UK Election: Smash and Grab to Victory

1/        It’s Election Day in the UK. The culmination of a fascinating period of political upheaval with two leaders – Boris and Jeremy Corbyn – that could not be more different than David Cameron and Tony Blair.  They eschew modernity for a new polarizing populism, chucking the old rules into the cut.  This is not the hopeful UK of Love Actually, the stoicism of Dunkirk, or the dash of 007. This election is a Peaky Blinders smash and grab.

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2/        Boris has remade the UK Tories. This guy.  An excellent writer with sense of humour, he was bedevilled by personal scandal as MP. And lying. Pulls off election as London mayor in a Labour city. Shores up David Cameron’s campaign in 2015 that led to surprise majority. At last-minute, joins Leave campaign and, unquestionably, made the difference. No Boris, no Brexit. His partnership with Michael Gove trumped Remain establishment.

3/        Instantly, David Cameron resigns from office. A leadership campaign kicks off (the Brits don’t mess around). Boris is not ready and stumbles. At deadline for filing, Michael Gove (Judas) wields the knife against Boris by jumping in race suddenly. Boris is shocked out of the race he was supposed to win. Theresa May emerges as safe alternative to stabilize divided Tory party. Gove loses and is sent to purgatory, Boris to Foreign Office. May starts strong with positioning that foreshadows a shakeup of Tory base. https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/statement-from-the-new-prime-minister-theresa-may

4/        May moves to an election within the year, with a huge lead in the polls.  I mean, she’s going to clean up against Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn (more on him shortly). Her campaign is a disaster. Textbook case of fuzzy strategy and failure to execute.  She falls short of majority by 5 seats.  Worse yet, she is already a dead duck.  Hobbled by blown opportunity, May attempts to finesse her Brexit deal through Parliament and fails again, again, and again.

5/        Meanwhile, Boris flew the coop to sit as backbench MP. He wants no part of wearing May’s deal.  But Gove was resuscitated to serve in Cabinet (he is a clever boy) to try to rally Brexiteers. Out in the countryside, former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (leader most likely to enjoy having a pint with) starts Brexit Party and is inhabiting the Tory electoral base like necrotizing fasciitis.

6/        Finally, Jeremy Corbyn. In 2015… hold it… need to go back more… in 2010, the Tories had a plurality of seats under David Cameron but far short of majority.  Labour PM Gordon Brown (UK’s Paul Martin) tried to extend Labour to a fourth term and failed. The Lib-Dems negotiated a true coalition government with the Tories with leader Nick Clegg serving as Deputy PM for five years.

7/        Labour has a leadership vote. Unlike Tories, this is membership-based vote.  Labour is divided into Blairites and Brownites.  Blairite David Miliband, a former Foreign Minister, is seen as frontrunner.  His younger BROTHER Ed, a Brownite, challenges him. Political fratricide.  Ed wins! Based on support from lefties and union supporters. It’s a bit of a mess, especially at Christmas dinner in the Miliband household.  Ed is not really up to it but he is competitive in the polls. The 2015 election is going to be a horse race!

8/        David Cameron, and his advisor Sir Lynton Crosby, with Boris’s help, surgically detach Lib-Dem voters.  You see, Scotland was feeling quite uppity at the time and Middle England did not see Red Ed as strong enough to preserve the union.  Cameron shocks by winning a majority. Five more years! Just have to deal with this election promise to hold a Brexit referendum then it’s onwards and upwards. (Of course, he loses referendum, resigns immediately, and squanders the 2015 majority).

9/        Ed is toast.  He didn’t even have time to change his underwear before resigning.  Again, the Brits don’t mess around. There’s a leadership contest and many Labour MPs jump in.  While the members vote, candidates must have papers signed by at least 40 or 50 MPs in order to qualify.  Jeremy Corbyn is running around getting signatures at last minute.  People sign because they feel sorry for him.  He has no chance of winning!

10/      Here’s the thing about political parties.  They are vulnerable to takeovers. Few people actually belong to parties.  An emerging group, Momentum, decides to take the piss out of the Labour establishment by backing Corbyn.  Corbyn represents what is on the minds of disillusioned activists. Blair brought them the Gulf War and ‘New Labour’ that looked like moderate Toryism to many. Gordon Brown hated Tony Blair but he was very much associated with that agenda. Ed was transitional and not strong.  Here comes ‘Jezza’ who voices the frustration and it catches fire.

