Friday 24 May 2019

How May Could Have Won

And just like that, everything has changed. In an odd speech that was one part trolling, one part self-mockery, May announced this morning she would begin the process of the new Tory leadership contest on 7th June and remain Prime Minister until it is concluded. And there was the usual guff about leaving the country overflowing with milk and honey, a claim that refuses to stand up even if you squint at it. So May, one of the worst Prime Ministers ever is on her way out the door with the tacky polyester furs of failure draped about her shoulders.

Matters could have been quite different. The most recent past tends to colour the appreciation of what went before, and so we forget she was once a formidable opponent who could have locked Labour out of power for a decade or more. And were it not for strategic blunders that opened the door for Corbynism, it would have come to pass. Some locate her errors in the wooden 2017 General Election campaign, widely derided on the right as well as by our own people. Labour supporters will remember it fondly for decades to come - the public meetings without the public, the press conferences without the press, and the party promos without the party, the idiot mantra of strong and stable, the hubris of the dementia tax - oh what a time it was. What a tasty feast of schadenfreude it was. And this undoubtedly did for her. The May we came to know is a product of Corbynism, a failing and flailing Prime Minister brought low by the sweat of our brow, but May was our enabler: the long June lasting from 2017 to the present persisted because she unwittingly opened the door to her demise.

When your opponent is at the height of their powers, put despair away for hubris is the moment the seeds of destruction are cast. May's was much earlier than her fabled walking holiday with dear old Philip: it was not long after she took office. It was a pretty black moment for centre left politics, let alone the Corbyn project. In the aftermath of the greatest domestic political disaster since the Suez Crisis, Labour was courting extinction while the Tories quickly pulled themselves together, and wrapped the leadership contest up in quick time with May's coronation. Brownie points for a show of seriousness. The second sinking moment was her address to the nation from the Downing Street lectern. She channelled the spirit of Milibandism as she promised to wage struggle against injustice and address poverty. Coming after Dave's showy but callous government, from the side eye by which most people view politics she sounded different, serious, a conviction politician. This was one nation Toryism rebooted, audaciously premised on half-inching the ground Labour stood on but was too busy squabbling to prevent the land grab.

It went down a storm. Those who found Dave congenial had their consciences assuaged about supporting the Tories because May wanted to help the poor. There was no red meat for established Tories, but they knew her record from the Home Office well enough to start dreaming of Thatcher 2.0. Remember the embarrassment of Tory backbenchers affectionately referring to May as "mummy"? And a little bit of soft labourism married to authoritarianism and social conservatism, isn't that the heady brew working class voters "in the north" (of course) were supposed to be champing for? Almost immediately the Tories rallied in the polls and for the next nine months or so posted huge leads. In normal times this was the stuff from which hegemony was made, a project in formation for managing the class relationships criss-crossing and underpinning the British state with the advantage tipped permanently toward capital. This situation, which for a moment looked inevitable and viable, didn't work out precisely because we don't live in normal times. Or, rather, because of the particular way May and her, um, "celebrated" advisors Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy, decided to approach Brexit.

With Labour indisposed in the summer of 2016, and buoyed by the polling and the fawning press, she made her crucial mistake: after leading the Westminster pack on she announced her interpretation of Brexit was pretty hard. This meant disengaging from EU institutions, an end of free movement for EU citizens, and a renegotiated trading relationship. The upside was a nebulous freedom for the UK to negotiate its own trade deals. In other words, as deals went, this was the most economically disruptive and potentially ruinous basis for an agreement out of the range of possible options. She had made a critical strategic error: by crassly putting the interests of keeping the Tory party together, May believed her coalition would hold. Which turned out to be the case: going hard on Brexit drove UKIP to the abyss, and served as the glue keeping them together (and getting the highest number of Tory votes since 1992), but the cardinal rule of hegemony building was forgotten nor understood. Organising yourselves goes hand-in-hand with disorganising your opponents.

Looking at the disarray Labour was in and then, by early 2017, its persistent lag in the polls you could almost forgive May for thinking a general election would be a good idea. Indeed, no one at the time was warning against one and I can remember sending several "we're fucked" texts as she was making her announcement. But she had set up the conditions for an insurgency. By then, the "burning injustices" speech was obviously just window dressing and whole swathes of Britain were effectively locked out of the awards our supposedly booming economy was generating. It was quite clear May wasn't about to address the problems of housing, of crap wages, of zero prospects, nor the suffering Dave and Osborne took delight in inflicting. What I missed, what we all missed, was a polarisation taking place beneath the surface. Effectively, May had coagulated a coalition of the haves - retirees above all - but by making Brexit its central organising principle it gave the have-nots something to define themselves against. Brexit is an empty signifier that organises not just its supporters, but its opposition. May's hard Brexit annoyed those who were for remain, and also those wanting a sensible, softer Brexit than the one she offered. May allowed it to become a rallying point, a moment of discontent in a complex of discontent the Labour Party was able to organise behind it. It was the catalyst for the real class polarisation to come out into the open and manifest itself in the electoral politics of the land.

