Editor’s Note: The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (UK) held its General Elections on 9 June 2017, less than two months after its Prime Minister and right-wing Conservative Party leader, Theresa May, called for snap polls. The final leads gave the Conservatives the highest vote share and number of seats in the House of Commons (42.4%, 319 seats), followed by the left-wing Labour Party (40%, 261 seats) led by Jeremy Corbyn, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) led by Nicola Sturgeon trailing at the third spot (3%, 35 seats). While the Conservatives lost their +12 majority at the Westminster, contrary to the party’s expectations, May decided to form a minority government with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Northern Ireland’s biggest political party.
Labour’s unexpected rebirth
The relatively modest change of seats in the UK’s snap General Elections masks a dramatic electoral realignment. Voters concentrated support overwhelmingly behind the two main political parties, Conservative and Labour. For Labour in particular, the election saw a dramatic increase in support in a short period of time alongside a profound reorientation of the party’s internal politics. Despite coming second, Labour’s unexpected rebirth and transformation is what will mark this election as historic.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the General Election less than 2 years after the previous one, in 2015. Ostensibly, this was to seek a mandate that would strengthen her hand in negotiations to withdraw the United Kingdom from the European Union. Crucially, the Conservatives were also polling upwards of 20% ahead of the opposition Labour Party in voting intentions at the time the election was called. It is consequently easy to interpret Theresa May’s decision as an opportunistic bid to drastically increase the Conservatives’ number of seats while circumstances were favourable.
Those circumstances changed considerably during the 6 weeks of the election campaign. The Labour Party unleashed a radical policy platform and a populist electoral campaign that saw it race upwards in the polls, gain in seats and dislodge the Conservatives from their parliamentary majority.
Following their previous electoral defeat in 2015, Labour members and supporters has elected a new leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who was significantly to the left of previous Labour leaderships. Among other things, Corbyn opposes British participation in illegal military interventions, backs higher levels of taxation on the rich and unambiguously supports public ownership of utilities and the health service. This placed Corbyn at odds with most Labour parliamentarians, not to mention vested interests in the British corporate and journalistic universes.
Although Corbyn had won mass support within the Labour Party, his critics internal and external critics countered that this would not translate into electoral success with the wider public. Sustained criticism of Jeremy Corbyn over two years, not to mention a leadership challenge from another Labour politician, undermined Labour’s standing in the polls, leading to the substantial Conservative poll lead described above.
The General Election, in contrast, prompted Corbyn and his supporters to concentrate their efforts on promoting the policies of their electoral manifesto, and confounded all expectations by building popular support on that basis. Given substantial concessions in policy and ideology to free market doctrines by previous Labour leaderships, Labour’s 2017 manifesto distinguished itself not only by being more left-wing, but also by being clearer for it. Rather than galvanising the public around Corbyn’s person or a firebrand vision of socialism, Corbyn’s success was to build calm but assured support in the country for policies that appealed to many as both intuitive and just.
The results were dramatic: Labour gained 3.5 million votes compared to its electoral performance just two years previously. Given it began the campaign polling lower than in 2015, the ground Labour made up is more remarkable still. This is the first time in two decades that Labour made a net gain of seats and its increase in the vote share of 9.6% is the largest by any party since 1945. Much of Labour’s gains were among young voters and previous non-voters, demonstrating a successful attempt by the Labour leadership to extend the reach of political engagement. Corbyn’s previously beleaguered leadership is now solidified, as are his policies.
A delicate balance of parliamentary power
The decline in support for all other British parties meant that the Conservatives gained votes alongside Labour, albeit to a much lesser extent. However, a net loss of seats by the Conservatives and their loss of an overall majority places bargaining power in the new parliament in the hands of regionalist and nationalist parties.
Specifically, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is now at the forefront of the balance of power. Northern Ireland is a world apart in UK politics as no national party field candidates there, leaving politics to be dominated at all level by the local (Irish) nationalist and (pro-UK) unionist parties. The DUP is far right in many of its stances, having risen from local Protestant churches and unionist paramilitary groups. Their 10 seats in the UK parliament combined with the Conservatives’ yield a narrow right-wing majority. However, the DUP’s hard-line positions on women’s rights, LGBT+ rights and British unionism are likely to render negotiations fraught on many issues, not least because their influence can easily be countered by any small grouping of moderate Conservative parliamentarians.
The day-to-day experience of the newly elected parliament is likely to be extremely volatile, with either the DUP on the one hand, or any arbitrary grouping of Conservative parliamentarians on the other able to veto any government policy by Theresa May. May herself is largely seen as a place holder while the Conservative Party prepares her succession. Labour, although still the second-largest party in parliament, is in a favoured position where it can mount an effective opposition to every government measure while challenging the Conservatives to another election; they are reluctant to grant this, given that Labour now leads in the polls.
Consequently, the possibilities now are a long-term parliamentary stalemate – with negotiations from the EU still scheduled to go ahead – or a third election in 3 years that could bring an openly radical, populist and socialist Labour Party into government.
Harry Cross is a researcher in economic history at Durham University (northeast England). He is also the chair of the Labour Party’s local branch and was active in the party’s General Election campaign.