The General Election 2017 was marked by negativity on all sides, divisiveness, volatile polls and the highest turnout in over 25 years (68.74%), it is worthwhile reflecting upon what this may mean for politics going forward and Brexit.
The Tories: Technical Winners, but…
Clearly, Theresa May greatly misjudged the timing of this snap General Election, the way in which to campaign for it and the level of support she expected to enjoy. At the start of the campaign, the Conservatives were predicted to win with a historic majority and, by the end, the polls’ predicted lead over Labour had narrowed. It was a bizarre campaign and, whilst her party remains the largest in parliament, the Conservatives have lost their parliamentary majority rather than bolstered it. Their percentage of the vote share was 42.4% (up by 5.5% from 2015) but, despite this, they suffered a net loss of 13 seats which has brought them down to 318. Nevertheless, they are technically the winners in the sense that they secured both the highest vote share and the most seats.
Although the Conservatives suffered noteworthy losses of several Ministers such as James Wharton (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development), Nicola Blackwood (Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Public Health & Innovation), Rob Wilson (Minister for Civil Society), Gavin Barwell (Minister of State for Housing and Planning), Jane Ellison (Financial Secretary to the Treasury) and Ben Gummer (Minister for the Cabinet Office), they were by no means ‘indispensable’ and the Conservatives continue to have sufficient parliamentarians to replace them. However, as policy areas across Whitehall face layers of ‘Brexit’ uncertainty and complexity, having new Ministers get up to speed with current projects and any relation they have with Brexit negotiations will weaken the Conservative government’s negotiating position within the already limited timeframe that the snap election has eaten into.
The Labour Party: Delusions of Grandeur
The Labour Party saw the largest net gain in seats (30, bringing it up to 262) and the largest increase in national vote share (9.5%, bringing it up to 40% – just 2.4% behind the Conservatives). On the one hand, this defied most peoples’ expectations (especially at the start of the campaign) and many are now praising Corbyn’s leadership for not only limiting damage but also for making significant gains. Indeed, the Labour Party delivered the biggest share of the vote since Tony Blair delivered 40.7% in 2001.
Despite these justified reasons for optimism, there remain many legitimate doubts regarding the state of the Labour Party and its leadership. Yes, Corbyn defied expectations and increased seats compared to Ed Miliband’s poor performance in 2015, but Labour only has 4 more seats than Gordon Brown won in 2010 (Brown won 258). Despite this, the Labour Shadow Chancellor (John McDonnell) was behaving as if Labour had actually outright won the election, saying that Labour ‘is ready to form a minority government’
Jeremy Corbyn is even planning an alternative Queen’s speech and this wilful ignorance of straightforward arithmetic indicates serious delusions of grandeur – losing (albeit not as badly as most expected) is not the same as winning (no matter how much the Labour leadership might wish it was). The Labour leadership as it currently stands remains unfit to govern the country and these antics appear ridiculous to any reasonable and impartial observer.
Corbyn has proved his point that hard-left policies can be popular. Popularity, however, is not enough. This election was characterised only partially by a ‘pro-Corbyn’/pro-Labour sentiment, Labour made gains mostly because of an anti-austerity/anti-Conservative sentiment amongst many voters (evidenced by the campaign for a ‘progressive alliance’ which benefitted the Labour Party disproportionately at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and even the SNP). In this sense, the Labour Party actually failed to capitalise on the significant anti-Tory sentiment that saw the Conservatives lose their majority – one can only sugarcoat failure to a reasonable extent.
The Future of Labour’s Leadership
No doubt some will say this author is biased and anti-Corbyn but this author was supportive of Corbyn for some time before becoming disillusioned by his forceful, pandering Brexit stance. Indeed, an argument for forgiving student debt and abolishing tuition fees for increasing the youth turnout in favour of Corbyn was put forward by this author in October 2016, amongst others. Nevertheless, Corbyn’s personality and leadership cannot go much further without risking further fractures within Labour.
It is clear that the Labour Party’s policies were not the problem but many voters felt suspicious of Jeremy Corbyn’s track record and personality (even if he oversaw a national surge in support for Labour). More importantly, the wounds from the Labour Party’s especially turbulent internal politics of 2015-17 will not be swept aside. The Labour Party needs a new leader that allows them to truly capitalise on an anti-incumbent sentiment because many Labour MPs who do not favour Corbyn’s leadership will still be mindful (and soon, vocal) of the fact that a majority was not won and the sizeable vote share was still too dispersed to return a Labour government. A new leader is necessary – otherwise, despite these gains, the Labour Party will face further fractures or even split.
During this campaign, a particularly strong candidate for the leadership that could unite the party has emerged in Emily Thornberry who has been both loyal to Corbyn (having served in his Shadow Cabinet in various roles; as his Shadow Foreign Secretary, Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Shadow Secretary of State for Defence and Shadow Minister of State for Employment) and has also served as Ed Miliband’s Shadow Attorney General. She is a proven, strong media performer. Corbyn cannot take the party much further, he has the opportunity to bow out gracefully after having changed the direction of the Labour party to give way to a less divisive and fractured leadership.
