Is politics now inherently unpredictable?

I was recently privileged to join a distinguished panel for the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute, at Cambridge University, discussing the future of politics. In response to the question raised by this title, here’s my essay.

Politics has only become uncertain because the rules of the game have changed

In order to predict the future of politics, we need to fully understand the present. An obvious logic, for sure, yet the failure of experts to follow it lies behind the numerous political earthquakes of recent years. Politics is not inherently unpredictable, nor detached from past experience, but the way in which it is practiced has changed fast. The failure of the political class to keep pace with those changes explains why so few saw Donald Trump, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn coming and why, to this day, the counter-reaction has been so ineffective.

The causes and signals were there if we had cared to look. Each represented a reaction to significant cleavages and perspectives within society, but which were sometimes excluded from the political mainstream.

When Donald Trump declared his candidacy in 2015, he had already become a significant figure on the hard right of US politics, since leading the ‘birther’ conspiracy movement. That enabled him to fill a void in US politics that always existed, yearning for an outlet.

Anti-government sentiment has long been deeply engrained on the right – never more so than after 2008. Despite two terms and a largely favourable domestic political context, the George W Bush era ended in turmoil, with the worst approval ratings of any departing President since Nixon. Deregulation had led to an unprecedented financial crisis and the initial instinct to let banks fail had backfired spectacularly, requiring a historic bailout. The simultaneous wars promoted by neo-conservatives from the 1990s onwards had proved catastrophic. Mainstream conservative ideology was in crisis.

The result was a black president whose voting record was far to the left of even the Democratic Party mainstream. The minority of Republican voters motivated by race were instantly joined by small government advocates furious about the banking bailouts. Amidst the racial politics and culture wars that soon took centre-stage, it is often forgotten that the Tea Party (Taxed Enough Already) started in response to Rick Santelli’s rant on CNBC regarding a small bailout for homeowners. From early 2009, this nascent movement built an alternative information ecosystem of blogs and talk radio.

As the Conservative response to Obama became more militant, Congress was inevitably gridlocked – thus reinforcing the notion of ‘useless government’. A celebrity billionaire businessman, slating the failed establishment, was the perfect antidote. From the outset of that unforgettably anarchic primary, I predicted an outsider would emerge as the nominee. Sadly, I bet big on Ted Cruz being that outsider – dismissing Trump as a clueless amateur who would unravel under scrutiny and lacked the expertise to tap into that new ecosystem. Likewise, I did not foresee Cambridge Analytica et al outsmarting Hilary Clinton’s digital organisation during the subsequent presidential election.

Brexit was a much better result for me in personal terms – easier to predict, perhaps, because it did not involve individual candidates. As a great believer in qualitative analysis – by which I mean, listening to the instant opinions and anecdotes of average citizens that help to create a narrative – I always felt Brexit had around a 50 per cent chance. For decades, polls on EU membership were always tight. The UK never bought into the European project on an emotional level; it was transactional and elite-led.

If you add to this mix the crises regarding migration and the Euro – again unresolved and reinforcing the perception an incompetent establishment – it created the perfect conditions for an upset. Older leavers were also much likelier to be registered than younger remainers, and certain to be better motivated to vote. Those factors were enough to swing an inevitably tight race (and it is possible that the absence of them in any future referendum might produce the reverse outcome).

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn represents the clearest example of a detached political mainstream. This was my finest hour as a political gambler yet, for at least a fortnight after tipping him at 24-1 to become Labour leader in 2015, the mainstream media refused to take him seriously. This was despite a wealth of publicly available evidence pointing in his direction, such as online polls, social media campaigns, the total lack of enthusiasm and often outright hostility from Labour members towards the other candidates, and the response at early hustings.

The ‘Westminster village’ simply refused to believe that another worldview on the left existed – a sentiment which persisted up Owen Smith’s challenge to Corbyn in 2016. There has always been a substantial segment of left opinion that was hostile to neoliberalism and anti-war. An anti-corporate movement had been thriving for decades, most recently in the Occupy movement. Their beliefs went a lot deeper into society and the labour movement than they were given credit for, particularly after the financial crisis, austerity and Labour’s electoral failures. Corbyn gave voice and representation to these groups.

A common theme linking all three historic upsets, regardless of ideology, is the democratisation and fragmentation of the media. This also explains why expert opinion was confounded. They were used to a world where they controlled the political narrative, but this world has now gone forever. In any society, most people are relatively disengaged from politics. While they may take a closer look in the run-up to the election, during the rest of the time their worldview is influenced by the voices around them: everyday opinions they hear in the workplace, the pub, at the bus stop, or on talk radio as they drive to work.

That lay opinion was once largely influenced by elite opinion in the mainstream media. Now, there is a plethora of alternative voices available via social media – which is arguably more authentic, because it comes from trusted sources such as friends, rather than a distant and often discredited corporation.

That chatter in the pub is now potentially a global conversation. At the last election, one in three Facebook users in the UK saw a Momentum video. As much as anything, that explains the Labour surge, despite mostly negative mainstream coverage. Ditto Trump and every other ‘anti-establishment’ wave; even ISIS can be partly explainedby social media and the decline of top-down politics.

If the political class wants to avoid such earthquakes in the future, it must respond. It needs to engage with segments of opinion that it once dismissed as electorally irrelevant. If it wants to stop the terrifying proliferation of ‘fake news’, it needs to directly challenge misinformation on the fora where it grows. Dismissing those who fall under its spell as cranks, conspiracists and political extremists will not do. This is a mainstream phenomenon, and the audiences are the same relatively disengaged masses that hold the balance of power within any vaguely democratic society.

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