I was asked by an American friend to provide some notes to understand what has happened in the UK election. Having started to write, it grew a bit, and I realised it might have wider interest. So, this is a rather long primer in recent British politics aimed mainly at Americans. If you’re only interested in my analysis of the election and its likely aftermath you’ll find that right at the end, under point 7.
Understanding the UK General Election
A primer in UK politics aimed mainly at Americans
- Some basics about British politics
In the UK, the government is appointed by the Queen, who asks the leader of the largest party in the House of Commons to form a government following an election. The leader of that party becomes Prime Minister, and then appoints a cabinet. In US terms this is equivalent to the Speaker of the House of Representatives automatically becoming President, in a setup where the Senate is unelected and has no power to veto legislation. So for us, the General Election determines everything, and it is a vote not directly for a Prime Minister, but for a member of Parliament to represent your constituency.
There are two big political parties: Labour and Conservative (also known by their 18th century nick-name Tories).
The Conservatives are, generally speaking, a right-wing party, who are interested in supporting business and enterprise, small government, a strong and unregulated economy, and are strong on law and order and family values. (Similar to the Republicans in the US). They are a broad party, however, and contain within them some who are essentially committed to liberal values, some who are convinced of the need for a socially responsible conservatism, and some who are widely seen as sexist, racist, homophobic, and elitist. Characteristically, they are pragmatic, less wedded to ideals than ‘doing what must be done’. Tories are blue.
Labour are, generally speaking, a left-wing party (in the sense of being socialist, and with close links to organised labour and trade unions, rather than in the American sense of being socially progressive, though they are often socially progressive too), who are interested in supporting workers and industry, big government, a strong interventionist approach to the economy, and are strong on education, social welfare, and health policy. (If Bernie Sanders was a party in his own right, they would be something like this). They are also a broad party, however, and contain with them some who would be more committed to a free market and liberal values. Characteristically they are idealists, seeking to bring wide-ranging change to society in the interests of equality. Labour are red.
As well as the big parties there are a number of smaller ones, the most significant of which is the Liberal Democrats (or Lib Dems), whose strength in Parliament has fluctuated over the years. They are a centrist party, committed to progressive liberal values, and seeking to bring reform to society in the interests of liberty. (Similar to the Democrats in the US). The Lib Dems are often the ‘second choice’ party in many constituencies, picking up disaffected Labour or Tory voters. Lib Dem are yellow. There are also regional parties, who have considerable appeal in particular parts of the country but not outside of them. So the Scottish Nationalist Party (or SNP) in Scotland, who are progressive but primarily interested in campaigning for Scottish independence, pitting them against all the other parties, Plaid Cymru in Wales (broadly similar to the SNP), and the various Northern Ireland parties, who split along sectarian lines, with the Unionists being right wing and allied with the Tories, and Sinn Fein (the republican party) being more left wing, but refusing to recognise the authority of the British government on principle, and therefore not sending its MPs to the Commons. Finally there are what are generally regarded as the more extremist parties: the Green party (focused on environmental issues, but also being progressive) and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP)(focused on independence from the EU, but also being broadly anti-immigration, socially regressive, and somewhere to the right of the Tories).
- Some recent political history
Labour were last in power in 2010. They came to power in a landslide success in 1997 largely due to the charisma and vision of Tony Blair, who remodelled the rather old-fashioned socialist Labour into ‘New Labour’, which looked and sounded reassuringly like a rather funky version of the Tories (Blair was privately educated, and a former London-based lawyer) but in fact put through some significant socially progressive policies and social welfare reforms all whilst being reassuringly hands-off with the economy and pro private enterprise.
Blair fell from grace largely due to the unpopularity of the Iraq War, but Labour’s demise was also because of the global recession of 2008, which the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown responded to by breaking his previous non-interventionist economic policy to shore up the UK economy. The General election of 2010 resulted in huge losses for Labour and a hung parliament (where no party had an overall majority). The Tories, (under the leadership of David Cameron, who looked and sounded like a slightly more right-wing version of Tony Blair), formed a coalition government with the Lib Dems (under the leadership of Nick Clegg, who looked and sounded like David Cameron’s long lost twin brother) and successfully spun the global recession as being the fault of Brown’s economic policy which had left the country deep in debt, requiring a period of extended austerity and cuts to public spending to put us out of debt.
