Bill Jamieson: Whatever happened to the great populist insurrection?

An election defeat under Jeremy Corbyn could see Labour plunged into a new leadership crisis. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
An election defeat under Jeremy Corbyn could see Labour plunged into a new leadership crisis. Picture: Jane Barlow/PA
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Despite the turmoil, there appears to be a gulf between the daily political outcry and the stolidity of voters says Bill Jamieson.

Labour, the party that stood most to gain from this seething mass of apparent voter discontent, is facing no mere defeat but actual humiliation on 8 June. Support continues to drain away in its Scottish heartland.

Meanwhile, the cacophonous caravan of assorted Remainers and the so-called centre-left can muster neither a programme nor a leadership. Minority parties of the left and right barely register in poll analysis. Ukip is heading for political extinction. And here in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon is battling to staunch a loss of voter support for her repeated calls for a second independence referendum.

Whatever has happened to the great populist insurrection? Pundits with furled brows knitted furiously on the ascendancy of a “new politics”. Was there not a great voter revolt underway here and in Europe against politics as we know it, and an insurgency against the entrenched elite?

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Yet Geert Wilders’s promise to bring a populist “revolution” to Europe fell flat on its face last month after his anti-immigrant Party for Freedom was soundly beaten by Mark Rutte, the incumbent centre-right Dutch prime minister. In France, Marine Le Pen is struggling to close the gap with centrist Emmanuel Macron, an avowedly pro-EU politician and former protégé of president François Hollande.

And here in the UK, the Conservatives are on course for one of the biggest majorities the party has enjoyed for 50 years – and this under the most uncharismatic and humdrum of leaders.

Anyone attuned to the political news coverage of recent months – all those earnest prophecies of setbacks, challenges and revolts given saturation coverage on the nightly BBC news – would have reasonably assumed the government could not possibly survive. Yet here we are, with polls pointing to the very opposite of pundit wisdom: a monumental Tory triumph.

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Now much, of course, can happen between now and 8 June. But there does seem to be a gulf between the constant reports of political disaffection and the bovine stolidity of voters. The prevailing view on Brexit is not to re-fight the 23 June EU referendum campaign all over again, but is one of “just let’s get on with it”.

The Conservatives’ greatest enemy now is triumphalism feeding complacency. If voters sense that a Tory victory is taken for granted, it is conceivable that a low turn-out could breathe life into the dying embers of a progressive coalition. And it is also conceivable that in such an atmosphere, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could enjoy a last-minute revival. Did not Lazarus pick up his bed and walk?

It is Corbyn’s leadership that is widely blamed for the collapse in Labour support. Has it not been because of his championing of left-wing causes that enjoy little ­support outside the hard-left membership of the party?

But this is hardly the full explanation. The Corbyn ascendancy would not have gained ground had the centre-left put together a credible programme for government and a leadership that commanded credibility.

It is the vacuum which opened up for Corbyn as much as Corbyn himself that must bear responsibility for the party’s dire state.

Now the likelihood is that, barely will the general election result have been announced than Labour will be plunged yet again into another leadership crisis. Already extended news bulletins will be stretched even further to cover the jockeying and manoeuvring to mount a challenge to Corbyn that can overcome the bedrock of support within the party – support that seems impervious to defeat and nonchalant about the goal of power. New faces, new rules, new slogans, and in the background, the numbing drone of that anthem of the losers: “Lessons Have Been Learned.”

What, meanwhile, of the strange appeal of Prime Minister Theresa May? She is not the most spell-binding of leaders. Her performance before voters is less one of soaring oratory than dogged repetition of slogans. I

t would be hard to argue that she has developed a compelling line of argument – “Brexit means Brexit” and “doing the right thing for Britain” has now given way to “strong and stable leadership in the national interest”.

This endlessly repeated mantra is about as vacuous an election slogan as I can recall. It is now the constant refrain in her stump speeches, and in case she forgets the line, it is held up in posters by surrounding campaign workers like prompt boards.

Yet after a year of her premiership I am none the wiser about she means by “the national interest”, or about her core beliefs and convictions.

Does she stand for more government intervention or less? For more taxes or less? Is she a social liberal or a family values traditionalist?

Perhaps her core appeal is that she has no guiding light of convictions but a daily tick list of commonplace “things to do” – less a driving programme but a mystique of pragmatism.

Yet it has a gut appeal to voters who are now weary of the relentless wall-to-wall politics of the past few years. We seem to have become locked in a never-ending cycle of elections and referendums, the consequences, actual or imagined, analysed to the point of collective national fatigue.

Barely, it seems, has one voter verdict been delivered than its meaning is challenged and redefined when not denied outright in calls for another referendum.

And it is this that may now be counting against Sturgeon in her calls for a second independence referendum, coming so soon after a bitter and divisive vote three years ago. Even within the SNP there are misgivings that this line has been pushed too loudly and too far: better, say some, for the First Minister to have waited until the outcome of the Brexit negotiations were known and voters had a clearer picture of the consequences and then to demand a referendum. Yet there was no open debate within the party as to current strategy, and rigid discipline has worked to stifle alternative views. How piquant, to put it no stronger, that at the weekend she accused the Conservatives of seeking to stifle all opposition when the SNP has so successfully proceeded on just this basis.

Whatever the reason, here and across the UK, the end result of a year of disputatious disaffection is set to be an increased majority for the government, and a heartfelt desire less to usher in a new politics than for voters to be given a political rest. The biggest expression of political dissent on 8 June may well be found in a low poll turn-out. It’s an insurrection of sorts, and one that political obsessives should take care to note.