What a dramatic six weeks it has been for anyone closely following political events in Britain. While Insider does not want to be accused of hyperbole, what we have witnessed has been nothing short of a political meltdown for prime minister Theresa May and the Tories.
Yes they have ‘won’ the election in terms of vote share and seat numbers, and are only a handful of seats short of an overall majority and, yes, Labour are only back in seat terms to where they were under Gordon Brown in 2010, but having thrown away not only David Cameron’s hard-won majority, but also a massive lead in the opinion polls, this undoubtedly feels like a bad defeat for the Tories.
Insider has been pondering two things these past few days – what went wrong for the Tories and, even more pertinently, what lessons can Irish politicians learn from the campaign?
At the outset, Insider, like most observers, felt the Tories were on course for a sizable majority - even if he doubted the predicted Labour meltdown would be as bad as feared. As Margaret Thatcher put it, no matter what, there is always a deep residual attachment to Labour in many parts of the UK, which means Labour will always have a critical mass of support and a floor below which its vote will not drop. Many Tories ignored their late former leader's view and became carried away with thoughts of pro-Brexit voters in Labour heartlands turning to them.
The Tory campaign got off to a slow and unsteady start; even before the manifesto launch the party seemed to get caught up in unnecessary internal divisions over core Tory issues such as taxation policy. It then allowed Labour to dominate the conversation in the early stages. Then came the disastrous manifesto launch – a deeply negative, pessimistic document, with little to excite people - and subsequent U-turns.
On top of it all there was a very wooden, unconvincing performance from prime minister May. The charges against her are well-versed at this stage – robotic, refusing to engage with the electorate, avoiding head-to-head debates, relying on attacks on her rivals. On the rare occasions she did make public appearances she sounded deeply unconvincing; as one Labour advisor put it, she was unable to convince the public of things they agreed with.
Lessons for Irish politicians
The Irish political fraternity always closely watches a UK general election in the hope of garnering some nuggets of wisdom they can put into practice. This campaign offers more lessons than most but Insider wants to focus on eight key points.
Framing the question: It is a long-established political maxim that election winners are not those who have the answers, but those who set the question. Before the starting gun was fired on the campaign it appeared Brexit would be the dominant theme, which would favour the Tories. The party however allowed – and Labour skilfully managed – the early stages of the campaign to be dominated by policies outlined in Labour’s manifesto, which, contrary to some expectations, was a carefully structured document with broad appeal. This, coupled with the disastrous Tory manifesto, enabled Labour to paint the Tories as being a party for the few in contrast to itself as being for the many; this remained a dominant theme throughout the campaign.
Do not spring a big idea unexpectedly: As is the case in most countries including Ireland, the area of social care and how to pay for it is something the UK government must grapple with. Unpalatable decisions will have to be taken. To spring a radical idea with complex workings on an unsuspecting public midway through a campaign is asking for trouble. You must tease out such proposals with the electorate and introduce them gradually.
Thatcher, for instance, may have made some radical changes to British society, but these were done over a 10-year period, many of them only taking effect during her second term in office. Commentators are often heard berating politicians for lacking courage and for the glacial pace of change, but May’s fate offers a timely reminder of the realpolitik.
Focus on core issues: Jeremy Corbyn laughing off Jeremy Paxman’s query regarding the absence from his manifesto of a pledge to abolish the monarchy has unexpectedly stuck in many people’s minds. Many would have expected beforehand that Corbyn would become bogged down in fringe issues and quickly lose the engagement of the electorate. He very steadfastly refused to do so, even when his opponents tried to drag him onto this ground. Instead he remained focused on core economic and social issues. This is a lesson that parties of the centre-left in particular can learn.
On this occasion it turned out to be the Tories that went down a cul-de-sac, focusing on an extreme Brexit and on occasion resorting to pronouncements on the matter that bordered on fantasy. At times some Tories seemed set to declare war on Europe and the prime minister did not help matters with her assertions that the EU was trying to meddle in the election campaign.
The differences between pig-headedness and consistency: Insider was impressed with the manner in which Corbyn and Labour stuck to their guns, even when it would have been easier to take cover and row back. For instance, the terrible attacks on London and Manchester were politically difficult for Labour, yet the party not only defended itself from criticism, but succeeded in diverting it onto May, and turning the focus onto the years of cutbacks in police numbers.
Contrast this with the Tories very pig-headed approach to Brexit. Yes, you must show consistency and a willingness to stick to your guns, but adopting an inflexible, entrenched, position, creates the image of a cult rather than a political party.
Do not lose touch with your base: There were several examples of parties shooting themselves in the foot by losing touch with their base. Tory policy on social care angered generally well-to-do older voters, a key constituency for the party. Labour struggled a little on national security, something its core voters traditionally feel strongly about.
Arguably the worst culprits however were the SNP and it paid a heavy price. Commentary on Scotland has been a little one-sided in recent years with the picture presented of the party driving through traditional Labour heartlands in urban centres and central and western Scotland. This may be true, but it ignores the SNP’s traditional heartlands in rural and north-east Scotland where the Tories are its main rivals. Support for independence in these areas is more nuanced, while support for Brexit is quite high by Scottish standards, in particular in areas where fishing is an important industry.
The party has been loudly proclaiming itself as truer to Labour values than Labour itself and as an anti-Brexit champion. This has elicited a significant backlash in its heartlands and not only resulted in significant seat losses and Tory gains but, in its heartlands, it has seen several long-standing heavyweight MPs such as deputy leader Angus Robertson and former leader Alex Salmond, lose their seats. To add to its woes Labour also made unexpected gains and the SNP, while still by far the largest party in Scotland, is now exceptionally vulnerable to a further Labour surge in areas where the SNP is less established now Labour is back in the game in Scotland.
Do not take the youth for granted: A common theme across the globe for years has been that the younger people can be ignored and are an easy target for various unsavoury measures; after all they tend to vote in lower numbers and only truly become politically engaged when they settle down and become homeowners or parents.
We have seen in the UK however that if you give young people a reason to become engaged, they will become engaged – we saw this in Ireland with the same-sex marriage referendum – and they appear to have played a pivotal role in a better-than-expected Labour performance and in denying the Tories an overall majority.
In the UK, younger people are leaving university with considerable debts; are over-represented in insecure low-paid work; and see little prospect of getting on to the housing ladder, especially in London and in the south-east. Irish youth have similar issues and have borne much of the brunt of austerity measures – eg, the cut in salary for newly qualified teachers (something the teaching unions and their longer standing members were meek in opposing ). Yet, as we saw during the British campaign, and this continues to be the case post-election, most of the focus is still on issues affecting the older population, suggesting the youth still face a fight to get heard.
The importance of new media: We also saw the changing face of the role of the media in this campaign. While the Brexit campaign illustrated how the traditional print media can still exert significant influence, social media in the UK general election has played a bigger role. Social media was key in increasing the turnout of younger voters. All parties have been trying to maximise the potential it offers – the Tories are generally regarded as being ahead of the game in this regard, but Labour on this occasion were adjudged to have made very good use of it – and some of the techniques used to harvest data on potential voters are either impressive, or disturbing, depending on which way you look at it.
Do not call a snap election: Finally, lest he be tempted, new Taoiseach Leo Varadkaar should think twice, maybe three times, before rushing to the electorate to capitalise on any honeymoon bounce in the polls!
As ever there is plenty for our politicians to learn, but, Insider wonders will they learn from it?