The main result of the UK’s Super Thursday election is that every party leader lost, writes Denis MacShane, Britain’s former minister for Europe.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe and author of “Let’s Stay Together. Why Yes to Europe”, published by IB Tauris
David Cameron was humiliated in London after staking his name and authority on the Conservative candidate to keep the London Mayor in Tory hands after the eight-year reign of Boris Johnson.
Although the final London Mayor result will not be known until the end of Friday (6 May), the current tally of votes counted so far shows that Labour’s Sadiq Khan will be the next Mayor of London.
Cameron launched an unprecedented and well-financed campaign against the Labour candidate, who is a secular Muslim born and brought up in London in a poor family who hauled himself up by hard work to become a lawyer and then a south London MP in 2005.
Sadiq Khan represents the new generation of European Muslim politicians like the Mayor of Rotterdam or members of the current French government or indeed the UK’s Business Minister, Sajid Javid, appointed by Cameron in 2015.
It was always likely that after eight not very impressive Tory years under Boris Johnson, London would vote for a change. But Cameron insisted on intervening personally using all his authority in Downing Street and the House of Commons to attack and even smear Khan – as if his involvement in the anti-Khan campaign would make a difference. It didn’t and the prime minister has emerged as a major loser in the election.
An even bigger loser is the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, after Labour in Scotland, once the beating heartland of New Labour under the former Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and the much-loved Labour leader, John Smith, slumped to its lowest vote since 1910. Without Scottish MPs it is all but impossible for Labour to form a government and few give a Corbyn-led Labour party any chance in 2020.
At this stage in a political cycle a Labour opposition should be winning big in mid-term council and regional elections. Corbyn was asked by Labour party leaders in Wales and Scotland not to campaign as he was a vote-loser even though the Scottish Labour party offered voters the chance to vote against austerity by accepting higher taxes and to vote for disarmament by removing nuclear missile submarines from their Scottish bases. The Scots voters said ‘No’ to this Labour leftism.
Meanwhile the Scottish Nationalist Party failed to win an overall majority and will have to govern in coalition so its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, is not a major winner.
The once powerful Liberal Democrats with more than 60 seats and control of scores of councils have not risen from their political death. Indeed the only winner can be said to be Nigel Farage and his UKIP party who picked up a number of seats and came second in two parliamentary by-elections held on the same day in safe Labour seats.
What does it mean for ‘Brexit’?
So this is an election from which all party leaders emerge as losers. What does it tell us about arguably the far more important vote on 23rd June to decide whether the UK stays in Europe or not?
So far the referendum campaign has been fought like a party political general election campaign dominated by big political beasts – Mr Cameron himself, his ministers or ex-ministers from Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
As Tom McHague reveals in the current issue of Politico, 10 Downing Street has set up a traditional election winning team with the US campaign guru, Jim Messina, and Cameron’s shrewd spin doctor Craig Oliver.
But this may be making the mistake of assuming the referendum is like a general election. All the main party leaders have lost considerable authority and hold over their party activists and voters.
Yesterday voters gave a one-finger salute to traditional electoral campaign conducted by established party leaders. London Conservatives are already criticizing the handling of the London mayoral campaign. Labour MPs are not short of open criticism of Jeremy Corbyn.
In theory all the main party leaders, except for UKIP, are in favour of staying in Europe. But the mood everywhere is to vote against political leaders. Donald Trump has now endorsed Brexit and whatever the elites think of “The Donald” he understands the power of attacking the political establishment.
Last week the British High Court banned two million British citizens from voting in the referendum even though it affects Brits living in Europe more than anyone else. If Cameron and Corbyn and other political leaders think their powers of persuasion are sufficient to win the Brexit referendum in six week’s time they may be making an historic error.
Final figures for voter participation yesterday are not clear but it seems as if half Britain’s voters stayed at home and in some areas barely a quarter voted. All pollsters and political scientists agree that a low turn out on 23rd June is likely to produce a Brexit result
The Remain camp has to find new ideas, new arguments, new enthusiasm and new persuaders as it is clear no-one in Britain is interested in what the political boss class has to say.