the lever on those convicted of the death penalty: “do you want to be an MP… or an executioner?” I'm not usually a fan of Neil, but here he encapsulated Nuttall's have-a-go zero nature in one stroke.
Hopefully, the Corbyn campaign has engaged young people in politics - a vastly important development regardless of exactly what happens tonight. From this week's Gateshead rally to anecdotes within my Further Education workplace, there is tangible engagement – seemingly entirely on the Labour side. This could bode well for future elections if people react to the probable Tory victory in the right way – avoiding becoming disheartened and getting even more active.
The campaign has been ‘won’ by Labour, with even the more pessimistic polls from a left-wing perspective seeing a swing of around 6.5% since the start of the campaign with its 24-point Tory margins. They have presented an agenda that clearly entices voters after seven years of austerity. It is an interesting fusion of Corbyn’s ideas and the PLP’s; while a compromise, it is more radical than would have been probable with another leader, e.g. Cooper or Burnham. As John Harris argues, ‘an entire way of doing politics – deadened, arrogant and often absurd – is dying in front of our eyes. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party has revealed that the received wisdom of the past 15 years was wrong, and that talking in plain-spoken, moral, essentially socialist terms about the condition of the country need not entail political disaster.’[3] Corbyn's humility is key; he is just one of the people himself, who genuinely likes listening to and learning from people. He is more interested in tending his allotment than in wielding power for its own sake. His tribune-like giving voice to the crowd will be a much more winning way of doing politics than the old devious bullshit, if only Labour will learn from it.
While the Guardian seems to have recanted its Corbyn scepticism, the New Statesman’s leader article last Friday tortuously triangulates – ironically, given its reference to Ed Miliband’s ‘tortuous triangulations’. It acknowledges Labour’s increased support – due to ‘a spirited campaign’ – but ultimately asserts the conventional New Labour rhetoric: ‘a leader who cannot command the support of his parliamentary party is no leader at all’.[4] This fails to see that much of Corbyn’s appeal is in his break with conventional Labourist attachment to parliament and elections as the be-all and end-all. QUOTE MILIBAND. The NS asserts its politics as ‘liberal, sceptical and unpredictable’, in no way engaging with arguments about the Overton Window.[5] They instead ‘believe’ we should take Theresa May at her word regarding these declaratives in her manifesto: “We do not believe in free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.’[6] Somehow, they do not castigate such statements as being as divorced from real objective policies and conditions as Blair’s ‘belief’ in the rightness of his actions over the Iraq War. Peter Wilby forwards wiser words, seeing it as plausible and beneficial for Corbyn to come close to Blair’s 35.2% in 2005: ‘We may then hear less from Blair, Mandelson and their ilk about how Labour can’t win on a left-wing manifesto.’[7]
Yet, editor Jason Cowley focuses on a likely ‘shattering’ defeat, based on apparent conversations with Labour MPs in marginal seats, and ends up advocating a sort of Blue Labour approach, quoting Orwell: “Patriotism and intelligence will have to come together again” – and arguing than ‘an era is passing and the right is once more in the ascendant in these unsettling new times’.[8] It reads more like an intervention in a putative post-election leadership debate than a deep analysis of where the UK is at ideologically.

Of course, a Tory win of 50+ seats will necessitate a reckoning for Labour: for future advances to be made, both left and right will have to give some ground. The leftist’s perennial vice, embroilment in myopic sectarian squabbling, must be avoided. It is Labour’s challenge to harness the  novel positives of the Corbyn campaign and not retreat into 'politics as usual', 'austerity-lite' or the comfort zone of New Labour nostalgia. Even if May ends up winning, this win will be pyrrhic.
However, complacency would be folly. As Tufecki claims, there are ‘historically low levels of union membership and workplace militancy, along with the continued electoral fragmentation of Labour’s ‘natural’ base in the working class […] a Labour allied working-class movement […] appears largely absent today’.[9] Much of this can be laid at the door of Labour under Blair and successors, who did not challenge the Thatcherite settlement. The unenviable challenge is to advance within parliament and also outside it – this latter process has been begun, but has an immense way to go. A wider socialist culture won’t easily transpire without a radical government able to legislate – e.g. removing Tory laws restricting the practices of trade unionism. However, the election of such an intentioned government just won’t happen without greater pressure from the public. Dissatisfied working people – as well as the young – are going to have to get organised.
Key policies for medium-to-long term strategy that need relentless focus, to shift public discourse to move towards a more interventionist, socialist place: housing, wages and holidays, local democracy and the NHS.
The Labour campaign has effectively used the perception of its underdog status – as fostered by the media and polls – to build support, and increase scrutiny of the Tories. Aided, as Joe Brooker has argued, by the greater air-time an election campaign gives to opposition parties.[10] It has tapped into a notable anti-establishment mood – tellingly shown by the laughter in the TV debate when Amber Rudd made a ‘look at our government’s record’. Just how widespread the angry, naysaying public mood is remains a key moot point. Even if it turns out to be limited, we will likely see evidence of a larger left-wing ‘protest vote’ than in living memory – the switching to the Liberal Democrats over the Iraq War in 2005 may be the only comparable moment. If Labour manages to gain over 11 million actual votes cast, as is possible, this would be a good result: their highest total since 1997!

