Nasty, British and Short: an emotional election

Dr Russell Foster

Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of European and International Studies, King’s College London. His research examines the role of emotions, memory, and identity in contemporary British and European politics.

Section 6: The Nations

In her 20th April interview on Andrew Neil’s This Week, Gina Miller asserted “I’m interested in the facts; I’m not interested in any emotions”. This is very surprising from the self-appointed leader of the anti-Brexit movement – because if Brexit revealed anything, it is that British politics are increasingly dominated not by neutral facts but by raw emotion. The dominant issues of 2017 – Brexit, immigration, faith in leaders, and security – are fundamentally emotional. Like Scottish independence and Brexit, the GE2017 was dominated by slippery issues of identity, sovereignty, and nostalgia, and subsequently the election was influenced by raw feeling as much as cold calculation. As a consequence, this election was nasty, British, and short.

The campaign has been nasty. The General Election was called in a country still smarting from bitter arguments over Scotland, Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, and indyref2; the emotional legacies of which had not disappeared when Theresa May made her announcement. Alongside these lingering divides, the campaign brought into national focus political frustrations which have appeared since Cameron’s resignation and Corbyn’s election as party leader. The early days of campaigning seemed to offer voters two equally unappealing choices: between an unelected authoritarian imposing yet more austerity, or a man with dubious connections who had refused to publicly sing the national anthem. In this atmosphere of heightened emotions, economic and constitutional issues were overshadowed. Throughout the campaign both Labour and the Conservatives appealed to emotions by castigating and sometimes demonising their opponents as heartless scoundrels or a direct threat to national security. This was particularly visible in the televised debates and interviews, in which audience questions aimed at both May and Corbyn were rarely neutral but instead laden with frustration and fury. Subsequent media analyses and endorsements focused on the personalities of the two leaders and appealed to emotions through such language as “cold”, “robotic”, “the nasty party”, and tediously recycling the word “hope”. These emotive portrayals of May and Corbyn point not only to the nastiness of the election, but also to the return of the old system.

The campaign has been British. In 2010 the sudden emergence of UKIP, the SNP, and the Con-Dem coalition suggested a transformation from American-style two-party politics to a European-style multiparty system. GE2017 ended that brief experiment. UKIP is nearly extinct and the SNP is in retreat, while the LibDems have failed to rally the remains of ‘Remain’. This restoration of two-party politics has exacerbated, and been exacerbated by, the growing hostility and contempt between two parties which are no longer jostling in the centre as they have from 1997 onwards, but which are separated by a broad gulf. Corbyn has taken Labour to the far left, and May rather clumsily attempted to fill the centrist vacuum by taking the Conservatives slightly to the left. This strategy failed, but in its failure demonstrates how parties have taken a back seat while individual leaders have been pushed to the front. It is difficult to have emotional ties with an abstract entity such as a party, but very easy to form an emotional connection with a single individual. Online press stories on policy suggestions or manifesto proposals received far fewer public comments than reports of a party leader’s or cabinet/shadow cabinet member’s latest car-crash interview. The return of binary politics and the power of emotion are interdependent – particularly in the context of such a brief election.

The campaign has been short. Not only was this campaign shortened due to terrorism, but the increasing emotionalisation and bipartisanship of politics points to political debate itself becoming increasingly brief. First seen in the Scottish referendum, social media and the digital realm are fast becoming the dominant forum for political debate and information. In an age of heightened emotions and in an online world of single-click symbols and profile picture-frames which instantly advertise the user’s voting intentions, social media users increasingly purge those online contacts who do not share their political views. The result is an electorate – especially the young – who gather and share information in politically homogeneous echo-chambers which have little or no contact with the opposing side. As a consequence, social media is becoming not a forum for civilised debate but a collection of digital soapboxes whose speakers merely hurl abuse and accusations at one another before unfriending and blocking. Debate, when it occurs, is becoming short and savage. If this trend continues, elections and referendums will become even more dominated by emotions, self-righteousness, and intolerance of diverse opinions. This does not bode well for future elections.

However, this is not of immediate concern. After national votes (or votes on national-scale issues) in 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017, political exhaustion is setting in. The emotional response of ‘Bristol Brenda’ symbolises much of the electorate’s fatigue, and even Corbyn’s cage-rattling is unlikely to drown out the national sigh if another General Election is called. It is even more unlikely that the Conservatives, with Momentum unexpectedly snapping at their heels, will risk calling an election before 2022. Demands for Irish unification, a second Brexit vote, and indyref2 have clearly fizzled out, and so the need for national votes is temporarily over. The Conservatives are almost guaranteed to remove Theresa May but the party will remain in office, quietly propped up by the DUP, for five years. The 2017 General Election was nasty, British, and short – but at least it was the last one for a while.