What the Heck Just Happened in Britain?

And could it happen here?

Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn leaves Labour Headquarters on June 9, 2017 in London, England.  

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As if the last year hadn’t been full of enough surprises, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party gained seats in Thursday’s British election, shocking analysts and preventing incumbent Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May from gaining any majority, let alone a larger one. May had called the election to give herself more political space to negotiate Brexit with European leaders; Corbyn, a longtime member of his party’s left, ran a surprisingly impressive campaign and may yet find himself prime minister if another election is called.

To discuss the election results, I spoke by phone with David Runciman, a professor of politics and international studies at Cambridge University and the author, most recently, of The Confidence Trap: A History of Democracy in Crisis From World War I to the Present. He is also the host of the podcast Talking Politics. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Corbyn skillfully managed the Brexit issue, the reasons behind May’s probable downfall, and whether the left’s future lies with economic populism.

Isaac Chotiner: So what happened?

David Runciman: She’s lost her majority, the Labour Party can’t form a government, it’s chaos.

OK, so what the hell just happened?

Uh, yeah. [Laughs.] Two things happened: Young people voted. I am in Cambridge. This seat should have been very, very close. It was a complete blowout. The Labour Party just won a huge victory because students voted for Labour in massive numbers. It’s a mixture of students voting, people under 25 or maybe 30, and the U.K. Independence Party, UKIP. Everybody, including me, assumed that when their vote collapsed most of their voters would go to the Tories, even though a lot of them had originally been Labour. But a lot of them went back to Labour. That’s the big driver of this. Corbyn could have gotten the student vote out and still lost heavily. But these voters switched back and the question is why. It’s probably because Corbyn neutralized Brexit as an issue.

There had been some criticism of Corbyn for not being strong enough against Brexit from the beginning and then not running on a clearer “Remain” platform.

If he had run on a clear “Remain” platform, he would now be toast. She would have won easily. What he managed to do was fudge it. He also made a clear commitment that Brexit would happen, and a lot of people said that while the Labour Party seemed confused and split on Brexit, they also didn’t mind because Corbyn made the election about domestic issues, including welfare issues. One of my takeaways is that if you look at this, and Macron, and Trump in a different way, you’d think Bernie Sanders would have won. I know it’s a big stretch but these establishment candidates, like with Hillary Clinton: Something beats nothing. And in the end, May was nothing. She was saying that she called an election because she wanted to get a mandate to negotiate Brexit, but she never told us what she wanted to get out of that. She had nothing.

The Labour Party might reflect that with a different leader, they might have won this. Corbyn’s done much better than people thought, and he’s run a very skillful campaign, and he did neutralize Brexit, but with the failure of the Conservative campaign here, it’s at least possible that Labour will look back on this as an election they could have actually won. What they have done is made it so at some point she will probably have to resign. But the other possibility is there will be another election, and Labour is now very well-placed. Twenty-four hours ago, I would have said it was impossible for Jeremy Corbyn to be prime minister, and now I am thinking we should prepare for Corbyn maybe in the next six to 12 months becoming prime minister.

At one level you seem to be saying that Corbyn’s particular ability to be economically populist and fudge Brexit was a big help, but also that he is a political liability, and that if a more mainstream person had been running, Labour might have won outright. There’s a tension there.

Yeah. It’s complicated and I am not sure. This is like Brexit and Trump—the third time I have sat up all night and found myself in a state of amazement. This is a different country, or world, than I thought it was. But the Labour Party campaigned to shore up its support. It didn’t really campaign to try and form a majority government. It didn’t go out into the parts of the country it didn’t think it had a chance in. It hasn’t gained a huge number of seats, but it has held almost every seat it had before. It was a slightly defensive campaign and very skillfully done. It’s at least possible that given the weakness we have seen from May and the Conservatives, that a leader who could actually reach out to more middle-ground voters might have done better. It’s shored up Corbyn’s position and he is more or less untouchable now, but it didn’t look like a campaign that could deliver a Labour victory. But if there is another campaign in six or 12 months, this is a platform in which all sorts of people are going to be looking again at the Labour Party. The Labour Party looked broken, and now—that’s the amazing thing about democratic politics—the Conservative Party looks at risk of being broken, and the Labour Party is united.

So, do you think the larger issue here is May’s massive screw-up in calling an early election, even though she was popular when she called it? What specifically did she do to blow it?

The first thing she did is call an election when she didn’t have to, and she didn’t explain to people why we needed to have it. She has a very tight circle of advisers that put together a manifesto that fell apart quite quickly. It’s never happened in modern British political history that a party leader has abandoned part of a manifesto in the middle of a campaign. You stick to it. So people started to believe she was flaky when her chief selling point was that she was tough and unflappable negotiating Brexit. That started to look weak.

