Dawn Foster looks back at how the 2017 general election disproved every line of the British political rulebook.
This week, Huck contributors reflect on what they've learnt in 2017. First up is Dawn Foster, who looks back at how the 2017 general election disproved every line of the British political rulebook.
The big lesson of 2017 in politics is not so much that ‘nobody’s an expert any more’, but that politicians and much of the establishment have extremely limited parameters of prediction. For as long as I can remember, pundits and politicians have snootily scoffed at the idea that things could change unexpectedly – there was a certain formula within politics, and outliers and underdogs never won. For any party to win, they had to focus on scrabbling and scrapping over centrist swing voters rather than attempting to reach out to the millions on either side of the political spectrum who have stopped voting or never even registered in the first place.
The last few years should have put paid to this tendency, given the surprise Conservative victory in 2015, followed by Corbyn’s two selections as Labour leader, then Brexit narrowly winning. But, May took a gamble with a snap election in 2017 which was almost entirely forecast to result in a landslide Tory majority. The day the election was called was sweltering: I stood on College Green outside Parliament with Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges to stare into the waiting cameras and give our predictions. Mine: that the public mightn’t look kindly on May’s arrogance in calling a snap election, and in turn punish her at the polls. Hodges: that a landslide was a dead cert.
Most polls seemed to back up this assertion throughout the campaign, despite Labour considerably narrowing the Tory lead. The day before the election, we were together again and neither had wavered. Only YouGov and Survation were particularly optimistic about Labour’s chances.
As voting closed on election day, we witnessed another surprise exit poll at 10pm. May had risked everything for a bigger majority and now, it appeared, she would end up with a hung parliament. May was apparently in tears, and another staffer vomited. Dissident Labour MPs had to scrap all plans for ousting Jeremy Corbyn given labour had gained so many surprise seats, including – unbelievably – Kensington. Why had so many people got the result so wrong? In part, confirmation bias. For all the talk of people living in bubbles, most people accusing others of existing in a silo rarely leave Westminster let alone London.
Travelling around the country reporting on austerity, poverty and the decline of industry taught me a few things: people felt abandoned and excluded by politics up until 2015 – the refrain “they’re all the same” was much mocked by commentators, but when both Labour and the Conservatives promised austerity in the previous general election, and little had changed for some areas in decades, that feeling was understandable. But Corbyn didn’t represent that kind of politics: the rallies again garnered much eye-rolling from politicians and journalists, but the magnetism was undeniable, and it was unlikely attendees didn’t spread their fervour further.
There was a method to the spectacle too: the packed out rallies tended to be adjacent to marginals – the places where turnout might be lower, but a rally next door would definitely be covered in the local press, drawing attention from voters.
You can only get the measure of politics by genuinely listening to people. Both in terms of raw polling data, but also by understanding precisely what people’s concerns are, what way they’re considering voting and precisely why. Political journalism has had a rather high opinion of itself for decades, and despite the majority of the press pack being proven wrong in the last few years, there’s still surprisingly little appetite for understanding exactly what has changed in politics. Why were Momentum able to mobilise so many young people? When did the Conservatives manage to lose nearly every group under 47? Why did it take so long for the media to understand how popular Corbyn was with people in person?
What I took away from 2017 is that contrary to received wisdom, the political landscape is permeable. You can get thousands of volunteers onto the streets canvassing for the first time, whip up a huge amount of excitement amongst first time voters, and entice people back to Labour with a genuinely left wing manifesto. And you can do all that while confounding the expectations of the establishment, politicians, and media, and come tantalisingly close to power.
Doing so this year has changed the political conversation: even the Conservatives now claim they have not instituted austerity per se, abandoning George Osborne’s mantra, and public anger around homelessness and Universal Credit is hugely influential. May’s government looks weaker than ever with Damian Green’s sacking, and against all odds, Labour look like a government in waiting.
Follow Dawn Foster on Twitter.