The Choice Was Real

David Runciman on the election

One of the better arguments for Britain’s leaving the EU was that it might reinvigorate and liberate national politics, stifled for too long by the absence of real choice at election time. The EU is a legalistic and treaty-based political institution designed to take some of the heat out of domestic politics. That left people complaining that the EU was generating all the heat. Brexit offered the prospect of a return to two-party politics across Britain, squeezing out the minor parties motivated by single-issue grievances. To a remarkable extent, this is what seems to have happened. The electoral map of Britain in 2017 looks very much as it did in 1970, before we joined the EEC. The two main parties now command well over 80 per cent of the popular vote between them, a figure not reached since the election of 1970. Scotland is no longer another country in electoral terms and both Labour and the Tories can claim to speak for all parts of the Union. This was achieved without either of the main parties cleaving to the centre. The choice on offer at this election was real and the voters embraced it.

It may be one of the better arguments, but that still doesn’t make it convincing. No election that results in the prospect of a minority government formed between the Tories and the DUP can be a great advertisement for two-party politics. There are many words that could be used to describe such an arrangement, but reinvigorated and liberated are not among them. British politics feels pinched and insecure after this vote. The prospect of real change hovers in the background but it is still hard to see how we get there from here. This is not 1970. The SNP retains a large bloc of support in Scotland that makes it much more difficult for either of the main parties to forge decisively ahead. Seventy seats in the new Parliament are held by MPs who are not Labour or Tory. In 1970 that figure was 12. Back then, Northern Irish electoral politics were still an extension of what happened on the mainland: the Ulster Unionists, effectively the Northern Irish branch of the Conservative Party, won eight of the 12 seats contested in the province. Now, Westminster politics looks more like an extension of what happens in Northern Ireland. If a return to the early 1970s means British politics being overshadowed by entrenched divisions in Northern Ireland, then here we go again. But that isn’t what Brexit was designed to achieve.

Liberating the British political system from Brussels offers the appearance of a real choice but it doesn’t deliver. Both sides cling to the exceptions and forget about the rule. For many on the left, Attlee’s crushing victory in 1945 is the template for what’s possible. But what can be achieved in the aftermath of a world war is not a template for anything, not unless Brexit turns out to be a calamity on a scale no one can possibly wish for. For the right, Thatcher’s victories in the 1980s show what can be done under a first-past-the-post system – and no doubt it was the prospect of a Thatcher-like landslide that drew May to her Waterloo. But getting out of Europe was hardly a precondition for the triumph of Thatcherism. Rather, it was getting into Europe that helped precipitate Thatcher’s rise, by splitting the left. Dominic Cummings, one of the architects of Brexit, claims that the key test of any political system is its capacity for ‘error-correction’ and that the EU decisively fails this test. But does the unreformed British system pass it? Hardly. That error-correction has any allure probably reflects lingering nostalgia for what happened in 1940, when parliamentary politics allowed for a decisive change of course before it was too late. But again, if the Second World War is all we have to show us what politics can deliver, we really are stuck.

The other problem with the notion of Brexit as a liberator of national politics is that this wasn’t a post-Brexit election. It was a post-referendum, pre-Brexit election. Nothing about Brexit had been settled when the election was called, and nothing about the result settles Brexit. Part of the success of Corbyn’s campaign came from his ability to suggest otherwise. The Labour Party managed to park Brexit as an issue by acknowledging it as a fact while hinting that anything was still possible. This allowed the party to focus on other issues, above all on the growing public dissatisfaction with austerity, and to draw attention to the contrasting personalities of the two leaders. May’s stance on Brexit strongly suggested the other side could still undo it and only she could be trusted to follow through. But because she was so reluctant to say what her plan was, she appeared evasive. By not talking about Brexit, Corbyn managed to sound like he knew what he was doing. By talking about Brexit, May managed to sound like she didn’t. Such are the vagaries of election campaigns.

Corbyn’s studied avoidance of the issue comes at a price. He has assembled a coalition of voters who have very different expectations of what comes next. For the traditional Labour voters who had defected to Ukip and came back at this election, he needs to help make Brexit happen as promised. For the students and other metropolitan Remainers who flocked to his cause, he needs to put barriers in its way. Of course, there is nothing new about national politicians at the head of catch-all parties having to square the contradictory instincts of their supporters. When two-party politics corrals voters into making a binary choice it is always going to produce these sorts of tensions. Yet what’s striking about the result of this election is just how many divisions two-party politics now has to accommodate. The UK electorate is split between the old and the young, the educated and the less educated, the metropolitan and the provincial, the urban and the rural. The two main parties increasingly resemble loose coalitions of different interest and identity groups, each with its own axe to grind, and primarily united by their dislike and distrust of the people on the other side. Our two-party system is suddenly starting to look like politics in the United States.