I wrote about May a few months ago and said that even though I wasn’t sure people liked her, they thought she might quite like them, in the sense that she seemed quite nonjudgmental and relatively comfortable with ordinary conservative people. And as the campaign went on, she became more and more insular and uncomfortable. People started to look at her and wonder whether she felt comfortable with ordinary people. The Tory Party is going to get close to 43 percent of the vote, which is what [Tony] Blair got in his landslide. They are going to have close to a majority. The catastrophe is for her personally, not least because I think the biggest fall in British political history is the fall in her approval rating. It has completely collapsed in six weeks. I have never seen anything like it. Campaigns aren’t meant to matter that much.

Do you have any sense of what impact the terrorist attacks, and perhaps Trump’s intervention, had?

There was an initial thought that it would help her because it often does parties of the right, and security was a big issue for her. It clearly didn’t help her. I’m not sure Trump’s intervention played a lot here. This was a remarkably insular election. Very domestic. Very little focus on what the rest of the world was thinking.

No David, it’s about America.

Yeah sorry, I forgot that. The thing that surprised people is that Corbyn and his people went after her on cutting police numbers when she was Home secretary, and they tied that into a message about austerity, and there was a kind of political genius in connecting austerity with security. I’m not sure that made a huge difference, but it neutralized a Tory advantage that might have come.

So you think May is done?

She could limp on for 12 hours or two weeks or two months, but she is never going to recover her authority.

There has been a big debate on the left about whether the white working-class in countries like the U.K. and America, which has been drifting rightward, could ever be won back. Does this election show it is possible?

I think it is possible. I think it could happen. London has become another country. It is Labour through-and-through. The white working-class in the north of England didn’t just flip to the Tories. Roughly half of them came back. The challenge for Corbyn, as with all mainstream parties that want to form a majority, is that he has to form a bridge between those people and all the students who voted for him, and they tend to see the world very differently. Young people don’t usually vote as much, and so politicians can focus on old people. And now Corbyn has promised he would abolish tuition fees, which costs a lot of money. He’s also promised older people to keep their pensions intact, which will also cost a lot of money. And he has promised a lot of benefits to the National Health Service. The challenge for him is not to bring all of the working class in the north back, but to hold together a coalition with students. But that’s a traditional challenge of leftwing politics. It’s a better problem than having lost more of the white working class.

Do you think this paves the way for larger thinking among parties on the left in other countries?

As I said, I look at this and think Sanders could have won. I mean, who knows? But the other thing I look at is Trump, Macron, and Corbyn not winning but doing better than anyone thought. Completely different kinds of politicians. These different electoral systems are producing distinctly quirky results, which show that all sorts of things are possible. Macron is not really of the left but is putting together a new kind of politics. Corbyn is putting together a leftist politics with some unusual elements. It’s possible for new kinds of politicians to emerge. But the extent of the welfare state in different countries makes things different. Corbyn is defending universal healthcare in a country where everyone defends universal healthcare.

So are you saying the appeal of Sanders and Corbyn, say, is that they are outsiders as much as economic populists?

Yeah, the outsiderness helps. Corbyn has been in the Labour Party a long time but comes across as different. He’s untainted by governing decisions. Outsiders can do remarkable things at the moment. But it is important to emphasize that the Labour Party did not win this. They gained a few seats, but Labour will not form the next government. There will be a Conservative prime minister and it might well be Boris Johnson, who is the kind of politician they most hate. It could be their worst nightmare. They did better than expected but it’s not a win.

It is all about Brexit. Labour persuaded these UKIP voters that they were willing to be a party of Brexit, and that was what got them the hearing, and then they got a hearing for preserving pensions, putting money into the NHS, and so on. So it looks like you need your equivalent of Brexit to get your hearing. I don’t know what it would be in the States. If Labour had fought this on a Remain campaign, they would not have come back.

The irony is that Corbyn, who is seen as an ideologue, managed to do better than expected by fudging this.

There is also the view that in his heart-of-hearts, he is quite keen on Brexit. But anyway, Labour did not fight an ideologically purist campaign. It was all things to all people. The manifesto had all sorts of promises, and was put together by a committee. It read like a committee’s shopping list. Throw it all in there, and talk about it in a passionate way, and talk about hope. He talked about hope a lot. Hope beats doom, or gloom anyway. Corbyn did this as a comfortable-in-his-own-skin, hopeful welfarist person who would not push back on Brexit. If you can find an equivalent of that, good luck.