The stunning UK election result explained
The results of this election show how similar, and yet how different, British politics are from what is happening in America.
As in the United States, there has been an explosion of populism in Britain, most recently evidenced by the Brexit referendum. This new political force is translating into less liberal policies from the major parties.
In continental Europe, the new populism is mostly embodied by the resurgent far right. But in Britain, as in America, it is being filtered through the existing two-party system – though the U.K.‘s smaller parties do complicate the electoral map.
To accommodate the political winds, May and her Conservatives decided to shift their electoral strategy away from Margaret Thatcher’s pro-market economic approach toward a greater focus on immigration, security and economic nationalism.
The American left, like its British counterpart, has also become increasingly skeptical of unbridled markets. But among Republicans, a traditional hostility to “big government” makes pro-worker redistributive policies, some of which the Tories have adopted to win votes, hard to stomach. For this reason, populism on the American right has mostly taken the form of protectionist and anti-immigrant policies, as embodied by Donald Trump.
Yesterday’s results were devastating for May and indicate that the Conservatives were ultimately unable to balance their new populist message with their traditional support for neo-liberal policies.
Corbyn, for his part, will use this unexpected victory (of sorts) to solidify his hold over the Labour Party and to move it further to the left.
It remains to be seen whether the election will result in a minority or a coalition government, or whether the parties will be well and truly deadlocked. Whatever happens, the British electorate, like its cousin across the pond, has shown itself to be highly polarized.
Still, at a minimum, Britain’s parliamentary structure, along with the ability of the Labour leadership to co-opt disillusioned voters, seems to have spared Britain the fate of America – the takeover of government by a populist insurgent.
Result casts doubt on May's future
The 2017 general election was a once-in-a-generation opportunity that the Tories fumbled and Labour exploited to remarkable effect. The Tories managed to spook older voters and thereby alienate a core constituency; Labour, meanwhile, both connected with younger people and somehow got them to actually vote in large numbers.
All political scholars should beware reaching too quickly for their pens, keyboards or quills; to adapt the old adage, “write in haste, repent at leisure”. Nonetheless, it strikes me that a seismic shift has occurred in British politics. It is now clear that Theresa May’s gamble has been a catastrophic failure. With a hung parliament, the UK’s negotiating position on Brexit looks to be in tatters. Theresa May asked the British public to show its support for a “hard” Brexit, but the public declined.
The Conservative Party looks guaranteed to be engulfed by internal warfare and blame games. The only question is when. That, in turn depends upon how long May attempts to stay on as leader. Can she survive as prime minister?
After running such a personalised – even presidential – campaign and having watched her authority drain away in recent days and hours, the future looks bleak. But if May goes, the Tory Party will be plunged into a leadership contest that will create even more instability.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, has an air of somewhat unexpected jubilation about it. From debates at beginning of the election over the possibility that the party might lose catastrophically – and even split – it now appears to be almost glowing. It’s even purring at its achievements in terms of shifting the terms of the debate.
The key to this was Corbyn’s decision to offer a bold and clear vision of a new left-wing politics instead of attempting to win back voters from the centre ground. In many ways Corbynism reached out to the anti-political, the disenchanted, the disconnected and elements of the “left behind”. But most importantly, the initial data suggests that the Labour Party made sure younger voters turned out once it had won their support.
As a new dawn breaks for British politics, the situation is one of fluidity and flux. A game is afoot – and it may well redefine a whole set of relationships, not least with Europe.
Little clarity on Brexit
Rarely has an election been characterised so one-dimensionally before the campaign even begun. Although labelled the “Brexit election” by the Conservatives, Theresa May did little to establish that narrative beyond her supposed leadership credentials, which, to put it mildly, faltered. It figured surprisingly little in the election campaigns of the other mainstream parties, except for the Liberal Democrats.
Taking a largely ambivalent stance on EU, Labour has gained Remain seats in London and the South East and retained and won back marginal Leave seats in the North. It looks like neither the so-called Leave or Remain vote offers a reliable indication of the new electoral map. It has figured in certain parts of the country, but nowhere near as decisive as imagined.
This article was originally published on The Conversation.