On Thursday, June 8, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party shocked the world: wildly outperforming expectations, it denied Theresa May’s Conservatives a governing majority, opening up a new and unexpected era in British politics. What lessons should we draw from this pivotal election?
1. Progressive platforms are popular. In 2015, Labour leader Ed Miliband ran on a centrist platform and lost the election with 30% of the vote. Just two years later, Jeremy Corbyn ran on a more progressive platform that advocated increased investment in public services, making universities tuition-free, banning fracking, building public housing, transferring to renewable energy, nationalizing the trains, post office, water, and electricity, recognizing Palestine, banning arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations. Political suicide, right? Wrong. Labour in 2017 upped its vote share to 40%, the largest swing for the party since 1945. And just a few days later, a new poll showed that if the election were held again, Labour would win 45% of the vote and beat the Tories by six points (the UK being a multi-party system, reaching 50% is not necessary to win an election). The left, in short, is no longer being held hostage to the third-way centrism of the Blair years.
2. Mainstream print and television media are fast losing ground to social media. Mainstream media were uniformly, condescendingly – and in the case of the tabloid newspapers, viciously – against Jeremy Corbyn from the moment he was elected Labour leader in 2015. This was only partially rectified by impartiality rules that kicked in for the networks during the campaign which, to be fair, did make an important difference in allowing Corbyn’s views to get more of a public hearing. That, however, did not stop much of the rest of the media from throwing everything, including the kitchen sink, at the Labour leader. Social media, however, was a different story. As in the U.S. in 2016, it became a tremendously important forum for debunking mainstream-media myths, providing alternative sources of news, sharing videos, memes, songs, and getting out the vote. Having dug their own grave by latching parasitically onto the establishment bubble, mainstream outlets are finding themselves being displaced by openly progressive sites such as The Canary, Evolve Politics, and Novara Media.
3. Don’t trust the polls… and they didn’t. UK pollsters have had a very bad run of late, predicting a hung parliament in the 2015 election instead of the eventual Conservative victory, then forecasting that the Remain side would win the Brexit referendum in 2016. This time around, in contrast, almost all final surveys (with the exception of YouGov and Survation) drastically overestimated the Tory lead and the number of seats they would capture, leaving many in open-mouth shock when the first exit poll was released at 10 P.M. on election night. As polls don’t simply reflect public opinion, but help shape it by dictating on a daily basis who is “winning” and “losing,” “electable” and “unelectable,” polling failures are, in a sense, democratic failures. The fact that actual voters have surprised the polls three times in a row, however, indicate that – like the mainstream media – polls don’t hold quite the sway we like to think they do. Except, perhaps, for Theresa May, who called the snap election on the basis of a super-humongous poll lead that proceeded to evaporate faster than the Arctic glaciers.
4. Foreign policy and terrorism are no longer sure-fire winning issues for the right. During this short campaign, the UK suffered not one, but two, horrific terror attacks, in Manchester and London. According to the traditional political rulebook, such tragedies would provide an axiomatic lift to the law-and-order right. In this case, however, Labour focused on the Conservative’s drastic cuts in policing and the security budget carried out while Theresa May was Home Secretary and then Prime Minister, effectively shifting the terms of the debate away from old-fashioned saber-rattling towards the effect of austerity cuts on vital public services. In the aftermath of Manchester, moreover, Corbyn did not hesitate to draw a link between foreign policy and terrorism, pointing out that British interventions have left vacuums of power across the Middle East that have become breeding grounds for radicalism. It was a speech that he was warned by advisors not to make. But it turned out that, once a political leader dared to state the obvious, a majority of the British public agreed with him.
5. Cloistered campaigning doesn’t work. Like Hillary Clinton before her, Theresa May ran a hermetic, hyper-controlled campaign, speaking in front of handpicked audiences, limiting access to the press (indeed, locking them into a room at one campaign event), and refusing to deviate from her scripted sound bites (“strong and stable government”), at the expense of sounding both ridiculous and robotic. In fact, she went Clinton one better, refusing even to appear in a debate with Jeremy Corbyn and other party leaders – and getting duly roasted for it. Granted, David Cameron had also refused to debate Miliband head-on in 2015, but his campaign did not, at the same time, try to limit press access to the extent May did. Sharing in the discredit of the election results are the two architects of May’s politics of fear: Lynton Crosby, the Conservatives’ supposedly infallible election guru, and Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s political advisor, who found himself very comfortable supporting, for a second straight time, a right-wing austerity government in the UK.
