Despite a shock election result, Theresa May will likely cling onto her role as Britain’s Prime Minister. At least, for now. But the Conservatives have lost their majority in Parliament and will have to scrape together a coalition. May called this election to strengthen many things; her political mandate, her Brexit negotiating hand, her parliamentary majority, and her government’s overall position. All of those things now look irrevocably damaged.
When this surprise election was called, it made a lot of sense for the Conservatives. At the time, they were riding high in the polls; with a 23 point lead over a Labour party that was in disarray. Jeremy Corbyn had taken his party far to the left. His shadow cabinet was a shambles, and Corbyn appeared personally unpopular with voters, while his deeply divided party had attempted to oust him as recently as August. More to the point, his hostility to Britain’s armed forces and disturbing associations with terrorists seemed to disqualify him from being electorally credible. Yet against these odds, Labour has now robbed the Conservatives of an outright victory, having dramatically increased both their overall vote share and representation in parliament.
This turn of events is all the stranger when one considers how the campaign played out. Mrs. May certainly failed to rise to the occasion. Yet, in many respects, things were going worse for Labour. Their high tax, high spend, high borrow manifesto—with statist plans for nationalizing infrastructure and industries—was full of numbers that didn’t add up. Nor did they set out a coherent strategy for implementing Brexit. This led to a series of humiliating car crash interviews that left almost no senior Labour figure unscathed. Worst hit was Corbyn’s longstanding ally, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott. Following one particularly abysmal interview during the closing days of the campaign, in which she failed to give any coherent explanation for how London could be guarded against terrorism, Labour “temporarily” stood her down on the grounds that she was unwell.
The whole terrorism angle has been one of the most perplexing aspects of the British election. Even before the campaign began, Corbyn was under fire for his associations with Hamas, Hezbollah, and the IRA. So it might have been thought that three major terror attacks in three months—two of them during the campaign itself—would have sunk Labour. Not least because, as a former Home Secretary, Mrs. May has a record of bringing in tough counter-terrorism measures. Yet the polls hardly registered the attacks.
Observers might be alarmed that so many Brits voted for a party led by a man mired in associations with terrorists and anti-Semitism. Yet, judging by the public debate, the sad truth is voters backed Corbyn not because of these associations, but in spite of them. A group of voters emerged at this election who just didn’t want to hear about Corbyn’s record on national security; Britain’s long lost youth vote.
From the picture we are getting, it appears young voters gave Labour a sudden last minute boost. Not enough to win the election for them, but it ensured that Theresa May was denied the comfortable win she had been forecast. Polling suggests that around 63 percent of 18-34-year-olds back Labour. But, in the past, this was immaterial because so few of them bothered to go vote. In 2015 it was believed turnout among the under 25’s was just 43 percent. This time it was closer to 70 percent. And we also know that turnout was particularly high around British universities, where the results show Labour enjoying a particularly strong endorsement.
There was a push on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube to get young people out voting. Reports from observers tell of a rare frenzy of enthusiasm among youth voters gathering around Corbyn, bringing many out campaigning and voting for the first time.
That only further provokes the question of why. After all, aren’t these college grads as capable as everyone else when it comes to spotting the black holes in Labour’s spending plans? Wasn’t this internet savvy generation all the more able to get on Google and look into Corbyn’s long parliamentary record of opposing numerous pieces of counter-terror legislation? Perhaps, but it seems they just don’t care. Some scoff incredulously when Corbyn’s Hamas and Hezbollah connections are raised. Others seem to vaguely concur with Corbyn’s worldview, which holds that foreign wars and close relations with America cause terrorism at home.
This is a group of voters who lack the historical memory of either IRA bombings or the economic crises of socialist Britain in the 1970s. It is also a group that more generally refuses to be drawn on the specifics. As journalists and interviewers have found, these voters deal more in feelings than policies. They talk vaguely of Corbyn being a man of principle and of wanting to live in a fairer, more just, more tolerant society. Unsurprisingly, Conservatives—who found themselves cast as being on the side of the elites and the establishment—have discovered that pleas for fiscal responsibility have no traction here.
Democracies, of course, rely on the electorate being both informed and sober-minded. But what to do when an unthinking popularism that refuses to be informed by facts erupts on either the left or right? Mrs. May called this election to put herself in a stronger position to implement the Brexit Britain voted for. What she hadn’t reckoned on was generation stupid coming of age in 2017.