Snap Saboteur election
Theresa May called a snap election to help her implement a clean Brexit with an increased majority. The Daily Mail celebrated this decision by denouncing her Brexit opponents as “saboteurs.”
That much is well understood. Less well understood is that the Prime Minister shared many of those Saboteurs’ basic beliefs, and how this led her to sabotage her own “strong and stable” election campaign.
Who are the Saboteurs?
The Mail’s headline prompted many Remain supporters to self-identify as “saboteurs” on social media. These self-described Saboteurs are hardline Remainers who want to stop Brexit from taking place at all, or, failing that, retain the strongest possible links with the EU, including freedom of movement and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. They do so from a Left wing, pro-political correctness perspective, with some even self-identifying as snowflakes:
Establishment Saboteur ideology
Less obvious, though not surprising, are the deeper assumptions that underlie the Saboteurs’ angry stance. It is worth unpicking those assumptions in order to understand the extent to which, despite obvious differences, the Conservatives’ election campaign approach shared a common underlying philosophy with the Saboteurs. Saboteurs, for the most part, hold a number of core views and beliefs:
- An opposition to populism;
- An assumption that this opposition is the fruit of superior cultural sophistication and intellect on their part;
- A related assumption that any support for populism can be blamed on ignorance, stupidity and bigotry;
- A consequent view of populists as embarrassing, shameful, social pariahs;
- Support for establishment, centrist politics, such as those of Emmanuel Macron in France;
- Support for so-called “experts” against misguided or ignorant popular opinion;
- Support for international institutions like the European Court of Justice – governed by some of those (un-elected) experts – and their ability to curb populism in any nation state;
- Support for the international world order from which those institutions derive their legitimacy, as embodied, for example, in human rights legislation or UN conventions;
- Support for foreign military intervention in (purported) defense of that international world order, as, recently, in Libya, Ukraine and Syria;
- Support for free trade, free movement of people, immigration and multi-culturalism.
These beliefs are all represented in the following collage of Saboteur tweets and profiles, which display an eye watering contempt for populists and Brexiteers:
Although a few of the Saboteurs did support Jeremy Corbyn, their pro-European, internationalist and anti-populist philosophy was strongly consistent with that of the establishment wing of the Labour party from which Corbyn wrestled power, and which rebelled against him on numerous occasions (notably over airstrikes in Syria and in a leadership bid by Owen Smith) and effectively tried to sabotage his electoral campaign (for example by leaking the Labour manifesto). Corbyn, by contrast, was seen as the kind of populist – and his supporters as the kind of great unwashed, low-information voters – who are reviled by the Saboteurs over Brexit:
Other constituents of the Saboteurs include those, like the Liberal Democrats and Remoaner Tories such as Anna Soubry, whom it was speculated might join this establishment Labour faction in a new breakaway centrist party.
Core Labour Saboteur
Labour entered the general election with catastrophic poll ratings, having experienced poor local election and by election results. This helped the establishment Labour Saboteurs to argue that the party was losing support because Jeremy Corbyn as leader and his hard Left policies didn’t appeal, particularly not to core Labour voters.
Corbyn’s Saboteur opponents believed a more “Saboteurist,” establishment Labour candidate, in the mold of arch-Remoaner and neo-liberal internationalist Tony Blair, would be successful in winning over that core Labour support:
Parking tanks on Saboteur lawns
The absence of such a centrist Labour candidate emboldened the Tories to target traditional working class Labour seats in Wales and the North and Midlands of England, thinking they had two aces up their sleeve:
- Theresa May was the sensible leader and offered the mainstream policies those traditional Labour voters wanted;
- She clearly supported the Brexit they overwhelmingly voted for in the referendum.
May included a number of Left-wing policies in her manifesto, such as enhanced workers’ rights and an energy price cap to appeal to those voters. In so doing, she moved squarely into the Centrist territory occupied by the Saboteurs.
The only difference between May and many of the Saboteurs was, in effect, her support for Brexit.
