So the dust has settled, the result is clear, and the stalemate on leaving the EU has been unblocked. The debates continue to rattle around my various social media threads, and it is worth pausing and reflecting on the way that the result came about, and whether we are in a new political era—or not. Here are my observations about the election, and some reflection on what they mean for Christians and the church.
First, it is worth remembering that the vote was partial, in the sense that the biggest vote went to ‘none of the above’ because 31% of the population eligible to vote did not do so. Non-voter out-numbered those voting for the Conservatives, and non-voters outnumbered the winning candidate in 142 constituencies, and outnumbered the winning margin in many more. I have not seen any analysis of the possible party or political views of non-voters as a whole, so we cannot be sure what the impact would have been. But we should surely ask some questions about political engagement when, in a ‘vote of a lifetime’ which will ‘change the direction of the UK’, and despite the campaigns to get people to vote, nearly one third of the population did not engage.
Secondly, it was lost much more than it was won. The repeated comment on the doorsteps, and from those who voted Conservative even though they had been lifelong (and generational) Labour voters, was that they could not vote for Jeremy Corbyn to be leader. This was in part because of the issue of anti-Semitism, and continued claims that the (print and broadcast) media were biased against him. But I am not sure the broadcast media were biased, so much as they showcased what sort of leader Corbyn would be. To me, he came over as petulant, grumpy, irritable, and lacking the focus that is needed. Peter Brookes’ cartoon in The Times summed it up: he was Johnson’s greatest asset!
Since the result, numerous supporters of Corbyn have tried to minimise the impact of his reputation, which does not augur well for the prospect of Labour finding a credible successor. And since Labour have hoisted themselves on the petard of allowing their party membership to elect the leader of the parliamentary party, without any protection from radical entryism, it is not clear that they will have resolved this before the next election in 2024.
But what is even more remarkable here (and I haven’t seen very much comment on this): the Conservatives under Boris Johnson barely won any more support than Theresa May had done two years earlier, moving from overall 42.% of the vote to 43.6%, a shift of only 1.3%. The big difference was that Labour leached support away in critical seats, allowing the Conservatives to take them. In fact, many of the changes in margin in those seats had been delivered in the previous election, but just not quite enough to see the seats change hands. It appears that May did most of the groundwork (or rather, Corbyn had already lost most of his credibility) and Johnson reaped the benefits of that:
Given how hated May is by the Tory party, it is remarkable how much of the groundwork she laid for the 2019 victory. pic.twitter.com/MwMY4LtaXF
— ido is skipping around the sunlit uplands (@idvck) December 15, 2019
Thirdly, it was dishonest. This has been described as ‘our first post-truth election’. There was dishonesty on both sides, but far more on the side of Boris Johnson and the Conservatives. Former Tory supporter Peter Oborne has kept a list of Johnson’s lies on a dedicated web-site, and it is a long list. Just a week before voting day, Sajid Javid claimed that homelessness had increased under Labour, and declined under the Conservatives—exactly the opposite of the truth. The first result of confirm the exit poll predictions was the election of a Conservative in Blyth Valley, loyal to Labour since 1918—and it turns out that the candidate (now the MP) claimed to be an NHS nurse when he wasn’t. Three of the biggest pledges of the Conservatives (increased numbers of nurses, police officers and spending on schools) do little more than take us back to where Labour had left them in 2010, and were very far from being records. And so it goes on. Never before in an election have we been so depending on fact checking by reputable agencies; the most useful radio programme has been Tim Harford’s More or Less, but even in the broadcasts you can almost hear him becoming more despairing.
And this is not just the ‘regular’ dishonesty of the party political punch-up. Partly because of social media, we are now in an era where truth and lies are very hard to distinguish. Former Conservative cabinet member, Dominic Grieve, was almost lost for words when speaking on the Today programme on Radio 4 in the days before the election.
Politics has always been a dirty business—but what Boris Johnson has been doing is unprecedented in the Conservative party.
Peter Oborne sees the abandonment of any principle, other than the desire to govern, as destroying the party that he knew and loved, and detaching from its historic roots.
Once again, Peter Brookes sums it up in his cartoon of Corbyn and Johnson driving through the trust of the electorate—but what is striking is that the lies and dishonesty don’t appear to have affected the result, unless we see that visible in the high level of non-voters.
Fourthly, it was very much influenced by money, even if it was not won by it.
In the first fortnight of the election campaign, the Tories broke the record for the most money raised in a British election. The Electoral Commission’s latest data on donations shows the Conservatives consolidating their lead in the money stakes. Since the start of November, large donors – those who give more than £7,500 – have contributed at least £12m to Tory party coffers. No other party comes close.
