One impression I often had was of a gulf between the political activity on the ground and that in the media, almost as if the two contests were happening in different countries – the pays réel and the pays virtuel – or even that the contest was one between the canvassers and the opinionators. Maybe it even was. The teams of Labour activists I worked with – a mob of dangerous thugs, apparently – often seemed like some sort of convention for fans of wholesome content compared with the utter bad faith, shameless lying, and relentless pursuit of drama for drama’s sake that passed for media coverage.
I blogged this a few weeks ago:
I think the answer is that the on-stage critics, much as they enjoy the sound and fury and bask in the attention, are rather unsettled by getting what they asked for: actual decisive politics happening in front of them, in Parliament, at the party conferences, and on the doorsteps
Over the last year or so I have been repeatedly surprised to walk past pubs and see a TV showing the BBC Parliament channel. All sorts of democratic muscles have been exercised that haven’t moved in years, and I actually hoped some good might come of this unprecedented public engagement. But a consequence of this is, of course, soreness, and I suspect a big part of the election result came down to exhaustion with so much politics demanding one’s attention. People were asked to think, and as Barbara Castle said, it hurts at first. The detailed results weren’t characterised so much by Labour-Conservative swing as people who voted for us in 2017 drifting away to the Lib Dems, to small parties, or back to Hizb al-Kanapa, the Sofa Party in the wonderful Afghan expression. This seems to have been especially important up north, especially where we didn’t have the numbers of activists to drive the turnout.
Especially as we were explicitly campaigning for more political activity to happen. Here’s an actual doorstep insight:
To my surprise, it was the very idea of a second referendum that seemed the sticking point. It would have almost been comical if it weren’t so sad: as soon as the words “second referendum” or “another public vote” or “final say” left my mouth — and I tried as many variants as I could think of — then shoulders slumped, brows furrowed, heads shook. Lights went out in eyes. This was across the political spectrum, by the data we had: Labour voters, Lib Dems, Tories, don’t knows. From people inclined to remain and to leave.
I didn’t see this so much from voters as from myself. I would do the first bit, perhaps emphasise that an alternative deal had even been tested with the European side, and then feel real dread at the very idea of another godawful referendum. And if I couldn’t find any enthusiasm for it myself, I surely wasn’t going to project any.
Back in 2017, I blogged about three great waves of political mobilization – that for Scottish independence in 2014, that for Brexit in 2016, and that for Labour. There has since been a fourth, for Remain, although whether that meant sacking the government, having another referendum, compromising on single market status, or just supporting centrist politicians was never clear. In fact all of these overlapped; the Scottish one was running strongly enough to mark the elections of 2015 and 2019, the Labour one began before the 2015 elections, the Remain one had begun in earnest in 2016.
The Scots wave has made the SNP hegemonic in Scotland, but despite everything there’s no decisive polling lead for independence, and it’s easy to imagine an equilibrium where the leaders on both sides would be happy: the SNP and Tories gesticulating at each other, but the SNP primarily competing with Labour, and of course the Barnett formula money still flowing. The Brexit one now looks like it’s sure of formal, juridical exit from the EU, although every detail is up in the air, and for the rest, they got another Tory government. This may fall short of their radical aspirations. Labour’s transformed the party, came horribly close in 2017, and created the political space for the fourth, while its failure seems to have closed this astonishing fifth season of political possibility.
The People’s Vote campaign needed a parliament like that of 2015 or 2017 in order to serve any purpose – with a working majority, the Tories could and can ignore it. After Gina Miller and Jeremy Corbyn gave it the only context in which it could do anything, off it went, but to where? Labour got a lot of flak for trying to come up with a compromise position here, but the rest of the Remain coalition was a moving target. Did they – anybody – want another referendum? Had they any idea of how to win it? Would they take a single market-like solution as a compromise?
Without answers to these questions, or any mechanism to answer them, as the movement remained one run top-down by professional political consultants, they drifted in the direction of the most committed people involved, the politicians, who saw themselves as competitors with Labour, as indeed they were. Enemies can cooperate more easily than competitors. And so it came about that the fourth great wave of mobilization, like the others, achieved something but nothing it wanted.
Conservatives only a little higher than 2017. reminder that May failed not because she failed in strategy to unite Brexit/right, but because it caused unprecedented equal reaction on opposite side. Not in 2019
Net net half Labour’s vote share loss went to LDs pic.twitter.com/3MCLltP0Eq
— Faisal Islam (@faisalislam) December 13, 2019
On Twitter, I recalled that everyone in Germany was astonished how quickly after 1989 Politikverdrossenheit, the condition of being exhausted with politics, set in. This is, I think, a hugely underestimated factor and a deeply conservative one.