Gary Younge writes: Our views about the world do not come from nowhere. We begin with preconceptions and personal experiences, and then adjust our opinions on the basis of what we see, know, hear and feel. But those influences are not neutral. They bend to the prevailing winds of power and status, because we pay more attention to sources that possess greater authority. When it comes to political matters, we are more likely to listen to politicians or newspaper columnists than people we talk to on the bus or in the supermarket, because we assume they are more informed about the relevant facts.
There were good reasons to doubt that the election result would turn out the way it did. Labour started more than 20 points behind, by some estimates, after two years of infighting and disarray. Last month, the party was heavily defeated in local elections. The carnage and heartbreak of terror attacks in Manchester and London had stalled the campaign and given May the chance to play the role of prime minister.
But it is also true that the reported predictions of a Tory landslide – and the premises on which they were based – were so dominant and pervasive that people chose to filter what they saw through that lens. These assumptions coloured observations about the election campaign, which were then either dismissed or adjusted to align more closely to the original predictions.
What we saw did not chime with what we thought we knew. But what we thought we knew was underpinned by a political calculus that no longer held.
So when mainstream commentators saw the huge crowds that turned out to see Corbyn speak, they were keen to explain that this did not necessarily mean huge electoral support – which is correct – but they rarely made much effort to think about what it did mean. When they heard reports of masses of young people registering to vote, they were also keen to point out that many were concentrated in places that would be unlikely to affect the outcome of the election (which is, again, correct) and that, in any case, young people could not be relied upon to actually vote (also true).
When they saw the trend of hard-left parties surging and even, at times, eclipsing the soft left across Europe – in France, the Netherlands, Greece, Spain, Portugal – they said Britain was different, and that even if something similar were to happen here, its effects would be blunted by the first-past-the-post system.
On the day of the vote, Labour MPs in safe seats said things were going well in their own constituencies, but that they were hearing terrible things from the marginals. Others were saying that Labour turnout was surging, but only in places where the party already had huge majorities. The pessimism had become so intense and paranoid that one Labour MP told me last year, during the London mayoral election, that the party was only leading because the Tories were deliberately throwing that contest. That way, the MP suggested in all seriousness, Corbyn would be less vulnerable to a leadership challenge, which would mean that the Tories could reign supreme on a national level.
There were signs. Not of the outcome we have witnessed, necessarily, but of a result that defied the predictions of abject calamity. It all depended on who you spoke to. But the trouble is that in a moment of flux like this, the people you would usually expect to know may well have no idea. Labour MPs, many of whom had already shown themselves to be out of touch with the views of their own party’s members and supporters, may not have been the best judges of the national mood. Canvassers, who tend to focus on people whose preferences are already known, would be unlikely to pick up a surge of new voters.
As long as journalists, politicians and party workers were – for the most part – talking to each other, they were only reinforcing each others’ narratives. If events had been unfolding as normal, then everything they said would have made sense. But nothing was normal. And as long as they were tied to the old way of thinking, there was no way for them to know it until the votes came in. [Continue reading…]