The 2017 general election was a once-in-a-generation opportunity that the Tories fumbled and Labour exploited to remarkable effect. The Tories managed to spook older voters and thereby alienate a core constituency; Labour, meanwhile, both connected with younger people and somehow got them to actually vote in large numbers.
All political scholars should beware reaching too quickly for their pens, keyboards or quills; to adapt the old adage, “write in haste, repent at leisure”. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a seismic shift has occurred in British politics. It is now clear that Theresa May’s gamble has been a catastrophic failure. With a hung parliament, the UK’s negotiating position on Brexit looks to be in tatters. Theresa May asked the British public to show its support for a “hard” Brexit, but the public declined.
The Conservative Party looks guaranteed to be engulfed by internal warfare and blame games. The only question is when. That, in turn depends upon how long May attempts to stay on as leader. Can she survive as prime minister?
After running such a personalised – even presidential – campaign and having watched her authority drain away in recent days and hours, the future looks bleak. But if May goes, the Tory Party will be plunged into a leadership contest that will create even more instability.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, has an air of somewhat unexpected jubilation about it. From debates at beginning of the election over the possibility that the party might lose catastrophically – and even split – it now appears to be almost glowing. It’s even purring at its achievements in terms of shifting the terms of the debate.
The key to this was Corbyn’s decision to offer a bold and clear vision of a new left-wing politics instead of attempting to win back voters from the centre ground. In many ways Corbynism reached out to the anti-political, the disenchanted, the disconnected and elements of the “left behind”. But most importantly, the initial data suggests that the Labour Party made sure younger voters turned out once it had won their support.
As a new dawn breaks for British politics, the situation is one of fluidity and flux. A game is afoot – and it may well redefine a whole set of relationships, not least with Europe.
Matthew Flinders, Founding Director of the Sir Bernard Crick Centre for the Public Understanding of Politics, University of Sheffield