2018 needs to be the year that those opposed to the degradation of political discourse assert themselves once more, argues Robert Philpot
As 2016 drew to a close, the sinister forces of populism seemed to be sweeping all before them. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, followed less than six months later by Donald Trump’s victory in the United States’ presidential election, portended dark days ahead.
One year on, the first shafts of light are desperately trying to break through.
Last week’s special election in Alabama, where the Democrats won a seat in the Senate for the first time in 25 years, appeared to confirm an emerging pattern which may bode well for next year’s mid-term elections. It is true that the Democrats will not routinely be faced by Republican candidates accused of molesting children. Moreover, the battlefield on which they will fight for control of Congress – and the opportunity to stymie further Trump’s legislative agenda –is deeply unfavourable to the party. Despite the Republicans’ wafer-thin 51-49 majority in the Senate, Democrats will be defending Senate seats in 10 states which the president carried last November. By contrast, only two Republican seats would in normal circumstances look vulnerable.
Nonetheless, there is some truth to the suggestion that, as the chair of the Democratic party, Tom Perez, put it last week ‘Alabama is not an outlier, it’s a trend’. The coalition which delivered the Democrats’ victory in deepest red Alabama last week – a strong turnout among black voters and young people combined with a sharp shift to the party in the suburbs – is similar to that which dealt the Republicans a crushing defeat in swing state Virginia’s gubernatorial election in November. It has also seen big gains for the Democrats in other special and local elections during 2017, including in normally inhospitable territory.
2018, in the words of the political scientist Alan Abramowitz, is shaping up to be a ‘wave election’. The critical generic ballot poll – which asks voters if they intend to vote for a Republican or Democrat for Congress – shows the Democrats with their biggest lead since 2008, a year when the party performed exceptionally well.
Trump’s anaemic approval ratings – the worst for any modern day president at this point in the White House – threaten to drag many Republicans to defeat; a well-earned punishment for the party’s appeasement of the fascist sympathiser who leads it. At present, the Republicans have a majority of 28 in the House of Representatives. When a president’s approval rating drops below 50 per cent – as Trump’s has consistently done – the average loss for his party in the next off-year election in the House is 32. But the average for four ultra-unpopular presidents – Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George W. Bush – was 42.
Of course, some presidents – like Bill Clinton after 1994 and Barack Obama after 2010 – are able to recover from heavy defeats in mid-term elections to win a second term just two years later. But both Clinton and Obama were smart, disciplined and self-critical; not character traits normally associated with Trump.
Neither are these attributes that could be used to describe Theresa May’s premiership over the past 12 months. Rarely has a politician fallen from grace so swiftly as the prime minister did after her ill-fated attempt to bolster her parliamentary majority and, as her chief Fleet Street cheerleader, the Daily Mail, so delicately put it ‘crush the saboteurs’.
May’s undoing at the general election – the result of a combination of hubris, paranoia and arrogance – was richly deserved. Despite having no personal mandate of her own, she decided that she alone could interpret the referendum result. Her wish to ignore, and evident disdain for, the 48 per cent of the population who voted to remain in the EU, and the consequent pursuit of a hard Brexit which did not figure on the ballot paper in June 2016, earned a justifiable rebuke. As the prime minister discovered, questioning the patriotism of 48 per cent of the electorate is not the shrewdest of political strategies.
The revenge of the ‘Remainers’ on 8 June this year halted May’s attempts to ride roughshod over parliament. The country has also heard less of the xenophobic ‘citizens of nowhere’-style language which littered her repugnant conference speech in 2016.
But that Jeremy Corbyn – an arch-opponent of the EU whose team reportedly worked to sabotage the ‘Remain’ campaign – should be the chief beneficiary of May’s actions is not without irony. Whether the great advocate of ‘honest straight-talking politics’ will be able to continue to offer a nudge and a wink to both Remainers and Leavers, avoiding taking a firm position on Britain’s future membership of the single market and customs union, as the tough choices accompanying Brexit draw ever closer is perhaps the great question for 2018. It will have escaped the attention of few remain voters who defected to Labour in June that Corbyn now has great power to influence the outcome of these choices.
Labour’s better than unexpected performance in the general election also points to the continuing state of flux in which British politics continues to languish. The prospect of the next general election turning into a contest between ‘Corbynism and Brexitism’, as the New Statesman editor Jason Cowley recently predicted, is deeply depressing, threatening to deprive millions of Britons of a say in their country’s future.
Meanwhile, the poisonous charges of treachery hurled by far left and hard right – whether it be against those in local government or at Westminster – in an attempt to silence all those who refuse to subscribe to their narrow view of the world threatens to undermine the building blocks on which our democracy is constructed. As Channel 4’s political editor, Faisal Islam, suggested last week in the wake of the attacks on Tory rebels after the government’s Brexit vote defeat: ‘Not entirely sure how political system is meant to do its job of mediating sustainable democratic compromise in such circumstances’.
Few in Britain want to see a political system as polarised, nasty and dysfunctional as that which allowed Donald Trump to reach the White House a year ago. Let us hope the moderate majority – those who continue to cherish the values of tolerance, pluralism and a civilised public discourse – have their voices heard in 2018.
Robert Philpot is a contributing editor to Progress, and writes the weekly Last Word column. He tweets at @Robert_Philpot