A terror attack on London Bridge before polling day; opinion polls showing the governing Conservative Party on course for a huge parliamentary majority; the deep unpopularity of the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn; and a desire by voters to end the impasse over Brexit. These are key electoral assets for the incumbent Tory prime minister.
The above snapshot was an accurate reading of the political weather in Britain on the eve of its June 8 2017 general election. Now, in déjà vu with several twists, it also offers a fair reading of the state of Britain on the eve of yet another election, this one scheduled for the dead of winter on December 12.
Weary British voters will trudge to the polls for the fourth time in 10 years. The state of political churn is also reflected in the fact that the country, once admired as a bellwether of political stability, is now on its third prime minister and third leader of the opposition since 2010.
Of course, the polls were wrong last time around, when a forecast Conservative majority of 60-plus seats turned into an upset that left the Tories of Theresa May 12 seats short of an overall majority and converted her “strong and steady” campaign mantra into a “weak and wobbly” reality, with her heading a minority administration.
So will next week’s election deliver a decisive result? Of comfort to the Conservatives is the result of the only poll (You Gov–MRP) to accurately predict a hung parliament in June 2017. It now forecasts an emphatic majority for swashbuckling and often mistrusted Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson, with 352 seats (out of 650) while Labour is expected to lose more than 60, its worst result since 1983.
But just how Brexit and the conduct of the party leaders has upended normal loyalties emerged when Tony Blair, who won an unparalleled three consecutive elections for Labour, urged voters to choose the most pro-European candidate in each constituency, and said the offers of the two major parties were based on “peddling fantasies”. Europhile Tory grandee Lord Michael Heseltine, who once served as deputy prime minister in John Major’s government, echoed this shake-up of political tribalism by endorsing the staunch anti-Brexit campaign of the third-placed Liberal Democrats.
Beyond the psephological interest political anoraks everywhere will derive from the British poll, there are several key and perhaps universal lessons to be gleaned from it in a world of political volatility, aspects of which resonate in SA. Many SA voters in 2019’s election were swayed by the character of political leaders, even though they might have doubted or even disliked the political platforms on which they stood.
Cyril Ramaphosa might have disappointed in his six months in office since, but hopes about his election and its effect on the negative outlook for the country swayed many voters. Conversely, then opposition leader Mmusi Maimane did not out-poll his party when it came to voter preference, which in some measure explains the DA’s poor 2019 performance.
In Britain, while Johnson significantly out-polls Corbyn, it is strictly a race to the bottom: Corbyn is the least popular leader of the opposition since modern polling began, with a “favourability” rating of minus 42%. Johnson weighs in with minus 6%. And though Johnson is dismissed by many as a chancer, he has been ruthless in reshaping his party from a broad church of many denominations into a narrow sect focused on “getting Brexit done”. He purged the more pro-EU from its ranks, and though he failed to deliver Brexit on October 31 as promised, he did renegotiate the deal and has offered it now as “oven ready” for delivery.
By hoovering up Leave voters behind the so-called “Red Wall” of Labour leave-facing constituencies across a swathe of England, Johnson has upended another nostrum of modern politics. Blair offered that “elections are always won in the middle ground”. Johnson has rejected that wisdom, as indeed has Corbyn, who has been on a purge of his own. He has converted Blair’s moderate social democrat and election-winning party into a hard left outfit with economic policies that embrace huge nationalisations, swingeing tax rises and an outsize role for the state, which makes even the ANC seem unimaginative.
Johnson has narrowed his party but also widened its base, in this case with a single Brexit message aimed at the Labour heartlands. But to win the election he has had to junk the normal Tory caution against shaking “the magic money tree” and its reputation for fiscal prudence. His new voters expect Brexit to be delivered and for public services to be expanded. Not quite by Labouresque proportions, but a far cry from the David Cameron austerity package.
Matthew Goodwin, professor of politics at Kent University, offered another explanation for the likely Tory surge in areas that have seldom voted Conservative, which points to a new political dynamic with resonance everywhere. Writing in the UK Sunday Times, he predicted that the key new issue, far removed from the left versus the right of old, are questions of identity and culture. And while Johnson has moved his party “left” with big-spending pledges, Corbyn has continued to offer free movement for non-British workers. This went to the heart of the Brexit vote, and here in SA it offers some explanation for the surges in xenophobia.
British politics, Godwin writes, will realign because cultural insecurity will see Johnson exploit the cracks in Labour’s “Red Wall”. It is easier, he concludes, “for the right to move left on economics than it is for the left to move right on identity and culture”. We will see the result of this forecast, and its implication way beyond Britain, in a few days’ time.
Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications.
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