What can New Zealand learn from the British election?

UK  Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made up considerable ground against the Conservatives, but not enough to force a change ...

UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn made up considerable ground against the Conservatives, but not enough to force a change of government.

OPINION: British Prime Minister Theresa May has gambled everything and lost. When she called a snap election in April, she did so in the expectation of turning her slender majority into a big one.

Now, she has no majority.

While May remains prime minister, for the time being, it is at the head of a minority government only. At the time of writing, she has vowed to stay on in office. However, nobody can inflict such a catastrophe on his or her own government and expect to stay in power.

So what went wrong? What are the lessons for New Zealand and our own general election this year? That rather depends on who you talk to.

For the hard left, the answer is that the people reward parties that run on hard-left platforms.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is an antediluvian socialist bitterly opposed by moderates in his own party and the gentry liberals of the mainstream media. The conventional wisdom was that he was certain to preside over Labour's Armageddon.

Instead, the party's share of the vote increased by almost 10 points. Corbyn did not deliver enough seats to take control of the Government, but he has confounded and scattered his enemies. Corbynism is on the march.

So, the thinking goes, New Zealand Labour should follow in his footsteps. If they worked in the UK, promises of aggressive nationalisation and confiscatory taxes will work here, too.

Embrace socialism and be knocking on the door of the Beehive in no time.

Those less sympathetic to Corbyn are more likely to blame Theresa May's shambolic leadership. This was so terrible, they say, that Labour really ought to have won the election.

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And if it were led by anyone else, they also say, it probably would have too.

And it is true that the Conservative campaign was awful.

The Government ran using a cult-of-personality strategy. This can work when you have a candidate like Barack Obama or even Donald Trump. It does not work when you have a wooden leader like Theresa May. It was like a replay of the Clinton campaign from last year.

Over and over again, May promised "strong" and "stable" leadership. But this message was contradicted by her very act in calling the election. After all, she had previously ruled out an early election. And given her small but workable majority, calling one was not something she needed to do. She was inviting instability.

Multiple U-turns during the campaign – especially on the so-called "dementia tax" – all but destroyed the credibility of this rationale.

Then there are the structural explanations for what happened. Despite losing their majority, the Conservatives actually increased their share of the vote from 36.9 to 42.4 per cent. The troubled Labour gained much more from a general decline in the votes won by third parties like the Scottish National Party, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and, especially, Ukip.

Or was this all about moderate voters punishing the Conservatives for Brexit? Did May's patchy record as Home Secretary come back to haunt her in the wake of the terror attacks?

Did voters just want to kick against the status quo?

There are few forces stronger than confirmation bias. We tend to interpret events in a way that affirms our pre-conceptions. Unsurprisingly, the explanations that commentators put forward tend to chime with what they want to believe.

We should be wary about simple narrative explanations for what happened. It was an election with many moving parts and it is going to take a while to work out which ones had a material effect on the outcome. We may never know for sure. But there is one clear and undeniable lesson from all this it is the old truth that "pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall".

When May changed her mind about calling an election, Labour looked as weak as a kitten. To the Conservatives, it must have seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime chance to put their great rivals to the sword. And since the only alternative for voters was crazy old Jeremy Corbyn, it was a prime opportunity to force some unpopular policies upon them. If not now, then when?

The ancient Greeks would have recognised this as "hubris" – or arrogance leading to perilous overconfidence. They also had a god whose job it was to punish those drunk on delusions of their own invincibility. Her name was Nemesis. Wherever there was hubris, she was not far behind.

In the last public poll, National rated 49 per cent against Labour and the Greens on 39 per cent between them. That's astonishing given how long the government has been in power. In fact, you probably wouldn't blame the National for feeling a bit complacent.

But nobody escapes Nemesis' watchful eye just retribution. Not even prime ministers.

 - Stuff


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