When, on April 18th, Theresa May announced that a snap general election would be held in the UK, hope and optimism swept across Conservative ranks at the very prospect of electoral domination and a trouncing of the Labour party. Underpinned by the desire to place the Tories in a better position to negotiate a strong Brexit deal with EU leaders, experts initially labelled May’s decision as a wise political manoeuvre – some commentators having forecasted an “election wipeout” for Labour and a Tory majority of up to 150 seats.
Rather than being a springboard from which the Tories could strengthen their mandate, the general election proved to be a self-destructive act that unintentionally caused the loss of the Tories’ majority. May’s downfall does not stem from one singular factor; multiple aspects must be considered in explaining the unprecedented rise of Labour in the election.
One significant flaw of Theresa May’s campaign rested within her manifesto. Indeed, ex-colleague George Osbourne went as far as to label it as “the worst in history” and a “total disaster”. May did not help her own cause with her proposed policies within the manifesto; the idea to scrap free school meals served to polarize lower-income families, and the proposal to make winter fuel payments for pensioners means-tested undoubtedly discouraged some of the elderly – the crucial “grey vote” upon which the Conservatives rely – from voting for May.
The Conservative leader’s U-turn on the proposed controversial “dementia tax”, wherein more of the elderly would be required to pay for domiciliary care, further repelled some of the “grey vote”, and created an image of a dithering and indecisive leader – a contrast to the aphoristic “strong and stable” characteristics repeatedly professed throughout the campaign.
Jeremy Corbyn’s election pledges came as a strong contrast to May’s and were instrumental in amassing far more votes than expected. As a commentator aptly outlines, the Tory manifesto did not provide people with particularly much to vote for – “where Corbyn’s manifesto was stuffed with giveaways, May’s had little in the way of eye-catching goodies”.
The Overlooked Segment
The decision to calculatedly target the youth vote, a demographic which swings an election result, was a pragmatic campaign strategy which May all but omitted. The promise to fully abolish university tuition fees as soon as late 2017, and to reintroduce the maintenance grant for students (recently removed by the Conservatives) undoubtedly attracted swathes of young people to vote for Labour to protect their own interests.
Although pressing and important questions exist regarding how exactly Corbyn plans to fund his proposals (critics branding his pledges as utopic, unsustainable and reliant on a “magic money tree”), the very fact that two-thirds of young people voted for his party substantially swayed the election result in his favour. The uncharacteristically high turnout of 18-24-year-olds for the election, estimated at 72% – a substantial increase from 43% in the 2015 election – was also imperative in securing Labour’s vote share since Tony Blair’s 2001 landslide.
Two Very Different Leaders
Although the duration of the election campaign was a short one, seven weeks proved to be a lengthy enough time period to reveal the stark differences in the styles of both leaders. Unlike the energetic and charismatic David Cameron, Theresa May’s campaign was largely seen as uninspiring and bland – her actions as robotic and uncharismatic. Perhaps the perceived certainty of electoral victory lessened the intensity and vigour of her campaign which had been greatly needed. The tendency to shy away from large rallies (unlike Corbyn, who embraced them), meet predominantly with small groups of people and abstain from live television debates only strengthened the public image of May as a hesitant and uncourageous leader.
Appearing more natural and plainspoken, Corbyn’s approach to the campaign – which appeared less scripted than May’s – resonated with large numbers of the populace who appreciated the attempt to form a genuine connection with the public and catalyse a shift from the status quo. This contrast between the scripted politician who had been the favourite, versus the populist outsider, somewhat echoes the US presidential election.
May’s decision to call a snap general election had, on the face of it, been a shrewd political act which had great potential. The scenario for the Conservatives in mid-April was considerably rosier than today; polls displaying gargantuan leads of up to 25 points indicated a seemingly effective – and crucially, surefire – way to further build on the Tory majority. May’s failing, therefore, came not in the decision to hold the snap election but in her actions in subsequent weeks.
A Recipe for Disaster
Controversial and unexpected policies, such as the aforementioned ones, alienated some sections of the electorate who normally would have sided with the Conservatives. An uncharismatic and bland campaign from a politician far from a natural born campaigner offered very little for the electorate to get excited about, and ultimately caused more aggravation and discontent than enthusiasm.
In contrast, Corbyn’s campaign was interpreted as a breath of fresh air, and the Labour leader was viewed by many as a genuine saviour from the ills afflicting minorities and the working classes. The generous amount of tax cuts and subsidies – especially the removal of the annual £9,000 tuition fee – undoubtedly attracted a considerable proportion of voters who may have been disenfranchised by seven years of the Conservatives in government.
Whether Corbyn would actually put his promises into fruition is wrapped in uncertainty – critics have rightly questioned how the leader would fund his plan to considerably ramp up the national expenditure, alluding to a £30bn ‘black hole‘ in Labour’s spending plans. Oftentimes in politics, however, rhetoric and emotion can trump logical calculation; Corbyn’s promises have evidently excited many people, particularly the youth, and successfully mobilised thousands to vote.
Just as in life, the world of politics requires gambles in order to advance. Although all is not lost for the Conservatives – they managed to attain 56 more seats than Labour and reached a confidence and supply deal with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party in order to continue governing, this is a gamble that history books shall undoubtedly describe as having backfired. Less divisive policies and a more energetic and charismatic campaign may well have helped the Conservatives translate the sizable lead in April’s opinion polls into a large majority in government, and the election will likely be seen as a squandered opportunity in future years.
Similar to the cases of Brexit and the US presidential election, those once ridiculed and considered as having little chance of success in an election have defied expectations. The events of the 2017 general election will serve as a wake-up call to the Conservatives, and are revelatory that the public is not as vehemently opposed to Labour as had been perceived.
An election that was intended to reinforce the Conservatives’ strength and stability – as per their adage throughout the campaign – has resulted in the exact reverse, and not for the first time in the past year is turbulence and uncertainty at the fore of British politics.