Political volatility can be exploited in Britain too

by Bill Emmott | 25.04.2017

All over the world, this is a time of new parties, new movements, of outsiders coming as if from nowhere and winning elections. So isn’t it strange that in Britain, just one week into a general election campaign, an assumption has taken hold that the UK must inevitably on June 8 hand a huge Parliamentary majority to the country’s oldest, most established political party, the Conservatives?

There are some good reasons for this assumption, most plainly the utter fecklessness and disarray of the second oldest party, Labour. But that disarray itself shows that this could also be a time of opportunity.

Politics has never been more volatile, because the long aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis has discredited mainstream parties and destroyed old political loyalties.

Donald Trump conquered the Republican Party and then won the presidential election by exploiting exactly that anger and distrust. In Italy, the Five Star Movement led by the comedian Beppe Grillo in 2013 made the most successful national electoral  debut in West European democratic history by simply representing something new and uncorrupt, and are now leading the opinion polls for the next general election, due at latest by May 2018.

On Sunday, Emmanuel Macron pulled off the same outsider’s trick to head the first round of France’s presidential election. It would be premature to assume he will win easily in the second round on May 7 against Trump’s favourite, the anger-exploiting Marine Le Pen, but his success in creating a new political movement based on hope should already offer inspiration to others.

The second round in France will be fought on the issue of how to define patriotism: as something that embraces an open society and close collaboration in Europe, or as something that requires the closing of borders and a new competition against neighbours over trade.

Britain’s choice on June 8 will be a similar one – but while in France the two contenders will strive to make the choice as clear and stark as possible, in Britain all the effort looks like being directed at blurring the issue.

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Brexit has created a new and deep divide among voters, all over the UK. Despite every attempt to make it otherwise, through promised giveaways such as the capping of energy prices or assurances about the future of the NHS, June 8 can only really be a vote about Britain’s future place in the world.

Tony Blair is right, in his article in today’s Guardian, that the Conservative argument that a big majority is necessary to give Theresa May a stronger negotiating position over Brexit is a seductive one that cuts through all other policy positions and issues.

But that argument needs to be countered, and the effort to do so can serve to create a new patriotic vision of Britain and its future.

The Tory argument for a strong negotiating hand risks diverting attention away from the crucial issue of what sort of Brexit May wishes to achieve.

It is also a delusion: it might make her stronger when haggling over secondary matters such as Britain’s financial divorce obligations, but will have no bearing on what sort of future trading relationship with the EU emerges from the talks.

This creates an opportunity, both during the campaign and after. Seven weeks is clearly too little time to follow either Macron or his defeated far-left opponent, Jean-Luc Melenchon in building a wholly new organisation and movement. But such an effort can begin with the campaign, and then continue afterwards.

The extraordinary result in Scotland of the 2015 general election already showed that the UK is not immune to political volatility.

Well-directed and coordinated efforts to force candidates to expose what sort of Brexit they truly stand for and what sort of British place in Europe and the world they favour, could define this election as clearly as will be the case in France.

As Macron saw, this is not a matter of right or left. Old party labels no longer capture today’s issues. That means that the potential to shape Parliament and the debate over the next five years through the campaign and the result on June 8 is high.

In today’s volatile politics, no conclusion is foregone.

Edited by Geert Linnebank