We are constantly told that the successes of Brexit and Donald Trump were the result of an “anti-establishment” attack. This is problematic in that Trump was never anti-establishment. He might have been a political novice, but he was at the very heart of corporate US. Brexit, on the other hand, was led by a collection of city mavericks, old Etonians and those that cut their political teeth in Oxford University debating chambers. This group was heavily endorsed by the Fleet Street printed press, which has long held a significant presence in British political establishment.
Contrast this with the recent campaign by Jeremy Corbyn. Starting from a position where he was not just floundering in the polls but from one where he was increasingly alienated by his parliamentary Labour Party colleagues, he has unleashed a campaign at odds with the endless press negativity that has emerged since his re-election as party leader in the wake of Brexit.
Going into the campaign his approval ratings were at an all-time low but were aided by a popular anti-austerity manifesto campaign. In line with the name adopted by the grassroots campaigning network that has accompanied Corbyn's journey at Labour's helm, it gained significant "momentum". This momentum has seemingly not been stopped by a Fleet Street campaign which has continued its vicious attacks on the political fabric of his leadership. If anything, editorials such as that in the Sun on the day after the Manchester attack, questioning his record on terrorism, have been counter-productive and increased his support.
Corbyn’s campaign has had all the true hallmarks of being “anti-establishment”. Emerging from a parliament where his leadership was struggling not just to put up a coherent opposition but also to garner any support within its party, he entered the hustings where his attack on austerity and on the so-called “common-sense” of debt management outlined by governmental figures have found great popularity. More prominently, his campaign has successfully engaged the very essence of anti-establishment: youth. Estimates suggest that up to 70 per cent of the 18-30 group will turn out and vote, and will overwhelmingly support Labour. This age group are also far less likely to rely upon established news media for opinion, relying far more on social media and alternative online sources.
May’s disastrous campaign
It should also be recognised that Theresa May has run a disastrous campaign. The final results will only be able to tell us whether it has been worse than Ted Heath’s self-destructive campaign in 1974. Considering she has had more of Fleet Street behind her than Tony Blair had in 1997, we can already conclude that it has been worse than John Major’s hapless campaign. Paradoxically, it has not been her public blunders or her refusal to take part in debate that have been responsible for the narrowing in her huge polling lead, but the fact that she ultimately turned against her own support base.
Since Brexit, Britain has been marked by a generation divide that seems to be getting sharper and sharper
Since Brexit, Britain has been marked by a generation divide that seems to be getting sharper and sharper. The so-called battle between the younger generation – who were too young to witness the economic catastrophe of the 1970s and the golden pre-EU manufacturing age of full employment – against the older baby-boomer generation – whose sense of entitlement and deluded nostalgia has destroyed the hopes and opportunities of those younger than them – is one that has been played out increasingly in the coverage of British politics.
By looking to means test elderly care and compromising on triple-lock pensions, May has attacked her own support base directly. In contrast Corbyn, who had irked his own generational supporters by not challenging enough to stop article 50 in the House of Commons, has campaigned on the promise of more inclusive negotiations with the EU.
Despite this, it is highly unlikely that Corbyn will come out of the election with the keys for Number 10 and his chances for a Labour majority are virtually non-existent. Whilst some polls have narrowed May’s lead to 1 per cent, others have her well over 10 per cent ahead . This is before you have to consider that Labour’s lead is traditionally overestimated by polls and that many of the marginal are in non-metropolitan areas that do not contain a young electorate.
We are also seeing the tabloid press (and we can now include the Daily Telegraph within that bracket) launching last-minute attacks that have perhaps even dwarfed the infamous attacks by the Sun on Neil Kinnock in 1992.
It should be remembered that Corbyn had already successfully fought two Labour leadership elections from the position of being the 'anti-establishment' candidate
The campaign, however, will be remembered as one which saw Corbyn confound the expectations that he would flounder as the election drew closer. Whilst this surprised many, it should be remembered that Corbyn had already successfully fought two Labour leadership elections from the position of being the “anti-establishment” candidate. He also has a lifetime of experience in campaigning within civil society. It has also perhaps demonstrated more than anything that the generational divide in British society is very real indeed. Not just in terms of voting and political outlook, but in terms of news media consumption. By managing to present himself as the outsider and the underdog Corbyn has launched a campaign that we can all recognise as being anti-establishment.
Owen Worth is senior lecturer in international relations in University of Limerick’s department of politics and public administration.