11/      This is all happening around the same time as Trump is catching fire and Bernie is making his move.  The insurgents are on the move in the industrialized world, and in Jezza’s case, the party rules work for him. Mass sign ups and support from existing base steamroller over establishment candidates.  Labour grandees are sputtering in their protestations. Blair, Brown, et al. issue dire warnings.  No one listens.  Corbyn wins big.  What now?

12/      The Labour Caucus is having none of it.  Not long after, there is a push to remove Corbyn. He is not a conventional leader and routinely is taken to task by the merciless UK media. The Deputy Leader (who is not Corbyn’s man) returns to another caucus revolt early from Glastonbury, interrupting the good time he was having at the silent disco. Ultimately, Corbyn consents to a new leadership contest.  Finally… let’s get a real Leader, says Labour MPs.

13/      Corbyn wins again! He increases his margin.

14/      Theresa May is, like, “I’m having an election.  This guy is a clown, Labour is a disaster”.  We are now in 2017.  Please follow along.

15/      May is way, way ahead.  Her campaign chokes. Corbyn has one of the great comebacks of modern political history.  This is actually his first election campaign as leader after TWO leadership processes. Turns out UK voters like his sincerity and honesty.  “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” becomes an anthem on the left.  In fact, the election is polarizing between the two parties in England where most of the seats reside. Fun fact: Tories and Labours have held 1-2 position exclusively for about a century.

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Two party domination by Tories and Labour.  Lib-Dems and predecessor parties peaked out at 25% (1983)

16/      Corbyn is secured in his leadership.  It’s virtually a hung Parliament and Corbyn has centre stage across the dispatch box from the PM.

17/      [Intermission]

18/      Fast forward to summer 2019. May is out, Boris is in. After all of the feeble attempts to get her Brexit deal passed, the party turned to Boris. It wasn’t close, he won in a landslide. He arrives to office with his advisor, the Dark Lord, Dominic Cummings, who masterminded the Leave campaign.  Who is at Boris’s side in Cabinet? Judas! Boris and Michael Gove have kissed and made up.

19/      Jeremy Corbyn is still there, looking a bit wobbly, and does not have clear position on Brexit.  At first, they have Boris on the run.  He wants to have an early election but new legislation blocks him without consent of the House.  He wants to have the leverage of threatening to crash out of the EU without a deal. A majority of MPs flip out and force him through some humiliating votes.  Boris removes the whip from over 20 Tory Remain MPs, including Churchill’s grandson! Things are getting rough. Elites are aghast! Tory and Labour MPs are joining the Lib-Dems, who have the clearest Remain position.

20/      Why is Labour so fuzzy on Brexit? Many Labour voters in their traditional heartland outside of London voted Leave.  They are very split while Tories are more Leave than Remain, and Boris is betting that Tory Remainers fear Corbyn more than they fear Brexit.  The Lib Dems are banking on owning Remain and also riding unicorns chasing rainbows.  They are about to get squeezed like a lemon in a lemonade factory.

21/      Boris negotiates a deal! It’s oven-ready! Pop it in the microwave, let’s get Brexit done.  Enough’s enough!  We’re getting ready to have the election. Time to see the Queen.  Corbyn’s response, while fending off serious charges of anti-semitism in his ranks, is to make the ballot question all about health care. People don’t care about Brexit, they want someone to stand up for them.

22/      At the heart of Boris’s strategy is a ‘smash and grab’ of Labour voters in traditional Labour seats.  It would be like Stephen Harper trying to win East Vancouver.  Except, Boris might pull it off.  British voters feel like they know him.  They know he’s glib, stretches the truth, and puts his foot in his mouth, but, like Trump, there is high familiarity with him.  He’s been around a long time, leading a public life.  His flaws have already been discounted. They know what they’re dealing with.

23/      Personality aside, Boris has a proposition: get Brexit done and, unlike Thatcher and other Tories, he will spend bigly on health care and other core services. No more austerity!  He is coming for 30-50 year old working women.  He wants the mums.  He wants the union guy.  He is saying, “I don’t care about London bankers, I’m with you blokes in Birmingham!” In fact, he was out delivering groceries in Leeds this week in the early hours (before hiding in a walk-in cooler to avoid the media). He is looking to realign the political map.  Theresa May got started on this and Boris aims to finish it.

24/      Corbyn’s play is to remind people that the Tories don’t care for regular people – working people – and hopes to boost turnout among younger people, who strongly support Remain and the values that Corbyn represents. They are still singing “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn” in Liverpool. Like Canada, the Conservatives in the UK have low support among under 35s.  They own old people.  The election battle is with middle-aged, workforce-aged voters.

