Those of you active on social media will inevitably have run into them at some point. They’re easily recognisable by their dodgy grammar and spelling, their love of memes and ‘internet humour’, and their apparently perpetual aggression. You’ll find them in places like 4Chan or the darker recesses of Reddit; on Twitter they might be seen adoringly retweeting people like Donald Trump, or alternatively sending anti-Semitic or racist messages to people they dislike. Since 2010 they’ve been growing in number at an alarming rate. They are, of course, the alt-right.
Though they belong, broadly speaking, to the ‘right’ of the political spectrum – hence their name – their ideology is a uniquely 21st century amalgamation of multiple older ones brought together by that great leveller, the internet. In many aspects the alt-right resembles previous movements; in other ways it seems completely new.
At heart, it is a European and American movement opposed to modernity. But it is a paradoxical movement, insofar as it could not have come about without the social climate and technology of the 21st century. The alt-right rejects modern values wholeheartedly, but embraces the technological outlook that the 21st century has brought – in particular, the internet and mobile telecommunications. The observant amongst you might recognise this as a variant of the ‘reactionary modernism’ so prevalent amongst the fascist movement.
What do I mean by modernity? In essence I am referring to post-Enlightenment thought, in particular the values of liberty and equality amongst all humans. This view has, with a few notable hiatuses, been the dominant school of thought in Europe and America for the last three hundred years. It is one rejected by the alt-right.
At heart they oppose the belief that all humans are equal. On their theory, inequality is not just an inevitability but something to be celebrated. Often they will justify this with recourse to pseudo-scientific Social Darwinism; at other times they will simply use distorted and selectively chosen facts taken from dubious sources. This is an important and underemphasised point – the scientific aspirations of the alt-right. They worship science, reason and rationality, and have nothing but contempt for all metaphysical disciplines such as literature or philosophy. Nonetheless, they generally have a very vague grasp of scientific theory and practice; instead, they often have a background in the applied sciences such as engineering or computing.
The fundamental case of inequality, on the alt-right’s theory, is that of race. According to them, racial difference is essential and all-pervading; they feel little commonality between them and an individual of a different race. However, the majority will deny being racists (though most patently are, and many embrace racism whole-heartedly.) Instead they argue that they are ‘race realists’, essentially a pseudo-scientific version of racism. According to them, they do not believe that other races are a posteriori inferior; however, they claim that the ‘unfortunate reality’ is that whites are somehow superior. Often they will produce distorted or out-of-context statistics which support this; they tend to fetishize these statistics as incontrovertible proof of the truth of the alt-right’s position, even when they’re disproved (common examples include ‘blacks are inherently criminal’ or ‘Sweden is the rape capital of the world because of their immigration policies.’
From this, they attempt to construct a ‘reasoned’ approach to racism, one in which they argue it to be a matter of ‘common sense’ that races separate. For, having claimed that whites are superior, it surely seems logical that whites ‘get rid’ of non-whites. Here, the approaches of the alt-right differ; in America the approach seems to be a deportation of illegal immigrants and a gradual removal of rights of legal non-whites, whilst in Europe there tends to be more talk of ‘humane repatriation.’ Bear in mind that in both countries the alt-right is forced to remain within the law; there is little doubt that the movement supports genocide, but cannot legally say so.
Perhaps the most important object of both disgust and fear to the alt-right are Jews. Indeed, they have been responsible for an extraordinary revival of anti-Semitic rhetoric in a way unseen since the 1930s. To the alt-right, the Jews are even more loathsome than other non-whites since they ‘hide in plain sight’, and corrupt ‘white’ society from within. Furthermore, there is an almost childlike credulousness to the alt-right’s beliefs in the powers of the Jews. They are viewed as universally malevolent, universally intelligent, and all conspiring together to bring about the destruction of ‘western civilisation.’ The usual line of argument is that they plan to do this through a ‘liberal conspiracy’ to weaken whites – such phrases as ‘cultural Marxism’ are often mentioned in relation to this, though the utterers normally don’t have much idea what they mean.
