Did social media and pressure groups sway the UK election?

Social media
Saturday, 10th June 2017

The outcome of the UK June 2017 General Election has taken most psephologists by surprise. Though many sensed a marked movement towards Labour over the last 3 weeks that would deprive the Tories of a large majority, few expected Labour to gain as much as 40.3% of the popular vote. That is 15% greater than Labour’s lowest poll ratings and their highest share since 2001 on a lower turnout. Indeed Labour obtained their largest national vote in absolute terms since Tony Blair’s famous 1997 victory with the full blessing of the Murdoch Press and widespread support in Middle England, though we have to admit despite a disastrous campaign the Tories still attracted more votes, 42.4% or 13.6 million as smaller parties were squeezed. Demographics have changed since then as many metropolitan areas are now dominated by young professionals, students and a motley assortment of diverse ethnic communities and welfare dependents with special requirements, while the traditional working classes have largely retreated to the outer suburbs and market towns.

Only two years ago most pundits predicted a hung parliament. Yet a much more moderate Labour Party under Ed Miliband failed to capture the public’s imagination and the Tories won a surprise majority on just 36.7% of the vote. Following last year’s EU Referendum the Conservative government under Theresa May hoped to capitalise on the unexpected outcome to leave the continental superstate. As the the government pumped more money into the economy to offset market instability, the Conservatives soared in the polls to the heady heights of 45 to 48% as former UKIP voters switched to the Tories. I suspect many potential new working class Tory voters either abstained or switched their vote to Labour to send the government a clear message. Media coverage of the Conservative Manifesto and its proposals for a dementia tax (i.e. using the value of a patient's property to pay for care) didn't help. Throughout the campaign Theresa May appeared wooden with robotic soundbites about a strong and stable government, rarely engaging with the public except in staged events usually in remote rural backwaters and empty factories. Could Ms May have been set up to lose in order to derail Brexit? Who advised her to call a general election, whose outcome has weakened her country as it negotiates a new relationship with the EU? The post-election shenanigans and the likelihood of another general election in the not-to-distant future can only harm the UK's reputation and its ability to meddle in foreign affairs. I have no answers to these questions, but as some have accused the Americans and Russians of interfering in foreign elections, it is at least conceivable that well-funded pro-EU pressure groups might have dabbled in some underhand tactics to engineer a hung parliament, in the full knowledge that Corbyn's could never realistically fulfill his public spending promises.

The Youth Vote swung it

Superficial analysis of electoral swings would show the former UKIP vote went evenly to the Labour and the Tories. Does that mean, as some have suggested, people have changed their minds on Brexit and, more important, the need to stabilise migratory flows ? Few polls before yesterday would suggest so. Millions of traditional Labour supporters voted to leave the EU. Migration, border security and inter-ethnic integration remain major public concerns, especially in the wake of two vile Islamist terror attacks. Jeremy Corbyn struck a chord with millions of voters when he blamed UK intervention in the Middle East for the growth of radical Islamism. Ed Miliband would never have dared to make such a comparison, only a half-hearted apology for New Labour’s support for the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

What happened is quite simple: many older voters stayed at home and younger more idealistic voters turned out in greater numbers. The turnout among 18–24 year olds has risen from 52% in 2010, to 58% in 2015 and to 72% this year, higher than the average turnout of 68%.

Social media played a major role in persuading young people to cast their votes. Shortly before the election 1 million young people registered to vote following a high-profile online campaign. A number of prominent campaigning organisations such as 38 Degrees, Avaaz, the SumOfUs.org and Change.org run awareness raising drives on issues that appeal mainly to young adults or to vulnerable individuals with special identities. I’ve sympathised with some of these causes myself, many of which seem innocent enough. However, many heavily promoted causes have strong ideological agendas that may not seem immediately obvious to the uninitiated. Labour not only promised to drop tuition fees (originally introduced under New Labour in 1998), they promised to increase spending in virtually every area of social intervention from mental health care to refugee resettlement. While New Labour still paid lip service to the concept of earning your own living through hard work and lifelong learning, they expanded social welfare allegedly to tackle poverty and promote community integration, both laudable aims at least on paper. In education successive governments have failed an entire generation of poorly motivated school leavers with limited literacy and numeracy and often few practical skills that will help them gain employment in many essential trades. Labour gave up and instead facilitated the immigration of better motivated young workers from Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Fast forward 14 years, and these new workers are now deemed essential not just in catering, farming, food processing, building and plumbing, but in our wonderful National Health Service. Not surprisingly Left Labour has billed itself as the only party capable of saving the NHS from Tory privatisation, a process that started ironically under New Labour.

