The British, we hear, are in a restive mood. Ever since the vote to leave the EU in 2016, the working assumption of British politics has been that there is an appetite for radical change. Since the Brexit referendum, voters have been defined by two tribes—Leave and Remain—locked in a fight over whether Britain will exit the EU. Further evidence of a revolutionary mood comes in the person of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s far-left leader, as well as in the rise of Nigel Farage’s insurgent Brexit Party. This lineup should suggest a dramatic, high-stakes General Election—and yet, with just over two weeks until polling day, the mood is more humdrum than one might expect.
When Corbyn clashed last week with Conservative leader Boris Johnson in the first head-to-head televised leaders’ debate in British history, the studio audience frequently laughed at the prime minister and the man hoping to replace him. Their insistences that they could be trusted, or that they were fit to lead the country, were not met with anger or outrage but derision. That week, Lord Ashcroft, a Conservative peer and respected pollster, conducted a survey asking voters to list the stories and events from the campaign that they had noticed in recent days. Thirty-nine percent were unable to list any election-related news. In addition, less than half the electorate had heard of John McDonnell, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer since 2015 and the leading architect of the party’s radical economic agenda.
When Corbyn unveiled his party’s manifesto—the most radical departure from the economic status quo in living memory—he neither resonated with a revolutionary spirit brewing in the country nor ran into a ferocious backlash. Work by pollster James Johnson, who surveyed public opinion for Boris Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, suggests that the overwhelming response to Labour’s pledges was skepticism about their workability. Seventy-eight percent of respondents, for example, said that a four-day work week was unlikely to happen. Even on less farfetched proposals, such as “free” dental checkups, a plurality of voters don’t think that Labour can deliver.
Last Sunday, it was the Conservatives’ turn to court the public mood with a government program. Scarred by a divisive manifesto that arguably cost them a parliamentary majority in 2017, the Tories played it safe: a few more nurses, a slightly tougher stance on crime, and comparatively moderate spending increases. (For every extra pound that the Conservatives want to spend, Labour plans to spend 28.) Anything more eye-grabbing would threaten to distract from Johnson’s main pitch: vote for me, and I’ll finally deliver the Brexit you voted for three years ago.
Not even Brexit is presented as an opportunity for radical change or national rejuvenation. Rather it seems more like a chore, the political equivalent of taking the trash out. Labour promises a renegotiation, followed by a second referendum, in which Corbyn has declared his neutrality. The central Tory message is that only Johnson can finish the job that the British people started.
Though uninspiring, the Tory approach appears to be working. Britain Elects, a polling aggregator, puts the size of the Conservative lead over Labour at nearly 13 percent, a gap that suggests a healthy majority for Johnson’s party. That would mean Brexit, at last, and five years for the Conservatives to deliver domestic policies that address problems—housing affordability, social care, and tuition fees, to name three—while undercutting the case for Labour’s radical proposals.
Conservatives will be pleased that, until now, the campaign has lacked major developments. The missed Brexit deadline of October 31 has not hurt Conservative support; Labour leaders search in vain for a game-changing development. Corbyn’s most notable moment in the campaign so far was his mauling at the hands of BBC interviewer Andrew Neil yesterday. The two insurgent parties have also failed to make inroads. The Liberal Democrats’ wholehearted embrace of stopping Brexit—advocating not a second referendum, but a simple revocation of Article 50, the mechanism by which a country leaves the EU—is reportedly going down like a lead balloon with voters. The more the country sees of party leader Jo Swinson, the less enthusiastic they become. On the other side of the European divide, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has stood down in Conservative-held seats so as not to split the pro-Leave vote—but by stepping aside in half the country, Farage has undermined the logic of voting for his startup operation.
Johnson appears to understand that while considerable dissatisfaction exists with the status quo, enough voters see clearing the Brexit logjam as a necessary first step to any other change. For Corbyn, the problem is that the anti-politics sentiment that put him at the helm of the Labour Party is now so deeply held that his promises of change aren’t taken seriously. It all adds up to an unexciting election season—but then, excitement isn’t what Britain needs right now.
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