Thoughts on the 2017 UK General Election
On June 8th British voters went to the polls to renew the House of Commons only a little over two years after the previous elections in May 2015 produced a Conservative majority of 12. Legally, no election had been required until May of 2020, but Prime Minister Theresa May, dazzled by opinion polls which showed the Conservatives leading by as much as 25% over their hapless Labour party rivals led by the seemingly unelectable Jeremy Corbyn decided to call for early elections in April. Legally this required the consent of two-thirds of the House of Commons, and as such Labour could have blocked the elections if the party had wished. In practice this was politically difficult, though that did not stop Corbyn from coming in for a good deal of criticism nevertheless for falling in immediately behind new elections. In hindsight, Corbyn appears to have been vindicated. Rather than gaining seats, the Conservatives lost 12, leaving them with 318 in a chamber of 650(effectively 643 with Sinn Fein declining to take their seats). Labour, expected in some quarters to drop well below 200 seats, instead increased its representation from 232 to 262.
Superficially this renders the elections a blunder for May, one that have greatly undermined her authority, and leaving her no choice, so some argue, but to resign(more on this later). In fairness, the blame here is overblown. May did not embark on a gamble, except insofar as anyone betting on a sure thing ever does. That the election presented an almost inevitable Conservative triumph was not just the message of the polls, which showed much greater leads for the Conservative party than Tony Blair enjoyed before his second landslide in 2001 or Margaret Thatcher in 1987, but it was also the consensus of much of the opposition, with the Guardian editorializing about Labour's rebuilding project after the "Tory landslide". Had May not gone for an election and then run into trouble later on, should we have enjoyed the fate of Gordon Brown who had also considered one at the height of popularity in 2007 before shelving the idea.
On a good governance level, there was also a compelling case for an election. British politics has changed dramatically since 2015, to such a degree that one wonders whether a parliament elected on that mandate can claim any legitimacy. Since 2015, the two most prominent figures within the Conservative government, Prime Minister David Cameron and then-Chancellor George Osborne had departed the scene and Theresa May had indicated a clean break with their vision of conservatism not just on the issue of the EU which had brought them down, but also on a host of others such as grammar schools which prompted Cameron's own departure from Parliament. Furthermore, the EU referendum had produced an ambiguous outcome. If there was some evidence of what voters were voting against - namely the political elite - it was less clear what they were voting for. This did not mean, as too many former Remainers tried to justify with creative maths, that any government was obligated to pursue a "Soft Brexit" due to at least some Leavers preferring it - this was to ignore a potentially larger pool of reluctant Remain voters who were no fans of freedom of movement. But it did mean there was a case to consult the system that existed for such consultations, namely a general election.
In the event, it is easy to bemoan that the election produced a mixed and muddled message, not least because it was fought on austerity instead of Brexit, with Jeremy Corbyn successfully obscuring the issue, backing a hard exit from the EU while the vast majority of his party sought to vacuum up Remain votes. But in a sense, Corbyn's very success was an answer to the question of what the 2016 referendum meant. That Leave voters allowed the election to be fought on issues other than Brexit demonstrated that their concerns were not with the EU, or that to the extent they were, the exact nature of that relationship was not something they placed before all else. Of course this does not mean there will be no blow back if a Labour government(or a Tory one for that matter) were to back paddle either into a "Soft Brexit" or even No Brexit at all, as French President Macron recently suggested, but it does indicate that such a move might not necessarily be fatal if the other concerns of Leave voters could be addressed adequately. An EU with jobs, a higher standard of living, less over-crowding, and preferably a less visible takeover of the service sector with non-English speakers is something they could potentially live with. The failure of the Pro-EU elite, most prominently Osborne and Cameron in the referendum, was to give much indication they were concerned with those things. Regardless of whether Jeremy Corbyn's promises could be fulfilled, voting for him sent a message that the voters very much wanted the things he was promising just as voting Leave sent a message about some of the things voters wanted even if they did not demand exactly what was on the ballot(which was unclear in any case).
