After the most astonishing election result in living memory, whose political outcome on the morning after is deeply unclear, is there anything we can say at this point we have learned? Here are five apparent lessons, all rather encouraging for supporters of the democratic process, whatever your party:
1. The public do not like being told what to think – by either politicians or the media. Theresa May said the election was about giving her a mandate for Brexit. But Brexit was barely mentioned in the campaign. This was partly because neither the Prime Minister nor Labour wanted (or were able) to elaborate on their Brexit stance, but mainly because the public wanted to talk about other things. They were electing a government, not just a Brexit negotiating team, and government is about health, education, policing, social care, student debt and lots of other issues. Despite all the efforts of the campaign message managers and the partisan press, it’s the politicians who have to listen to the voters, not the other way round.
2. Young people can be persuaded to vote after all. While we do not yet know exactly who voted, the higher turnout, particularly in university seats and other urban areas with a high proportion of young voters, makes it likely that the under-30s have significantly affected the outcome. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour appear to have been the electoral beneficiaries, but the wider consequence – that young people can be motivated to take part in the democratic process – reverses two decades of received wisdom about the political apathy of the young and the electoral dominance of the old.
3. The boundaries of the politically possible are much wider than previously assumed. Since 1997 the political class has agreed that the centre ground is the only rational place for any party seeking electoral victory. This led to a striking convergence of political platforms, with Labour in particular convincing itself that it had to constantly moderate its naturally social democratic instincts. Until this time, when it stood on an unabashedly radical manifesto, proposing the public ownership of major industries, and a major increase in both taxation and public spending. And in doing so it has substantially increased its vote. Now Labour of course has not won this election. But all the polling and focus group evidence is that these policies were widely popular. The public, it seems, are much more open to radical ideas – particularly when the economy is patently not performing well, and people are feeling its failure – than previously believed.
4. Austerity has run its course. The deficit was the dog that didn’t bark in this election. Some commentators expressed surprise that the Tories did not re-emphasise their fiscal prudence, but there was a good reason for that: when they focus-grouped it, the public were no longer interested. After seven years of austerity the damage which continued public spending cuts are doing to the health service, to social care, to schools, policing and local government has finally hit home. The public have been saying ‘No more’. This is welcome not just because it will likely result in a slowing down of forthcoming cuts, but because it was always economically wrongheaded. Austerity was not the way to get the deficit down: that needed growth. In turn – with weak consumption, investment and exports, and with interest rates at rock bottom – what the economy has needed over the past five years has been an injection of demand though public investment. Whoever forms the next government, this must now be the priority.
5. Nothing in politics is set in stone. Little more than a year ago everyone assumed that the EU referendum would be won by Remain; the SNP would dominate Scottish politics for a generation; Corbyn’s Labour Party was unelectable; and UKIP were a fixture of English politics. Yet here we are. We know that politics can change society – but we now also know that society can change politics. Whatever you believe in, there’s never reason to give up hope.
Michael Jacobs is Director of the IPPR Commission on Economic Justice
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