In 2014, there was a referendum on Scottish Independence. Labour and the Tories campaigned together in favour of Scotland remaining within the Union (something that in Scotland almost certainly underlined a sense that there was little to distinguish the two). The SNP campaigned in favour of independence. The referendum was narrowly in favour of remaining in the union.
The general election of 2015 saw the Tories narrowly win the overall majority Cameron needed to govern independently, campaigning once again under the need for austerity, and deep cuts to public services. The Lib Dems were punished at the ballot box for their role in the coalition government, which had required them to go back on many of the promises they had made in the election campaign. Labour, under Ed Milliband (who looked and sounded like a cross between Tony Blair at his most earnest and Mr Bean) failed to win the support they needed to challenge the Tories. In both cases, the losses were partly due to a massive surge in support for the SNP in Scotland, which led to the SNP replacing the Lib Dems as the third largest party, and almost eliminated the previously strong Scottish Labour party. Ukip had a massive surge in support, but because of the electoral system actually decreased their number of MPs from 2 to 1. In many constituencies, however, they had the second largest number of votes, attracting support from disaffected Tory and Labour voters with a strong anti-Establishment message.
- The Rise of Jeremy Corbyn 2015
The loss of the 2015 election led to soul-searching in the Labour party. There was a general feeling within the parliamentary party that to win, Labour needed a candidate who had enough of the Blair factor to be electable – someone who could look and sound not too left wing so that they could appeal to the middle ground of politics. The main candidates in the leadership contest to replace Miliband were therefore of this mold. Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime left-wing member of the party, stood largely in order to provide an alternative option. He was elected by an overwhelming majority of party members despite lack of support from the parliamentary party, who thought he represented a step backwards for the party.
The next two years for Corbyn as party leader were a continual battle to prove his credibility as a party leader and potential Prime Minister against a background of constant hostility from the press, and vicious infighting within the party as various members attempted to remove him. At one point he faced mass resignations by his shadow cabinet and a leadership challenge, which he comfortably won (again, due to support from the grassroots members rather than the parliamentary party). Imagine Sanders somehow won the democratic nomination, but the DNC were still determined it should have been Clinton, and were trying constantly to remove him or embarrass him enough to force him to step down, and this goes on for two years.
- The Referendum on EU membership and its aftermath 2016
The Tories had for years had a serious split within their ranks over their attitude to the EU. Some were internationalist in outlook, and saw membership of the EU as a positive thing. Others were rather more insular, at times almost rabidly xenophobic and suspicious of the motives and power of ‘Brussels’. The right wing press generally fell into the second camp. Increasingly, as the 2015 election had shown, more euro-phobic Tory voters were turning to Ukip. David Cameron saw the chance to stop the rot by calling a referendum on EU membership. The bluff of Ukip would be called, all sane establishment figures would make an overwhelmingly reasonable case for continued membership, the referendum would be won (though expectations were that there would be a sizeable minority in favour of Brexit), and the threat of Ukip would be dealt with. The whole political class (on both sides) were convinced this would be the outcome. Parliamentary parties therefore began politicking on the basis of this assured result.
Cameron had indicated his intention of stepping down before the next general election (due to be in 2020). Boris Johnson, the ex Mayor of London whose ambitions to succeed Cameron were no secret, unexpectedly announced his intention to campaign for Brexit. It was clearly a calculated political move to demonstrate his ability, as the most high-profile Brexit politician, to command support across the country (particularly amongst those disaffected tory voters). He began energetically presiding over a cheerfully irresponsible and blatantly populist campaign, which promised the world if only Brexit would happen, and disregarded the words of experts as establishment stooges.