Powerful elected city mayors have become a part of the political landscape. Sadiq Khan was an important figure in this election and so was Andy Burnham. The two terrorist attacks happened to take place in cities with Labour mayors and both acquitted themselves well. Trump’s ludicrous attacks on Khan and May’s half-hearted defence of him may have fuelled anti-American sentiment among some Labour voters. But Khan’s enhanced standing is still part of the Americanisation of British politics. London and Manchester are, more than ever, solidly Labour cities and represent independent power bases for ambitious national politicians. The same is true of Scotland, which has provided a platform for Ruth Davidson to assert her authority against the Tory leadership without even having to stand for Parliament. The return of national politics in Britain has not made regional differences less important. One huge headache for the Conservative Party is how to reconcile Davidson’s liberal wing with the ideas of their new friends in the DUP. There are cultural divides here that echo the sound and fury of politics across the Atlantic. With the DUP set to prop up the government, we will have to reckon with attitudes to abortion becoming a faultline in British politics. The DUP also bring creationism and climate denial to the table. What could be more American than that?

Though his supporters won’t see it like this, Corbyn’s rise is also a sign of the Americanisation of British politics. He has led the Labour Party as if he were running for president. Though May called the election, she seemed utterly unprepared for it. Corbyn, on the other hand, has been in permanent campaign mode for two years. By focusing his attention on the movement, at the expense of the parliamentary party, he managed to retain some of the insurgent energy that characterises an outsider’s assault on the White House. Almost my first thought on the night of our election was – wow, if Corbyn can do this, Sanders really could have won the presidency. Corbyn’s manifesto, which as he proudly pointed out was put together by a large committee representing all wings of the party, resembled an American presidential platform. It offered optimism, uplift and sops to all sorts of interest groups. It was, in its way, strikingly non-ideological, unlike the Tory manifesto, which was written by a small coterie of true believers and fell apart almost the moment it made contact with the voters. May had to scramble to make the shift from offering strong and stable leadership to buying off her disgruntled core support. She didn’t succeed.

With the benefit of a few days’ hindsight, we can now see that this was what Americans call a ‘change’ election. May and her advisers, betting everything on continuity over chaos, got that completely wrong. For a change election, though, it hasn’t delivered a lot of change. Perhaps it’s best to call it a ‘please-God-not-five-more-years-of-this’ election. Corbyn attracted support from a broad swathe of voters for whom the prospect of being ignored or taken for granted until 2022 and beyond was intolerable. This included ardent Remainers, indebted students, anyone frozen out of affordable housing, long-suffering public-sector workers and anxious pensioners. It’s what enabled Labour to win traditional Tory seats like Kensington and Canterbury and to pile up big majorities in previously marginal seats like Ilford North and Cambridge. It’s also what made including a repeal of the fox-hunting ban in the Tory manifesto so cloth-eared. Not only did it signal that May expected to win easily – since fox-hunting is a vote loser, no one who thought the election might be tight would have gone near it – it suggested something like contempt for people who disagreed with her. If the choice is change v. contempt, then change – any change – will look attractive. Now, the Grenfell Tower fire, in the Kensington constituency, will stand for years to come as a ghastly symbol of that contempt.

Underneath the feeling that enough was enough lay a repudiation of austerity. Corbyn surfed that wave, but it was May who set it in motion. George Osborne, still busily fitting himself out for the role of her nemesis, always insisted that austerity was an all-or-nothing political strategy. It had to be upheld unbendingly because any compromise would bring the whole pack of cards tumbling down. May, by contrast, let it be known that she was willing to be more flexible in order to attract working-class Labour voters. That was a contest, it is now clear, she was never going to win. Having supplied the evidence that public-sector cuts were a matter of political choice rather than iron economic necessity, she had no good rationale for the cuts she was determined to make anyway. Her other problem was that Brexit helped put paid to the idea that the country was one false move away from economic disaster. Osborne has to take much of the blame for that. Once his threats of punishment budgets were exposed as hollow it was hard to believe anything was really out of bounds. The irony is that during the period Osborne’s austerity strategy worked politically there was more room for manoeuvre than he was letting on. Now it has been consigned to history, the risks of fiscal profligacy may be rising. But politics trumps economics. The Labour Party spent most of the past decade dancing to Osborne’s tune. Now the Tories will have to dance to Labour’s. It’s not clear what will set the limit to this auction of promises. It may be the next election, or the election after that. Alternatively, it may be the moment the markets take fright, particularly when Brexit starts to bite. Osborne, from his new perch at the Standard, can safely sneer at the whole business. But for now the game has changed, and many of those who lost out during the long winter of Osbornomics will start to feel the benefit.

