UK’s 2017 General Election: A Crisis for the Political Class

by Stakhanov Russ

“In office, but not in power.” ––Nigel Lawson, ex-Chancellor and senior Conservative

In looking at the United Kingdom’s general election of June 8, I am focussing upon the two major parties, Conservative and Labour, and on the collapse of the third-party, UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence Party), which had led last year’s “Brexit” campaign to leave the European Union (EU). In a surprising result, the Conservatives won only 42.3% of the vote and suffered a net loss of 13 seats in Parliament, while Labour’s 40.0% vote share enabled it to make a net gain of 30 seats.

This was the closest result in vote share between the two main parties since February 1974, and Labour’s 40% was the highest vote share for an opposition party since 1970. What does this mean for the British ruling class?

A general election had not been required until 2020, but the Conservatives hoped to increase the majority they already had in Parliament, in order to gain a strong mandate to negotiate further on Brexit. So in April, Prime Minister Theresa May called for an early general election. But the election resulted, instead, in substantially weakening her hand. She is not expected to last much longer as head of the party.

Not So “Strong and Stable” Conservative Party

Theresa May actually campaigned for remaining in the EU, but once the campaign was over, she became an overnight “Brexiteer”. Regarding where her party stood on Brexit, the key points are:

  • an as-yet unspecified immigration system to replace the free movement of EU citizens;

  • aiming to bring total net migration below 100,000;

  • no longer being bound by EU law or European Court of Justice rulings;

  • quitting the EU’s single market;

  • seeking a “comprehensive” free trade deal in its place;

  • striking independent trade deals with other countries around the world.

On the surface, it seems that the Conservatives should have easily won the election. The whole of the bourgeois media, the social media commentariat and large sections of the opposition parties had been taking its victory as read. The poll tracker on the Daily Mirror’s website shows that their support stood at 42.4% on April 13, before calling the general election, but climbed thereafter, to 44.1% on April 22. There was also the fact that the Labour Party had been rocked with internal disputes for nearly two years, since the 2015 election of Jeremy Corbyn as Party leader. Many of the Labour members of Parliament were open in their defiance of Corbyn, while the Conservatives seemed to be united in word and deed.

But several U-turns, on social care for the elderly and funding for schools and the National Health Service, made a hollow mockery of the claim by the Prime Minister to be “caring” and “compassionate”.  In addition, she refused to debate on TV and radio, or with the other parties’ leaders, and instead sent a replacement in some cases. This was meant to make her look presidential and “above it all”. However, it was seen as arrogant, aloof and out of touch. The slogan that the Conservatives picked to run with during the campaign was “strong and stable”, but it came back to haunt them, and instead the jibe “weak and wobbly” gained a certain popularity.

Furthermore, a couple of factors led many voters to question the party’s competence. One is that the Conservative Party’s new manifesto is “uncosted” (i.e., it lacks cost calculations). The other is Theresa May’s response when questioned during the campaign about the fact that many public-sector workers’ salaries had effectively stayed the same over the last eight years. She responded, “there isn’t a magic money tree”.

Success of the Labour Party

On April 19, the Labour Party was at 26.1% in the polls (according to the same poll tracker listed above). It seemed to be accepted wisdom that the Labour Party was in its death throes. Steve Bush, special correspondent for the New Statesmen, wrote:

four pollsters have tended to produce the worst Labour scores: ICM, ComRes, IpsosMORI and Kantar/TNS. ICM and Kantar have continued to put out worse figures for Labour, MORI haven’t put out a poll since before the local elections. … only ComRes has published a poll showing an increase in the Labour vote outside of the margin of error. [emphasis in original]

Jonathan Freedland, the editor of the Guardian (one of the major propaganda broadsheets for the liberal-left intelligentsia) until 2016, had been particularly scathing about the party’s electoral chances, writing in a May 5 article, “No more excuses: Jeremy Corbyn is to blame for this meltdown”, and The headline figure [from the results of the local elections that took place prior to the national elections] is a projected national share of 27%, the worst recorded by an opposition since the BBC started making such calculations in 1981”.

It seemed there was nowhere the Labour Party leadership could look to for political comfort. Then in May, their poll ratings started to go up. They published a well-received manifesto, did well in media interviews and debates and held well-attended political rallies. Normally, the terror attacks that took place in March, May and June would have been events that the government could have taken political advantage of. But they ended up strengthening Labour, with Jeremy Corbyn asking public questions on the link between foreign policy in the Middle East and UK funding of terror groups.