The Parliamentary Labour Party began planning a coup against Corbyn in the aftermath of a Referendum. Labour were officially pro-Remain, and Corbyn was expected to campaign on this basis, but he was known to be personally sympathetic to the Brexit cause. The press was briefed that he was campaigning half-heartedly for Remain, in anticipation of being able to hold him to blame for the high (but unsuccessful) pro-Brexit vote, and make a case for a more Blairite pro-Remain candidate to replace him as leader. (In the event, the coup was completely unsuccessful).
The Referendum was narrowly in favour of Brexit, catching everyone by surprise (even those who had campaigned for it). Cameron resigned, prompting a leadership contest that was spectacularly inept. Boris Johnson was widely seen as the most likely successor, and was expected to be supported by Michael Gove, who had also campaigned for Brexit. Unexpectedly, Gove announced his own candidacy, publicly betraying Johnson, who then chose not to stand as a candidate. Gove then failed to win enough support within the party (many of whom turned on him for his betrayal of Johnson) to become leader, and was eliminated, leaving Theresa May and Angela Leadsom. Leadsom then sabotaged herself through ineptly handling an interview, and withdrew from the contest. Theresa May, who had herself campaigned against Brexit, then became Prime Minister without ever having really had to sell herself. She continued Cameron’s policies of austerity.
The Referendum had committed the country to Brexit, but had given no indication what alternative we were committing ourselves to (partly, no doubt, because those framing the legislation had not expected this result). Brexit campaigners had exploited this, arguing that a vote for Brexit meant complete freedom from EU legislation and payments on the one hand and continued access to the Single Market on the other, though the two are logically incompatible. It now became important to clarify what Brexit actually meant.
Ultimately, of course, the shape of Brexit will be determined in negotiation with the EU rather than being something the UK can dictate, but broadly speaking, concerning the government’s intentions in approaching negotiations, there is ‘hard Brexit’ and ‘soft Brexit’. Soft Brexit means seeking a relationship that is as close as possible to that held as an EU member, including access to the Single Market, favourable trading conditions etc. In return, of course, this would mean agreeing to some concessions (certainly including adhering to EU legislation as regards goods being traded in the EU, but probably also freedom of movement and likely some sort of payment for the privilege). Hard Brexit means seeking complete withdrawal from the EU, without any continued relationship. May initially refused to clarify her exact intentions, stating “Brexit means Brexit”, but eventually started to sound like she anticipated a hard Brexit, arguing that “No deal is better than a bad deal”. All of this lack of clarity was compounded by a refusal to concede that Brexit could not mean having your cake and eating it, generally glossed with an appeal to patriotism and an attack on “remoaners” talking Britain down. The result is that at the time of the election, we were 10 days off from the start of a two-year negotiation process, with no idea what the government was going to be arguing for behind closed doors, no guarantees or promises, no oversight, but with a vague threat that if they couldn’t get a deal they thought was good (and a hugely inflated sense of what that notional ‘good deal’ would look like) they were prepared to walk away with nothing.
It’s probably helpful to give some overview of what Brexit involves. The UK government has been evasive, reluctant to challenge widely-held misconceptions originating in the Referendum campaign, and all too willing to indulge in wishful thinking based on a rose-tinted view of the UK’s importance in the world, so this is not something that gets set out clearly.
The UK government has formally requested to exit the EU (known as triggering Article 50), which has started a 2 year process of negotiated withdrawal. This negotiation is essentially the divorce process: deciding the terms on which separation will occur and dividing the assets. The EU has made certain things clear about its position: the UK will indisputably have to make a settlement payment to cover its dues to the EU, if the UK wants access to the Single Market it will have to also accept Freedom of Movement (ie no immigration restrictions for EU citizens), and they will not begin talking trade deals with the UK until these matters are resolved.