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25/      The Lib-Dems have been cast aside despite floor crossings and thirsting for an election. They have fallen flat with new leader Jo Swinson. She has been unable to move the dial. In an existential battle between two populist insurgents, the Lib-Dems find it very difficult to elbow in to relevance.

26/      This post is about 2% political science and 98% soap opera. But there are a few things about the UK politics and this election that stand out:

27/      There is way more outspoken behaviour from backbenchers in the UK. Professor Greg Lyle counselled me that it’s because there are more MPs at Westminster (650 in total).  The chances of promotion are much lower so backbenchers feel more freedom to do as they like. There is no question that Westminster is a much, much, more vibrant cauldron of political debate than Ottawa.  I blame all Canadian parties for this. They are too focused on party discipline and dissent.  Loosen up!  Maybe we need more MPs in Ottawa? Did I say that out loud?

28/      Parliament really matters in the UK. The level of debate is high.  There are no desks.  Many MPs must stand at Prime Minister’s Questions (once a week).  There’s a sense that debates can turn issues. Even the TV angles are better, covering reactions of MPs and creating a sense of the environment in the Chamber. Maybe I’m mythologizing a bit, but I would sure like Canada to do a better job emulating Mother Parliament.

29/      The media is very diverse.  While Boris has taken on the BBC (and others), the reality is that there are clearly Labour papers (The Guardian), Tory papers (Times of London), Brexit papers (Daily Mail), and many others in between and all over. It may be suffocating for those in politics, but it also enlivens debate. BBC coverage is generally excellent, IMO.

30/      The advertising is more creative and to the point than anything we saw in the recent Canadian election.  The main parties are keying on emotions, using digital as key medium. In this election, Boris is rejecting old rules of mainstream media.  Declining some debates, and refusing outright to do a popular interview show. While the BBC sputters indignation, Boris is happy to have that fight.

31/      There are many more parties represented in Parliament than the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems.  First past the post also produces Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru, Ulster Unionists, a Green MP, independents, and seven Sinn Fein members who refuse to take their seats. It’s a dynamic place.

32/      Around the UK, candidates will gather in their constituency at a central polling location where they will climb on stage to hear the results together, each wearing a candidate ribbon bearing their party’s colours. The losers will congratulate the winner – a much more community-spirited ceremony than the Canadian tradition of hanging out exclusively with supporters at campaign offices.

33/      I think Boris is going to pull off his smash and grab in the Labour heartlands.  As Tory grandees like Rt. Hon. John Major reject him, he gains elsewhere. He put Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party to bed. He may lose his own seat in London, but may gain Tony Blair’s old seat in northern England. He will receive a working majority and implement Brexit.  Can he hang on to be a competent prime minister? Who knows.  Labour will give Corbyn the heave-ho finally, but it will be Momentum that holds the cards.  Their own smash and grab of the Labour Party apparatus likely continues.

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Lib Dems fading down the stretch. Light blue line is Brexit Party.  Peaked around the time that Theresa May left office.  Boris has put them to bed.  Night, night.

34/ What happens when a powerful movement drives the politics of a party away from the mainstream (and victory)?  Is it a policy problem, or is it just a matter of leadership? The reality is that its problems pre-date Corbyn and he may have been the one to breathe new life into it. A new Corbynista could be the PM next time.  Our parties in Canada are very vulnerable to such movements ‘taking over’.  That’s democracy.  Anyone can join.  Don’t blame Momentum, or dairy farmers, or pro-lifers – anyone can join, but most don’t.

35/      What Boris and Corbyn realize is this – power is ‘out there’, to be harnessed. A strong message is the power to break, reshape and coalesce an electoral base, or motivate a narrow group to action, to supersede a passive majority.  Either way, it goes against the old rules. They are both prepared to “alienate the base” in order to – they hope – grow their movements. They are making new rules.

36/      Thanks for reading, if you made it.  This started as a tweet storm and ended as a blog post.  At 2pm Pacific / 5pm Eastern, the polls close. BBC will release immediately the results of exit polls that forecast what will happen with analysis by the brilliant Professor John Courtice.  Unlike Canada, the UK rolls out results slowly, over 6-8 hours.  It will be great entertainment, as usual.

(Apologies for errors and emissions)

2 Comments

  1. Farage cannibalizing Labour votes will also help Boris capture some of those seats. Farage is seen as more populist and therefore likely more palatable to many former Labour voters.

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  2. So Boris will finish what my heroine Maggie started! Too bad that my former countrymen had to toss Europe aside to do it. Thanks for the history lesson and the analysis, Mike. Maybe you should go join the BBC and bring some balance to it. I sometimes think they ( and the Guardian) are further left than Radio Moscow aka CBC.

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