Racism, though, is but one plank of the alt-right. The other is a uniquely visceral sexism. Much as, by recourse to pseudo-science, the alt-right believe that non-whites are unequal to whites, they similarly believe that men are somehow superior to women. Indeed, the movement arose fundamentally out of the sexist ‘Gamergate’ controversy, where male ‘gamers’ felt that the traditionally male space of computer games was being ruined by the perceived intrusion of women. A distinction might be made between the anti-feminism of the masses and the ideologues of the alt-right movement. On the part of the former it manifests itself as the mewling women-hatred of men unable to build meaningful relationships with the opposite genders, and who have retreated into anachronistic concepts of masculinity. The latter, however, add an extra level of complexity to their anti-feminism by combining it with their racism. According to these individuals feminism has caused European women to have fewer children, and to have them later – this means that white European birth rates are lower (in some cases significantly) than non-white birth rates. As such, they seek to restore a world in which women lived in subordination, where their role is merely to give birth to white children. Of course, much as the alt-right uses pseudo-scientific racial theory to cloak their fear of non-whites, their grandiose theorising about women masks a fundamental crisis of masculinity that they are experiencing.
More than merely an ideology, though, the alt-right is an approach to politics. It combines toxic anti-modern views with a contradictory embrace of modern technology and culture. Much like the Nazis – who despised modernity whilst still pouring billions into scientific research and technology – the alt-right is a techno-savvy movement. Indeed, it exists (uniquely for a political movement) on the internet, principally on Reddit and 4chan. The virtue of these platforms is that they are unpoliced and lend themselves to monolithic groups hostile to alternate views. Unsuspecting outsiders are sucked into these digital lairs and radicalised, exposed solely to ‘facts’ and media which strengthens the alt-right narrative. The flames of anger are stoked ever higher, directed against immigrants, women and ‘the elites.’ In addition, these online platforms are full of in-jokes and memes – shibboleths by which alt-rightists feel part of a global brotherhood, and can feel self-righteously superior to those who don’t ‘get it.’ Occasionally these users spill out onto other websites – they are known to sally forth onto Twitter to harass individuals who provoke their fury, such as the actress Lesley Jones. Never has a movement been so dependent upon online communications; it is the lifeblood flowing through the veins of the alt-right.
Of course, it would be remiss of me to cast the alt-right as a monolithic group. The most obvious division of the movement is into leaders and fellow-travellers. The majority are of the second camp, and do not necessarily conform to the above description. In particular, many ‘fellow travellers’ will be sympathetic to religion, or perhaps marginally liberal on certain issues. However, the leadership are remarkably homogenous – young, white, male, geeky, contemptuous of metaphysics, and supportive of atheism.
Are the alt-right conservatives? Not really. Conservatism is an ideology centred upon two things; societal cohesion and structural evolution. The first element posits that for a society to advance, different groups within it should be in harmony – blacks and whites, rich and poor, town and country. The alt-right rejects this spectacularly; it attempts to sow division wherever possible, and rejects all compromise as ‘cucking’, to use their delightful term. The second element posits that any change in society must be gradual – evolution, not revolution. Even if a previous change has been wrought by a revolution, the counter-revolution must not be iconoclastic or violent; it should be gradual and cautious. This too is rejected by the alt-right, with their calls for extreme policies against immigrants and democracy.
Neither are they ‘neo-Nazis’, as some well-intentioned but misguided people are attempting to label them. Neo-Nazism is based upon a reconstruction of Nazi ideology in some shape or form; a potent combination of totalitarianism, racism, and third-positionism. The alt-right, though they share the second of these beliefs, generally rejects the first and second of these. They are violently libertarian (perhaps best described as paleo-libertarian, insofar as their libertarianism is wedded to white nationalism) and often approving of brash capitalism. Put simply, the Nazis would have viewed the alt-right as a bunch of long-haired wastrels who needed a shower, a uniform and a ticket to boot camp; the alt-right would have viewed the Nazis as boring reactionaries, even if many of them pay considerable lip service to the Third Reich (at least partly because of the transgressive value of doing so these days.)
