A deeply unpopular party, with a pretty unpopular manifesto, a chaotic and gaffe-prone campaign , and a superficially popular leader , is still likely to win the snap election in June with a big parliamentary majority.
Labour is doing better than expected on the basis of an excellent campaign and a popular manifesto, but on election night there will probably be several ugly moments as long-standing Labour seats fall. Of course, given the current psephological flux, one would be a fool to insist too hard on any prediction. Nationally, Labour began the campaign at approximately 25 per cent of the vote, and now regularly polls in the vicinity of 34-35 per cent, compared to a relatively stable 44-48 per cent for the Conservatives. This is a near-miracle given the scale of internal sabotage and disunity at the beginning.
What's more, it might have its own inner momentum, dissolving some of the anti-Corbyn sentiment. Much of the Corbyn-bashing on the doorstep reflects the attack lines of the media. "I'm not voting for him," people say without a trace of irony, "he can't win." Which implies that a vote is like a betting slip, and one wins by picking the winner. But it also implies that, if the polls were to suddenly improve for Labour, they might reappraise their stance. Who knows?
The nationwide score conceals a significantly higher level of support for Labour in England, making up for the ongoing collapse in Scotland, where Labour polls about 19 per cent. (Scottish Labour, with the support of the right-wing spads in London, are trying to position themselves as the authentic Unionist party to rival the SNP, apparently oblivious of the fact that trying to compete in this way is exactly what led to their marginalisation in the first place.) In Wales, where a month ago the Conservatives led the polls with 40 percent of the vote, Labour now leads with 44 percent .
So, south of that border at least, the campaign seems to be going well. If the vote shares now being registered in the polls hold up, then Corbyn will attract more voters to Labour than Miliband (2015), Brown (2010), or even Blair (2005, and perhaps 2001). That wouldn't be close to enough to win the election when the Tories are polling so well. But it would demonstrate more support for a left-wing agenda than most would have thought existed. That, presumably, would be enough to defend Corbyn's leadership, and enable him to continue his project.
However, there are two important caveats to this. First, the polls could be over-stating Labour's vote, as they tend to have done in most elections for the last quarter of a century. It would be silly and superstitious to invest this observation with any prophetic power. Polling companies have adjusted their weighting significantly since 2015, largely to weight against the kinds of voters (younger, poorer, more unemployed) whom one would hope Corbyn could actually attract. Two million new voters have registered since the election was announced.
However, it is now reported that the areas with the lowest proportion of registered voters relative to the adult population, setting aside the very rich areas like Kensington where there is quite a large number of residents who don't have British citizenship, are working class areas like Tottenham, Bethnal Green, West Ham, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds Central. These aren't marginals, but if the class pattern holds nationwide, then this is bad for Labour. And it's worth adding that even after the adjustments made last year, ICM was still finding a slight tendency to over-estimate the Labour vote in its results, indicated by an over-representation of 2015 Labour voters in its sample.
Most importantly, the British electoral system is only indirectly, in a mediated way, informed by vote shares. The first past the post system goes by constituency support, which means that extra votes accumulated in 'heartland' seats don't result in more representation. It means that the winning party enjoys an exaggerated majority on the basis of a plurality. Margaret Thatcher never scored more than 44 per cent of the vote, but that translated into approximately two thirds of the seats. Sure, this is grossly undemocratic, but Labour has generally refused to criticise it as long as it has meant it could also form majority governments. With the loss of Scotland, they may have to reconsider.
This fact partly explains the peculiar character of slow Pasokification in England and Wales (in Scotland, where proportional representation allowed the SNP to emerge as a serious competitor to Labour, things went much faster). In particular, Labour's infamous five million lost votes (3m between 1997 and 2001; 1m between 2001 and 2005; 1m between 2005 and 2010) were mainly concentrated in heartland seats. They were not the middle class swingers who stuck with the New Labour project, but traditional Labour supporters. And because it was mountainous majorities that were being eroded, and because of the miserable state of the opposition, Labour was able to score a parliamentary majority in 2005 with only 35 per cent of the vote. But the erosion could only be ignored for so long.
