After an extraordinary campaign, the UK is heading for some very interesting times

By Verona Burgess

June 14, 2017

Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, with Prime Minister Theresa May in July 2016. Credit: PA

On arriving in London four weeks ago, it seemed impossible that the old warrior of the Labour left, Jeremy (dubbed ‘Jezza’) Corbyn could pull out a magic wand and transform the political landscape in the not-terribly-United Kingdom.

Now, a kaleidoscope of messages from the British election is playing out. Theresa May struggles on, a zombie Tory minority prime minister forced to deal with the devil, while her tormentor, Corbyn, graciously accepts apologies from his squirming colleagues – especially his old Blairite enemies on the Labour right.

Before the election, the polls were all over the place, partly because of the difficulty of and different methods of predicting voter turnout, and the vilification of Corbyn in the mainstream media was breathtaking in its personal vitriol.  Even the BBC seemed badly lacking in balance while the Tory press was going to town in a way that was reminiscent of the media campaign against Julia Gillard.

And yet, unexpectedly, there was a feeling in the air that Corbyn’s campaign was gaining traction.  To what extent nobody knew but austerity was on the nose and a new sense of collectivism was being born. It began to look as if May’s landslide might not eventuate, even though right up to the night some polls were still predicting she would gain seats.

Campaign factors lost in the narrative

The YouGov poll, which predicted a hung parliament, was the most accurate, partly, it seems, because of using a technique known as Multilevel Regression and Post-Stratification (MRP) to drill down to specific seats.

Weeks out from the poll Corbyn, who is much further to the left than May is to the right, began looking not like the doddering vegetarian, bicycle-riding fool depicted in the Tory press but like a benign old-fashioned stump politician who connected with people. Like Bill Shorten in 2016, Corbyn appeared to relish campaigning. Perhaps his lifelong career as a serially dissenting backbencher was paying an unexpected dividend.

Yet his team also mounted a modern social media campaign that was a next-gen version of the Kevin 07 strategy, using new, sophisticated data tools that shaped messages for individual constituencies. Promising free university fees and more funding for social housing and the National Health Service, he also courted the youth who had failed to vote in the Brexit referendum – and they not only enrolled in their hundreds of thousands but turned up to vote on the day, tipping the scales in at least three marginal seats and probably more.

Celebrity endorsements were also significant. Rap star Jme, who is huge in the ‘grime’ music movement that arose in some of the most deprived housing estates in the country, told his 700,000 followers on Twitter to vote for Corbyn. If you doubt his influence with the youth, check out his song ‘Man don’t care’, which has attracted nearly 35 million hits on YouTube.

A lot of things were turned on their heads. The two terrible terrorist attacks during the campaign – Manchester and London – played badly not, as usual, for Labour, but for May who had cut 20,000 police jobs while Home Secretary. Her response of ‘but not in counter-terrorism’ was lost in the clamour.

It was May’s to lose

May was a hopeless campaigner, divorced from ordinary people. Her failure to turn up for a leadership debate was a big blunder. Her so-called ‘dementia tax’ for aged care was a disaster. Her promise to overturn the ban on fox-hunting was simply bizarre – as if British fox hunters would ever vote Labour. It was redolent of Tony Abbott’s Prince Philip knighthood moment. She seemed singularly focused on getting back Tory voters previously lost to the Brexiteer United Kingdom Independence Party, to the exclusion of courting the crucial middle ground – a deadly mistake in politics.

May is struggling as the hollow leader of the largest minority (they’re evidently too scared to topple her, with good reason) to strike a deal with hard-right northern Irish protestant Democratic Unionist Party.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein – the Irish republican party which won a record seven seats but doesn’t sit in Westminster, which would require swearing an oath to the Queen – broods on the sidelines, ever-vigilant that any deal doesn’t violate the Good Friday power-sharing agreement to govern for all.

With both May’s election manifesto and her Brexit strategy in tatters, the centre may not hold for very long, to misquote the great Irish poet, William Butler Yeats, and then things could  get really interesting. Even Brexit itself is no longer a given.

As Shorten did last year, Corbyn is now behaving as if he won. He and British Labour may not be fit to govern yet but there’s little evidence that May is either. Let’s hope the British civil service can continue to provide a strong foundation for stable administration – the country certainly needs it.

It was a fascinating election to witness first-hand. Frankly, the result makes Malcolm Turnbull’s problems look almost trivial.

Top image: Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, with Prime Minister Theresa May in July 2016. Credit: PA

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