Over the past six years, British politics has become addicted to speed. Our often sleepy country has experienced a rush of events probably without precedent in its postwar history: two pivotal referendums; three general elections, two of them called early; countless parliamentary dramas; and dramatic changes of leadership, poll position and ideology in all the main parties.
The declared aims of Boris Johnson’s government are the work of decades, if they are achievable at all
For activists, commentators, Westminster correspondents, thinktanks with pet ideas and politicians and strategists with big ambitions, this frenzy has been thrilling: new possibilities have seemed constantly to be opening up. Hung parliaments, coalition governments, radical governments of the right or left, the restructuring of the UK and of its relationships with the world – all these rare scenarios have either happened or seemed likely to happen. Our politics, often so narrow and stuck, has seemed fluid, almost without boundaries. Some voters have enjoyed the change of pace. Turnouts at the last three general elections have been higher than in the previous three. Following politics hour by hour, even minute by minute, has become perfectly normal for people who in previous eras barely glanced at parliamentary news.
Last month’s election was this manic politics brought to a kind of climax. It was preceded by months of escalating confrontations in the Commons, in the courts and on the streets. It was made possible by overexcited members of three parties: Lib Dems believing they would deliver a historic breakthrough, Scottish Nationalists that it would hasten independence, and Conservatives believing it would “get Brexit done” – the impatience of modern politics encapsulated in three words.
But now, with the election over, impatience isn’t the right political approach any more – if it ever was. The Tories look likely to be in power for at least the next five years. Labour and the Lib Dems look likely to be rebuilding for years too. The Scottish independence struggle may have reached a stalemate. And the declared aims of Boris Johnson’s government – reshaping the UK’s relationship with the EU, reviving the north, overhauling Whitehall – are the work of decades, if they are achievable at all.
One lesson to take from this abrupt deceleration, and how perplexing it feels, is that during the 2010s politics didn’t change as much, underneath, as those of us caught up in the surface frenzy sometimes thought. Despite the financial crisis, free-market capitalism was not reined in. The Tories ruled almost throughout. And for all the attention given to their digital campaigning in the 2019 election, they arguably won thanks largely to two ancient political forces: the Tory press and English nationalism.
Another lesson is that many voters don’t like politics that happens quickly. Change can be frightening – or just a pain to keep up with. Labour’s election campaign, with its daily announcements of brand new, “transformative” policies, asked voters to choose a government that would bring years of rapid change. Not enough welcomed the prospect.
How should opponents of the Conservatives adjust to a political era that is going to be slower than they hoped? There may be clues in how Labour recovered from a worse election defeat. In 1931, after a spell in office ruined by a recession and arguments about spending cuts, – just as Gordon Brown’s government was – Labour lost all but 52 seats. Yet over the next decade and a half, the party revived so thoroughly that in 1945 it won its famous landslide.
“While the second world war undoubtedly accentuated the advance, it was not the origins of it,” writes Martin Pugh in his history of the party. “The 1930s proved to be a crucial formative phase.” During that decade, Labour elected a leader, Clement Attlee, who was uncharismatic but a good unifier of its factions. It resisted pressure to make its economic approach more centrist. It took control of London’s municipal government and used it as a showcase for radical policies. Despite press hostility, and a BBC much more interested in the Conservatives, Labour steadily grew its support – particularly in the south and among the young, who often suffered most from a sluggish, unbalanced economy and the Tories’ austerity policies.
The 1930s were a long time ago, and slow politics was easier to practise then, in a totally different media environment. But the period demonstrates something about the left that some of those inside it, and many outside, often forget: success tends to come from sticking to controversial but far-sighted ideas and patiently building new electoral coalitions around them, rather than from sudden breakthroughs during times of social and economic turbulence.
During the 2019 election, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour seemed to forget that his most potent political feature –his moral authority – had been built up over decades. He campaigned in too much of a hurry. His successor is going to have to ignore demands to demonstrate immediate progress. Politics may have settled down, but many voters and journalists remain impatient with it, as Johnson will find out when his honeymoon ends. Even the SNP – electorally secure in ways Labour and the Tories can only dream of – may increasingly struggle to persuade some of its supporters that independence is going to take years more.
Politics might also become more measured if the media treated it less like a soap opera, and more like something connected to how Britons are actually living, and how that’s always changing.
British politics isn’t going to slow right down. The electoral system creates volatility. There will always be crises; some already under way, such as the climate emergency, can’t wait years for governments to attend to them. But unless the UK accepts again that politics sometimes needs to be slow, its political life will be all stalemates and frenzies. Neither is a great environment for democracy.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist