The opportunism of Theresa May’s U-turn for an early general election reveals an exploited populist effort, where the dynamic potential and energetic ire of anti-establishment politics have been re-channelled to serve the elites it was originally formed to oppose. To properly understand this historic development of British politics, we must also consider the broader expansion of a paradoxical phenomenon that has sustained the prolonged upheaval of contemporary western politics: post-populism.
the ire of anti-establishment politics has been re-CHANNELLED to serve the elites it was formed to oppose.
Regardless of the common political consensus that there would be no snap general election before 2020, it was intriguing to see that there happened to be little sign of surprise in the media’s reaction to Theresa May’s 180-degree reversal. There was a sober response from David Aaranovitch in The Times, “Well, it makes perfect sense to me.” The Guardian’s Owen Jones grew accustomed to a snap general election almost immediately with a swift call-to-arms: “Save the post-mortem for whatever happens. Now it’s the time to fight.”
‘stabilised disorder’ has become natural and sturdy reality.
The new prime minister was inconsistent on her policy as she promised back in September last year: “I’m not going to be calling a snap election. I’ve been very clear that I think we need that period of time… to be able to deal with the issues that the country is facing and have that election in 2020.” But it appears that the incoherent messages of a government struggling with the discordance of Brexit are now experienced as sound political procedure.
Even at the level of the global economy one must only take a look at the market’s response to Theresa May’s announcement as further proof of this ‘stabilised disorder’ that we all experience as natural and sturdy reality. The sterling fell after Downing Street announced it would be making an unscheduled statement on 18th April but then recovered dramatically by 1.6% by mid-afternoon when the prime minister declared an election to be held on June 8th. The EU referendum itself last year also triggered a volley of uncertain peaks and troughs in global monetary systems all through the night.
This is where the perplexing notion of post-populism enters our political situation. Defending her election decision in her announcement speech, Theresa May hastily repeated her mantra of a “strong, stable leadership,” making frequent references to her own personal authority on carrying Brexit through. The forceful rhetoric of reactionary populism was irresistible for a prime minister whose government was born out of its clamorous climax during the EU referendum, with her predecessor deposed by its unpredictable force: “The country is coming together, but Westminster is not… And unelected members of the House of Lords have vowed to fight us every step of the way.”
‘will may’s call to heal divisions and unite the country work?’
The former work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith, echoed this pseudo-dissident alarm moments after the speech where he decried an unelected higher-class opposition to a hastened Brexit. These are privileged members of the Westminster class, subjects of the “nasty party” as defined by May long ago in 2002, denouncing old elitist institutions for defying popular demand. Hoping to take advantage of the populist upsurge that shook the western world in June last year, Theresa May invokes the democratic will-of-the-people to silence parliamentary dispute and accuses those who question the overriding vision of Brexit as ‘political game-playing.’
In the form of his politics, do we not also see this in-direct democracy in a more brash sense with the eternal presidential campaign of Donald Trump? His anti-Washington outbursts on Twitter and his rabble-rousing post-presidential rallies mark a leadership that must constantly remain on the thrilling brink of crushing the political system, riding the wave of pre-election populist hysteria, which ironically sustains Trump’s political authority after the 2016 vote. Post-populism inverts grassroots radicalism in these ways, converting the impulses of anti-establishment outrage into a mechanism of power.
But will Theresa May’s call to heal divisions and unite the country through this early election work? The conditions of our snap general election and her position in it could potentially be reminiscent of the Turkish referendum result only days before her announcement. With President Erdogan victorious in his campaign for the granting of further powers to his station, enabling him to remain in his leadership role until 2029, Theresa May is also seeking similarly clear direction and secure governance that the Turkish president shall now enjoy, albeit having his country bitterly divided in the process. The referendum result was split with only a marginal success of 51.41% of the vote in favour of Erdogan (not unlike the almost even splitting of Britain’s EU referendum result).
Might we also witness a clean Conservative triumph but a splintered country come June 8th? Despite the recent YouGov polls placing the Tories decisively in the lead with 48% over Labour’s 24%, this early election does not mark for me the foregone conclusion of an overwhelmingly popular Conservative landslide. Rather, a malignant rupture of antipathy that shall persist untouched in society by the prime minister’s ‘remedial’ early election. The Daily Mail’s headline after May’s announcement is already hard at work at soothing Britain’s social discord with: “Crush the Saboteurs.”
‘theresa may’s government has effectively become defined by its brexit stance.’
This rupture is the ongoing uncertainty as to what post-Brexit vision should take shape in the UK. Our impending divorce from the European Union is the reason why this election shall be like no other. It is utterly a vote on Brexit and its far-reaching consequences for generations to come, not for our next five-year caretaker government.
Theresa May’s government has effectively become defined by its Brexit stance, a swift and unrestrained exit from the European Single Market as well as noncompliance with the EU doctrine of free movement of people. But on the dominant issue of Brexit, Theresa May’s accelerationism is being the most visibly challenged by the Liberal Democrats, while Labour have focused their strategy chiefly on the domestic and structural inequality of the British Isles. It was the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron who struck first after May’s election announcement, taking advantage of their clear opposition to a “Hard Brexit” as well as the opportunity of an early election as recent polling suggests they could reclaim most of their 27 seats lost to the Conservatives in the 2015 general election.
is the centrist dream of a free market and social welfare based capitalism possible?
