What Happened Yesterday in Britain?

The UK’s election results were proof, once again, that the only certainty in today’s political climate is uncertainty.

By Harris Beider

Tagged BrexitElectionspoliticsUnited Kingdom

The script had already been written for the aftermath of the 2017 British general election: a coronation of the Conservative leader and prime minister, Theresa May, based on her mantra of “strong and stable leadership” that would harvest a landslide victory. As the campaign commenced, the commentariat and pollsters were united in this view, especially given the disarray of the opposition Labour Party, led by the veteran left-wing Jeremy Corbyn who, 12 months previously, could not even count on the support of his own parliamentary colleagues and faced unrelenting hostility from the majority of newspapers and the press generally. The prospect of a resounding Conservative victory seemed even more certain after Britain experienced two terrorist attacks, one in Manchester and another in London, during the course of the campaign.

Yet there was no coronation or landslide.

In an extraordinary electoral shock, the Conservatives went backwards as Labour unexpectedly surged, confounding all expectations. For the moment, May remains prime minister but is far from the “strong and stable” leader she purported herself to be, as the UK starts negotiations to exit from the European Union. In fact, the Conservative majority from the 2015 general election disappeared and no political party has a sufficient number of MPs to form a government on its own terms. This is a situation of minority government with deals being brokered with smaller political parties to enable the government agenda to be passed in the Houses of Parliament. In this case, the Conservatives have allied themselves with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is a right-wing nationalist party who oppose both reproductive rights and general rights for the LBGTQ community.

It is difficult to arrive at concrete analysis in the immediate aftermath of this election as the only consistency appears to be the volatility of the electorate who had delivered the surprising Conservative victory for PM David Cameron at the 2015 general election, the political earthquake of the 2016 European referendum, Brexit, Cameron’s resignation, and now the results of the 2017 General Election with its minority government. A number of themes can be put forward which no doubt will be refined in the months ahead:

A woeful campaign by the Conservatives in general and May specifically: Never was there a better time for the Conservatives to secure the type of convincing victory won by the only other woman PM, Margaret Thatcher, during the 1980s. A pro-Brexit electorate combined with a weak Labour leader created the perfect ingredients for success. In reality, the disastrous result has been blamed on a the relentlessly negative campaign of the Conservatives which focused on the dire prospect of a Labour victory with Corbyn at the helm. Assuming their victory was secured, the Conservatives did little to convey their policies to the electorate, leaving many with little rationale to cast their vote for the government other than perhaps out of fear. May herself campaigned terribly, coming across as robotic, wooden, and out of touch with the day-to-day concerns of those Brits who had been harmed by a decade of austerity. The Conservatives’ decision to focus on her personality to the detriment of wider policy issues backfired spectacularly, serving instead to highlight her many weaknesses.

An engaging and authentic campaign by Labour and Corbyn: In contrast to the Conservatives, the Labour Party put forward a set of radical proposals to excite the electorate, including increasing the income tax on the top 5 percent of earners to reduce social inequality, taking privatized industries such as railways back into public ownership, and investing in schools and the National Health Service. As policy commitments, these were very popular across a with swath of the British population. Corbyn the campaigner, contrary to May, outperformed all expectations. In contrast to her remote and controlled approach, he relentlessly toured the country speaking at public and political rallies where he came across as principled, authentic, and clear in his messaging. Notably, at the start of the election campaign, Labour was 20 percent behind the Conservatives and Corbyn even further adrift of this figure in relation to May, in terms of who would make the better PM. Yet over the ensuing seven weeks, this was transformed: Labour won 40 percent of the vote (compared to 42 percent for the Conservatives) with Corbyn’s personal appeal increasing just as May’s fell. Labour may not have won the election but its success undoubtedly means the return to two-party politics in Britain despite widespread proclamations by many commentators who believed the system was effectively dead and that the country had become a one-party nation.

Mobilization of young voters: An unprecedented number of young voters between the ages of 18 to 24 turned out to vote. It was predicted that this number would be around 72 percent (against a national turnout of 69 percent). This voting bloc overwhelmingly broke in favor of Labour and proved significant in constituencies such as Cambridge and Canterbury in electing new Labour MPs. It should be noted that the number of students in higher education is now at 45 percent out of all young people compared to 8 percent in the 1980s. Labour held a particularly strong appeal for them, with their promise to scrap tuition fees for higher education as well as to implement a broad raft of social and economic programs that would likely yield significant returns for them. The vote for Brexit, which young people rejected, also helped this group become reengaged in politics.

Revenge of Remainers: In June 2016, Britain voted in a referendum, by the narrow margin of 52 to 48 percent, to leave the EU. Since then, PM May has positioned herself as the negotiator of a “hard” Brexit from the EU, as she was prepared to allow the UK to be cut off from the European single market. The prospect of parting from the EU in this manner, and eliminating the prospect of a second referendum on the terms of the Brexit deal, was decidedly unappealing to those who voted Remain in 2016. Less than 12 months later, it seems that these voters have punished the Conservatives with dramatic swings in areas including London and other constituencies where people felt most strongly about staying in the EU.

Collapse in support for the nationalist UKIP: Finally, UKIP—the right-wing nationalist party which campaigned for a “hard” Brexit, draconian restrictions on immigration, and banning the burka—was crushed as an electoral force, winning no seats and seeing its share of the vote plummet to less than 2 percent nationally. Initially, it appeared that the UKIP vote would transfer wholesale to the Conservatives. But, in reality, the picture ended up being much more nuanced, with many of these voters also embracing Corbyn’s Labour and its left-wing policies instead. Following a similar pattern to other small right-wing parties in the UK, UKIP is in chaos with no leader and no vision. Only time will tell whether this decline is terminal.

The smoke is still clearing from the rubble of yesterday’s election. For the moment, Theresa May remains PM, but the only certainty is uncertainty since she leads a minority government. Predictions of Labour being reduced to an electoral rump have proved to be spectacularly wrong. Instead, the party and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, have been emboldened and are looking forward to the realistic prospect of winning power at the next election. Once again, the political establishment were embarrassed. Corbyn may not be Sanders, but he showed, nonetheless, that a clear, consistent, and principled message can cut through and mobilize voters. Progressive, left-of-center politics are still alive and kicking in Britain.

Read more about BrexitElectionspoliticsUnited Kingdom

Harris Beider is Professor in Community Cohesion at Coventry University, UK, and Visiting Professor in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He writes in a personal capacity.

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