Once the ‘divorce proceedings’ are concluded, then Brexit has two further major implications for the UK. At present its trade agreements with pretty much everywhere are through the EU, and will therefore all need to be renegotiated. The government is airily confident that this herculean task will be quickly accomplished, and result in better deals for the country than were possible while we were a member of the world’s largest trading block. Also, much of the UK’s legislation is at present based on EU law. This means that following exit from the EU all this legislation (covering amongst other things health & safety directives, civil liberties, workers rights, environmental protection etc) will need to be rewritten as part of a Great Reform Bill. The government has thus far been completely silent on its intentions for this wholesale redrafting, but many are suspicious that rhetoric about making the UK an attractive place for foreign companies to do business implies taking the opportunity to remove or water down legislation in many of these areas.
- The General Election campaign of 2017
To summarise the above: in 2017, Theresa May was governing with only a small majority, meaning that she was in a comparatively weak position to push through controversial legislation. The Conservatives had since 2010 been pursuing Austerity policies of deep cuts to public spending, proclaiming that this was necessary for the economic health of the country, though in fact it had had minimal impact, and increasingly it was apparent that the policies were ideologically motivated attempts to move the UK into a privatised, small-state model. There were concerns that the NHS was being de-funded and privatised by stealth, that the BBC was being pared down and sold off, that education was being de-funded and moved inexorably onto a private business model. The police and armed forces had seen serious cuts. Cameron’s early promises to promote clean energy had been junked and there were moves from the government to encourage the fracking industry.
The Referendum that brought May to power had committed her to a Brexit she had campaigned against, but that the media and influential sections of her own party eagerly desired, creating expectations of a wildly economically successful hard Brexit. She knew that at some point over the next 3 years it would become clear that many of those hopes were illusory, and that a hugely controversial Great Reform Bill, some of which might even be opposed by the members of her own party, would have to be steered through parliament. At the same time, her major political opponents were currently in disarray. The Labour party had a leader they themselves thought was unelectable, who was regularly lampooned in the press, and were engaged in a vicious public civil war. Ukip, having achieved all that they had campaigned for, and with all their major policies now adopted as government ones, had lost their whole raison d’etre. The Liberal Democrats were a shadow of their former selves, and despite attempts to position themselves as the party of Remainers, they were still distrusted by the electorate.
May had previously promised that there would be no early election, but surprised everyone by calling one, due to happen a mere two weeks before negotiations with the EU were due to commence. It was decried by everyone as blatant political opportunism, an attempt to secure her own personal position as Prime Minister and secure a larger parliamentary majority to give her the strength to make unpopular decisions. It was also grudgingly recognised as a masterstroke – a crushing victory, probably destroying Labour at the ballot box, and perhaps ensuring Conservative dominance for a generation seemed almost certain.
The campaign that followed confounded all expectation. Theresa May launched a tightly controlled, zero-risk campaign. There were minimal public appearances, and those that happened were tightly stage-managed. She said little in interviews, simply emphasising that she offered strong and stable government and attacking the weakness of Corbyn. She refused to appear in the televised leader’s debate, or to engage in any head-to-head debate with her opponent. Meanwhile, her manifesto reflected the absolute confidence she would win. There were no undeliverable popularist policies, but rather a clear setting out of the policies she wanted to introduce, including a reform of social care for the elderly enabling the government to take the houses of those requiring long term care to recoup the costs (a policy labelled ‘dementia tax’ by her opponents).
Meanwhile, Corbyn fought an incredible campaign. Election rules meant that despite a dirty campaign being waged against him personally by the Tories (alleging that he was a spendthrift pinko lefty terrorist sympathiser who could not be trusted) the media coverage of him was actually more positive during the campaign than it had been for the last two years. They had to cover his speeches because he was campaigning in the election, and nothing could be thrown at him that hadn’t already been thrown at him. Improbably, the Labour party rallied around him and presented a united front. He waged a campaign that emphasised personal contact with voters and addressing huge outdoor rallies (a very visible contrast to May). His manifesto was a well-crafted presentation of popular left-wing policies, emphasising progressive taxation and re-investment in all the public services that had suffered under austerity, whilst stepping back from the more unpopular policies he held to personally (nuclear disarmament). He very naturally came across as the anti-establishment figure in an election where May presented herself as the embodiment of the establishment: a vicar’s daughter who you could trust to do the right thing for the country and make the difficult choices that had to be made without needing to bother you, the ordinary people, with any of the details.
