The 2017 election result is the latest in a series of events in the last two years (they include the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump) which have confounded expectations. Theresa May’s decision in April to hold an early election seemed at the time to carry little risk. Many people in the Conservative party had been urging her to go to the country to give herself a strong personal mandate and to increase her authority in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. She had just received the backing of both houses of parliament to invoke Article 50 and start the negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
The Conservatives enjoyed leads in the opinion polls of more than 20%. May herself had very high popularity ratings, and was overwhelmingly regarded as the party leader who would make the best Prime Minister. The Conservatives were also far ahead of Labour on economic competence. They had just won the Copeland byelection, a seat which had been Labour for generations, the first gain for a governing party in a byelection since 1982. May had the enthusiastic support of most British newspapers, and a much better funded and more organised electoral machine than her opponents. In the local government elections held on 5 May the Conservatives had an 11% lead. Labour’s projected national vote share was 27%.
Labour was widely held to be in terminal decline. The party appeared to be facing an even worse defeat than 1983, when it polled 28% of the vote and was reduced to 209 seats. Falling below 200 seats for the first time since the 1930s seemed quite possible. There were two main reasons.
Long-term structural trends – the decline of manufacturing unemployment, falling membership of trade unions, and the erosion of traditional working class communities – suggested Labour was becoming increasingly divided between its dwindling traditional base in the labour movement and its new growing base among the university-educated, cosmopolitan young, and public sector workers. Tony Blair’s New Labour had briefly created a coalition between Labour’s traditional heartlands and aspirational voters in the South, but when this coalition fell apart after the financial crash in 2008 it was hard to put it back together again in the new circumstances of austerity and recession. In the EU referendum two thirds of Labour’s 2015 voters voted remain, but two thirds of Labour constituencies voted leave.
The second reason for Labour’s plight was the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. Elected twice by large margins by party members, most Labour MPs considered him unelectable as Prime Minister, because of his left-wing opinions particularly on security and defence, his past associations with authoritarian regimes and supporters of armed struggle, and because of his lack of leadership skills or governing experience. Fewer than twenty of the party’s 230 MPs had voted for him in 2015. This unprecedented feud between the party leadership and the MPs did not become a formal split, as had occurred in 1981, but made the party look divided and dysfunctional. Jeremy Corbyn retained his support among party members but appeared unable to reach out beyond them to Labour voters. At the start of the campaign some polling showed him as low as minus 40%. The only question seemed to be the size of the Conservative majority and the scale of Labour’s defeat.
All this received wisdom about the state of British politics was rudely upended by the 2017 general election result. What follows are some first thoughts on the significance of the election and what it means for the future of the left.
Conservatives on the back foot
This was a shattering reverse for the Conservatives. They equaled Margaret Thatcher’s share of the vote in 1983 and won almost as many votes as John Major in 1992, but they failed in their aim of destroying Labour and ended up losing seats and their majority in parliament. The party has now not won a convincing and secure majority since 1987, thirty years ago. Two of the three last general elections have resulted in hung parliaments.
Theresa May fought a presidential style campaign and sought a personal mandate both for Brexit and for an ambitious domestic programme intended to make the Conservatives the natural home for the working class, rather than Labour or UKIP. Her manifesto used social democratic rhetoric about the need for government intervention to tackle ’burning injustices’ and protect citizens. But she was rebuffed by the electorate as Edward Heath had been in 1974, and her authority is now seriously weakened.
The guardians of Thatcherism have been quick to disown her. Nigel Lawson condemned her manifesto as social democratic, because of its emphasis on industrial strategy and social justice, and Norman Tebbit said she was defeated because she had abandoned Thatcherism. In the eyes of her party critics not only did she throw away a golden opportunity to crush Labour and secure her version of Brexit. She has also breathed new life into a Labour party which now resembles an insurgent left wing populist party more than a traditional parliamentary party, and endangered the prospects of delivering the Brexit which many in her party still want.
She cannot lead the party into another election, so the only question is when she will be replaced, not whether. The government can continue because of its confidence and supply agreement with the Ulster Unionists, but no one in the Conservative party wants an early general election because Labour might well win it. The party may be obliged to try and govern for a full five years as Labour did in 1974-79. This will be against a background of a weak prime minister, difficult Brexit negotiations, a deteriorating economy, continuing austerity, and an emboldened opposition.