What they are, then, is a manifestation of the new division in politics; between populism and elitism. I use the latter word in a non-pejorative sense, descriptively rather than normatively. By it, I mean the liberal-minded, educated class – not merely ‘educated’ in the sense that the alt-right is, simply provided with technical knowledge, but with a liberal, humanistic education. It is these people, regardless of political affiliation, who (for better or worse) are now the fundamental opposition to the populists. Though there is enormous diversity between populists – it is, after all, a movement encompassing Black Lives Matter and the alt-right – they are united in their loathing of ‘the elites’ as much as those elites are united in their fear of the populists.
It seems fairly uncontroversial to state that the alt-right are a serious threat to Western civilisation. In common with terror groups like al-Qaeda or Daesh, they seek to destroy the liberal values intrinsic to the West, and reconstitute our societies in a totalitarian and illiberal mould, one in which women are oppressed, minorities persecuted, free thought stopped, and the self is negated in favour of the state. The British MP Jo Cox was killed by a member of the neofascist group National Action, a group which shares a lot of things with the alt-right (indeed, it is in many ways functionally identical.)
Far-right ideology is fairly indestructible; no matter how many times it is ‘defeated’ by liberalism, it comes back in new forms. Nazism was destroyed in 1945, but it returned as the neo-Nazi hooliganism of the FN and the BNP. The triumph of neoliberalism in the early 21c put paid to those forms of far-right rhetoric, and for a few years liberal thought reigned unchallenged. The alt-right is merely the latest in this long line of challengers to liberalism. Will it be defeated? Certainly. How and when? Who knows – but it looks like they’re going to be around for a long time.
It wouldn’t be a total exaggeration to say that Britain has, for the last three days, been embroiled in its biggest crisis of the 21st century. On Friday we saw Britain exit the world’s largest politico-economic bloc, swiftly followed by a collapse in the value of the pound and trillions being wiped off the value of stock markets worldwide. Hours later the Prime Minister announced his resignation, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer simply vanished. By the weekend over three million people had signed a petition calling for a second referendum, and MPs were openly calling for Parliament to simply ignore the referendum.
I voted to remain in the EU. I believed, and continue to believe, in the European project and the creation of the world’s first superstate based on values of humanism and liberalism. Like the vast majority of experts, I think that a British departure from Europe will be have serious economic consequences, ones which will damage the prosperity of the nation for years to come. Perhaps more fundamentally than any of this, though, I feel that this referendum was more than a question of membership of the EU; it turned into a plebiscite on modernity, one in which we seem to have voted against the liberal values that many had presumed we held dear.
Nonetheless, I oppose a second referendum, and I urge you to do so as well. Why? Not because I’m a defeatist, or have simply given up. On the contrary, I think this result should be an impetus for liberal-minded individuals across the political spectrum to make sure their voices are heard louder than ever. This is not a retreat.
However, I don’t feel that a second referendum is at all a productive way of moving the debate forward; indeed, it might easily be seen as a retrograde step. Firstly, a second referendum would be a repeat of the greatest constitutional error in the last few hundred years – a dereliction of duty by Parliament. In Britain, Parliament is sovereign and supreme as a governing body; not the people. Our constitution has historically evolved in the direction of a representative rather than direct democracy, for the very good reason that it provides a vital check upon untrammelled populism. Our representatives are elected on the basis of being the most able to consider what is best for the nation, by virtue of their experience and wisdom. Referendums have no constitutional precedent, and are a dangerous exercise in rabble-rousing. This last one ended with an MP being killed for holding the ‘wrong’ political beliefs.
But aside from the fact that referendums are simply exercises in fear-mongering and pandering to the lowest common denominator (on both sides; Osborne’s ‘punishment budget was hardly better than Farage’s warnings of dusky foreigners attacking English women), there’s a further problem. There’s no guarantee that a second referendum would deliver the result desired, namely a vote to remain. It might – but we don’t know that. 52% of the country voted to leave Europe; some of them might have changed their minds, but surely not enough to change the result? If a second referendum were to reaffirm a Leave vote, we would not only be humiliated but we would be left with no moral high-ground. Put frankly, at this moment we can plausibly argue that the result is not representative of the people, even if we accept it. We would not be able to do this if a second referendum said the same thing.
