The UK Election: What Just Happened?

Rather than cement her majority in the UK parliament, Theresa May's electoral gamble has backfired, and badly

No one expected this guy to be so happy as the country voted — REUTERS
Jun 09, 2017 at 5:06 AM ET

If you’ve just woken up and can’t make sense of the election news from the UK, don’t worry – neither can most of the British population. What was supposed to be a rather dull and predictable snap election just turned everything upside down, throwing out the rulebook. The entirely unlikely result is a hung parliament: a situation where no party has enough seats in parliament to form an overall majority and govern.

The election has not resolved the question of who will be in government. As things stand, Prime Minister Theresa May is refusing to resign, while the Labour party is confidently assuring it can form a minority government with support from smaller political parties such as the Greens, the centrist Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalist Party. Britain is due to commence Brexit negotiations with the European Union in 11 days time – but as yet, nobody knows who whose government will be sitting at the UK end of the table.

Things weren’t supposed to look like this. Six weeks ago, May, leader of the right wing Conservative party, decided to call a snap election _ two years earlier than necessary. It seemed like a good idea at the time: May had stellar personal ratings in the polls and the party was running a 20-point lead ahead of the opposition Labour Party. Under left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, the party was roundly mocked by the commentariat, attacked by most of the print media and repeatedly cast as unelectable. May wanted to secure a fatter majority for her party so she could take on the looming Brexit negotiations with Europe without parliament throwing up what she considered to be objections and obstacles and what others countered was the normal democratic functioning of parliament. Still, with such good electoral prospects for the Conservatives, what could possibly go wrong?

Well, the past few years, in the UK as much as the U.S. – the November 2016 presidential win by Donald Trump, the British EU referendum result – should have offered some warning. Taking the public for granted can backfire terribly. The Conservative leader ran a presidential campaign premised on her repeatedly recited “strong and stable” leadership, which would safely deliver a good Brexit deal to the UK.

But then the wheels came off the Conservative campaign. May, it turned out, could not handle talking to the press, or to the public: the more people saw of her, the more her personal ratings slipped. She refused to take part in TV debates with the Labour leader, which made it look like she was hiding. Meanwhile, her party manifesto contained surprising social care reforms that would mean those receiving home care would have to pay for it, with the value of their homes included in their assets. That was quickly dubbed the “dementia tax” and, quipped one Labour candidate, went down “like a bucket of dog sick” on the Conservative campaigning doorstep. It was so bad that May was forced to u-turn a few days later – puncturing the image of strength and stability she’d been aiming for. More u-turns followed. And two horrifying terror attacks, in London and Manchester, exposed more Conservative weaknesses, as it became clear that the party cut police force numbers even while being warned that this could have an impact on security.

In contrast, the Labour Party ran a confident, youthful and forward-looking campaign that sent crowds of people to cheer party leader Jeremy Corbyn at rallies that kept growing. May’s ratings plummeted, Corbyn’s improved.

Meanwhile, the party’s manifesto tacked firmly leftwards, proposing major national investment projects, renationalization of rail and energy companies, the scrapping of university tuition fees and taxation on corporations and the country’s richest 5 percent. In sum, the manifesto proposed a vision of a fairer, more equal society, one that aimed to give hope to a population buckling under the strain of the economic crash of 2008 and the Conservative party’s austerity cuts. Given the chance for the first time in decades to vote for such policies, the British public took it.

Defying all expectations, the Labour Party not only held most of its existing seats, but gained 31, bringing its total to 261. Its voter share shot up to 40 percent – a level not reached for decades. Speaking as he was reelected MP in the London constituency of Islington North, Corbyn said: “Politics has changed. Politics isn’t going back into the box where it was before. What’s happened is people have said they’ve had quite enough of austerity politics.”

Much of that change is down to Labour encouraging young people to go out and vote – galvanizing a generation that had previously felt ignored and disempowered by politics. It was also about bringing traditional voters in Labour heartlands in the north of England back into the fold. Voters that in the last election turned to the far-right Ukip party, decided to opt for Labour this time around – persuaded, campaigners say, by Labour’s redistributive economic policies.