General Election 2017: A Poll of Paradoxes

By Dr John Bone, BSA Vice Chair

This was the election that was supposed to restore a sense of order to a UK political scene that has experienced a seemingly incessant wave of turbulence over the last few years, from the events and fallout from the Scottish Independence Referendum to the unanticipated outcome of the Brexit poll, and now a major political upset and ongoing instability. What appears clear from these events is that business as usual in UK politics can no longer be relied upon, in a nation that has become increasingly divided, with seemingly unbridgeable fissures developing both within and between the countries that comprise the UK and, not least, between young and old.

As was clear from the pre-election pronouncements from Theresa May and other leading Conservatives, the aim of calling an early election was to restore ‘stability’ with the securing of what was confidently predicted to be a greatly strengthened Conservative majority in the House of Commons. This, it was proclaimed, was a necessary step in providing the government with a strong hand in the upcoming Brexit negotiations, as opposed to a nakedly opportunistic gambit to secure a majority during a period when the polls were high, and by the very party who had recently legislated to rule out such strategic conduct with the move to fixed term parliaments. The outcome, however, as we know was far from that predicted.

This raises the question as to what we might make of this and what it might indicate for the medium to longer term. Of course, there are some self-evident observations in relation to the most recent poll; principally the clumsy and incompetent campaign focused on a Prime Minister whose public performances appeared to reveal a lack of warmth, confidence, courage and consistency. While, by contrast, Jeremy Corbyn, having been written off even by many in his own party, appeared much more at ease and appealing than anticipated, with neo-Keynesian policies that were similarly well received, particularly by the young who apparently turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote for a fundamental change of political direction. It is this point, it might be argued, which raises the most interesting questions in terms of what this, and this sequence of political events overall, might indicate regarding the political and economic consensus that has dominated for the last 40 years. In short, as numerous commentators have observed, from the Scottish ‘Indyref’ through Brexit and both recent General Elections, much of the upheaval may be attributed to growing discontent with the era of free markets and, by association, the neoliberal political establishment who have been perceived as sustaining this political consensus.

However, what also appears clear is that discontent with the above has been manifested in a variety of often contradictory forms. Thus, it is apparent popular discontent around these issues, as has also occurred in the US, could be manifested in both reactionary and progressive directions.  One constituency of the disaffected has taken aim at the economic competition and cultural threat perceived as being rooted in the free movement of labour, globalisation, immigration and multiculturalism.  While, conversely, others have been mobilised in opposition to ongoing austerity, growing inequality, insecurity and injustice. The latter, however, seems to be increasingly prevalent amongst the young, raising the tantalising prospect that, should this trend continue amongst the generations who have been denied the freely accessible education, secure jobs and affordable housing enjoyed by many of their elders, the turn against the longstanding status quo may tentatively point towards a more progressive future.

A further irony of this election is that this unexpected fledgling revival of progressive politics was countered in Scotland - a nation where Conservatism has long been a pariah allegiance and neoliberalism so toxic that it saw the annihilation of New Labour – with a volte face sufficient to secure a slim Conservative lead in the UK as a whole.  In qualification, however, the Scottish Conservative vote at this election may be largely understood in terms of an amalgam of pro-Brexit, pro-Union and, hence, anti-Indyref 2 sentiment, where a latent but minority Conservative vote in Scotland had been greatly bolstered by the mobilisation of ‘No’ voters, in a campaign where the Tories and right wing press had successfully narrowed the debate to focus almost exclusively on these issues. In effect, to no small extent it may be argued that the Scottish poll could be regarded as a ‘pseudo-referendum’, as opposed to being representative of a widespread return to right wing politics in Scotland.

On a final note, the public response to the recent sequence of hideously tragic events in the UK has once more illustrated that the anti-communitarian, self-interested and nakedly competitive credo of the last few decades has failed to wholly extinguish the seeds of community, empathy and common purpose required to rebuild a better society, suggesting that perhaps who we are can actually be better than the cynical doctrine of the recent past has maintained.