conventional political wisdom gets it wrong again


The remarkable British election results demonstrate yet again it’s time to abandon unwavering belief in accepted political wisdom. One after another, the shibboleths are falling. Labour’s stunning result suggests again that no platform is too radical, left or right, and no person unelectable regardless of what they said or did in the past. Nothing is too crazy to be true in modern politics.

Conventional wisdom said that Jeremy Corbyn, who has links to extremists and a nakedly socialist agenda, would be belted in a landslide by moderate Conservative Theresa May. Since emerging from relative obscurity to win the leadership, Corbyn was beset by resignations from his ministry to the point that a massive majority of his party-room colleagues passed a no-confidence motion last year leading to another leadership spill.


Has Theresa May’s election gamble backfired?

The Conservative leader called an election in a bid to strengthen hand in Brexit talks, but a shock exit poll predicts hung parliament with May to lose her majority.

It’s hard to think of a leader of a modern major party whose platform was rejected by such a large number of their colleagues. The tribulations of Malcolm Turnbull, even the “never Trumps”, pale in comparison.

Hence the accepted wisdom said Labour effectively chose to become a more “pure” progressive party, one that would remain impotent, rejecting the compromises necessary to win government.

After all, Corbyn’s platform was outdated when Michael Foot was thumped espousing similar ideas in 1983. Yet unlike Foot’s “longest suicide note in history”, it’s unlikely Corbyn or British Labour will walk away from it this time. As was the case with Bernie Sanders in the United States, it seems young people in particular either do not fear, or do not know, the destructive legacy of big-government socialism.

The Tories may yet form government, though as they will not have a majority they will need to rely on a minor party like the Democratic Unionist Party for supply. However, when you call a snap election, you are judged to a different standard than a regular election, especially if you are doing so to build an impregnable majority. This outcome is a loss for the Conservatives.

Compounding this problem is that having notionally called the election to get a clear Brexit mandate, May’s failure to win effectively dissolves her mandate. Regardless of who ends up prime minister, the British Brexit position has weakened markedly.

In truth, blaming it all on May is unfair. A lot has happened in British politics in a short time: only two years ago, Ed Miliband thought he was about to parlay a hung parliament into a Labour government. David Cameron defied the polls to win an absolute majority yet, just 12 months later, he lost the referendum on British membership of the European Union, and subsequently the prime ministership.

Oh, and the party that claimed credit for that referendum victory, the UK Independence Party, just lost 85 per cent of its support.

Such turbulence would make it difficult for almost any party or leader. Much more so when the country was rocked by several terrorist incidents during the campaign.

May should cop some blame for failing to meet expectations, at least in part because she ran a lacklustre campaign. From the time May took over the leadership after the shock Brexit result, she shifted political ground to try to make gains in the centre, particularly among those working-class Brexiteers who have much in common with Trump voters in the US.

Yet, as Turnbull and Morrison found after the recent federal budget, rarely is such a strategy successful. Credibility is hard won among voters and few are convinced by opportunistic moves like May’s.

When you call a snap election, you are judged to a different standard than a regular election.

Nor was her credibility helped by her carefully stage-managed appearances where her focus seemed primarily on not saying the wrong thing, rather than explaining her deeply held beliefs. Say what you will about Corbyn, he certainly doesn’t lack belief in his views.

If that sounds familiar, it’s basically the same advantage Trump held over Hillary Clinton.

In fact, much like Clinton’s campaign, May’s central message seemed to boil down to her being a safer pair of hands than Corbyn. It’s not a very inspiring message but conventional wisdom suggests it is a good one in turbulent times. Again, it looks like conventional wisdom was wrong.

Simon Cowan is research manager at the Centre for Independent Studies. scowan@cis.org.au

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