U.K. Debacle Shows Death of Anti-Elite Anger Is Much Exaggerated

  • Labour Party missteps went largely unpunished at the polls
  • Young voters inspired by revenge over austerity and Brexit

The U.K. Snap Election in 60 Seconds

The popular anger and distrust of elites that fueled Brexit and the election of U.S. President Donald Trump is still at large.

That appears to be one lesson from the U.K.’s election surprise, in which Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid for a Conservative landslide cost her party its parliamentary majority.

Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader who benefited, is hardly a fresh face in politics or the head a new populist party. Still, as a stalwart of Labour’s leftist fringe, Corbyn had in essence led a revolution to take over the party. On Thursday, he defied the odds and managed to energize a frustrated electoral base, especially the young: estimates for turnout among 18-24 yea-olds rose as high as 72 percent, up from 43 percent in 2015.

As the anti-establishment candidates, Corbyn and his team proved immune to ridicule over uncosted policies and campaign missteps, much as proved true for Trump last year. It’s a performance that could bode well for French President Emmanuel Macron’s fledgling La Republique En Marche! in legislative elections this month, as well as for Italy’s Five Star movement.

Corbyn’s Appeal

Far from causing a collapse in the Labour vote, as many of even his own lawmakers expected, Corbyn achieved an impressive swing in the party’s favor, capturing 261 seats, 29 more than at the last election, according to projected results. The Conservative Party lost 12 seats, winning 318 in the 650 seat chamber. May moved quickly on Friday to secure the support she’ll need to govern from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.

“Corbyn clearly appealed to people who felt unrepresented by the political class, in particular the young,” said Mark Leonard, a political scientist who in the 1990s was credited with prompting Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s “Cool Britannia” rebranding of Britain.

A backlash from those who lost last year’s Brexit referendum -- which itself turned into a popular attack on the establishment -- or don’t agree with May’s “hard” Brexit approach to negotiations with the EU, probably also played a role, he said.

May’s decision to focus the campaign on support for Brexit and her own competence as an experienced politician proved a losing strategy. The Conservative campaign never recovered from her struggle to limit the damage from a controversial manifesto pledge on elderly care, an attempt that made her look “like a typical old-style politician,’’ said Leonard, now director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a Brussels-based think tank.

Diane Abbott

On a night of surprises, the most telling may have been the success of Labour MP Diane Abbott, who increased her majority by an astonishing 46 percent.

Abbott, who as spokeswoman on home affairs is one of the most senior figures on Corbyn’s team, had a disastrous campaign. She suffered a series of televised meltdowns in which she appeared unable to remember numbers or do basic math, before falling ill and temporarily stepping down from her position days before the election.

On Friday morning, a triumphant and emotional Abbott declared herself, Corbyn and their proposals for higher taxes and government spending “vindicated.” She had won a thumping three quarters of the vote in her constituency in north London, also Corbyn’s stomping ground.

Psephologists, bruised Conservative members of parliament and Europe’s Brexit negotiators will be poring over the full meaning of the upset for months to come. But impatience with the economic pain from years of spending cuts following the 2008 financial crisis looks to have been part of the reason.

Police Cuts

In the debate following two terrorist attacks during the election campaign, for example, the main focus was on the effects of police budget cuts, rather than proposals for tougher laws. May, a former home secretary in charge of security, came under attack for having cut police numbers while in office.

A high turnout among the young and Labour’s strong results in London could also have been a form of revenge against May’s prosecution of a “hard” Brexit, which would prioritize cutting immigration over remaining part of the EU’s single market.

A Twitter string responding to Labour MP David Lammy’s salute to the young on Friday morning -- “72% turnout for 18-25 year olds. Big up yourselves” -- turned into a lengthy debate as to whether youths had been motivated by saying “no” to last year’s Brexit referendum result, or “yes” to Labour’s offer to scrap university tuition fees.

For Abbott, who became a subject of Conservative ridicule during the campaign, Labour’s focus on health care, welfare and housing made the difference. The scale of her victory also appeared to have more to do with a backlash against the media and others that made fun of the Labour MP over her missteps. In a Twitter chain responding to her victory, the most common sentiment was that it was “a win against the bullies.”

“The Conservative Party fought a campaign characterized by the politics of personal destruction,” Abbott said in a brief acceptance speech. “And yet the British people have seen past that.”

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