This is a recipe for sharply declining popularity and very difficult problems of party management. The Conservatives are now on the defensive and it is hard to see how they can regain the initiative. Authority and support will drain away from them the longer this Parliament lasts.
Labour did not win the election. It is still 64 seats short of a majority. It has to win twice as many seats at the next election as it did in 2017 to enter government. But it is back at base camp. The increase in its share of the vote to 40% and the number of votes it received (13 million) were astounding given its position at the start of the campaign.
The key to Labour’s success was that its campaign was much more positive than the Conservative campaign, Jeremy Corbyn succeeded in getting through to a much larger audience, and the party successfully mobilised two key groups of voters – young voters, (especially students), and traditional Labour voters who were initially thinking of voting Conservative or who had voted UKIP last time.
The manifesto was social democratic rather than socialist, anti-austerity, offering hope of change and making specific pledges to all the groups whose support Labour was seeking. The commitments to increased investment in public services, the abolition of tuition fees, the lifting of the freeze on public sector pay appear to have been particularly effective, as well as the promise to fund all this by taxes on the rich and on companies. The Conservatives surprisingly never focused on the economy and the credibility of Labour’s plans in their campaign. Because Labour was never expected to win, it was not subject to much scrutiny on how it would deliver its promises.
The party managed to convince many leave voters that it was sincere about accepting Brexit, leaving the single market and ending free movement. At the same it managed to convince many remain voters that it was the best hope for avoiding a hard Brexit. The result was an extraordinary surge in Labour support which reduced the Conservative lead to only 2.5% and ensured a hung parliament.
An emboldened Jeremy Corbyn
The result of the election makes Jeremy Corbyn’s position as Labour leader unassailable. His ratings have improved dramatically, and the extreme campaign waged against him by the Sun and the Daily Mail backfired. It made many of the young even more determined to vote for him. For many younger voters social media is now much more important than the tabloids in shaping opinion.
Corbyn now has the opportunity to unify Labour by broadening his shadow cabinet and enlarging the coalition of voters that was forged in the campaign. After the referendum Labour divided while the Conservatives united. Now the reverse is true. Corbyn has done what very few people thought possible. He has made progress by moving left, and in so doing has shattered the assumptions of British politics and forced the Conservatives on to the defensive. The question now is whether this breakthrough can be secured and broadened. That will require serious thought about how to develop the manifesto into a workable programme for government without losing its popular appeal.
Many of the sectarian tensions in Labour have only temporarily been banished. It will require a supreme effort to keep the party united and moving forward. But Corbyn has won the right to shape and lead the new coalition that has emerged. He has liberated the social democratic imagination, and put Labour in a position where winning has becoming possible again.
Questions of the Union
The result was also significant in relation to the Union. The SNP were almost bound to lose seats in 2017. Their success in 2015 exaggerated their support. But the 2017 result saw a much larger reverse. Both the Conservatives and Labour made significant gains. The total Unionist vote was 62%, which kills the prospect of a second referendum on independence in this parliament, and makes politics in Scotland less detached from politics in the rest of the UK.
In Northern Ireland the result of the election posed difficult questions about the prospects for restoring the power-sharing executive, now that the Conservatives are reliant on DUP support to keep them in office. It also seemed to rule out the government’s claim that it would rather have no deal than a bad deal in the Brexit negotiations, since no deal would mean the imposition of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, which the DUP could not support.
What kind of Brexit?
The result has almost certainly changed the shape of the Brexit which eventually emerges. There is no majority in parliament for a hard or for a no-deal Brexit, not even within the Conservative party itself, especially after the success of the Scottish Conservatives, and the present continuation of a significant minority of pro-EU English Conservative MPs.
Reversal of Brexit altogether is still highly unlikely, and even a Norway solution, much favoured by many liberal leavers who feared Theresa May’s enthusiasm for an illiberal Brexit, may be difficult to negotiate with the EU because of its complexity. But a long transitional arrangement, giving priority to the economy rather than to controlling immigration, seems increasingly likely.
This means nothing much will change after Brexit formally takes place in 2019. This will not be the Brexit many leavers were expecting, because the UK will continue to pay into the budget, accept the jurisdiction of the European Court in some areas, and accept free movement of European citizens. But at least UK passports will have a blue cover again.