With a general election called for December 12—the third in four years—the UK is in a terrible political mess. Trust in politicians and their adjutants in the media is at an all-time low. The Edelman Trust Barometer has shown that distrust in institutions is now the default position for the great majority of the British electorate, with higher levels of distrust than nearly all other developed countries, down around Japan and Russia. Much though not all of this is related to Brexit, which attracted over half the electorate in the 2015 referendum. After three years of failure on the part of the political establishment to resolve the issue one way or the other—Britain remains in the EU with no end in sight—both Remainers and Leavers are inclined to blame politicians for their plight. The question of Brexit dominates the general election, disrupting traditional loyalties and sweeping aside all other political questions. The 2019 general election is thus as much about anti-politics as politics. How did we get to this point?
While trust in experts has been challenged everywhere at least since the 1960s, politicians and the media have most consistently borne the brunt. For a long time this declining investment in politics—anti-politics—has been expressed relatively benignly in declining turnout or has been masked by ideology: people turn against the existing cast of politicians but not the underlying political philosophy that they express by throwing the bastards out and electing a new lot.
These masking effects have in recent years lost their efficacy, in large part due to the 2008 crash, and the result has been a more robust and often unpredictable populism. In Britain especially, where depressed levels of pay and productivity have hardly been relieved in a decade, and where government austerity policies have sharply eroded the quality of public infrastructure and widened the gaps in the social safety net, many people feel abandoned by government and failed by the existing political classes. Reflecting this unsettling of the established order, the Labour Party has moved to the left and the Conservative Party to the right. In Northern Ireland the traditional Protestant and Catholic parties were superseded by their harder-line alternatives, the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Féin. In Scotland, long controlled by Labour, the Scottish National Party is now riding high and can reasonably expect to win an independence referendum in the near future.
Britain’s membership in the EU quickly became a flashpoint for this discontent among certain sections of the population. The far-right UK Independence Party, which had been a fringe presence since the 1990s, suddenly jumped to third place with 16 percent of the vote in the 2004 European Parliament elections, beat Labour for second place in 2009, and then came on top of the poll with 27 percent in 2014. It was for this reason that the Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron called a referendum on EU membership in 2016. He was attempting to end the longstanding, wearying, and damaging divisions in his own party over Europe once and for all. This attempt, of course, backfired spectacularly when, against Cameron’s firm expectations, the electorate voted 52 percent to 48 percent to leave on a large 72 percent turnout. Anti-politics here did not express itself as abstention, but rather as a clamorous (if narrow) majority against the political classes—the leaderships of all major parties had campaigned to remain in the EU—and the whole framework of British politics.
That referendum result was bad enough—the British equivalent of Trump’s victory in 2016. But the ensuing shambles over how to leave the EU has been even worse so far as the standing of the political system and the established parties goes. Initially the omens did not look so bad. A snap general election held in June 2017 saw voters returning to the two major parties, largely on ideological grounds unrelated to Brexit. Labour did much better than had been expected with promises to repair the tattered infrastructure and welfare state with roughly £40 billion in additional spending. But Parliament, just like the electorate, was evenly divided on Brexit, and there proved to be no majority for any specific formula that would make Brexit possible. We can argue about who is to blame. But most important in 2019, with yet another general election on the way, is the impact on the electorate of three years of guerrilla warfare, procedural maneuvering, bombastic rhetoric, and complete and total policy paralysis in Parliament—not only on Brexit but on everything else.
Legislative business has virtually ground to a halt. The government has become a revolving door as the factional balance within the Conservative Party swerves and shifts. Labour has been beset by scandals over anti-Semitism and its own internal factionalism, as the ballast formerly provided by the trade-union movement and an experienced leadership has been thrown overboard, and underpowered leaders, with insurgent mindsets ill-equipped for policy-making or retail politics, have struggled to gather a broad national following. Centrist MPs in both the Labour and Conservative parties have defected (many to the Liberal Democrats), and across Parliament scores of experienced MPs are throwing in the towel and retiring from politics—probably a fair response to the electorate’s rejection of business as usual but further adding to the sense that politics is a losing game. The United States has been paralyzed for some time by its divided powers and divided rule; in the UK, where the citizenry had been much more invested in politics and much more reliant on the state, this paralysis has come as a shock.
