As miscalculations go, this one was epic. British Prime Minister Theresa May had no need to go back to the electorate. She had a decent majority in parliament and a whopping lead in opinion polls. Misguidedly, she called a snap election. Now she has no majority, has lost the confidence of her party and is a lame duck waiting to be replaced.
May called an election in April and was hung in June.
Why did she do it? Her strategists smelled blood. The leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, looked vulnerable. An old-fashioned socialist lacking in modern-day political glamour, he seemed ripe for the taking. The thinking was that Labour’s share of the vote would collapse, and May’s Conservative Party would romp home with a handsome majority.
Well, that’s not quite how it turned out. Corbyn’s manifesto looked dead in the water when it came out, highlighting tax increases for the rich and renationalisation of key industries. But he ran an impassioned and energetic meet-the-people campaign. He focused on the disenfranchised and the disillusioned. Most crucially, he went for first-time voters.
Labour’s vote went up dramatically to levels not seen for years. The Conservatives were denied a majority and will now run a wobbly minority government. It seems likely that the UK will be back at the polls soon.
This is not the first time in recent months that a vote has gone against the conventional wisdom. Britain’s "Brexit" referendum last year confounded the pundits with a narrow endorsement of the decision to leave the European Union. That was followed by the mother of all shocks when the utterly politically incorrect Donald Trump became president of the United States. The French, too, rejected the status quo and elected a rank outsider, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, who had no established party. And now we have Theresa May’s debacle.
What is going on here? One theory is this: populism is in the ascendancy. Britain’s Brexit "Leavers" certainly pandered to the crowd, playing on bigotry and distaste for immigrants. That worked. Trump played populism to the hilt, targeting certain overwhelming sentiments in a large group of Americans – fear of Muslims, mistrust of government and feelings of victimisation by forces of globalisation. He went the whole hog, promising an end to terrorism, return of jobs for working-class Americans and lower taxes for all. That worked.
So, is this a return to “right-wing populist” politics everywhere?
Wait, France’s Macron was formerly a member of the Socialist Party. Britain’s Corbyn is as left-wing as they come. Some analysts think the Democratic Party would have defeated Trump’s Republicans in the US had they nominated left-winger Bernie Saunders as their candidate. In France and in the Netherlands, far-right candidates extolling the same populism as Trump fell way short.
What is going on in Western democracies? To me, this is a collapse of certainties. Governments simply can’t run on the old assumptions they had about what their people want.
The theories are all in flux, being recalibrated with every new election result. The bottom line is this: many people are just plain fed up. This goes across “right” and “left”. There is a cross-spectrum trend to upset the establishment and create change – any change.
So what should the thinking leader do? In a word: listen. These weird outcomes happen when leaders have stopped listening to the people. Too many political establishments in the world exist only for their own purposes. They are elite clubs that wish merely to perpetuate themselves. The idea that leaders exist to serve their public and uplift them is paid only lip service. It’s all spin and no substance. And there are many people down there who are increasingly desperate – laid low because their education and skills do not allow them to keep pace with foreign workers, or with robots and algorithms.
When people are angry and disillusioned, they often respond in a visceral manner. They resort to their own worst prejudices; they look for easy targets; they record protest votes. This is creating complexity and uncertainty in every major election. The best a wise strategist can do is pause, listen and reflect: “What worries my people the most? What do they fear? What do they wish they could regain?”
In that knowledge lies a winning strategy. But the strategy must be accompanied by a genuine desire to improve their lot. Which is what leadership is in the first place.