Thursday night saw a Conservative victory that trashed the party and campaign leadership’s disdainful calculations about the way in which they engaged with the electorate. They avoided members of the public and held events at rural village halls booked out for children’s birthday parties; they locked journalists in cupboards. They thought they could release a manifesto with a scarcity of pound signs in it and reprimand the profligacy of Labour. It was a Conservative victory, and more people voted against Labour’s policies than for them, keeping the constituency map the same sad blue it has always been. This is a reaffirmation of the coming challenge: a voting system that foregrounds the (marginal) predominance of a fiscally and socially conservative disposition amongst the voting public, and the obstinacy of a broadcast and print media commentariat that is either sensationally aggressive or not willing to exercise any critical nuance when interrogating policy or popularity, marginalising the voices of those active in the opposition movement and preferring instead to fart into their own trumpets and listen to the noise.
While they remain the party with the most MPs, the Tories’ targeting of marginals failed spectacularly and they lost 13 incumbents to much-doubted opposition candidates. May is now seeking a confidence-and-supply agreement with the ghoulish sectarian DUP, potentially jeopardising the Good Friday Agreement. Having spent months telling the public that the government would not conduct its Brexit negotiations in TV studios and reveal their hands prematurely, Number 10 seems on several occasions to have announced agreements before the DUP acknowledged that they were in place. The decision to welcome into the fold such a right-wing nationalist group with links to unionist militarism is perhaps less of a surprise than it is the only logical option for a party that has decided to court martial strongmen around the world and that favours the services of Lynton Crosby to communicate its messages.
The following are some unstructured thoughts from the past couple of days.
This Labour result was won on 8 May 2015, and on 24 September 2016, when Jeremy Corbyn first came from way back in the benches to win the Labour leadership contest and then dispatched a draining and entirely unnecessary challenge a year later. It was won with thousands of hours of campaigning, door-knocking, collective organising, communicating in print and online and through videos, memeing (if you deny the potential of the meme as a means of articulating counter-hegemonic communities in 2017 then who are you), all of which established or renewed the solidarity networks that will be vital to contesting not only the policies of a Tory-DUP bloc but the ongoing consequences of the last seven years.
Labour supporters and activists moved against the orthodox wisdom of politics that compels the dissolution of radical ideals, of redistributive economic reform, of a socially conscious state, and decolonial domestic and foreign policy priorities into the beige paste of centrism, to be pumped into a suit and a haircut and to read from an autocue. You didn’t have to carve a racialized parochialism into limestone to win the popular vote. There was compromise, though: some of the uninspiring Labour MPs who spent the last two years briefing against Corbyn, mocking him on television, undermining him and calling for his resignation will perhaps owe their majorities to him.
May has not been elected as the leader of a government, or even as the leader of her own party. Her team knows as much, and in her first statement outside Downing Street after meeting the Queen, May’s words emphasised not a Conservative electoral mandate but the referendum result last year, situating her legitimacy within the laborious, uncertain process of negotiating our departure from the EU. May tried to use the threat and atavistic promise of Brexit as the rallying cry for a personalised Conservative landslide that would buttress unpopular governance; now it’s all she has. Both Cameron and May have gambled on the referendum to win inter-party battles, and both have been bitten. Unlike the clique of Cameroons around her predecessor, there will be few parliamentarians who feel any loyalty whatsoever to May. Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, the architects of her preposterous leadership, have fallen on their swords, and part of the election post mortem will involve blaming the court confidants for the dysfunction and optics of the campaign, studiously ignoring the possibility that it was the substance, and not the presentation, that voters rejected. Timothy and Hill were replaced in the chief of staff role by Gavin Barwell, the man who might consider following the example of Matthew Goodwin in eating his own book on winning marginal seats. Brexit is all that’s holding May together, and it’s unlikely to last. Newspaper work experience boy George Osborne is attempting to use the referendum division to detoxify his own legacy as the architect of austerity, claiming the progressive mantle of a pro-EU stance for anti-May credibility. He will not be allowed to do so.
We are continually being told that Brexit is the defining political division of our time: it was the setting for the revolt of a mythologised white working class against the hubris of a liberal metropolitan elite. Having decided after the referendum that they did not spend enough time speaking to the former, print and broadcast media did not exercise enough critical reflection to extend that lesson to including or acknowledging marginalised BAME and other voices that did not fall neatly into this dichotomy, either in following the campaign or dissecting the outcome. In the initial results that were announced in the North East, areas that voted Leave failed to produce the Brexit Swing/Ukip exodus to the Tories and instead stayed with Labour. Brexit did not define this election.
The Remain-Leave frame is a blunt and imprecise shorthand that fudges scrutiny of long-extant tensions, none of which are necessarily exclusive to one side or the other: generational divisions and the way in which our politics and solidarities are formed and expressed; economic disparities between North and South, property-owning older people and young people with precarious employment and low wages; prune-faced racists and anti-racists. The sooner it is parsed, the better.
Since David Cameron led the Conservatives into a coalition in 2010, the project of austerity has been employed to define the language of politics and government in Britain. Austerity has been sold as an economic and a moral imperative: the innately politicised “difficult decisions” billed as the only possible course of action, as the reluctant obligations of the one party born to rule. Labour had overspent and crashed the economy; Labour didn’t know how to balance its monthly income and outgoings. Labour spent all its money on candles and now its children are dying. It was up to the Conservative party to balance the books, reminding us that we could not have nice things like adequate social housing, adequately funded universal healthcare, or a responsive welfare system until we’d all been good boys and girls and deserved them. Only the Conservatives could be trusted to spend wisely (or not at all), and once these services cracked under the pressure and failed to deliver, only the private sector could mop up the mess. And so people died.
Within a capitalist economy the merits of austerity as a deficit-reduction strategy are at best contested, but as a social discourse it has been wielded to define much of the vernacular of politics for the past seven years. In the context of Brexit, austerity said that we were full: we had no more space, no more resources; we couldn’t afford to look after our own, so why should we look after anyone else? With local government funding slashed, austerity said that we must decide what we value: museums and libraries or bin collections? We could not afford both, and the time will come when we probably can’t afford either. Austerity is a limitless ideological project, nationally and locally: there will always be efficiency savings to be made, always costs to be cut. We are not residents but customers, not citizens but consumers, and we must demand value for our money, lest it line the pockets of feckless bureaucrats like teachers, nurses, and carers.
This was not a record that the Conservatives could defend, and they made no effort to do so, expecting instead that the British electorate, convinced of the necessity of exponential cuts and privatisations, would expect nothing and be willing to settle for less. In large part, they did not.