The SNP: Solid but Wounded
Nicola Sturgeon’s opportunistic calls for Scottish Independence have proven to be costly and, although the SNP had little room for improvement, they lost 21 seats (reducing them to 35 seats from 56). Of course, they still won the most seats amongst Scottish constituencies so Sturgeon is technically correct when she says that her party ‘won’ in Scotland but the victory is bittersweet (and, to be precise, more bitter than sweet).
This author wrote of why Scotland would likely elect more Liberal Democrat MPs and, indeed, the Liberal Democrats gained 3 seats (making a total of 4 seats, despite losing 0.8% of the vote share in Scotland) but the Labour Party gained 6 seats (making a total of 7, with a 2.8% increase in vote share) whilst the Conservatives have gained an especially impressive 12 seats (making a total of 13, with 28.6% of the vote share).
In particular, losing veterans such as Alex Salmond (a former First Minister of Scotland and Leader of the SNP) as well as Angus Robertson (the now former Leader of the SNP in the House of Commons) are significant blows to Sturgeon when she’s seeking to have Scotland’s interests represented at the table. More worryingly, the SNP faced a 13.1% drop in vote share in Scotland (which was the largest drop amongst all the parties). Despite these wounds, however, the SNP remains the third-largest party in the House of Commons with 35 seats – they remain a solid force in British politics. These wounds are also likely to moderate the SNP’s voracious calls for Scottish Independence.
The Lib-Dems: Mixed with Cautious Optimism
The story of the night for the Lib Dems was the former Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg losing his Sheffield Hallam seat to Labour and this blow has partially dampened what might have normally been good news. Although the party experienced a net gain of 4 seats, there was a 0.5% decrease in the national vote share and the Liberal Democrat resurgence was subdued especially because of ‘tactical voting’ but also because it has only been 2 years since the Conservative-Liberal coalition government of 2010-15 and memories are still relatively fresh for many.
Nevertheless, a net gain of 4 seats (bringing the total up to 12 seats from 8 in 2015) makes the Liberal Democrats the fourth-largest parliamentary party and the total number of votes of 2,371,772 makes it the third-largest party by national vote share. With just another 463 votes, 4 more seats would have been won (in Richmond Park, Ceredigion, St Ives and North East Fife) but there is still significant cause for (cautious) optimism because, alongside some new additions to parliament (including the first MP of Palestinian descent in Westminster), several veteran Liberal Democrats have re-joined the parliamentary party after their hiatus.
This includes Ed Davey (former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change), Vince Cable (former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills) and Jo Swinson (former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Employment, Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs and for Women and Equalities). Returning veterans also include Alistair Carmichael, Tom Brake and Norman Lamb. This will help bolster the Liberal Democrat leadership and enable it to evolve more effectively as the party enters a new phase in its recovery after current leader Tim Farron’s commendable efforts.
Another significant reason why many did not vote for the Liberal Democrats was because they did not want another coalition with the Conservatives. However, despite the hung parliament and having the seats to do so, the Lib Dems have ruled out a coalition with both the Conservatives and Labour (as was promised) and this helps bolster credibility for future, potential voters.
The DUP: The Kingmakers
After having gained just two seats to make a total of 10 in Westminster (increasing their percentage of national vote share by 0.3% to 0.9%, bringing the total number of votes to 292,316), the DUP are the biggest relative beneficiaries of this election. Now that Theresa May’s Conservatives have entered into a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the DUP, this grants the DUP disproportionately significant power (by historical standards) on national issues and this will lead to their gaining several concessions.
Just two seats in parliament and an unwavering unwillingness from other parties to work with the Conservatives has made the DUP the ‘kingmakers’. This arrangement/alliance also leaves them less vulnerable to being politically maimed through being in a coalition with the Conservatives like the Liberal Democrats were.
Although the DUP say they desire some ‘stability’ and are willing to prop up a Conservative government to that end, it is notable that they have not agreed to a formal coalition yet (with ministerial positions, for example) and they may wish to observe the actual stability of the Conservative party (which will likely have rebellious backbenchers and ‘moderates’ throughout the Brexit process) before considering some more formal, substantive arrangements.
Plaid Cymru: Up One
Plaid Cymru previously held three seats in parliament and now they have four (having gained one seat from the Liberal Democrats in the Ceredigion constituency). They’re moderate pro-Europeans but, since the seat was taken from the also moderate, pro-European Liberal Democrats, this might signify a modest surge in Welsh Nationalism. In Wales, Labour gained 3 MPs whilst the Conservatives lost 3 MPs. Leanne Wood, their leader, has done well and was a charismatic figure throughout the election campaign.