Look at the seats vulnerable to a Conservative takeover today. If you work on the assumption that turnout remains roughly the same as in 2010, and if you assume that most UKIP voters filter into the Conservative fold, then some of the areas where seats with small-to-reasonable majorities are suddenly quite vulnerable are: three seats in Nottinghamshire, three seats in Stoke, and about a dozen in the West Midlands. One could undoubtedly add many others.
These are not all Labour 'heartland' seats. For example, Birmingham Edgbaston is likely to return to the Tories with an infusion of Ukip votes. But it is a middle class suburban seat, first taken from the Tories in 1997 by the Blairite Gisela Stuart as part of a Labour landslide. However, many of them have been Labour for generations. As the Financial Times has reported , there is a strong overlap between expected Tory gains in Labour heartlands, and the rustbelt -- a geographical pattern of reaction also seen in the United States. Areas with formerly large, unionised workforces, important to regional identity, forming a collective culture of labourism as the basis of Labour support, have seen decline, atomisation and the redistribution of workers into unemployment, self-employment and minimum-wage service sector jobs. These effects have reinforced patterns of local government-inspired racial segregation, rather than -- as with the big unionised plants -- mitigating them. Resentful nationalism captured the affect of depression in these areas far better than solidarity.
Part of the swing against the Tories is being felt in Labour marginals, where the governing party's huge lead has apparently been significantly cut (though it's hard to know what to make of such results, given the sample size). And of course, not all Ukip voters will defect, and not all those who do will go Tory. Nonetheless, there seems to be evidence that Ukip has functioned, to some degree, as a conversion machine for the Conservatives -- not only giving their 2010 voters back to them, but adding a few former non-voters, Liberals, and even a few ex-Labour voters for good measure. And while there are some Tory marginals that could go Labour, the Ukip effect is likely to mean many more Labour seats going Tory.
What is going on there? What is the Ukip effect, exactly? Contrary to certain persistent myths, the group of ex-Labour voters forming after 2001 did not mostly turn Ukip. The majority of those who abandoned the party dropped out of voting altogether. A small number tried other parties, such as the Liberals, or the Greens. A few went Tory, and a few went to the BNP or the various far right schisms that were already proliferating as the Conservative Party underwent a severe crisis partly driven by its divisions over the European Union.
When Ukip made gains in northern cities and towns beginning around 2012-13, it did so by pulling together all the right-of-Tory constituencies under its canopy, then cutting off a big chunk of the local Conservative vote. It also picked up a surprising number of Liberal voters, who often backed the 'yellow Tories' on the basis of a kind of localised 'antipolitics', with sometimes dubious racist or nationalist inflections. And it picked up a smaller share of Labour voters, with a fairly predictable profile -- older white men with secondary education or less. Ukip often succeeded, through its anti-establishment posture, in making itself the main right-wing opposition to Labour. It energised local reactionaries who had been excluded from influence and power for a long time.
The depressed Labour vote, and the energising of the Right, changed these local dynamics. And, of course, the Brexit campaigns mobilised right-wingers in a way that vacuous Remain campaigns largely didn't mobilise left or liberal counterparts. Finally, the Brexit decision confirmed the victory (temporarily at least) of that section of the Right over the business-minded Tory leadership.
This leaves us with one possible hope in all this. That the depressed Labour turnout will be reversed. That Corbyn, with a manifesto that directly addresses working class interests, will attract working class voters to the polls. But we are talking about local seats where MPs are not used to having to turn the Labour vote out, and not particularly interested in doing so, and where the initiative and activism for a few years has been on the Right. The Tories, moreover, spared charges over their electoral fraud in 2015, are also sparing no expense in this election -- just as they ploughed money and resources into scoring a narrow victory in the West Midlands mayoral election, so they're funnelling money, battle buses and cabinet ministers into a whole raft of seats that Brexit has turned marginal.