You could argue May didn't have any choice but to incorporate Brexit as a wedge issue, but on the contrary she did have a choice. Dave called the referendum to neutralise the threat from UKIP, and May moved to accommodate them to secure the Tory right flank. But with a bit more imagination May could have capitalised on the good will, her (initial) novelty as a (presenting) conviction politician, and the latent desire to overcome the divisions set in train by the referendum by deepening her one nation pitch. She might have, for instance, in the spirit of magnanimity have announced a consensus-building approach to Brexit through a series of public consultations. She might have appealed to disgruntled Labour right wingers by trying to get them on board, while working to marginalise Corbyn even further. This would not have avoided trouble with her backbenchers but they'd have found it harder to behave as they have done thanks to her moral authority as a great unifier. In short, this could have allowed her to redefine a new common ground in politics that excluded the left as well as the fanatics in her own party, and one her party would have benefited from for years to come. A good job for the left that she was not so imaginative, and the Conservative Party interest was interpreted so narrowly.

The price of this failure is visible in the wreckage that daily fills our screens. The party May leaves is broken and disintegrating, and compounding the disaster it appears nearly all of her would-be successors none appreciate the merde it's stuck in and want to repeat her fatal error. Nevertheless, the Tories cannot be trusted to destroy themselves, by themselves. They need a good shove, and another, and another. That's where we come in, and why we must attend to the urgency of repairing our own coalition of support after the EU elections to be ready for whatever happens next.


Anonymous said...

It's amazing seeing centrists whitewash the popularity of Corbynism from 2017. We have to fight anti-austerity being flushed down the memory hole, papered over with 'Wanted a soft Brexit'.

Boffy said...

May's One Nation Toryism was as much of a lie as as everything else. I doubt she ever was a Remainer, hence her silence through all the referendum, as she waited to see how the cards fell. A One Nation Tory can never lead the Tory Party today, because that time is past. The Tory Party is the party now of the 5 million small businesses, and the atomised, particularly elderly sections of the population that hanker for a return of Empire. That is why 80% of them favour a No Deal Brexit, dust off the gunboats, bring back rationing for the workers, and why a Bojo or Raab will be their next Leader.

May pursued the only agenda reality, and the nature of her party allowed. But, as with Labour's Brexit agenda, it is undeliverable. She talked about playing poker, but you can only bluff if no one knows what is in your hand, and everyone knew her hand was empty. The same will be true for anyone else occupying that position.

The only way she could have won, is if she had followed the plan of the Tory right, for a No Deal, but that would have caused chaos, and the collapse of the Tories at the next election, unless they really were prepared to introduce martial law, suspend elections and so on. The alternative was to negotiate a "Managed No Deal" with the EU over a period, based on a free trade agreement, but that would have cutting N.I. adrift, which became impossible when they depended on the DUP.

She might have achieved that had she called an election in February having turned right, and with Labour in disarray standing in the middle of the road waiting to be run over, but she didn't. Like most of the Tories she is completely inept as a politician. Its why Labour's failure to be trouncing them is so much more alarming.

Anonymous said...

Boffy,and yet the poll of polls for April show Labour winning with a majority.Also millions of gimps in Britain want the Tories in power so they maybe beaten on the bottom by a Mummy,Daddy,Nanny figure because they are bad little Puritans.

Shai Masot said...

I like crying Tories.

Boffy said...

So, I don't once again like to say I told you so, but .... That's yet another election I have forecast with almost pinpoint accuracy, as the Tories, Labour and UKIP got decimated. Farage's Brexit company failed to advance on the preformance of UKIP in 2014, despite hte almost complete collapse of the Tory vote, and the complete collapse of UKIP, whose vote the Brexit company simply took over.

Liberals overtake Labour in England whereas they should have been long since buried were it not for Corbyn's ridiculous Brexit stance, the Greens even more or less tied with Labour. In Scotland Labour wiped out, as the SNP swept the field, and in Wales Plaid overtook labour, with the Liberals again nearly catching Labour.

A terrible night for the Brextremists who again show they cannot get beyond around 30% of the vote. A great night for Remainers who showed they are in the majority, and have the dynamic behind them. Corbyn must dramatically shift position or be shifted himself.

And across Europe, the long forecast right-wing surge failed to materialise. The far-right went backwards, even as they have been forced to abandon calls for leaving the EU themselves. The more pro-EU parties were the ones making the big gains. All in all a great night for the forces of modernism and progress, and a bad night for the forces of reaction. Long may that continue.

Syzygy said...

I remember when May first called the 2017GE, John Curtice suggested that May's strategy was risky. I can't exactly remember his reasoning but I was not convinced by the over-adjustments and assumptions that were being made by the pollsters who were still recovering from their 2015 failures. It seemed clear that Cameron's majority was the result of the LD collapse and Labour's collapse in Scotland.... neither of which were accounted for by national polling because their impacts were not universal.