A second referendum, furthermore, would be exhausting and time-wasting. Campaigning for the first one took months, dominated British public life, and was pretty much universally agreed to be a miserable experience. It was an expensive, tiring mess which poisoned the political culture of Britain, and left most of the publically badly misinformed about both sides of the debate. It was also free publicity for the radicals on the right, particularly Nigel Farage. We do not need this.
Victory for the Remain camp in this second referendum would be equally catastrophic. This country contains millions of people (concentrated in certain areas, admittedly, but to be found everywhere) who despise Europe and the values it stands for. We could run this referendum a hundred times, and each time they would vote to leave. These people tend to be working-class, from marginalised areas of the country, and in many cases feel hard done by neo-liberalism. At present, they are jubilant that ‘they have their country back’, as they so tritely put it. If they were to see their victory snatched from them by a second referendum (or, even worse, by an act of Parliament) then these people would break. The killing of Jo Cox is just the tip of the iceberg; if this subgroup felt cheated, there would be blood on the streets in a way which Britain has never seen. I can foresee right-wing terror on a level which doesn’t bear thinking about, but which would be hugely destructive. Even worse, the strongly Eurosceptic Armed Forces could no longer be fully trusted to maintain order. Britain has never had a coup (though we did come close in the 60s) and I would very much like to keep it that way.
As such, I propose not to annul the referendum but to mitigate it. We must be cognizant of the fact that Parliament is supreme, and utilise this in order to try and minimise the impact of the referendum on day to day life. The anti-Europe fundamentalists will be sated through an official withdrawal from the Union, and a few symbolic gestures; but we should work to make sure that life changes as little as possible for ordinary people.
What would this mitigation entail? Firstly, it would involve the government privately making the proverbial pilgrimage to Canosa. They should inform Brussels that they are utterly penitent, and did not want this to happen, but are bound by the realities of the referendum result. No amount of grovelling is enough – the intent is to soften the hearts of the European leaders, and convince them to offer a good deal. Any deal would ideally preserve access to the free market, border controls at Calais, free movement of people and EU funds. Essentially the EU flag would be taken down, but the reality of EU membership would remain. To placate the Eurosceptic crowd, certain concessions could be made – stronger border controls, deregulation of certain areas, and exemption from EU law in some fields. We will not be able to continue paying as little as £350m for access to the single market, but hopefully the negotiating team will keep the figure as low as possible. These negotiations would take a long time to conclude, but a preliminary document could be agreed upon quickly. Armed with this preliminary document, the government would begin to stabilise the markets and move forward.
I say ‘government’ – a new government is urgently needed. This should be a unifying government, one which encompasses the more level heads from both sides of the political spectrum. The main issue here is to keep Boris and/or Gove from No. 10. Not only are both men despicable traitors for their actions towards the PM, but neither of them are at all figures that the party can unite around. Worse, despite their pretensions to moderation they would enact a strongly Thatcherite and radical agenda as leaders. Much as the referendum can (and should) be mitigated, the resignation of David Cameron should be similarly mitigated by replacing his government with one ideologically similar, and which keeps out his enemies. As Prime Minister I would suggest Theresa May; she has coped admirably with the Home Ministry brief for over five years, and has proven to be a respected and popular figure. Not only is she a moderate pro-Europe figure, she is an efficient and capable administrator with the skills required to hold together an effective government. As such, she is the most viable individual to stand up to Boris and deliver a moderate and viable Brexit.
In voting to leave the EU, Britain has fucked up. It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last. Let’s not get carried away, as the Leave crowd did, and view this as being anything more than what it is – a question of membership in the EU. It’s not a question of liberalism, or immigration, or anything else. Rather than throwing our toys out of the pram like petulant children, we need to focus on making the best of a bad situation. We need to rebuild our relationship with Europe, mitigating what we’ve done; we need to create a functioning government which won’t be hijacked by right-wing ideologues. Petitioning for a second referendum won’t do that; we need to move forward, and do so at pace.
