I wanted to put together some thoughts on why the Conservatives did well in last week’s election. Almost everyone I know has focused on why Labour’s vote shrank, but logically that can’t be more than half the answer. There is an old Eric Hobsbawm quip about histories of the left, that they risk telling you only what radicals did, what their thinking was, but they never look at the other side, until what’s left is like watching a footage of a boxing match in which you see but one of the fighters punching into a vacuum. Which might as well be the story of our past week. The left has produced many accounts of why we lost, hardly any of why the other side won.
As of six months ago, the Conservatives had a series of obstacles to face, each of which made it unlikely that they would win a majority. The most important barrier was incumbency – most voting is negative, and the longer they are in power the greater the anger aimed at incumbents. For seventy years of two-party competition, British politics has followed essentially the same pattern. In general, a party is elected with a certain core idea (build council housing, the white heat of technology, monetarism, education education education…). That idea, in combination with the unpopularity of its exhausted opponents, gives the party a majority. Over successive elections, the governing party generally loses its majority until it is time for a new party to govern.
Absent the Brexit referendum and what “should” have happened by now is that Cameron and Osborne, having won elections narrowly in 2010 and 2015 would still be defending the ideas with which they were most closely associated (i.e. austerity) but they would be intellectually exhausted, mired in corruption. Their majority would have narrowed to the point at which they started losing in parliament, the Labour Party should have chosen an anti-austerity candidate and the 2019 election would be the ideal opportunity for austerity to be consigned forever to …. (you get the picture).
Brexit, obviously, changed that. Among all its many effects, perhaps the most important has been to create a void space, so that 2010 didn’t happen, 2015 didn’t happen, 2017 didn’t happen and politics was reset as if to zero – and Johnson could say in seeming good faith, as he did whenever he was questioned on his government’s track record of cuts to school, hospitals and libraries, “I have only been in office for three months”.
In truth, Brexit’s impact was deeper – it was, and remains, among other things an attempt to reascribe the blame for austerity onto foreigners in general and the EU in particular, so that people who are annoyed about the collapsing state of our social infrastructure can blame it on something outside and distant, not the Tories, definitely not Boris Johnson, not even Labour, but someone outside, so that the clock is always being reset, and the conservatives can face the voters with the eternal sunshine of a spotless record. Don’t think for a second that we on the left are incapable of the same wilful innocence – but Johnson is doing it now, and Brexit allows him to get away with it.
There are other reasons why Johnson was able to win. During the election campaign, I had a much beloved friend who responded to every day’s reports of Johnson’s campaigning by posting a single recurring message to the effect that Johnson was a formidable campaigner, a rare politician to whom ordinary people connect and had real charisms. My friends made the point ironically, and repeated it so many times that in the ends the words collapsed apart and became just a raspberry jelly trifle of utter meaninglessness. Unfortunately, the satire was on all of us.
Johnson, it turns out, is a formidable campaigner. He does have real charisma. Our inability to see it was our weakness, not his.
I am interested in why so many friends didn’t “get it”. Part of the reason, perhaps, is that if you think about our notions of leadership, they do unfortunately operate with an exaggerated literality. So that a good left-wing politician is one who comes up with previously unconsidered policy proposals. And persuades his party to adopt them, and his electorate to vote for them.
This isn’t the only kind of political leadership though, on the right or at all. Sometimes, an effective political leader is one who goes into a hostile situation, and focuses simply on neutralising anyone else’s attack points. Actually, Johnson did this. It is why he made the point of being so repeatedly photographed visiting hospitals. Because he grasped that the mere repetitive image of being seen in that location would be a more effective way of presenting Johnson as a “pro-healthcare” politician than any amount of saying “I will not privatise the NHS” (a promise which in any event, could only operate as a hostage to fortune as soon as the inevitable US trade deal is announced). He chose to make his commitments fuzzy and general, and they were effective.
In the rest of this piece I want to talk about the contemporaneity of Johnson’s politics. To explain that, I want you to think what would have happened if Labour had won a week ago. Corbyn would be praised. We would be writing of the way in which he had moved the Overton window, i.e. changed our mutual understanding of what set of politics are acceptable to the majority of voters.
But one reason why Johnson was able to win is that his politics – his hyper-conservatism – was already within the Overton window, so that it seemed natural and normal, even though any number of Conservatives have spent the last six months insisting that it is different, shocking and offends against what mainstream Conservatism was supposed to be about.
Depending on where you sit on the political spectrum, there will be different parts of this which mean most to you. They might include: his personal deceit to the point of blatant lying (think of the way he pocketed Joe Pike’s phone), his willingness to dump long-term allies who prop up key tenets of Conservatism (the DUP and the union), the appointment of non-Conservatives to key posts (think of Dominic Cummings and the way in which he has been allowed to run Johnson’s private office as a Continuity Vote Leave private fiefdom), his rejection of the normal ties of loyalty to party leadership and to colleagues which make parties possible as vehicles for the promotion of shared interest, his toleration of Conservative candidates with grim records of racism and anti-semitism, and the encouragement of a kind of far right entryism within the Conservative party, so that even perpetual weathervane Tommy Robinson has applied formembership.
There is a common pattern here, which his of opening up the Conservative Party to people, to ideas, and to money, from those historically outside the Conservatives and to their right, with a view towards reshaping politics. The left used to warn about neoliberalism, but the politics of our present day is to the right of neoliberalism in its diminished toleration of social democracy or indeed democracy itself.
And while Johnson is willing to make noises to the effect that the NHS will continue, in some form, there will still be schools – the greatest risk to our shared social fabric will come not from anything in the manifesto but from the relationships of clientelism with the socially-untethered rich which will undoubtedly characterise Johnson’s future administration.
One reason why no one in Britain was shocked by this is that it seems in global perspective to be frankly, quite a tepid version of the politics that we have seen already in Egypt, in India, in Eastern Europe, and most recently in Brazil. But all these moves had a history. And in accepting them as normal, in tolerating them silently (if that’s we do), we all collectively lose something.
(If you enjoyed this piece, you might like my book The New Authoritarians: Convergence on the Right, which tries to puit the electoral shocks of 2016-8 in global perspective: https://www.plutobooks.com/9780745338156/the-new-authoritarians/)