This is how the unpopular party with the unpopular policies, and the lousy, floundering campaign, wins.
Ultimately, the Tory supremacy is unsustainable. Brexit is not going to go well. The EU, as expected, is adopting a punitive approach. It's unlikely to agree to May's terms in seeking access to the single market. There has been talk from the Commonwealth of building a trading partnership with India. Recently, headlines claimed that a new free trade deal, negotiated quickly, might increase trade by 33% , with an added value of up to $2.6bn a year.
This was not the story it was cracked up to be. A fantasy solution, the excitable coverage was part of an unthinking climate of nationalist reflux and empire nostalgia. One day we’re revisiting Falklands Fever as a politician threatens war against Spain, next we’re rebuilding the old “free trade empire”.
The claim was based on a report from the Commonwealth about what might happen: there is no concrete plan, and it would take years to come up with a deal. Even once a deal was struck, an increase of $2.6bn is proportionately a large increase, but on a very small volume of trade. For comparison, the UK exported $21.1bn worth of goods to Ireland in 2015. It exported $300bn to the EU in 2016, and $689bn in total. The total value of trade with India, if all went well, would be $7.8bn including imports and exports. Even if all of that was British exports to India, it would be just over 1 percent of Britain’s current export volume.
That’s because the UK has very little to export to India. Whatever India can import from the UK — oil, precious metals — it can and does get from China, Australia, Hong Kong, Germany, etc. The chancellor, Philip Hammond, imagines that City firms will be able to export financial services to India to finance the country’s manufacturing development, but there is little sign of interest.
To put this in some context, British governments have fantasised about cracking open the Indian market for years. Most recently, the chancellor was in India on a mission to ‘woo’ the country. This makes sense, as it is growing rapidly and teeming with profit opportunities. To that end, there has been a lot of cosying up to Narendra Modi, and polite coughing over his human rights record. There has been gushing enthusiasm for the supposed “Gujarat model” of development (which economists actually characterise as “growth without development”). And there has been wishful talk about the “historic connections” between the UK and India hopefully enabling good trading relations: almost as if India owed Britain something for the empire.
This has been almost wholly unsuccessful. The idea that only EU membership has obstructed bilateral trade with India is a fantasy. Britain may have a deep fascination with India — evidenced in the nostalgic and orientalist products of its culture (Viceroy’s House, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Slumdog Millionaire, etc) — but it is unrequited. Indian elites aren’t interested in the Commonwealth any more. They tend to regard it as the imperial hangover that it, in fact, is. The tepid response of Indian officials to this story — pleasantries, at best — illustrates this.
Behind the screen, politicians know the grim reality. This is why the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, is scuttling around trying to find ' ' with murderers like Duterte, whose economy isn’t likely to be a major export market for UK producers.
Long story short, Britain is in trouble, and India isn't planning a rescue. That leaves a future of crisis and schism for the seemingly almighty British Right. It will make all the difference in the world, at that point, whether the Labour leadership is attacking from the radical left, or the centre. Corbynism isn't just for the next election; it's got to be for the long haul.
A note on the language. Most unpopular opinions aren't unpopular enough. The trick with the "unpopular opinion" meme should be to say something that creates an intolerable conflict in the hearer. It should prick the unconscious. It should appear to be outrageously false, and yet also produce the irritating sensation that it might just be true. This can hardly be said of the various blah observations about music, novels or films offered under the rubric of this hashtag, #unpopularopinion, most of which disgrace the genre of contrarianism.
Beyond that, the main problem with the meme is that in its slightly smug 'naughtiness', it gives people heads up to prepare themselves to be offended, thus ensuring they will be underwhelmed. Even with a good contrarian, a high class troll, there is an easy way to disarm the effect they're seeking. That is to seriously entertain the seemingly scandalous thought. Not necessarily because it is true, or even morally defensible. But because, if you don't make space for the contrary thought, you'll probably have it anyway. It will either become your unconscious, or your bad conscience. And that is how contrarians and trolls make a living.