Passionate Tory supporters of the Remain vote, dismayed at the damage caused by their party’s reactionary right-wing on the beloved European Project, would no doubt pursue the messages of tolerant inclusivity and economic liberalism that the Liberal Democrats endorse. Farron has even not ruled out moving into a second coalition with the Tories if May fails to restore her slim majority of 17 MPs in Parliament. But is it possible any longer for the centrist dream of a free market and social welfare based capitalism, the Blairite model that Farron has said he deeply admires, to re-emerge in our time of global insecurity, distrust in economic experts and neoliberal globalisation, the anti-multicultural influence of the online alt-right, and widespread nationalist regressionism? On the whole though, for Tim Farron’s reinvigorated party, rearmed with a rigorous political drive and appearing to have repaired the British public’s faith in them after the disaster of 2015, this election could prove more complex than a clear-cut victory for Theresa May.
Meanwhile the main opposition party, though not in the totally unenviable position as is typically considered, will still experience its most significant election in decades. Having spent his entire parliamentary career as a backbencher rebel and political gadfly, facing arrest for confronting apartheid in 1984 and expressing a nuanced demand for discourse with terrorist organisations, Jeremy Corbyn shall now rally the Labour Party after only two years as leader into the most unsettling election since 1983, and have just over one month to prepare.
popular opinion is not on the side of jeremy corbyn, with moderates drifting to the staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats.
The Brexit debate has been largely conceded to May through Corbyn’s three-line whip demand to his MPs to vote with the government on the Bill (this order was not without its dissidents), but a properly coordinated Labour Party electoral strategy and an emphasis on the authentically principled nature of its leader does have an inspiring potential. The question is could the Labour leader make socio-material inequality a tangible issue for disillusioned working and lower-middle class people across Britain, rather than its often dry and abstract reputation as an elusive economic matter?
Jeremy Corbyn’s effort may be severely hampered by the other startling political news of the 18th April, the resignation of former Labour home secretary Alan Johnson as an MP. This was followed the next day by Labour MPs Ian Wright and Pat Glass. Though it is equally probable that these sudden resignations could simply be politicians recognising the end of their own careers (with former Tory chancellor George Osborne and John Pugh of the Lib Dems also resigning the day after May’s declaration), the signs of political disunity these developments show at the outset of an election announcement are hardly promising for the Labour Party. Popular opinion is not on the side of Jeremy Corbyn either, with moderate public members of the party drifting to the staunchly pro-EU Liberal Democrats. Meanwhile alienated working-class communities (mostly of the neglected northern industrial heartlands), once stalwartly Labour, are turning to the Tories and UKIP for swift action on curtailing immigration and restoring national sovereignty through Brexit. Jeremy Corbyn, the matured radical, is as much a victim of this overriding rightist sentiment as the EU institutions he once voted against joining.
a ‘progressive alliance’ may seem hazy on policy and allow the right to sell itself with coherent political messaging.
The Labour Party is no longer recognised as the natural ally of the workers, but as a party of cosmopolitan class traitors, sold out to the Westminster and EU establishment. Another pressing issue for both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May in roughly equal measure is Scotland, with the extended erasure of Labour in the Scottish Parliament and the more realistic prospect of the SNP’s demand for a second independence referendum that shall haunt May’s vision of a truly united and prosperous Britain. Without these crucial Scottish seats, the possibility of Labour holding on to the 229 seats it has already, let alone a general election victory, seems a faint one.
In response to the fracturing of the Labour Party, the Green Party has led calls to establish a grand ‘Progressive Alliance’ with Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens all encompassed into one liberal-left electoral pact that shall combat the Tories more effectively as one, come the general election. This union I fear, though a daring political project, shall not be rewarding for the Left and in fact may even benefit the Conservatives and other right-wing groups.
It is likely that this loose coalition of progressive thinking may suffer the same fate as Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, united only by the vague politics of tolerance against right populist bigotry but with a direct economic message diluted and fragmented. With Clinton’s obligations strained with her supporters ranging from Goldman Sachs bankers to Occupy Wall Street protesters, so may this alliance struggle between the free market dogma of the right-centre and the more stringent regulationist policies of the more radical left. With Theresa May’s direct message of escape from EU laws, a restoration of national borders and an emphasis on economic responsibility over ‘reckless borrowing and spending’, this alliance may seem hazy and imprecise on concrete policy and allow the right to sell itself with coherent political messaging.
Perplexing as it sounds given our tumultuous political situation, we now live in post-populist times. The traditional populist logic of ‘Us’ (the common man) vs ‘Them’ (corrupt, unaccountable elites) is now being used by establishment politicians to further entrench their privileged ambitions. With the discourse of this sudden general election, we have reached a stage where the energy of populism has become commodity in the monopoly of protest.