In fact, the Conservatives raised more money for their election campaign than all the other parties put together, by some margin. Television advertising is banned in the UK (thank goodness!) but there is a loophole here in that online advertising is not regulated—a loophole which surely needs closing—so that Conservative adverts were prominent on YouTube as well as on social media.
Fifthly, it was a victory for the strongman. That is true in two senses of the word. On the one hand, as Lord Ashcroft’s extensive exit poll indicates, more men voted for the Conservatives than for Labour—and comparing the marginal preference shows the difference even more clearly.
Men chose the Conservatives over Labour by a 19-point margin (48% to 29%), while women did so by just 6 points (42% to 36%).
It was commented on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour that more men switched allegiances than women, and so their views contributed decisively—and I have since been pointed to the evidence shown in the graph to the right. Historically, men have leaned towards voting Labour more than women, who overall prefer the Conservatives more. This might in the past have been related to more men being involved in (blue collar) labouring occupations, but that cannot account for the preference in more recent years. But the switch over has been quite recent and dramatic, just since 2015, and is best accounted for by the Conservative promise to ‘get things done’.
But it was noticeable the extent to which men dominated the media coverage in the campaigns for both sides. This was, in part, simply a function of the way that both the main parties were ruthlessly focussed on their main message, and kept almost everyone other than their main leaders out of the media spotlight. This meant that otherwise important figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Priti Patel were nowhere to be seen. And for the Conservatives, the ‘Brexit’ message dominated, and was reflected in media coverage. I think that even Boris Johnson was, in a strange way, controlled and hidden, in that the Boris Johnson of affable joshing with interviewers, casual and improvising, disappeared from view. In his place we saw a Boris Johnson who, rather out of character, read from notes, and avoided the most difficult interviews where he would have to think on his feet. There is a sense in which we elected Dominic Cummings, and not Boris Johnson, as Prime Minister
The importance of the ‘strong man’ or charismatic leader is now dominating European politics, springing up from the ruins of the failure to deliver answers to deep-seated problems by the historic political parties, and the frustration that has created.
Of the many lessons about contemporary European politics one can draw from Boris Johnson’s resounding election victory, the most important might also be the most obvious: personality rules.
In today’s political landscape, where ideology and principle have been supplanted by pragmatism and raw opportunism, parties often serve as little more than wrapping for the larger-than-life personalities who lead them…
Johnson’s maneuvering and culling of the Conservative Party has been every bit as dramatic [as changes in other European nations]. As he transforms the establishment bastion of old into the party of the disgruntled working class, many party faithful say the Tories have become unrecognizable.
Sixthly, this election was incoherent, or perhaps contradictory. The most extreme example of this was highlighted in this comment from someone in Scunthorpe, which did the rounds on Twitter:
A fella from Scunthorpe has just said on national tv..
“look around you shops are shutting, businesses are closing, the full place is falling down, so I voted for change, that’s why I voted Conservative”
Let that sink in….
— Rod Grimmer 🚩🌹 (@rodjgrimmer) December 13, 2019
It is a strange thing indeed when right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins can praise the Conservative victory as a triumph for traditional values at the same time as the new generation of Conservative MPs are the most socially progressive in their profile of any party now represented.
Looking at this youthful group gives a fascinating insight into the future of the Tory party. There is not an Old Etonian in sight, and 24 are openly gay or bisexual, the most of any party. Labour has at least 18 — boosting the total to more than 50 LGBT MPs. Westminster is now the “gayest parliament in the world”.
Seventhly, as Lord Ashcroft’s poll indicates most clearly, this result was determined by the old. There is an almost exactly linear progression from Labour support amongst the youngest age group to Conservative support amongst the oldest group voting. How you make sense of this will be determined by your view of both parties and of the impact of ageing! Are the young fresh and optimistic, and the old cynical and selfish? Or are the young naive and gullible, and the old wise and critical? Or perhaps it is a sign of security, with the old closing the door of home ownership and secure income behind them and the young wanting to be let in?
Lastly, the result was unrepresentative. On leaving the EU, Johnson immediately claimed that ‘Brexit was now the irrefutable, irresistible, unarguable decision of the British people’. But that simply isn’t true; something like 52% of the electorate voted for parties that wanted to think further about our future relationship with Europe, rather than drive through the ‘Get Brexit done’ slogan, and of course the negotiations with Europe are going to drag on for many more years. And it is still the case that 53% of the population would not now vote for Leave. Far from Johnson uniting the country and being a ‘government for the people’, he is going to take us down a route that at least half the population don’t want to go down.
More broadly, the election showed both the power and the weakness of our ‘first past the post’ system. The differing numbers of votes required to gain seats for the different parties highlights some basic injustice in our FPTP system, because the party with the most unequal spread of support is the one that can secure the most marginal seats. In recent history, this has in turn favoured both Labour and the Conservatives, but it has consistently squeezed out the middle voices, and in an age of developing extremes, this cannot be healthy. As Johann Hari explained some years ago, it means that we have never actually had the kind of government that the people of the UK actually want.