This is little help to Theresa May who bet her political career on receiving a different, clearer message. Ironically, Jeremy Corbyn, as someone with genuinely mixed feelings who was at heart probably a reluctant Labour "Leaver" had a much better understanding of the voters May was trying to win over. May, who had worked for the Conservative party her entire life and embodied the small town nature of the English Conservative party membership could understand voters who had never voted Conservative only in abstract, which also described her appeal to them, abstract rather than concrete. By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn was one of them, and as such could speak to some of the reasons why they voted Leave.
If this sounds like a description of why Labour "won" when in fact the party came 56 seats behind the Conservatives, then I am only echoing the approach of much of the media coverage. But as with Donald Trump, who played a similar role to Corbyn in terms of actually understanding voters and how to get them to vote against something, it is a very different matter to get them to vote in favor. And as such it is worth considering a few things.
- Labour did well, the Tories did not do badly- If someone had told you ten years ago, much less five, three, one, or even a few months back that the Conservative party would win 42.4% of the vote, almost every observer would have concluded that the result had been a Tory landslide. For all the talk triggered by polls showing the Tories occasionally touching 50%, the Conservatives never really got above 46% in polls during the campaign, and in the preceding period after the Brexit referendum they tended to sit in the high 30s to low 40s. As such, 42.4% is on the higher end of the Conservative range for Theresa May's government, and higher than David Cameron ever really averaged throughout his Premiership. Both of his victories were won with around 37%, and had you told May she would end with 42.4% it probably would not have changed her mind about calling the election.
The reason is simple. The Tory leads had been the result not of Conservative strength but rather of the depression of the Labour vote into the high 20s. In fact, this too was a recent development, and Labour only dropped into the mid-20s during the early stages of this campaign. But the assumption that because Gordon Brown had received 29% of the vote and Ed Miliband 31.4%, that with a divisive leader like Corbyn Labour would struggle to beat that. And even if it did, that it would probably be below Blair's 2005 total for 35.6%, which would have provided May with a comfortable majority.
There was always a flaw with this assumption and it had nothing to do with models or weighting. Ultimately, the Conservatives were relying on voters who not only did not support the Conservatives but had no intention of ever considering supporting them to continue to value their dissatisfaction with the Labour party above getting rid of a Conservative government which they loathed. This was always sort of a perpetual motion machine. As long as Labour polled horribly and looked non-viable, anti-Corbyn Tory-haters felt free to refuse to support the party to register their disgust with its leadership. But as soon as Labour began to look viable, and the removal of the Conservative government possible, voters for whom getting rid of the Tories was the highest priority were going to get on board. Hence once Corbyn got to 34% or so, the next 6% was in a sense relatively easy.
- Vote share has good news for the Tories- The above has a lesson for the Conservatives. On the one hand, their 42.4% of the vote was highest won by the party since 1987. For all the talk about how many Tory seats are now marginal for Labour, an enormous number are ones where the Tory vote share is near 50%. Many of the losses were lost despite the highest Tory vote percentages in decades, with Newcastle Under Lyme, which Labour won 48.2% to 48.1%. In any other election since 1992, 48% of the vote for a single party would render a seat all but safe. Furthermore the exception to this trend lies in London, where the massive swings in high-income areas are more likely to be temporary responses to Brexit rather than a long-term embrace of socialism, provided the Conservatives can find an exit strategy. Looking at where each party advanced, it is much easier to see how the Conservatives get to a majority, and a comfortable one, from where they are now, than how Labour does.
- That said, the problem for the Conservatives this election was the fact that almost everyone else was voting against them. Forget former UKIp voters going Labour. Across England the remaining Liberal Democratic and Green vote also collapsed, coalescing behind Labour. If the Tories can be satisfied they have 42.4% support, more than at any time since 1997 it is clear the remainder of the electorate is united against them. Anything more than a marginal recovery in London depends on remedying that situation. Ironically, just as the Liberal Democratic collapse counter-intuitively helped the Conservative party more than Labour in 2015, the reverse was true two years later. The failure of the prophesied Liberal Democratic recovery aided Labour, to whom those voters gravitated.