This does not feel like an election where the Tories are going to match or better the popular votes of 42-44% won by Thatcher and Blair in the 1979-87 and 1997 elections. Those campaigns largely saw those victorious party leaders controlling the agenda and featured only very minor 'wobbles'. Contrastingly, this has been the campaign of “weak and wobbly” May. The question is how damning the voters will be towards her presidential-style campaign…
Probably not so much, knowing this country’s entrenched political culture… The British public have a predilection for self-punishment. They go for an abstract idea of ‘safety first’ and endanger their own and our futures. They complain about things getting worse in their local areas, yet many of them vote in the party least committed to local democracy. On this, Tom Crewe’s excellent, depressing piece from December is worth quoting at length:

‘The establishment of a neoliberal consensus in Britain has been, in its essence and by necessity, an anti-municipal project. Austerity is Thatcherism’s logical end-point, effecting simultaneously the destruction of local government as a potentially rivalrous state-within-a-state, and the marketisation of nearly every aspect of public policy. Since 2010 the Conservative leadership, following the example of Thatcher and Blair, has diminished local democracy in order to entrench the gimcrack democracy of the free market, with the all-conquering mantra of ‘choice’ relied on to produce its own virtuous aggregations of opinion and activity: it is indicative that the Conservatives have not only brought back Right to Buy but also sought to expand the Free Schools programme so that councils would no longer have any role in the education system. Local government will soon be brought into line with its national counterpart: both limited in their essential functions, outsourcing the greater part of their responsibilities to the private sector. Private companies are now partly or fully responsible for the parole service, schools, roads, prisons, GP surgeries and walk-in centres, hospital services, the Royal Mail, tax credits, care homes, welfare assessments, refugee and detention centres, deportations, the provision of court interpreters, government pay rolls, broadband roll-out, IT programmes and government security. Most of these outsourced services are handled by four firms: Atos, Serco, Capita and G4S, who between them receive around £4 billion a year from taxpayers. (When the Tories won the general election in 2015, Serco’s share price rose by 5.95 per cent, Capita’s by 6.72 per cent and G4S’s by 7.35 per cent.) Mooted for future privatisation are the student loan book, the land registry, child protection services and the law courts. This isn’t to mention our privatised rail, gas, electricity, water and nuclear energy networks.’[11]

The Tories promise five more years of this deadening, unnecessary austerity – and are now even unable to credibly argue it has been in any great economic cause: deficit and debt have grown more than previously when spending was higher.
Also, the electoral system now thoroughly favours the Tories, even more than in the past – they get votes where it counts. If Labour won’t back PR after this, it will be off its electoral rocker.
The polls offer something for all; for the pessimists, yes, but also the optimists: some are showing 1-4% leads for the Tories. If this transpired, a hung parliament would be definite. While May’s party would likely be the largest, it would be a fatal blow to the Prime Minister and a dent to the Tory agenda. YouGov’s seat-by-seat model currently shows the Tories ahead of Labour by 42-38% and with a narrow 33-seat lead: 302 to 269. It claims to contain a heavy focus on exact seat demographics, Remain-Leave and is said to be based on the current polling and factors in higher youth turnout. It also has the Lib Dems on 12 seats and Vince Cable winning by 18% in Twickenham (53-35).

On the cautious side, I am sensing YouGov’s model may be missing something. While I sense that Electoral Calculus is much less seat-specific and will be widely out in some areas, its caution is generally a bit more persuasive, given the ‘shy Tory’ factor clearly at play in elections like 1992 and 2015. On EC, you plot a 7-point Tory lead and the majority is nearly fifty. Some polls are showing 10-11 point margins. While many of these polling companies bizarrely cap youth turnout at 2015 levels, they may factor in some probable Tory – and status quo – “swing-back” (as the jargon has it).
The Tories have clearly had more money to spend on the campaign, and while the media has become increasingly critical of May’s campaign, the previous idolatry of the “Strong and Stable” One engendered too big a lead in perceptions than this campaign could fully overcome. In addition, the Tories have been deploying dark advertisements using social-media, untracked by the law or election authorities. These have been micro-targeted to specific demographics and specific marginal seats, in addition to a big spend on propaganda within local newspapers.  The Bureau of Investigative journalism have revealed that nine out of ten such Tory ads personally attack Corbyn.[12]
The Tories’ attention to electoral geography gives them a massive advantage. Even if there’s a Conservative to Labour swing in the national popular vote (perfectly possible), there could well be a counter-swing in the marginal seats. There unquestionably will be such a pro-Tory swing in narrowly held Tory seats that are not in London or bastions of Remain voters, as basically Labour have not focused on campaigning in Tory-held constituencies. 
Some key seats to watch:
1. Twickenham – will social democratic slaphead Vincent Cable win, against a Remain-leaning Tory?

