BY STEPHEN BOAKES
Two weeks on from the shock election result, the dust has settled on a new era for British politics. Theresa May’s gamble to deliver a landslide has failed, losing 13 seats in the process to deliver a hung parliament, and forcing the Conservatives to begin controversial “confidence and supply” discussions with the DUP.
A Failed Gamble
This election was Theresa May’s to lose. She called it at the height of her popularity when the Conservatives were approaching 50% in the polls, and Labour floundering at 25%. Speculation of a Thatcher-like landslide was inevitable, especially after their surge in the May 4th Council Elections, but failed to account for what would be a poorly fought campaign. One plagued by the “strong and stable” “May-bot” and soundbites which the British Public had grown sick of, U-turns on a manifesto produced mostly in private, failure to attend debates to defend her record and crucially to attack Labour’s manifesto. Her failure to engage with the public created an air of arrogance and complacency which ultimately led to the loss of strongholds. Meanwhile, Corbyn was holding large rallies across the country, and had produced a “flashy” manifesto which captured the mood music of a British public grown tired of continued austerity and cuts. Theresa May had hoped to focus the election around the crucial upcoming Brexit negotiations, and who would be best placed to take on 27 other member states, an issue where she performs strongly. But she failed to defend austerity and to take on Labour’s spending plans in the wake of a Labour manifesto which had shifted the debate onto the economy and public spending, instead sending Amber Rudd to attack Labour’s “magic money tree”.
In the end, it was austerity and cuts, began by the coalition in 2010, that came back to haunt and undermine Theresa May in this election. In going on about Brexit, using sound bites, and launching personal attacks on Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives failed to take on Labour on their strongest issue, the economy, allowing Corbyn and Labour an open goal in attacking cuts to public services. Indeed, their public sector pay freeze may have cost them the election, losing seats where public-sector workers outstripped the majorities won by other parties. The NHS, facing increasing pressure had been hacked. The Manchester and London terrorist-attacks also rose questions about police and security funding. The Conservatives failed to effectively engage in the debate on public services and this consequently lost them 13 seats. This election was by no means a vote against Brexit, but a vote against austerity which the country has become so tired of.
This election has seen a return to the two-party system, despite speculation that the country was entering a new era of multi-party politics. Labour and the Conservatives achieved over 80% of the vote with all minor parties suffering vote losses to the two main parties in an election that saw anti-austerity feeling unite behind Jeremy Corbyn.
It is not all doom a gloom for Theresa May though, and those calling for her resignation should be mindful of acting in haste. The Conservatives did still win the election, with a 5.5% swing, and with a popular vote and vote share not seen since Blair and Thatcher. That is not to say that Theresa May has not weakened herself and her party, allowing a resurgent Labour to once again be a threat in any upcoming election, but for now, Theresa May clings on to power. With a mandate of 318 seats, 42.4% of the vote, and more votes than Blair, who else has a mandate to form a government, and who else has the mandate to be Prime Minister?
A Mistaken Victory
One must be cautious of the hysteria surrounding Labour’s apparent “victory” in this election. An election which saw the Labour Party present a “Christmas list” of freebies for everyone, against what is arguably one of the worst campaigns ever, still came up 64 seats short of an overall majority, and 56 seats behind the Conservatives. Indeed, Gordon Brown’s Labour achieved 258 seats in 2010 resulting in his resignation, and Neil Kinnock increased their number of seats by 42 to 271 in 1992, more so than Labour’s increase this time around, and still resigned. This election can only be considered a “victory” for Labour, in that they defied the pundits and the pollsters, and have performed much better than had been expected. Indeed, Corbyn has achieved the biggest swing since Clement Attlee, 9.6%, and Labour have taken the former Tory strongholds of Kensington and Canterbury. While Labour’s situation is no longer looking as dire as it had when it floundered at 25% in the polls, it remains far from the gates of power and will need to do a lot more to convince voters of its ability to govern. When the next election is, whether that is in the Autumn of this year or in 2022, one can be sure that the Conservatives will not be as complacent and will not allow another weak campaign. They know that they have a much bigger fight on their hands for Number 10, and Jeremy Corbyn has placed the party on a permanent campaign footing as a result, exploiting the weaker situation the Conservatives find themselves in.
Jeremy Corbyn has described his party as a “government in waiting”, stating that Theresa May is “without a mandate”, but a Labour minority government would be 64 seats short of a majority against the Conservatives just 8 seats short, and would thus struggle to pass legislation. Even if Labour attempted to form a “grand coalition” to block the Conservatives, they would need for Sein Fein to take up their seats, and would themselves have to “get into bed with” the DUP. One suspects that all this bravado and talk of a “victory” is to capitalise on Theresa May’s failure to win a landslide, and to shore up Jeremy Corbyn’s position at the head of the Labour Party. It is speculated that high profile Labour candidates such as Yvette Cooper and Chuka Umunna, have had to park their leadership bids for the time being, and while many Labour MPs will be unhappy with the direction of the party, they must for now put up and praise Corbyn, no matter how false.