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It is for Corbyn to decide what happens next. US-style movement politics don’t suit the Westminster model of parliamentary government, where managing how the numbers stack up in the Commons is still what counts. Corbyn’s strengths – above all, his extraordinary imperviousness to attack – have been on display over the past six weeks. His weaknesses have not gone away. He has shown no sign over the past two years that he is able to manage the parliamentary party. Of course, he now has the hugely enhanced moral authority that comes with his heroic and narrow defeat, one that confounded all expectations, including mine. Yet his position is still very different from that of Sanders, who also wears the moral authority of his heroic failure. Sanders has merely to channel indignation at the turn of events. Corbyn has to lead the opposition to May, and to whoever succeeds her. He has earned the right to try. But he has also earned the right to let someone else do it, should that be his decision. If the next two to three years are dominated by attritional parliamentary battles around the details of the Brexit negotiations, Corbyn is likely to see his moral authority start to erode again. If, on the other hand, we are six to twelve months away from another election, Corbyn has a serious chance of becoming prime minister. It would take an extraordinary act of self-denial to step back from that.

If Corbyn decides to privilege the movement at the expense of the parliamentary party then British politics risks getting stuck. The return of two-party politics has entrenched divisions without showing any clear way of bridging them. There is no reason to suppose either party is capable of making big advances from its current position: both may be close to the limits of their appeal and what matters is how they appease their new supporters. Francis Fukuyama has argued that politics in the US has become a ‘vetocracy’, where it is far easier to prevent things getting done than to build something new. Part of this stems from the role of the courts in the US constitution. But part of it comes from the spread of partisanship at all levels, which is fuelled by cultural antipathy and makes deal-making very hard. We could go the same way. Partisanship feeds off the perpetual hope that you are one step away from routing your enemies, and first-past-the-post systems encourage that delusion. We have just lived through another version of it. The truth is that in a 40:40:20 nation, which is what we now are, deal-making is the essence of politics. In its absence, nothing will really change.

Can May survive for long? Deal-making has never been her strong point and the campaign did as much to reveal her weaknesses as Corbyn’s strengths. She couldn’t change her tone once things started to unravel: she looked frozen with fear. Still, her strengths haven’t gone away, despite the enormous damage done to her moral authority by her miserable victory. If she can cling on for a while, she will have the opportunity to revert to the dogged mode in which she feels most comfortable. She can set herself some modest targets and take small comfort in working grimly towards them. It won’t be pretty but it might buy the Tory Party some time. We can be sure it will do what it can to avoid another election for now. Lessons will have been learned. No prime minister will ever again call an election for no better reason than to win a larger majority. Governments will learn to be satisfied with what they’ve got, however miserly. The Tory Party should also be grateful for small mercies. At the time of the EU referendum, serious consideration was given to enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, as happened in the Scottish independence referendum, in order to boost the Remain cause. Had the voting age been lowered, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the referendum, which was won by a margin large enough to outweigh any youth vote, but had it been carried through to the general election, Corbyn would now be prime minister. The Tory Party won’t be going down that road again. But Labour should take up the cause of lowering the voting age with renewed gusto – if nothing else, it’s a grievance with democratic justice on its side.

Meanwhile, the Tories will devote much of their energies to apportioning the blame for the disaster. There is plenty to go around. May’s aides Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill have already been dispatched. Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ campaign guru, has let it be known he had his doubts from the start, thinking it far too risky at a time of global political instability. He could have added that no government should ever go into an election at a time when the economy is slowing down and wages are falling and expect to come out smiling on the other side. Britain’s economic prospects look increasingly shaky and Brexit is not going to help. No amount of error-correction will alter that. Sooner or later, Labour will get its chance, something that seemed a remote possibility before 8 June. Corbyn and the people around him deserve all the credit for that. But that doesn’t mean Labour under Corbyn’s leadership will be capable of taking the chance when it comes. Politics just got harder. Under our political system, there’s still more scope for making errors than for correcting them.

16 June