41 years ago Britain went to the polls to vote on Europe. The result then was a resounding victory for the pro-Europe camp – 67% of British voters chose to remain part of the European Community. How different to today’s results, which show a majority – a small one, admittedly, but a majority nonetheless – of the electorate choosing to leave the European Union. The PM has already announced his resignation, and it seems likely that Article 50 will be triggered within weeks, committing Britain to permanently leave Europe. It’s worth noting now that there will be no coming back, no second chance. Readmission is contingent upon the unanimous consent of all 27 remaining members, and it is virtually impossible that such consent will be obtained. For better or worse, we are out.
This is certainly the most momentous constitutional change of my lifetime, and very likely yours too – as such, I do not propose to consider the full ramifications of it. Without doubt the papers will be doing that ad nauseum over the next few weeks. Therefore, I intend only to offer a few brief thoughts on a variety of aspects of the referendum and its result.
Firstly, this should be the last referendum in a generation. The last few months have decidedly proven that referendums are an absolutely dreadful way of doing government. Both sides, though particularly the Leave campaign, misrepresented the truth in ways which might easily be called lying. In this they were abetted by the tabloid media, which whipped the public into a xenophobic and hysterical frenzy with a constant flow of falsehoods, misrepresentations and exaggerations about Europe. The average voter who cast his/her vote on the 23rd was seriously uninformed about what exactly he was voting for. Britain has no history of direct democracy – referendums are not part of our constitution. They are a new-fangled innovation, and signal weak leadership, as it abdicates the responsibility that we have delegated the government right back to the people. Edmund Burke had it right (as usual) when he wrote that ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’
People voted Leave because of nostalgia. In the last few days of the referendum the media conducted numerous vox pops with members of the public, and one theme seemed to keep re-emerging; ‘we want the old Britain back.’ This refrain was particularly prevalent amongst the 60+ group, but it could be detected throughout the electorate. To many in Britain, the last fifty years has not been kind. They have seen the Britain they once knew utterly transformed, and they simply don’t understand it. They don’t feel part of it. Hence a Leave vote became far more to them than merely a decision on membership of the EU. It turned into a vote to ‘take Britain back’ – not just from the EU, but from modernity and ‘the elites.’ The EU became a punching bag for liberalism, with people taking out all their anger and bitterness on it. It’s no coincidence that the largest pro-EU demographic group was the over-60s, those who could still remember a Britain independent of international affiliations like the EU. Sadly, they appear to have voted in vain; regardless of our membership of the EU, we simply can’t restore that world. It’s gone.
UKIP are not necessarily stronger as a result of this vote. For the last twenty years or so, UKIP have successfully used Europe as a scapegoat for pretty much everything. This tactic has been pretty handy for them, as it absolves them of the responsibility of actually providing coherent policies beyond leaving Europe. The risk, however, of such a strategy is obvious; once Britain has actually left the EU, UKIP seems to have no raison d’etre left. UKIP flourished in 2015 by uniting elderly, disaffected Tory voters with working-class Labour supporters who received a raw deal because of neo-liberalism; now that the common cause has been accomplished, the two halves have no reason to stay together. In fact, it was a bizarre union to start with; a wealthy ex-banker from Dulwich like Farage has almost nothing in common with a laid-off steelworker from Port Talbot. Now that UKIP has fallen victim to its own success, its supporters will go their separate ways.
Michael Gove and Boris Johnson are two of the most disgraceful men to have graced British politics. David Cameron had no obligation to suspend collective cabinet responsibility for this referendum. He’s leading the government, and he had every right to tell his cabinet to unite or leave. Instead he chose to let individual ministers campaign on either side. The result of this was that Michael Gove – one of Cameron’s closest friends – took charge of the Leave campaign, and turned it into a thinly-veiled bid for political power. Aside from his numerous lies and exaggerations, Gove repeatedly attacked Cameron and Osborne in a most ungentlemanly way. Yet this is nothing compared to what Boris ‘Brutus’ Johnson did throughout the campaign. Johnson makes little secret of his desire to get to No. 10, and his decision to support the Leave campaign was almost entirely a political calculation (he allegedly had prepared a pro-Europe statement before polls suggested he’d be better off backing Leave.) In spite of Cameron’s historical support for him as Mayor, he engaged in the worst kind of demagoguery, repeatedly stabbing Cameron in the back. I don’t see a situation in which he won’t have a position in a new Tory government, and it isn’t unlikely that he will be PM by 2020. As a Tory I will find it exceptionally hard to vote for a traitor like Johnson at the General Election.
