We now know the half-life of populism. It’s 12 months. Scientific disclaimer: I know that what just happened in British politics is not identical to what happens when atoms undergo radioactive decay. Nevertheless, I think the idea that populism has a 12-month half-life nicely sums up what is happening not only in British politics but also in America.
Take yourself back just a year. Politics in mid-2016 was dominated by populist memes devised by the likes of Dominic Cummings and Steve Bannon. “Take back control”; “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead”; “BeLEAVE in Britain”. The American equivalents were “Make America great again”, “Drain the swamp” and “Lock her up”.
Those slogans really worked. Like genes, which are programmed to reproduce themselves, political memes spread virally through British and US politics. People retweeted them, liked them on Facebook and threw them into their conversations in pubs. And then they voted: for Brexit in June; for Donald Trump in November.
At some point the political sugar rush of voting for the populist option was bound to wear off — or, in the language of nuclear physics, the polonium was bound to decay into lead. The only question was when. The answer seems to be after about a year.
Consider what just happened in Britain. Theresa May, egged on by her advisers and David Davis, decided she could get a bigger majority, and therefore strengthen her hand in the negotiations with Brussels, if she called an election. Her request to British voters on April 18 was clear. She accused the opposition parties of “jeopardis[ing] the work we must do to prepare for Brexit at home” and “weaken[ing] the government’s negotiating position” in Europe. “Every vote for the Conservatives”, she declared, “will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union.” The election was “necessary to secure the strong and stable leadership the country needs to see us through Brexit and beyond”.
Well, last Thursday the people spoke, and their message was essentially: “Nah.” Given the choice between “strong and stable leadership” and the most abysmal candidate for the premiership that Labour has ever fielded, a substantial number of people who last year voted for Brexit this year opted for Jeremy Corbyn.
I know, I know: Corbyn was an even less convinced remainer than May herself, and the Labour Party campaigned on the basis that it accepted Brexit. But that’s not the point. May asked for a mandate to negotiate an uncompromising Brexit, taking the UK out of the single market and the customs union, and she ended up losing the Tory majority in the Commons.
The Daily Mail relentlessly egged her on, denouncing the “enemies of the people”, “remoaners” and “saboteurs” who dared to stand in her way. Its humiliation was one of only two causes for celebration on Friday morning, the other being the Tory revival in Scotland and the death of nationalist hopes for another referendum on independence.
The essence of May’s strategy was to lure Labour voters who had voted “leave” last year to defect to the Tories this year. There is some evidence that it worked, in that Labour constituencies whose electorate voted “leave” last year swung towards the Tories last week. Voters who had supported Ukip in 2015 turned to the Tories over Labour this year in a ratio of more than three to one.
However, these effects were wholly negated by the surge of younger, healthier and better-educated voters to Labour. As last year, age was a more significant factor in British politics than class or gender. According to Lord Ashcroft’s poll, 67% of voters aged between 18 and 24 voted Labour, and 58% of those aged 25 to 34. By contrast, 59% of the over-65s voted Tory, and 47% of the 55 to 64-year-olds. The unexpected outcome this year must have been due to higher turnout by younger voters and some oldie abstention.
The Labour campaign seems to have been highly effective in targeting not just marginal seats but also seats that most of us regarded as safe Tory ones: Canterbury, for example, and Kensington. Yet the key reason the experts got this election wrong was surely that they underestimated Corbyn’s appeal to the under-35s.
Most political commentators are old enough to remember the Cold War, not to mention the IRA’s campaign of terrorism. They know that on every political issue of his own lifetime Corbyn has been on the wrong side.
But all this is ancient history for young voters. To them May was a deeply unsympathetic figure, a prim, humourless headmistress, whose “strong and stable” slogan was more suggestive of a brand of glue than political leadership. Corbyn, by contrast, was the dissolute geography teacher who positively encourages youthful rebellion and just winks when he spots pupils having a fag behind the bike shed.
May wanted the election to be about Brexit. That strategy failed. Labour won more than half of “remain” voters. To put it another way, just under two-thirds (64%) of those who voted Labour said they had voted to remain in the EU. And more than two-fifths of Labour voters (43%) would still like to prevent Brexit from happening.
This tells us that Brexit, which May said was the point of the election, was simply not popular enough for her to win it. The No 1 issue for Labour voters (unlike Tories) was not Brexit but the National Health Service; No 2 was spending cuts. Only 8% of Labour voters said Brexit was the most important issue, compared with 48% of Tory voters.
The bad news for Republicans is that a similar process of decay has now begun in America. As recently as late April, Donald Trump would still have won a rerun of last November’s election. No longer. The number of Americans who strongly approve of Trump has dropped from a peak of about 30% in February to 21%-22% now. Twice as many voters now strongly disapprove of him. Even his previously solid base of support is crumbling. In May, according to Gallup, his approval slumped in military communities, small-town rural counties and so-called exurbs (commuter communities beyond the suburbs). If this translates into Democrats winning the house in November 2018, Trump’s impeachment is a near certainty.
So now we know. The magic memes of populist political alchemy can turn lead into gold — but only for about a year. Then it’s back to lead. And the half-life of a thwarted Conservative prime minister? That, my friends, is measurable in days.