Clinton establishment Sabotrice
But it was much more than just her manifesto. Theresa May clearly ran an establishment style campaign against Corbyn, dismissing him as a radical, embarrassing fringe politician who couldn’t be taken seriously. The tone and messaging of her campaign were, in fact, almost a carbon copy of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign against Donald Trump, whom Clinton dismissed as dangerous and inexperienced. May did exactly the same to Corbyn. May’s relentlessly repeated (and rightly derided) “strong and stable leadership” soundbite echoed Clinton’s claim that Trump was “temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility” (my emphasis). Crucially, each point of similarity with the Clinton campaign illustrated below is also a point of agreement with the Saboteur sentiments analysed above; May and Clinton both tried to present themselves as the educated, on-message, internationalist, establishment experts reverenced by the Saboteurs, and their opponents as the ignorant, embarrassing, amateurish, parochial populists the Saboteurs abhorred.
Both Clinton and May enjoyed a strong favorability rating advantage over their rival as they approached polling day:
They were encouraged by this to personalise the election, using their experience in government as proof of their suitability for office, while accusing their opponent of being unqualified and personally unsuitable:
Both argued that their opponent would embarrass the country if he were ever to hold office:
The idea of Trump or Corbyn taking important decisions was presented as excruciating:
And this perception was shared by former heads of state in a cross-party political consensus, which gave May and Clinton’s opponents, as outsiders, the cold shoulder:
These personal attacks were summed up by the claim that Trump and Corbyn couldn’t be trusted to lead their country:
The trust gap was hammered home by presenting them as outright security risks:
And as enemies of Nato:
Both were even presented as nuclear risks (albeit for different reasons):
Both were also discredited due to their associations abroad with terrorists and foreign governments:
Or with anti-Semites and radical groups at home:
Both Trump and Corbyn’s populist economic policies were accused of being fiscally irresponsible:
And there were other surprising (and possibly coincidental) similarites. Both Trump and Corbyn were accused of being disrespectful to veterans:
And both had their education and intelligence denigrated:
The comparison with the Hillary campaign rams home just how contrary to the spirit of Brexit the May campaign was.
- She asked voters to reject an embarrassing candidate who was beyond the pale – which was how Remain presented the Brexit option.
- She asked voters to trust the experts and the experienced establishment, not the dumb, unwashed outsider – the Brexit referendum was one in which the great unwashed and supposedly ignorant stuck two fingers up to the establishment and the (supposed) experts with glee.
- She asked voters to reject risky economic populism in favor of a sensible economic orthodoxy – Remain’s “project fear” presented Brexit as economic catastrophe whereas Leave presented it as freedom to spend £350m on the NHS.
- She asked voters to reject any challenge to Nato-led, neo-liberal, internationalist interventionism – Brexit was a rejection of just this neo-liberal internationalist order (May seems to have shot herself in the foot with the traditional Labour Brexiteers by making her manifesto even more internationalist, when she committed the UK to spending 0.7% of UK GDP on foreign aid).
May, in short, tried to run a Brexit election with the kind of “project fear” platform which failed for the Remain campaign. In so doing, she heaped the kind of derision on Corbyn normally dished out by the Saboteurs to her Brexit supporting target voters.
“Strong and stable in Europe” – what a perfect Saboteur slogan.
The way the Tories just swallowed the Blairite view that these traditional Labour seats were crying out for a centrist, establishment candidate seems very odd indeed. You might have imagined they’d be suspicious of thinking like Alistair Campbell or Nick Cohen. Or maybe this shows just how incestuous the country’s political establishment is.
But there was a massive problem. May and the Blairites, the Saboteurs united, were completely wrong. It didn’t work. In fact, Corbyn’s populist policies proved ragingly popular in the working class seats targeted by the Tories, with Corbyn enjoying a big increase in votes compared to what Labour moderates achieved in previous elections:
Surprise, surprise: it turned out you couldn’t summon the disruptive, populist Brexit spirit with a robotic, mainstream Blairite message. The Tories couldn’t have their cake and eat it too. Their establishment, Clinton-style campaign proved to be spectacularly misjudged.
Labour’s border control sabotage
But was there anything the Tories could have done to appeal to the traditional Labour populist vote? Did their campaign really jump the wrong way, like an English goalkeeper in a penalty shoot out, or were those seats simply never there for the taking in the first place?