6. Neither does negative campaigning. While Conservative attacks focused personally on Jeremy Corbyn, Labour refused to respond in kind. Corbyn famously eschews negative campaigning, and this is helped by UK electoral law, which bans the kind of attack ads that are the bread and butter of U.S. politics (UK television also provides political parties with air time for party election broadcasts, eliminating the need to raise massive amounts of money just to throw it away on extortionately priced television advertising provided by networks taking advantage of the public bandwidth for private gain). Rather than being a naïve posture of turning the other cheek – refusing to go negative does not in any way rule out sustained and pointed criticism – this reticence was part of a larger strategy of turning out both base voters and non-voters with an inspiring message and manifesto offer, rather than engaging in a personal slugfest that would have turned off the very voters Labour needed to turn out.
7. The right is not a uniform monolith. The received wisdom at the outset of this election was that voters from UKIP (The United Kingdom Independence Party) would fold into the Conservatives, having won the Brexit referendum and with Theresa May showing a convenient, religious-conversion style orthodoxy on the issue (she was originally a remainer). For this reason, it was said, the Conservatives’ massive poll advantage at the outset of the campaign was unassailable, whatever Labour might attempt to do. But this election did not bear that out. While the Conservatives clearly benefited from the collapse of the UKIP vote (their vote share was also up in 2015), so did Labour. Like blue-collar Trump voters in the U.S. who have been abandoned by the Democrats, many UKIP voters are not ideological, small-government conservatives, but rather disaffected or potential Labourites and the populist, progressive message offered during this election was enough to convince at least a certain percentage of them to “come home” to the party.
8. Disaffected fatalism just isn’t that hip anymore. One of the most regrettable side effects of the neoliberal era is a plunge in voting rates among young people. While young voters in the UK used to turn out at about the same rate as the parents, that all changed beginning with Generation Xers who, having grown up under Thatcherism, came to conclude – not incorrectly – that the system had nothing to offer them. In this election, however, young voters managed to swing a foretold result in ways that stunned seasoned political observers. As veteran anchor Jon Snow said in the aftermath of the election: “I know nothing. We the media, the pundits, the experts, know nothing. We simply didn’t spot it.” Turnout for 18-to-24-year-olds was 66.4%, up a staggering 23% from the last election just two years ago. Their vote overwhelmingly broke for Labour. And it wasn’t just the youthful enthusiasm of the college-aged, but of voters with careers and families: 58% of 25-to-34-year-olds and 50% of 35-to-44-year-olds, for example, plumped for Labour. Conservative victories had been built for years on the expectation that older voters would turn out in much larger numbers than younger ones. If that is no longer the case, and young voters continue not only to turn out for elections but to participate in politics on a regular basis, the future looks bright for the progressive left.
9. Austerity is on life support. Like the body on the cart in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, it’s “not dead yet.” But it’s close. Theresa May has no mandate to proceed with the kind of austerity she promised during the election, which includes further cuts to the police and social services, axing free student lunches for elementary students, means-testing winter fuel payments for pensioners, and requiring older people to use their home equity to pay for their own long-term care. In order to cling to power, the Conservatives will be entering into an informal, “confidence-and-supply” coalition with the northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which, although extremely conservative on social issues, opposes much of May’s economic agenda. And with Tory MPs well aware of the kicking they just got at the polls, a vote on any one of these measures could spark enough defections to bring this house-of-cards government down and lead to new elections. These elections could take place as early as the next few weeks, but few predict this government will last longer than a year.
10. The Progressive Army kicks ass with its live blogs. Our election-night blogging of the UK election with myself, Salam Morcos, and Colin Mooers was our maiden endeavor. Look for more coverage of both national and international events in the future – and let us know what you’d like to see us cover.