Don’t get me wrong, part of me really wanted Corbyn to win. At last we had a major party that not only opposed military adventurism, but had vowed to stop arms sales to despotic regimes like Saudi Arabia. Some would argue arms sales provide jobs and boost the economy, while I’ve long argued there are much more important things in life than short-term economic growth. However, Labour has no plans to balance either migratory flows or the budget deficit, only promises to deal with rogue employers of cheap imported labour and to tax the rich more heavily, which would only cause them to dodge more taxes and very likely persuade many of our best engineers and surgeons to accept more lucrative job offers in Australia, the Middle East or USA. A Labour government, however well-intentioned, would have been just as captive to global corporations as a Tory government. It would have no other source of income. The UK is a net importer of most essential resources and can only sustain its current standard of living by selling its services and brainpower abroad.

Debt and Artificial Intelligence Time Bombs

The general election debates focused mainly on how we should spend our wealth, not on how we can create more real wealth or repay our mounting national debt. Indeed the pro-immigration parties (Labour, LibDems, SNP and Greens) continued to peddle the myth that population growth boosts per capita living standards rather than overburden our existing infrastructure and thus drive up demand for more housing, roads, sewage treatment plants, power stations, hospitals and imported resources. None addressed the biggest existential issue that will affect young people entering the work force over the next 30–40 years: automation of most repetitive manual and clerical jobs that require neither advanced analytical skills or a high degree of authentic emotional intelligence. Even many high skill jobs such as heart surgeons or dentists will soon give way to AI-enhanced robots, with humans acting more as consultants than operatives. The long and short of it is if you have a practical IQ below around 110, you’ll be relatively useless to most wealth-creating businesses. Whether you like or not, non-productive public services may support wealth creation, but they don’t actually create the real material wealth we need to sustain our way of life. Creating more jobs in social services merely pays people to monitor other people. If you just want to boost consumer demand, you could pay people to do nothing as long as they are well behaved. This long-term trend towards greater welfare dependence rather than less may be another key factor behind Corbyn’s surprise win. Many young people simply do not see themselves earning enough to fund their lifestyle without a helping hand from someone unless they are blessed with a rich parents or an extraordinarily creative talent. The paradigm shift away from free market capitalism to a new form of technocratic corporatism has begun with support from surprising quarters such as the CEOs of major tech giants and well-funded NGOs.

Derailing Brexit

To some leaving the European Union was about restoring the sovereignty of the United Kingdom. Yet the small island state has long depended not only on global trade, but on tight integration with the US and European economies. Tory Brexiters never really cared that much about controlling migratory flows to protect native workers or safeguard our shared cultural heritage in a fast-changing and unstable world. With a minority government reliant on the votes of Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party, formely led by Ian Paisley), the weakened Prime Minister will be forced to make major concessions in her Brexit negotiations. It now seems almost certain that the UK will stay in the European Single Market, potentially with some exemptions on the misnamed Freedom of Movement, which given dwindling demand for semi-skilled workers will soon become untenable without harmonising both welfare provision and salary levels across countries with very different economic realities. If it were possible to join a Community of European Nations cooperating on join environmental and security concerns, I’d sign up tomorrow. What we needed to defend was the concept of compact nation states with control over the levers of economic and social power, so each country can not only respond to the culturally sensitive concerns of their citizens, but also experiment and innovate in different ways. Nation states are the only way to preserve both cultural diversity and the kind of liberal social democratic values that have engendered the most successful and peaceful societies ever. What most voters did not want were deregulated labour markets and rapidly changing communities, especially not the kind of ethnic cleansing that blights many of our inner cities. I don’t see any of the major parties addressing these long-term issues and also suspect the remnants of UKIP will struggle to regain any electoral relevance in their current guise. Their policies may have made some sense 30 years ago, but are unfit to address the challenges of the 21st century.

Silver Lining

Scottish Independence was always a pipe dream. Scotland’s economy and people are inextricably bound to the rest of the UK. The only hope the SNP ever had was to reinvest the massive proceeds of North Sea oil into new high tech industries. Alas oil prices have plummeted and new oil fields lie 1000s of metres below sea level, making extraction a very resource-intensive process with a low EROEI rate. The SNP’s other strategy, Independence within the EU, has backfired because people know Europe as a whole is struggling to deal with unprecedented migratory flows from poorer countries . The idea that Scotland could soon emulate the wealthier regions of the EU is as fanciful as imagining we could become a new Switzerland or Norway (both outwith the EU) with such a high rate of welfare dependence and a failing education system. Scotland was thus the only part of the UK where the Tories made significant gains in this election. While the SNP pitched themselves on the anti-austerity left, Scottish Labour managed to recover and gain a few seats and a healthy 27.1% of the popular vote (SNP 36.9%, Tories 28.6% and LibDems 6.8%). Scotland often bucks UK-wide trends. If England shifts right, Scotland appears to veer left. This time the opposite happened and given the rapid demographic transformation of urban England, it should surprise nobody. 

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