The Brexit election that wasn’t: The view from the campaign trail

By Alex King, Consultant, acumen public affairs

“You’re having a f**king laugh,” says the twenty-something man wearing a creased blue oxford shirt and glasses as he passes me by on the busy high street. “I don’t trust her one bit.” I’ve just tried to hand him a leaflet, the cover of which reads: “Your choice at this election: strong, stable leadership for the United Kingdom, or a coalition of chaos with Jeremy Corbyn.” He clearly isn’t a fan of Theresa May. The strangest thing is, even as I stand there, leaflet still in hand, I completely agree with him.

I spent last week back home in the UK, campaigning for the general election. Rather than campaigning for a single party, I decided to volunteer my support to candidates from any party (red, yellow - even blue) so long as they were avowedly pro-EU. On this particular Saturday, I was stood on a local high street on the outskirts of Nottingham handing out leaflets for a pro-EU Conservative candidate. Every time I got the chance to speak to a passer-by I would try as best I could to steer the conversation towards the candidate’s own positions, and towards the UK’s impending exit from the EU. Coming from Brussels, I was expecting that this would be easy, and that Brexit would dominate the week; what I found, however, turned out to be the opposite.

For the most part, both the Conservative and Labour parties tried to exclude Brexit from their election narratives. The Conservatives, obviously having seen the huge disparity between leaders’ approval ratings at the start of the election campaign, focused on personalities. Theresa May was steadfast and stern, fighting hard to protect Middle England’s interests. Jeremy Corbyn was the extremist political dinosaur who would inevitably rely on a ragtag band of nationalists and Brexit saboteurs. It seems like an easy choice, right?

It wasn’t. It wasn’t an easy choice for the twenty-something man I met in Nottingham, and it wasn’t an easy choice for the countless others who felt as if their lot had been pretty miserable over the past decade. I didn’t spend long with the Conservative candidate, but while I was there, as much as I wanted to talk about Europe, voters would keep coming back to the Conservative campaign’s negativity.

The story couldn’t have been more different as I toured a handful of Labour constituencies. The party knew from the start that much of the British electorate considers Jeremy Corbyn the same way that it does marmite - they either love him, or they hate him - so the party’s main tactic was to target voters already leaning towards Labour, and to focus on getting these voters to turn up and vote on the day. As I was knocking on doors, the party’s far more optimistic policy platform really resonated with voters, and this translated into mobilisation: in one campaign office they were expecting around 200 volunteers to help them deliver leaflets on polling day, the vast majority of whom would have been young people.

Meeting voters, I was struck with a sense of deja vu - although this time, I was fortunate enough not to be on the receiving end of any profanity. As I was handing out leaflets to parents picking up their children from school, a teacher walked out of the school gates and hurried across the zebra crossing towards me. She confessed that under the current Conservative government she felt insecure in her job, and as a result she was praying that the affectionately named “Jeremy” would win the keys to 10 Downing Street.

On doorsteps too, one point that came up time and again was that of the Conservative manifesto, which was seen as an attack on social care and the elderly. I could try to add an EU spin to my conversation - “Right! And what happened to that £350 million promised for the NHS?” - but the voters were nonplussed.

The fact is, for the most part, this election simply wasn’t about Brexit. Rather, it was a straightforward fight between a positive campaign and a negative one. The British electorate has been subject to their fair share of negative campaigns over the past few years (who could forget “Project Fear”), and it now seems as if voters are sick of the same old playbook. This time round, issues only crept onto the agenda when they inspired hope. Perhaps it says a lot about Brexit, therefore, that it never made it to the election’s agenda.

She began with an “unassailable lead”, but the Prime Minister went on to lose her majority and is now scrambling to form a minority government with the Northern Irish DUP.

The silver lining? Now that the voters I met up and down the country have flexed their muscles, it seems as if austerity could swiftly fall out of fashion. Furthermore, whether the election was about Brexit or not, it also now seems as if Mrs May will be forced to reconsider the “hard Brexit” that she had been intent on pursuing up until now. But with the many roadblocks that lay ahead, and with so many things still up in the air, having returned to Brussels I still don’t have an answer to the question I had originally hoped to answer: what will Brexit really mean now for policy makers, businesses and citizens?