The 2017 general election campaign, and its immediate aftermath, will surely go down as Theresa May’s Greek Tragedy. Few campaigns in history have been entered into in a mood of such towering hubris, before descending so swiftly into error, incompetence and humiliation.
Strong and stable government was what was promised. Instead, it looks like we’ll be saddled with a Tory “coalition of chaos”. Now, it is Labour that exudes strength and unity, while the Tories teeter on the brink of internecine war. How did we get here, and where do we go next? With her fragile government now predicated on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, and the Queen’s Speech delayed, will June really herald the end of May?
It’s always best to start at the beginning. In exploring the origins of her fall from grace, the Prime Minister may wish to reflect on the disingenuous opportunism which prompted her to call the election in the first place. For months she assured us that there would be no election, but when the temptation to crush all democratic opposition to her plans for a hard Brexit became overwhelming, she performed the first in a series of dizzying U-turns.
Having called the election, Tory strategists were clearly of the view that the outcome was assured and the campaign itself a tiresome formality. How else to explain the utter absence of vim and vigour, and the arrogant dismissal of the electorate? Despite apparent efforts to place her at the forefront of the campaign, May skulked in the background, and couldn’t even be bothered to debate her opponents.
In policy terms, the Conservative manifesto was a dour and dismal vortex which destroyed all hope and optimism. There was nothing for the young or the old, nothing for people struggling on low incomes, nothing for public sector workers hammered by pay freezes, or for businesses nervous about Brexit. The Tory prescription for this country’s woes was the same as in 2010 and 2015: more austerity. It was a manifesto of misery.
Labour’s campaign, on the other hand, was characterised by hope, energy and optimism. In my own constituency of Edinburgh South (which voted to stay in both the UK and EU), I gave voters a clear alternative to the turmoil and division offered by both the Tories and the Scottish National Party. On the doorsteps, voter after voter told me they wanted to stop a hard Brexit and a second independence referendum, and instead embraced Labour’s positive and progressive vision for Scotland. These messages were clearly popular – I increased my majority by almost 500 per cent: from 2,637 to over 15,500.
At the outset of the election, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, like May, thought that a bit of flag waving and a few vacuous soundbites would be enough to secure victory. When it became clear that this wasn’t working, the SNP had nothing more to offer. The seemingly impregnable leads they established across Scotland in 2015 crumbled and in many cases collapsed. As a result, the SNP’s star is now on the wane, and Labour is firmly in the ascendancy. Crucially, and as I said at my count declaration, we have hammered the final nail into the coffin of a second independence referendum.
However, while Labour performed well in Scotland, there is no room for complacency. We fell agonisingly short in a clutch of seats, victory in which would have helped us close the gap on the Tories. In Glasgow South West, Glasgow East, and Airdrie and Shotts, Labour lost by just 60 votes, 75 votes and 195 votes respectively.
Moreover, there is cause for concern at the inroads made by the Tories, especially in the North East – where the SNP were almost entirely wiped out – and the Borders. It is clear that more work is needed to ensure that Labour’s positive message appeals to those in rural as well as urban areas, and addresses the concerns of Scotland’s agricultural and fishing communities, where patience with SNP ambivalence on Brexit and other issues has evaporated.
So what happens next?
First of all, Theresa May has to go. This result is a humiliation, her credibility is in tatters, and her postponement of the Queen’s Speech shows she cannot rely on support from the DUP to keep her government afloat. Her position is untenable, and she knows it.
Secondly, the Tories must abandon their plans for a hard Brexit. Theirs is an unambitious vision that will diminish hard won rights and protections, damage our economy, and leave us all worse off. Instead, and as Yvette Cooper has said, we need to find an alternative cross-party way to conduct the Brexit negotiations, with a clear and transparent process to build consensus behind a final deal.
Securing the rights of EU citizens in the UK – and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU – and working to ensure tariff and non-tariff barrier free access to the single market should be immediate priorities. If there is the political will, then there is surely a practical way to secure the benefits of the single market and customs union for the UK.
Thirdly and finally, the Tories have no mandate to implement much of their manifesto. Further austerity and cuts to social security are unacceptable – and no one wants a “dementia tax”. Instead, the Tories should adopt an economic plan that reduces the deficit and debt in a sensible and sustainable way, and allows us to build a better future for everyone is this country.
Labour’s positive campaign – led by Jeremy Corbyn and Kezia Dugdale in Scotland – energised and enthused the electorate, especially young people. In stark contrast, Theresa May’s Greek Tragedy delivered precisely the opposite of what was promised: a weak and wobbly coalition of chaos that could collapse at any time. If and when it does, the country will be much better for it – especially if it kills a hard Brexit on its way down.