I think there clearly was something the Tories could have done. Although Corbyn’s anti-austerity message might have been superficially appealing to traditional Labour voters, his policy on European freedom of movement would have been a major turn off, had its implications been made clear. Labour said:
Immigration rules will have to change as we exit the EU, but we do not believe that immigration should be the overarching priority.
Labour’s White Paper will have a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the Single Market and the Customs Union as we know that is vital to protecting jobs and the economy.
Given the EU’s insistence that Single Market benefits are tied to freedom of movement, Labour was effectively saying it was prepared to accept limits on the UK’s ability to control its borders, in order to increase access to the Single Market. What this concession would amount to would of course be subject to negotiation, but it meant that Labour wasn’t ruling out policies such as a minimum quota for EU workers, or guaranteeing EU citizens with job offers access to the UK labor market.
For the working class Brexit supporting voter in places like Darlington or Wrexham, this would have gone down like a cup of cold sick. One of the reasons they voted Brexit was to stop cheap foreign labor from Europe undercutting them and driving down their living standards. But here was Labour saying they would be prepared to keep letting large numbers of European workers in. They were going to put the UK’s control over immigration from the EU in a kind of straightjacket. Under Labour, Brussels could, to some degree, keep ramming the EU immigrants down the British worker’s throat forever.
What surprised me about the Tory campaign is that it didn’t attack this ambiguity in Labour’s policy (the surprising low profile of immigration in the election was noted on the BBC’s Today programme on 3 June). It didn’t so much as ask Labour to clarify, for example, whether they would agree to allow a minimum number of European workers in every year, and, if so, how high that number would be. In fact, immigration barely featured in the Conservative campaign.
What the general election demonstrated above all was the extent to which most MPs, from the Remoaner Tories to the Blairites in Labour, are out of touch with their voters. Most post-mortems of the Prime Minister’s campaign focused on her coldness, her refusal to participate in debates or her U-turn on social care costs. What this analysis misses is the degree to which her core campaign message wasn’t fit for purpose.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Brexit policy was confusing and ambiguous. But this, ironically, allowed Corbyn to pander to the London metropolitan Remoaners while not antagonising traditional voters further North. Because they didn’t have the gumption to denounce this subterfuge, the Conservatives let him get away with his double message scot free. Thanks to the Conservative campaign, it was Labour that managed to have its cake and eat it.
Theresa May famously worried that people thought the Conservatives might be seen as the nasty party. Immigration is a controversial subject, not to be mentioned in polite conversation. For the Saboteurs, it is bad form, racist, narrow minded, to bang on about it. It seems May was so keen to run a polite, well-groomed, uncontroversial campaign, a campaign imbued with the Saboteurs’ values, that she completely misjudged the traditional Labour swing voters she was targeting, and was too embarrassed to play the one card she had to win them over.
By thinking like the Saboteurs, she sabotaged herself and – potentially – Brexit and her country.
PS Theresa May’s advisers Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill resigned over their responsibility for what was seen as an unpopular manifesto. But, as we have seen, her really fatal strategic mistake was to run an establishment campaign, and shy away from any populist campaigning on immigration. Responsibility for this, surely, must rest with the much feted Sir Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ campaign strategist, who so far (with some exceptions, none of which identify the Tories’ mainstream message as his mistake) seems to have attracted no criticism.
PPS So why didn’t I predict Labour’s better than expected performance? Partly, as a European, I attribute a bullshit detection faculty to the sensible, no nonsense British voter which should have seen through Corbyn’s subterfuge on immigration, but which is probably overly stereotypical and exaggerated by my folkloric imagination. I’m embarrassed to say that it’s also partly an echo chamber effect. Corbyn’s message is a politically correct, virtue signalling, metropolitan one which I find off-putting. It seems incompatible to me with a populist wave like the Trump movement. I couldn’t imagine such woolly jumper wearing, local authority sub-committee homilies appealing to normal blue collar people. But, contrary to what I thought, it seems that this right-on, lentil-eating Left wing populism has broader appeal than I imagined. Had I been in tune with this, I would have likely picked up on the fact that the Tories weren’t using the one tool they had to challenge it: an attack on Labour’s immigration policies.