A Victory for the Union
While neither the Conservatives or Labour can truly claim national victory, this election has been a victory for the union over separatism. Nicola Sturgeon’s calls for a second independence referendum have been soundly rejected by the Scottish people with 60% backing pro-union parties. When Theresa May called this snap election back in April, one goal was to outmanoeuvre Sturgeon and put Indyref2 to bed. If a silver lining is to be found for Theresa May, with help from the popular Scottish Tory Leader Ruth Davidson, she has successfully achieved this aim. Ruth Davidson pitched the Conservative and Unionist Party north of the border as a vote against indyref2, and this was rewarded with 13 seats and 28.6% of Scottish votes, as well as claiming the scalps of Alex Salmond and Angus Robertson. While the SNP remain the largest party with 36.9% and 35 seats, down 21, gains for Labour, the Liberal Democrats and most of all the Tories leads Ruth Davidson to declare that “Indyref2 is dead”. The SNP, under increasing scrutiny, must now justify why they are the best party to govern Scotland, when they can no longer count on “banging the independence drum” for votes. In Wales, any speculation of a growth in Welsh nationalism has been quelled after Plaid Cymru achieved their smallest vote share since 1997 despite narrowly gaining 1 extra seat. The Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland achieved 10 out of 18 seats as unionists rallied behind them after Sein Fein’s strong performance in the Assembly elections earlier this year. With a pro-union independent, this means 11 unionists against 7 nationalists who do not take up their seats. With the DUP in discussions to prop up a Tory government, this means that Northern Ireland’s voice will be heard like never before, and may see off nationalist feeling for the foreseeable future if Arlene Foster and the DUP play their cards right. If there is a victor in this election, it is the stability of the union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
While the DUP hold controversial views on abortion and LGBT rights, it is unlikely that these views will have any influence over the next government or for the rest of the UK, and are not mentioned in their draft deal prepared for 2015. Indeed, both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband had considered and even reached out to the DUP in 2010 and 2015 respectively. With regards to Brexit, it is unlikely that there will be any significant change with there being much agreement between the two parties. The biggest danger, as many speculate, is to that of the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement whereby the UK government must remain a neutral arbiter. The Tories must tread a fine line between maintaining support from the DUP in Westminster, whilst also maintaining neutrality on Northern Irish power-sharing. They will have to work to keep the other Northern Irish parties, including Sein Fein, onside and thus this makes them vulnerable to the demands of the DUP and Northern Ireland as a whole. This is a deal that must be done, with few alternatives besides another election or a weak minority government, however, it may hurt the Conservatives image further to be “getting into bed” with those who hold such controversial views. Ironically, the woman who coined the phrase must be careful to not again be seen as “the nasty party”. It remains to be clear, what this deal will entail, and what its legacy will be.
A Fightback for the Youth and a Victory for Democracy
This election was a victory for democracy. Turnout was the highest since 1997 at 68.7%, and youth turnout, in particular, was remarkably impressive with almost two-thirds (64%) of registered 18-24-year-olds casting their vote, the highest for 25 years. Thus, allowing Labour to seize Canterbury, a Tory stronghold since WW1. Youth apathy has been overturned and no longer can the youth vote be ignored and neglected in the way it has been for years, and future elections will be markedly different, parties will now have to compete for the youth vote and no longer be over-reliant on the grey vote to win elections. It was not just the youth that contributed to Labour gaining seats, 50% of 35-44-year-olds also voted Labour (Ashcroft), a figure that should terrify the Conservatives if this trend were to continue. This parliament also marks the most diverse House of Commons ever with a rise in the number of women (208), LGBT (45) and ethnic minority (52) MPs elected, as well as an increase in MPs who went to state school (51%), and a boost for disabled representation (data unavailable). This is significant in ensuring that parliament is more representative and diverse than ever before.
What Now for Brexit and Theresa May?
Attempts have been made to spin this election as a rejection of a “hard” Brexit mandate, yet 83% of voters voted for parties which back leaving the EU and its associated bodies, including the Single Market. A rejection of Brexit or a “hard” Brexit would have seen the Liberal Democrats perform much better than 7.4%, and YouGov has found that only 22% now hold a “hard remain” stance with most now accepting the referendum result. Labour has been unclear in their Brexit position, perhaps tactically to avoid civil war, but Corbyn has confirmed that Labour would see the UK leave the single market. Attempts at spin seem to be a final attempt by hard-line Remainers to block or limit Brexit, with negotiations seemingly going ahead as had been planned prior to the election. With the Conservatives by-and-large united behind Brexit plans, having previously battled it out during the referendum campaign, big divisions remain between Labour’s MPs and leadership which risk being laid bare in the months and years of negotiations to come. Corbyn and Labour must tread carefully during these negotiations, or risk their achievements in this election unravelling.
The Prime Minister’s credibility has been knocked by this election, but far greater damage has been done by her response to the Grenfell Tower fire. While Corbyn engaged victims, the PM stayed clear, instead engaging with emergency services. Her response to this crisis is key at a moment when her leadership is already so fragile. This risks becoming Theresa May’s “Hurricane Katrina” moment, a disaster that spelled the beginning of the end for Bush’s Presidency. Will this be the beginning of the end for Theresa May?
With the dust settling after the election, and uncertainty surrounding her future as Prime Minister, clinging to power with the help of the DUP, she must for now turn her attention towards the job at hand and her greatest challenge. A challenge which will define her Premiership, a challenge which will decide whether she makes it to 2022 or is replaced by a disgruntled Party, a challenge which will shape Britain for decades to come. That challenge is Brexit: “Now let’s get to work.”