David Cameron’s reputation has been (unfairly) ruined. Within hours of the result the Prime Minister had stood down. Realistically speaking there was little else he could do; a vote of no confidence would otherwise have been inevitable, and after watching Iain Duncan Smith’s humiliating fall from power in 2003 Cameron would hardly have had the appetite to endure such an ordeal. Henceforth he will be remembered by Eurosceptics as a coward who was on ‘the wrong side of history’ by campaigning to remain, and by Europhiles as a weak leader who should never have allowed a referendum and who then failed to mobilise his party to vote to Remain. He staked his reputation on Europe and lost. This is a tragedy, as Cameron is surely one of the greatest Conservative leaders since Churchill. Not only did he make a clean break from the uninspiring, reactionary party of Hague and IDS, he successfully rebuilt the economy from the ruins it had been left in by the Labour government. All this, and he also presided over one of the greatest electoral victories in modern history in 2015, one which literally nobody had expected. David Cameron is a good man and did not deserve to leave in these circumstances.
Labour have a long period of introspection ahead of them. This referendum wasn’t lost because of conservative Euroscepticism. It was lost because the working classes plumped for Brexit. Areas like South Wales, Tyneside or the Black Country are solidly Labour, yet they voted heavily in favour of leaving the EU. Why? Because Labour failed to do their part in this referendum. In no small part due to the fact that their new leader is an ideological Eurosceptic himself, there was almost no serious campaigning by the Labour Party until the last week. What little left-wing pro-EU campaigning took place was mainly low-level, at the initiative of individuals. Corbyn himself barely made any serious speeches in favour of the European Union. The Labour Party simply (and rather arrogantly) assumed that their loyalists would turn out dutifully to remain in the EU; as it turned out, many of them simply weren’t convinced enough. The responsibility for this catastrophe lies, to be perfectly honest, with Corbyn’s lack of enthusiasm for the EU. With a leadership contest apparently imminent, Labour is going to have to consider what direction it wants to take, and how to recover those core working-class votes.
The next Conservative leader (and PM) should be a unifier. At present, the front-runners for the leadership election are Gove and Johnson, and it seems likely that the two men will work out a deal which will enable a joint premiership (Johnson as PM and Gove as Chancellor, for instance.) For the reasons outlined above, I would be deeply disappointed if either were to win, as I regard their conduct as ungentlemanly and disgraceful; the 30-40% of Tories who voted to Remain will likely agree with me. On the other hand, the triumphalist Eurosceptic wing of the party are unlikely to compromise on ‘their’ candidates. But at this critical juncture, the party does not need any more division. The Eurosceptics must not be permitted to take revenge on the moderates if they want the party to unite.
…and Cameron may well be instrumental in deciding his successor. Tory leaders have a habit of not going quietly. Thatcher’s final revenge against the ‘wets’ who engineered her downfall was to carefully scotch their chances of taking the government. She used her near-deified status amongst the Tory right in order to convince them to not vote for Heseltine; instead, she selected her protégé John Major as an heir presumptive, hoping that he would carry on her legacy in a way that Heseltine patently wouldn’t (he didn’t, but nobody expected that in 1990.) Also worth noting is Michael Howard’s manoeuvring after he resigned the leadership in 2005. Howard had long taken an interest in the careers of David Cameron and George Osborne; after he lost the 2005 election, his last act as leader was to promote the two to his cabinet, giving them a position from which to pursue higher office. It would be surprising if Cameron doesn’t try and stymie Gove/Johnson somehow.