The Green Party: Steady but No Surprises
With 524,604 total votes, the Greens’ percentage of the national vote share decreased by over 2% since the last general election. Again, this is most likely due to active participation in the push for ‘tactical voting’ and a ‘progressive alliance’ by various entities (having stood down candidates to help Labour and the Liberal Democrats, for example). Nevertheless, they have maintained their single MP in Westminster.
The UK Independence Party: Obliterated
Although UKIP did not have any MPs to begin with in this parliament, they suffered the greatest losses from this election. The change in vote share since 2015 indicates a substantial decrease of nearly 11% in the vote share – former party leader Paul Nuttall resigned from his post. Their total number of votes collapsed from 3,881,099 to 593,852. Although many political analysts and/or pundits thought that the UKIP vote would be consolidated mostly under the Conservatives, it would seem that both Labour and the Conservatives have benefitted from the UKIP vote with the Conservatives only increasing by 5.5% whilst Labour increased by 9.5%.
The drop in percentages from the Liberal Democrats (0.5%), the Scottish National Party (1.7%) and the Greens (2.1%) has a sum total (4.3%) which is still less than the gain of 9.5% by the Labour Party so, even accounting for the highest turnout in 25 years (68.74%), it is clear that the Labour Party has especially benefitted (albeit unexpectedly) from the demise of UKIP.
Brexit and British Politics
The ‘Brexit Vultures’ (i.e countries and entities that see a politically-weakened Britain as an opportunity for exploitation during and after the critical Brexit negotiations) will surely have carefully watched this tactical blunder by the Conservative government. Practically speaking, although this was embarrassing for the Conservatives, they are still the victors in absolute terms (despite having lost relative to their previous position). This also means that, as Brexit goes forward, the Conservatives may not have to shoulder all the responsibility if/when the Brexit deal is especially unfavourable. Additionally, if Theresa May truly wants to remain in the Single Market but is working toward a ‘Hard Brexit’ to appease Brexiteers within her own party, the potential transformation of a ‘Hard’ Brexit into a ‘Soft’ one could be justified to Tory Brexiteers as being due to her lack of a definitive, substantive majority.
The DUP will likely push for a deal that ensures free movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – this could come in various forms. If it comes as a ‘special arrangement’ for Northern Ireland outside of the EU, other priorities will be lost in the negotiating position for the Conservative minority government and this will anger many powerful special interest groups (for which there would be retribution). If it comes in the form of the UK remaining in the Single Market and retaining Free Movement, this will anger many Tory Brexiteers and Leave voters.
The ‘Brexit chalice’ is a poisoned one and the Conservatives have not even managed to absolve themselves of responsibility for it because Labour could not win a majority and the Conservatives remain the single largest party in parliament. Former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned after the Brexit vote and current Prime Minister Theresa May is also likely to resign at some point after this embarrassment (although this may take some time because it is not immediately obvious who might replace her). Nevertheless, there is a remote possibility that Theresa May may stay on if there is no-one willing to directly shoulder the Brexit responsibility.
The Role of Economic Pressures
Indeed, there was a higher chance that Corbyn could have won a majority in 2020 because of the mild stagflation that is just starting to bite (and the fact that the Brexit deal would have been very apparent and fresh in everyone’s minds by then). After all, inflation has ticked up in the UK, real wages are projected to be lower in 2021 than in 2008, the UK’s Productivity Puzzle continues, and economic growth will likely remain low. Britain embarks upon a period where it will become poorer (and for politics, most importantly, many or even most will feel poorer). Remember that stagflation (relatively high inflation coupled with low economic growth) will likely only exacerbate the anti-incumbency factor that expressed itself in this election. These domestic pressures will further weaken the Conservative minority government’s hand in Brexit negotiations.
Forming a Grand Coalition
The UK actually needed a grand coalition (a coalition of all parties to ensure all of Britain’s interests are more adequately represented on this crucial issue) and this is far more possible in this hung parliament than the previous 2015-17 parliament; this would enable pragmatism and compromise to rule the day in a rather fortunate turn of events. Indeed, a grand coalition is more likely now given the fact that the slim majority brokered with the DUP alongside the increased importance of the Conservatives’ own rebels could prevent decisive and effective government. There are already challenges emerging regarding the legitimacy of the Tory/DUP alliance and Sinn Féin are unlikely to give the Tory/DUP coalition/arrangement/agreement/alliance/’whatever it becomes’ an easy time.
The possibility of yet another early election cannot be dismissed in these strange times but this risks extreme voter fatigue and, if yet another election is held, there is no doubt that calls for a second referendum would be further emboldened – indeed, this author argued in August 2016 that a second Brexit referendum is a question of when, not if. It seems that a ‘Hard Brexit’ is going to be even harder to successfully execute now and, as the wider Brexit drama unfolds, it would appear that both Britain and the world can expect further surprises.
This election has impeded Brexit, it has stifled the Conservatives and it has only served to further expose divisions across the United Kingdom. Such is the sad state of British current affairs. Politics after this election will certainly be more interesting than politics before the election but it does not mean that these upcoming times will be any less difficult for the people of the United Kingdom.