Rise of ‘anti-politics’ produces surprise result in the UK election – and it’s playing a role in Australia, too

Theresa May’s gamble on calling an early election has not paid off. Reuters/Toby Melville

A little over a week before the 2017 UK general election, the improbable occurred. A poll indicated that Prime Minister Theresa May could lose the Conservative majority. The shadow of a hung parliament was cast over the UK parliament again. It was a claim credible enough to the markets for the sterling to drop. Most political analysts, however, did not take it seriously.

But these are unconventional times. There is an unlikely president in the White House. No pundit predicted Brexit. And now, a Labour Party led by an “anti-politician” in Jeremy Corbyn has delivered a hung parliament.

While Theresa May will soon be on her way to Buckingham Palace to ask the Queen’s permission to form minority government, the unlikelihood of a stable coalition government means Britons may be heading back to the polls much sooner than they expected.

A win for anti-politics?

“Anti-politics” is often used to describe:

  • a growing distrust of career politicians;

  • hatred of partisan politics; and

  • disaffection with democracy.

Among its causes is complacency in rich Western nations, as well as disinterest in institutions (especially from the young). Many see anti-politics as a tide sweeping away much that was previously taken for granted.

According to leading UK scholars, anti-politics is not a democratic de-alignment as much as the result of political realignment. In other words, it is not that we are turning off democracy – but that we are turning away from political elites and major party politics.

A recent Australian survey found righteous indignation among its citizens. This anger is directed at parties and politicians who are swayed by the quest for power and seem to break promises with impunity.

One of the significant lessons from the 2017 UK poll is that “anti-politics” voters are no longer welded on to any one party. There is growing volatility in the UK electorate. In the 1960s, less than 10% of voters changed their allegiance between elections. In yesterday’s poll it was closer to 40%.

Thanks to anti-politics, gone are the days when voters supported a political party in the way they might support the family football team.

But how then do we explain the strongest combined major party vote for two decades (Conservative 43 / Labour 40)? Does this suggest a return to two-party politics?

No, because one side – Labour – was playing anti-politics.

Corbyn’s success in context

There is no doubt that no-one expected the dramatic growth in the Labour vote. But there are two stories to tell.

First, the support for Corbyn came against economic and political convention. Labour focused on larger cities and university towns, targeting students, service industries and the public sector. It promised to end austerity, nationalise utilities, increase taxes, and invest heavily in public services. It was an anti-political appeal.

Second, the Labour vote was a big enough to hamper the Conservatives, but not much more.

Despite Labour’s celebration over approximately 30 seats, the 2017 result is only eight seats more than when it lost power in 2010. The reality is that Labour is little closer to the 60-plus seats it needs for power than it was last week. What will make this a potentially insurmountable gap is an unacknowledged divide in the UK electorate.

A deeper UK divide

Recently, UK researchers analysed the 2015 UK election results. They found that anti-politics attitudes spread across all voter groups. But what was really challenging for parties was not a traditional split along class lines, but a growing “bifurcation” in the vote of cosmopolitan and provincial England.

Cosmopolitan voters had benefited more from globalisation, were more outward-looking, pluralist and open to the EU. In contrast, those in provincial regions of economic decline were more inward-looking, illiberal, and negative toward immigration.

Perhaps there are no great surprises here. But what is interesting is that this division had real effects that challenged political parties. In other words, these shifts made it harder for larger parties to develop a platform that spans these “two Englands”.

In 2015, this resulted in cosmopolitan votes for Labour and the Greens. It saw provincial support for UKIP and an element of both for the Conservatives.

This suggests that the Conservatives’ 2015 success was due to being more adept at targeting appeals to both cosmopolitan and provisional electorates, while being more pragmatic around taking nationally consistent positions.

What happened in the 2017 general election?

While the Conservatives won 5.5% more of the vote (but lost a dozen seats), Labour won a 7% swing in cosmopolitan areas that had voted Conservative and “Remain”. While participation was up 2.6% overall (up from 66.1% in 2015), it rose by over 5% in seats Labour won.

On the back of record youth enrolment to vote, Labour surged in the youth vote in cosmopolitan areas. Meanwhile, Conservative London cosmopolitan seats changed hands, while Labour won university seats like Sheffield Hallam from the Liberal Democrats.

Yet the challenge for Labour remains. Its wins were cosmopolitan, with little progress in the provincial areas that it needs for a majority in the future.

Meanwhile, the Conservative appeal to provincial England through an emphasis on Brexit and bringing down net migration were successfully targeted at a collapsing UKIP and winning some SNP seats. But it compromised the Tories’ cosmopolitan wins from 2015.

Here lies the challenge for all large party leaders: how do they connect with prevailing moods in both cosmopolitan and provincial areas when they diverge in such opposite directions?

What might this mean for Australia?

It is not unreasonable to suggest Australia may be seeing its own version of the “bifurcation” challenge.

Australian demographer Bernard Salt has already identified a tale of two nations. And as Ken Henry recently observed, the Australian population continues to grow beyond the capacity of existing capital cities and puts pressure on economic performance and infrastructure planning. This can only contribute to “two Australias” that are divided by geography, economic opportunity and even identity.

Meanwhile, some states (hit hard by globalisation) have turned to provincial, protectionist and issue-based politicians. And, as national votes become harder to span, the notion of slim majority as mandate will become even more problematic.

Many argue that former prime minister John Howard’s ability to win traditional Labor voters was at the heart of his sustained electoral success.

However, the challenge for today’s Australian leaders is more complex than it was during the Howard era. Not only must they manage competing ideologies in their parties and span diverging nations, they must also respond to a volatile electorate that is decidedly “anti-politics”.