The move away from the center horrifies opinion in the media and business, but it’s hard to imagine that a reversion to older forms of politics and familiar faces would be well received by the electorate. Neither brand of politics—neither centrist “New Labour” and “One Nation Tories” nor their old oppositions further left and right—appeals.
In the European elections earlier this year, the Brexit Party—refashioned from UKIP in a more centralized form by its leader Nigel Farage—again won a plurality by a comfortable margin. The Conservative Party has resolved its European divisions in precisely the opposite way envisioned by David Cameron. It has become a Brexit party itself, electing Brexiteer Boris Johnson as its leader and moving away from austerity (at least rhetorically) to the same degree that it has moved toward Brexit, in the hopes of attracting “Labour Leavers,” the minority of Labour voters who favor Brexit. Labour has doubled down on its 2017 manifesto by proposing £83 billion in new annual spending. There’s no doubt that the spending is needed. The proposal would only take the UK back up to Germany’s level of expenditure relative to GDP and leave it still well below Scandinavia’s. Whether an inexperienced leadership can spend effectively and wisely is another question. But the electorate may not care much about this either way. It doesn’t look as interested in Labour’s offer as it did in 2017, and Labour seems to know it. The Brexit morass dominates everything.
It would be rash to predict how this will play out in electoral terms. The Conservatives are doing well in the polls, but there are so many players in the field that aggregate poll numbers don’t translate well into seats in Parliament. The Scottish Nationalists have a firm grip on Scotland now, at Labour’s expense, but making a Conservative majority even tougher. The Liberal Democrats, after enjoying a brief surge in the polls, are sagging, but their strong anti-Brexit stance may attract potential Labour voters. The Conservatives’ lucky stroke is the decision of Nigel Farage to stand Brexit Party candidates only in seats held by Labour.
A lot of attention rests on “Labour Leave” seats—former industrial strongholds where Labour used to dominate, but where anti-political feeling is now so strong that voters are tempted by Brexit. Pollsters often say, correctly, that there aren’t all that many “Labour Leave” voters. Just as most Trump voters were wealthier and Republican, most Leave voters were wealthier and Conservative. But it is also true that most seats held by Labour in 2015 voted to Leave. This is because Remain voters were heavily concentrated in London and other central urban areas, while Leave voters were more evenly distributed. These “swing” voters—much like blue-collar voters in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin—are not very numerous but electorally very significant. And when a left-wing party loses the allegiance of swaths of severely disadvantaged voters, its moral authority is diminished.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s leadership have chosen to address this problem by equivocating on Brexit. They say they will negotiate a “better deal” for Brexit that will protect workers’ rights and environmental standards, and then offer a choice in a second referendum between their deal and staying in. There’s nothing wrong with this stance, though it aggravates suspicions that Corbyn and the Labour left have always been closet Leavers, disliking the EU as a capitalist club, even though Corybn says he voted Remain in 2016. His neutral stance just doesn’t work politically in the current fevered anti-political climate. If you don’t trust politicians generally, you certainly won’t trust those who won’t tell you what they think about Brexit. And Corbyn won’t tell you.
A modest Conservative majority seems on the surface a likely outcome—but who knows? Perhaps even more disturbing, it is hard to predict the future trajectory of politics, whatever the outcome of the election. The intensity of anti-political feeling amounts nowadays almost to nihilism. Conservative Party members say they care more about Brexit than all the most hallowed Conservative policies. In a June 2019 poll 54 percent said they would be willing to see the destruction of the Conservative Party to achieve Brexit. Larger majorities said they would be willing to see the breakup of the United Kingdom. (They are likely to see the latter wish realized.) As the historian Emily Robinson has argued recently, voters increasingly say their political decisions stem not from debate or policies but from their “gut”—from their authentic sense of self, unconnected to others—which makes political argument seem futile, indeed almost a personal affront, and political behavior more arbitrary. After three years of scorched-earth politics, and the prospect of continued wrangling over Brexit whatever the electoral outcome, it will take a lot to restore the minimal levels of popular faith in politics necessary to make democracy function, let alone thrive.
Peter Mandler teaches modern British history at the University of Cambridge.