TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

British Politics after the 2017 Election

Theresa May’s gamble to call an early election that would deliver a landslide victory badly backfired as the Conservative Party she leads for now ended up losing seats and now requires the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland to stay in power in a “hung parliament” where no party has an outright majority.

May looks like a lame duck and is vulnerable to backstabbing, as her party is famous for being an absolute monarchy with a penchant for regicide. Her dependence on 10 MPs from the DUP will scupper Tory plans for sweeping domestic reforms and weaken her hand in the Brexit negotiations due to commence on June 19 (about which more later).

The election result was the biggest surprise since the 1992 vote, when the sitting Conservative Prime Minister John Major was widely expected to lose to Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party but ended up winning enough seats to govern for a full term. This time, Theresa May’s poll lead of 20 percent at the start of the campaign collapsed, though she did increase the Conservatives’ total vote share from 36 percent in the previous election in 2015 to 43 percent.

The Tories ended up with 318 seats (compared with 331 last time), but still over 50 seats ahead of the opposition Labour Party. So the Conservatives won the elections and are in office, but not in power as May’s authority is much diminished.

Widely expected to face annihilation, Labour won 30 seats but for the third time after 2010 and 2015 failed to win. Based on an inspired campaign by the resilient Jeremy Corbyn, the party increased its share of the vote from 30 percent in 2015 to 40 percent this time. From Canterbury to Kensington, Labour took safe seats off the Conservatives and turned Tory majorities into marginals. In the next election Labour will need less than a 4 percent swing to get into power. Thus Corbyn has emerged from the election not just with much enhanced authority over his party but also with national momentum, putting Labour in a position to win—and few expect the new parliament to last for a full term of five years.

Beyond the detail the wider significance of the UK election is threefold. First of all, people are diffident. They don’t vote for thumping majorities when the case has not been made, and they don’t take well to the arrogance and complacency of the governing party. This seems to be true as much for Britain as for the United States.

Second, Scotland has returned to the Union and so has Wales. The former was for a time a one-party state ruled by the Scottish National Party. But its leader, Nicola Sturgeon, misjudged the mood of the people when she assumed they wanted another independence vote when a majority of 55 percent had rejected it in the 2015 referendum. As a result, her party lost 21 seats, 12 of which went to the Conservatives and 4 to Labour.

Third and connected with the previous point, British politics has reverted to a two-party contest between the Conservatives and Labour. The SNP dominates Scotland but seems to have peaked, while the Liberal Democrats have gone from 8 to just 12 seats and UKIP has seen its votes collapse from 3.8 million to under 1 million, with no seats in Parliament.

However, both main parties are deeply divided and neither commands a parliamentary majority. The divisions relate as much to Brexit as they do age and class. The Conservatives lost seats to Labour in London and elsewhere in England because those voters who supported the UK’s membership of the EU in last year’s referendum switched parties. Meanwhile, Labour lost a few seats in the Midlands and the North where Brexit voters supported the Tories. For now, neither party offers a broad coalition of Remain and Leave voters because neither has a clear position on how to balance immigration with free trade and what kind access Britain should have to the EU’s customs union or single market.

Likewise, both parties depend disproportionately on certain age groups and social classes. The Tories retain the overwhelming support of people living in suburban and rural communities as well as the over-55 year olds, even though their proposed policies for the new parliament included changes to pensions and to social care. During the campaign this proved highly unpopular—prompting a U-turn that transformed May’s claim to offer “strong and stable leadership” into the perception that she is “weak and wobbly.”

Labour won seats and increased its share of the vote thanks to support from the young, notably the 18–25 year olds. They were mobilized by a combination of promises to scrap university tuition fees (leading to high levels of student debt) and the anti-austerity platform on which Corbyn ran. But they also turned out in response to an energizing campaign with a plain-speaking politician, which contrasted very favorably with May’s robotic appearances and her inability to connect with voters.

Crucially, Labour’s success is based on a coalition between young people, public sector workers, and a disillusioned metropolitan middle class, all of whom have seen their living standards decline since the 2008 financial crash.

The question is whether “one more push” at the next election will be sufficient for Labour to win a majority. Whatever the numbers say, that seems fanciful. Corbyn is committed to the kind of Brexit that virtually all the young people who voted for him oppose, as do the metropolitan middle classes. This coalition of convenience won’t last.

Corbyn fought the election on a “have your cake and eat it” manifesto that requires a combination of income tax hikes and a borrowing binge in order to finance a massive expansion of public spending. That could be economically just as disastrous as a “hard Brexit.”

Nor has Corbyn built a party in the image of the country. Yes, he has brought in hundreds of thousands of new members, but most are young activists who are not representative of the population. Having an enthused, energetic activist base helped him to outflank the Tories in the new media while also generating excitement and crowds at mass political rallies. But the over-55s still vote more than the under 25s, and so far Corbyn offers them little more than increased spending on public services. There is not much for the self-employed, the retired, and those living outside urban centers.

For now, the Conservatives remain in power and May looks to survive until the summer. A minority government propped up by a regional party in Northern Ireland will not just produce more pork-barrel politics to the dislike of the rest of the UK but also harden the British stance over Brexit. If May gives an inch in Brussels, she knows she is finished at home. So just as the Tory’s election nightmare seemed to herald a soft Brexit, it could equally lead to a situation where negotiations break down and Britain simply crashes out of the EU with no deal at all.

More fundamentally, Britain—perhaps more so than any other Western country—is deeply divided along age, class, geography, and culture. No party has so far offered a vision of a new intergenerational covenant and an overarching coalition around shared interests. Whoever proposes a plausible new economic and political order, as Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s, can mobilize a popular majority. Ten years after the financial crash, a one-nation party with a charismatic leader can define a new radical center-ground that combines greater economic justice with more social solidarity.

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