We’ll survive. Britain has a wonderful propensity to survive. It takes a lot to shake us, and more still to break us. Let’s not delude ourselves – Brexit is going to be seriously detrimental to our economy, both in the long term and in the short. We’ve already seen the pound collapse as speculators try and offload as much of the currency as they can; the stock markets look similarly grim. The eventual impact upon our economy is yet to be even considered. But Britain has weathered worse. We will be able to muddle through, to cobble together a new settlement defining our relations with the world. It will, frankly, not be as good as what we had – that much is clear from the statement of prominent EU politicians. But hopeless nostalgia is what got us into this mess in the first place. The past is past; we must move forward confidently into the future, and try and figure out what the heck we’re going to do now.
The votes have been cast, the ballots have been counted, and the verdict is in. After an eight-year absence, a Labour mayor is back in City Hall. Sadiq Khan will be the first Muslim (and indeed the first ethnic minority) to occupy the seat formerly held by Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone, and his mandate is highly respectable, garnering 56% of the vote. Sadiq has promised to govern as his own man, and to distance himself from the rapidly-disintegrating Parliamentary Labour Party; there is no reason yet to doubt him.
So why did Zac lose? Some cynics might argue that he’s simply fallen victim to demographic realities – the middle-class voter base that the Tories have relied on are now moving out of London, to be replaced by working-class and/or ethnic Labour supporters. That’s true, to an extent; whereas ten years ago middle-class families were moving within London to areas like Richmond, Hampstead or Northwood, a mixture of declining living conditions and rising prices have meant that many are no longer London voters, having fled to the green and pleasant lands of Hertfordshire, Surrey or Kent. This is definitely going to have an impact upon the Conservative vote.
But it isn’t quite so easy as that. These demographic changes didn’t happen overnight; they were well underway when Boris Johnson won in both 2008 and 2012. Zac’s loss might have been exacerbated by these factors, but it’s certainly not reducible to it. Nor can the loss be explained merely by playing the ethnic card. Whilst London is indeed a majority-minority city – White British voters make up only 40% of the population – that conceals a huge amount of variation. Muslims only make up 12% of London’s population, and even if every single one were to vote for Sadiq – which is patently untrue, with many famous Muslim Tories hailing from London – it wouldn’t be nearly enough for him to gain victory.
The answer, then, is that Zac lost because he was a weak candidate. That’s not to malign him as a person – I’m assured that he’s a very decent fellow and a damn good constituency MP. But his campaign was decidedly poor, especially in comparison to Sadiq’s well-thought-through one. For much of the race, Zac simply didn’t seem to have much passion or energy. Instead, what the public saw was a rather anaemic and listless man, with none of the verve that had characterised his Conservative predecessor Boris Johnson.
Zac’s campaign lacked a ‘big idea’, a grand overarching theme that could have tied together all the other elements of his platform. Instead, he opted for the trouble-shooter approach, offering common-sense solutions to individual problems, one step at a time. In many ways that’s the sensible thing to do, and in terms of solid policy proposals Zac was far ahead of Sadiq. He offered well-costed, logical ideas which would have gone some way towards solving the problems being faced by Londoners; the housing crisis, rising transport fees, and community cohesion concerns.
But that wasn’t enough. Sadiq had very effectively branded himself as a ‘mayor for all Londoners.’ He leveraged his background to appeal to the traditional Labour base, but was never obnoxious or overtly racial. Equally important in his pitch to his ethnic background was the fact that he was ‘the son of a bus driver’ – a working-class boy done good. He went into overdrive reassuring groups of his desire to unify the city; for instance, he spoke convincingly of his support for the financial services sector, an area traditionally leery of Labour.
He also made this race about him, not his party. He put clear water between him and Jeremy Corbyn, emphasising that he would not merely be an extension of the dysfunctional national Labour Party. Zac’s campaign attempted to play the Corbyn card, suggesting that Sadiq would turn London into a testing-ground for Corbynite policies, but this narrative never really took off – mainly because there was never any good evidence for it.
In the latter stages of the campaign, I think Zac’s advisors realised that they were suffering as a result of their lack of an overarching theme. This could have been their chance to find a strong narrative for the party to rally round, and might have swung the race in Zac’s favour. Unfortunately, they then made one of the largest mistakes of the campaign, turning it into a viciously personal attack on Sadiq.