- On election night George Osborne said that Theresa May was a "dead woman walking". Numerous other have joined a chorus of calls for her to resign, preferably immediately. The problems with these calls are legion, with the first being the lack of clear alternatives. Boris Johnson, so often cited in the newspapers and by non-Tories, has precious little support within the parliamentary Conservative party, a testament both to his weak operation(evident during his leadership campaign last summer where absent votes borrowed from Michael Gove, he had the support of perhaps 50 MPs), and his less than a year in the Cabinet. Furthermore, it is unclear if Boris would appear credible as a negotiating partner for European leaders given his prominent role during the referendum campaign and mixed performance as Foriegn Secretary. Add in the fact that the politician he most resembles at the moment is Donald Trump, and the lack of popularity of said figure in the UK, and it is unclear whether he would be an asset or a liability.
- Furthermore, the nature of the Conservative leadership process makes it exceedingly hard to change leaders in a minority situation where every vote counts. The Tory rules assign Mps the task of winnowing candidates with the final two going to a vote of the membership three months later. In 2016 this process was short-circuited by the decision of Andrea Leadsom to drop out of the membership ballot, and of a humbled Michael Gove not to petition to take her place. Absent any such coronation by consensus, a leadership contest would be an extended affair, likely to saddled MPs with a candidate they do not want as Prime Minister as happened in 2001 when Iain Duncan Smith defeated Michael Portillo and then Kenneth Clarke. That is especially the case if a candidate who the MPs and Ministers have little to no faith in, say Boris Johnson, has a strong chance of winning the membership ballot.
- The membership ballot presents problems even for a dream candidate like Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson. Even assuming the field was cleared of "big beasts" a strong incentive would exist for a right-wing backbencher to contest the membership ballot on the gamble that the members would have be hesitant to vote for an openly gay leader, especially one who had opposed leaving the European Union. Such a campaign, almost certain to be fought with homophobic innuendo would be catastrophic for the party no matter the outcome. It would be a public relations fiasco while it was ongoing, and if Davidson lost, it would be hard to see all of her supporters being willing to back a Prime Minister who had won the leadership in such a manner. Even if she were to win, it would be after a highly unpleasant and destructive process.
- The only way at the present time to avoid such a disaster is to not have a leadership contest in the first place. That means, at least for the time being, that May stays. In the longer run, it almost certainly points to a rules change, at least for while the Conservative party is in government, preferably one allowing MPs to pick a new leader. Once that is complete the party can begin looking
- Given the challenges that the Conservatives face in replacing their leader, there is a greater than zero chance that they will find themselves fighting the next election under Theresa May. This is not as futile an endeavor as it might seem. While May badly hurt herself, it is far from clear she is quite as hated as everyone assumes. She never dropped below Corbyn as preferred Prime Minister and only reached a tie after the election. She did win 42.4%. She clearly is deeply unpopular in high income, Cameroon parts of London, but there may be an alternative route there.
- That lies in the flipside of the above point. Just as the vote may not have been as much against May as it seemed, the endorsement of Corbyn is likely overstated. Corbyn ran on an explicitly Pro-Brexit and implicitly Pro-Hard Brexit line, while at the same time the Labour party racked up its most spectacular gains in the most heavily Remain parts of the country which also tended to be the richest parts. It is unlikely these areas were voting for Corbyn's position on Brexit, or for his platform for that matter. As such, it is possible to posit that seats like Kensington were probably not voting for Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister at all but rather as a protest at the policies being followed by May's government. In this, Corbyn benefited from the perception he was unlikely to win. That will not be the case next time. A Jeremy Corbyn majority is a very different prospect, and next election will be for keeps. It seems plausible that the very prospect of a Labour win will do much to undermine the advances Labour made in 2017.
- Finally, a brief word on government formation. Theresa May has almost certainly erred in seeking an arrangement with the DUP. Not because it was a bad idea but because it was totally unneeded. Jeremy Corbyn's support for Sinn Fein makes him persona non-grata to even moderate Unionists, much less the hard-line DUP, and the party has said as much. If anything, Corbyn's success, by raising the prospect that support for the IRA has been "normalized" within British politics to the extent too many see a false equivalency between the IRA and DUP is a sign that there will be few effective checks on a Corbyn government's policy in Northern Ireland. As such, the DUP cannot do anything that risks bringing in a Labour government as long as Jeremy Corbyn remains party leader, which looks to be the foreseeable future. Rather than engaging in a game of extortion with professional extortionists Theresa May would have been better advised to dare them to bring her down, but here again, the internal weakness of her position likely told against such a stand,