In Britain today, we have a centre-left majority who want this to be a country with European-level taxes, European-standard public services and European-level equality. We have had this for a very long time. Even at the height of Thatcherism, 56 per cent of people voted for parties committed to higher taxes and higher spending. But the centre-left vote is split between several parties – while the right-wing vote clusters around the Conservatives.
And some Christians have been campaigning for this for some time.
All this provides the raw material for our reflection on democracy, government, the election, and the life of our nation. We need to reflect on the content of our democratic processes, but also on the context in which they sit within our theological understanding.
In relation to content, it seems from all the information above that our supposedly democratic processes are wide open to manipulation of one sort or another. At a basic level, because of the national distribution of party loyalties, combined with the ‘winner takes all’ strategy of FPTP in constituencies, and the formation of the government by the party with the most seats, our national government is decided by a small group of key voters. Headlines in the week before the election claimed that ‘10,000 voters will determine the outcome’. Given the polarisation of the main parties on so many issues, that is an appalling state for us to be in as a democracy.
But the system is more vulnerable to the stealth of highly-informed strategic planning, the manipulation of social media, the disproportionate spending powers of the different parties, and the reward (in times of uncertainty) to those who put up a single, uncompromising message which disregards nuance, debate, and even the facts. Bill Clinton once said:
When people are insecure, they’d rather have somebody who is strong and wrong than someone who’s weak and right.
This is the kind of phenomenon that W B Yeats was referring to in his poem ‘The Second Coming’:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhereThe ceremony of innocence is drowned;The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.
We were in a situation of intense uncertainty following three years of ‘Brexit’ push-me-pull-you, so the Strong Man was always going to have an edge in this election. And the explosion of information on social media has, by and large, led to a decline in real understanding in many arenas, and it is clear that politics is one of those.
Christians have not always supported democracy as opposed to benign oligarchy; after all, are most of us really equipped with the technical understanding of what makes for the best policies in our complex world? And why should we imagine that what people want in any sense reflects what God desires for us as a nation? But if we are committed to democracy and to the democratic accountability of those in power by means of general elections, then we need to call for some serious revision of the system we currently have.
In relation to the theological context of these issues, from my discussions with friends online and in person across the political spectrum, it seems to me that three main things are needed.
First, Christians must be in the forefront of engaging with those of different views with honesty, respect and patience. I have been intrigued to read of Christian friends, including clergy, who appear to assume that everyone shares either their joy or their grief at the election result, as if there is only one possible Christian response to it. C S Lewis was absolutely right when he commented that, to many people he will look socially conservative because of his belief in the importance of family, relationships, honesty, responsibility and accountability. But to many he will also look socially liberal because of his belief in creating a caring society where the weakest and most vulnerable are provided for. I don’t know many friends who would disagree with these two concerns; but the reality is that one political tradition emphasises one, whilst the other main tradition emphasises the other, and this leads Christians to vote in different ways depending on how they rank these issue in importance. It is therefore incumbent on us to ensure that we are listening to and understanding those who would vote in a different way from us, so that we can continue to reflect on our own understanding and priorities.
Secondly, we need to disentangle our political concerns from questions of the coming of the kingdom. I have been fascinated to see, amongst friends on all sides, a hope that somehow God’s agenda for our nation might in some way be delivered by a particular party coming to power. We need to remember that we are not saved by politicians or political systems. But more than that—we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that, as the values of our culture move further and further from historic Christian values, this is somehow bad for the church or the gospel. It certainly will make life more challenging for all those who seek to follow Jesus. But it simply is not the case that people in a culture closer to historical Christian ethical values find it easier to come to faith. The church has consistently grown fastest in cultures that are more alien, where Christian faith stands out as distinctive.
Thirdly, we need to think more clearly about what Paul says about government in Romans 13. His affirmation that the powers that be exercise only power that is given by God needs to be put alongside his own apocalyptic outlook, and read in conjunction with Rev 13 which tells us that political systems can also do the devil’s work. Paul affirms, as a Jew who is committed to the idea of the sovereignty of God, that all power comes from God alone, and that God’s opposition to evil is not about a dualistic fight between equal partners, but about the sovereign Lord bringing his kingdom to reign in the end. But in saying this, he is articulating the same belief as Jesus did before Pilate: ‘You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above’ (John 19.11). This is hardly an endorsement of Pilate’s appointment or affirmation of his actions as mandated by God—and I see no reason to think either of these things in relation to a particular party coming first in our distorted democratic process.
What we need to do is to continue to preach the gospel, continue to contend for the truth and for justice, and continue to challenge our culture about their values and agenda. If those in power welcome this and listen, all well and good; if they don’t, we will continue to proclaim what is right.
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