Opinion polls started to show a narrowing of the gap between the two. An increasingly panicky and flustered-looking May looked awkward when challenged, and quickly dropped her most unpopular manifesto policies within weeks of having presented them. Meanwhile, a relaxed Corbyn attracted huge crowds. By the time of the election, some polls showed Corbyn ahead.
- The Election of 2017
The election resulted in a hung parliament. May, who had called it in order to strengthen her comparatively small majority, ended up losing that majority, unable to form a government in her own right. Ukip lost all their seats. Labour saw the biggest increase in support, although not enough to beat the Tories, it was their greatest gain since the post-war government. There was some speculation that they would be able to form a coalition or alliance of some sort with other progressive parties to form a government, but this ended up not being possible, partly because other progressive parties did not perform as well (in part because some, like the Greens, actively encouraged their supporters to vote tactically to keep the Tories out, a tactic that Labour were the major beneficiary of). The SNP, the big winners in Scotland in 2015, lost half their seats in Scotland (some to the Tories). Their opportunistic attempts to build a case for a second Scottish independence referendum off the back of the Brexit vote had not played well in a Scotland where some resented their self-appointed role as spokespeople for all of Scotland, when the majority of Scots had voted against independence. The Liberal Democrats saw only a modest increase in their seats (and actually a reduction in their percentage of the vote overall) rather than the surge in support they had hoped for as the voice of Remainers. In Northern Ireland, the smaller parties lost seats to the bigger ones, leaving Sinn Fein (who do not take their seats in parliament) and the DUP as the big two. This left the unusual situation of one Unionist party with an unusually large number of seats (10) rather than the usual collection of smaller unionist parties. This was to become significant.
Ignoring calls for her resignation, May chose to form a minority government, with the support of the DUP. This is a vulnerable position. Unlike a coalition government, a minority government has to win support for each of its policies in parliament in turn, having no guarantee of passing them. It is very vulnerable to rebellions from its own party members. This makes extreme policies far harder to support.
It is likely that this spells the end for May personally. She has shown herself unable to win an election in almost ideal conditions. The only reason she has not already gone is likely to be that the party needs a certain degree of stability in order to ensure they stay in power. Her days are certainly numbered, however. They will not wish to fight another election with her as party leader. A leadership challenge from within the party and subsequent change in political direction seems inevitable, it’s just a question of when, and which way it will take them. There are clearly some who feel that a wholehearted embracing of a hard Brexit is the way to go (and May was only ever a reluctant spokesperson for this position). There are also those who feel that is a mistake and that a soft Brexit should be persued, and they may now feel emboldened to speak up.
All this makes a hard Brexit, further harsh austerity measures, or controversial weakenings of key protections and freedoms in a Great Reform Act far less likely. All of these are unpopular, and will be hard to get support for as a minority government.
The reliance on the support of the DUP means that their political priorities will become far more significant for the government. They are socially regressive, far more so than the Tory party (which recently introduced same-sex marriage legislation), and pro-Brexit, though they are averse to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire (which is inevitable unless some sort of Freedom of Movement agreement is reached). The effect of these priorities on government policy remains to be seen. There may be destabilising effects of this close linking of Ulster unionists with the Tory government on the Northern Ireland peace agreement too, which is a cause for concern. Northern Ireland politics are volatile, and Westminster is now going to be increasingly embroiled in them. Sinn Fein have already warned that they consider the agreement between the DUP and the Conservatives to be in breach of the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which formally ended hostilities between paramilitaries in and beyond Northern Ireland.
The incredible surge of support for Jeremy Corbyn consolidates his position as leader of the Labour Party, and will make the Tories wary of calling another election in the near future. Whether the infighting within the party will really stop is open to debate. Labour has a history of long and bitter ideological battles, and the battle between its left and right wings is unlikely to go away. However, the clear demonstration that Corbyn has wide popular support, particularly amongst the young, changes the nature of the debate a little.