VERDICT: not quite. Photo-finish, with the Tories just edging it.
2. Vauxhall – as focused on in John Lanchester’s LRB piece. Will Farage associate and pro-fox hunting and grammar schools Tory in all but name Kate Hoey hold off the anti-Brexit Liberals?
VERDICT: No. Liberals lose out, as Hoey wins by association with Corbyn-led Labour.

3. Hartlepool – Mandelson’s old coastal seat epitomises the disillusionment with metropolitan pro-immigration New Labour politics. This seat, in an isolated, deprived and insular part of the north-east, has seen massive UKIP votes in recent General and European elections. Just how much of that vote goes to the Tory will decide who wins in 2017…

VERDICT: Labour to hold with 5-10% lead over Tories. Quite a lot of the UKIP vote will actually go to Labour – I think you’ll see this in quite a few more seats than expected. A 3:1 Tory:Labour ratio?

4. South Thanet – Tory Craig MacKinlay has a 2,812 majority in this Kent seat, over second-placed UKIP, and was around 7,000 ahead of third-placed Labour. All so straightforward, until CM was charged with election spending offences from the 2015 election…

VERDICT: a Brexit heartland, so surely an increased Tory majority, of around 9,000 ahead of Labour, who will easily beat UKIP. I don’t think the voters will care that much about his being charged, though it may reduce the majority more than I am positing.
5. Hastings and Rye – Coastal Sussex seat, with Hastings a left-leaning town, but Rye and rural wards in-between solidly Tory. In Netherwood, within this seat, there was once a Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) guesthouse, in the post-WW2 era. This seat is now held by ‘magic money tree’ fabricator Amber Rudd, with a 4,796 majority. YouGov have Labour ahead 48-42%.

VERDICT:  I see a result almost exactly the other way around as probable. A slightly reduced majority compared with 2015, due to there being less of a UKIP vote than other such seats.

6. Halifax – now it’s this sort of seat that is absolutely crucial to whether the Tories fail to win a majority, scrape home similarly to 2015 or rack up the sort of 50+ majority that the odds surely point to. The northern and midlands marginal seats, held by Labour with small majorities under Miliband, will be key. This seat was won by Labour’s Holly Lynch by a mere 428 votes. The New Statesman had an article last Friday suggesting it’ll fall to the Tories. However, there isn’t a massive UKIP vote for the Tories to stockpile – they only got 13% last time, like in Hastings and Rye. What the NS failed to highlight is the inexorable decline of Labour’s majority in each and every election since 1997. This is exactly the sort of traditional Labour seat – see Wakefield too, in the same region – that feels massively let down by New Labour. Viewed logically, it would be curious for the seat to go Tory considering ‘there is dissatisfaction here, particularly with public services’.[13] Yet, there is little logic in politics and thus it’s little surprise that Theresa May unveiled her manifesto here – it’ll be interesting to see if even that cack-handed document will stop a Tory gain here… If it does, we would be in hung parliament territory.

VERDICT: knife-edge Tory win by 200 votes. I think the post-1997 pattern won’t quite be turned around. But it will be close.
My overall election prediction:

CON 43.5% (351 seats)
LAB 36.5% (225 seats)
LD 7% (4 seats)
GP 1.5% (1 seat)
UKIP 4% (0 seats)
SNP/PC 4.5% (51 seats)

Tory majority: 52.

A result that Labour would certainly have taken a few weeks ago! But also one that the Tories would have taken in the early days of June, and that, sadly, will give Theresa May a boost – even if it will now clearly only be a short-term one. We have seen her mettle – or lack thereof – and know she’ll be devoured by Brexit.

To quote Antonio Gramsci, this election is, more than any, about “optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect.” It has to be about maintaining and nurturing that hope for the long haul, without any illusions regarding harsh realities.

[1] MacAskill, Ewen (2017) ‘Facing the political fight of his life: on the road with Corbyn’s campaign’, The Guardian, 3rd June, p.7
[2] Lehman, Joseph G. (2010) ‘An Introduction to the Overton Window of Political Possibility’, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, 8th April [online] [accessed: 08/06/17]
[3] Harris, John (2017) ‘Corbyn has shown there’s a new way of doing politics. Straight talking is back’, The Guardian, 3rd June, p.33
[4] Leader (2017) ‘Labour and the common good’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, pp.4-5
[5] Leader (2017) p.5
[6] Leader (2017) ibid.
[7] Wilby, Peter (2017) ‘Corbyn’s bung to the middle class, the true causes of terror, and a musical’s off-key message’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, p.7
[8] Cowley, Jason (2017) ‘The reckoning’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, p.28
[9] Tufecki, Baris (2017) ‘’Politics of containment’: The (Ralph) Milibandian critique of the Labour Party’, Socialist History 51, pp.65-6
[10] Brooker, Joseph (2017) ‘Election Campaign 2017’, Reeling At All, 6 June [online] [accessed: 08/06/17]
[11] Crewe, Tom (2016) ‘The strange death of municipal England’, London Review of Books, (38)24, 15th December, pp.6-10
[12] Anon (2007) ‘Tories ‘using fake news to attack Corbyn’’, The Guardian, 3rd June, p.7
[13] Lewis, Helen (2017) ‘Unhappy valley’, New Statesman, 2-8 June, p.32

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