There’s no proof for this, but Lynton Crosby’s fingerprints are all over this. Crosby is the master of using spectacular tactics to shock (and often scare) voters into plumping for the Conservatives. In 2015 his stroke of genius was to convince the electorate that a vote for anybody but the Tories would be a vote for Nicola Sturgeon. It doesn’t seem beyond belief that he attempted to use this trick again; convince the electorate that Sadiq was a friend of terrorists and extremists, hence making Zac the only choice.
This isn’t in character for Zac, which is why I suspect it was a strategy foisted upon him by figures higher up in the Party. It was also a strategy which bombed catastrophically. This was for two reasons – and racism isn’t one of them. In fact, I’m somewhat disappointed in many Labour activists who labelled the Tories racist during the campaign; it’s an ideologically dishonest way of shutting down debate.
However, the accusations were for the most part untrue or exaggerated. The most damning evidence seemed to be that Sadiq had argued for radical Islamist Yusuf Qaradawi to be allowed to enter the country. Here I feel that we’ve scored an own goal. As a Tory I celebrate free speech in all its manifestations. I support the right of Nick Griffin or David Irving to speak whenever and wherever they’re invited, because I believe it’ll discredit their ideology; in the same vein, I feel that a man like Qaradawi shouldn’t be prevented from speaking in Britain. Yes, much of what he says is medieval and offensive; but unless it can be proven that what he says will directly precipitate violence, he should be allowed to say it. Hopefully, an open platform will expose how asinine and barbaric his views are. Sadiq shouldn’t be criticised for enabling free speech, something which we Conservatives have fought long and hard to preserve.
The other issue which Zac pressed Sadiq on was the fact that he’d shared a platform with various dubious characters. Yes, that’s true; but what of it? There was never a suggestion that he himself had espoused those views, and that’s because (to the best of my knowledge) he hasn’t. Indeed, he may well have exerted a moderating influence upon more radical individuals. In hindsight they weren’t the brightest things to do, but Sadiq proved he can move beyond them.
That’s the other problem; Labour foresaw this angle, and by the time the inevitable assault came Sadiq had already established his bona fides through a series of well-choreographed speeches and meetings which put clear water between him and the radicals. He denounced Ken Livingstone as the repulsive anti-Semite he is; he assiduously courted the Jewish vote without coming across as artificial; he put counterterrorism at the heart of his campaign. As such, Zac’s broadsides against him ended up seeming weak and ill-considered.
So what next? What’s clear is that we need to wage a stronger and more coherent campaign next time. This election was a bit of a mess, to be honest; lacking in an ideological direction, and far too negative and pessimistic. There’s a lot Zac could have said about the vision he had for the city; instead he chose to run a campaign based on what he didn’t want. For 2020 we need a campaign which clearly expresses a Conservative vision for the city, and which is clearly ideologically different to our opponents. At times Zac seemed to be playing catch-up with Sadiq; not a good position to be in.
Furthermore, we need a more electable candidate. Zac is a splendid fellow, but he simply didn’t have the charisma necessary to convince people of his passion. This isn’t a question of class; Boris has been an exceptionally popular mayor, despite being eminently upper-class. But where Boris embraced his ‘poshness’ and made it a loveable quality, Zac tried to mask it behind an at-times risible Everyman persona that convinced nobody. We need a candidate who is confident, affable and who appeals to all Londoners; a candidate with a narrative. That doesn’t necessarily mean picking an ethnic minority or a female candidate, as some have rather cynically suggested. But there needs to be an awareness of how any candidate will play with those groups.
The final factor is out of anybody’s hands, to an extent. 2020 will be the first time that a mayoral election coincides with a general election. As such, success or failure in City Hall will be determined by No. 10. If the Tories go into the election as saviours of the economy, united and confident, they’ll make the job a lot easier for whoever’s contesting London for them. On the other hand, if the results of the referendum force a collapse in the party, and if Labour have found a more electable leader than the present idiot-in-chief, life will be tough for a Conservative mayoral candidate.