It is also interesting to note that much of the trade-union bureaucracy, creative types in arts and culture, and much of the left outside the Labour Party swung their resources and manpower behind Corbyn. Bernie Sanders has been publicly supportive of him and a number of economic forecasters have not written off his economic programme.

Corbyn has attended political rallies and popular music festivals up and down the country, which have attracted thousands of working class people to the former and middle class youth to the latter. The upshot of this is that his politics, which would be regarded as middle-of-the-road reformism in a continental-European context, are being seen––at least so far––as radical and new. The proposed manipulation of the state machinery to reduce some of the worst aspects of capitalism is now being seen as “socialism”.

Poll ratings for the party, and for Corbyn personally, have gone up substantially. And a wide range of his critics within the Labour Party have had to grin and “eat crow”.

After the terrible fire in Grenfell Tower, a working-class estate in West London, which looks likely to have left at least 100 dead, Corbyn clearly suggested that luxury apartments in the area be seized, in order to relocate those made homeless by the fire. Labour’s shadow Chancellor, John McDonald, has called for a “Day of Rage” concerning the way the fire was handled, and its shadow Home Secretary has publicly expressed scepticism that the casualty figures given so far are accurate.

The Demise of UKIP

UKIP is a Eurosceptic and right-wing populist political party in the United Kingdom. Its primary emphasis has been its call for the UK to exit the EU (“Brexit”). It has also placed strong emphasis on lowering immigration, opposing multiculturalism, and encouraging a unitary British identity.

Although UKIP succeeded in bringing about Brexit a year ago, its recent electoral fortunes stand in stark contrast. In 2016 and 2017, it went through no fewer than five leaders, and it only garnered 1.9% of the vote in the 2017 elections. The only viable explanation for this is that, after the Brexit referendum, its raison d’être vanished and its popularity plummeted. Yet UKIP has also recently experienced the resignation of one leader fewer than six months after being elected, as well as severe infighting. Two of its representatives to the European Parliament had a physical fight with one another inside a Parliament building.

Dr Simon Isherwood, reader in politics at Surrey University, recently noted that

[e]ven its leader, Paul Nuttall, managed only 7.7% of the vote in Boston & Skegness, prompting his almost immediate departure. This was not an unexpected development. Since the last general election, UKIP has had to deal with the loss of Nigel Farage, its charismatic and highly visible leader, and the redundancy of its defining policy goal––leaving the European Union.

Farage has not left politics, however. He assisted Donald Trump during the latter’s election campaign, and he remains an avowed and enthusiastic Trump supporter.

Conclusion: “All that is Solid Melts into Air”?

British politics is currently in a state of flux, in that the final result was a hung parliament. The Conservatives are the largest party, but they won only 44% of the vote and have no majority in Parliament. In receiving 40% of the national vote, the Labour Party did better than all the pollsters had predicted before the election, and they won several symbolic seats that they had been expected to lose in the North West and Midlands of England. Furthermore, UKIP––which was supposed to have been the beneficiary of working-class dissatisfaction with a Labour Party perceived as an out-of-touch elite––was crushed. Gains made at its expense were split between the Conservatives and Labour.

In order to stay in power, Theresa May has had to put together a coalition between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The DUP is a centre-right to right-wing unionist party in Northern Ireland. It is Eurosceptic and backs the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. It is also socially conservative, anti-abortion, and opposed to same-sex marriage, and it sees itself as defending Britishness and Ulster Protestant culture against Irish nationalism. During the three-decade long armed conflict in Northern Ireland at the end of the last century, the DUP had links to paramilitary death squads.

The DUP has now reached an agreement with the Conservatives. Northern Ireland will receive over one billion pounds for Northern Ireland. And in return, the DUP will lend its votes to the government.

In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn has out-manoeuvred right-wing and moderate opponents in and around his party. He won over a large number of enthusiastic young activists and members, who see his social-democratic reformism as somehow radical and socialist. As a result of a running a slightly bolder campaign, he was able not only to win back a large number of working-class former UKIP voters without tacking to the right, but also to reassure a number of pro-EU “Remain” voters.

I think the UK’s current political crisis is that we have a ruling party that has only a tenuous hold on power and that is very tentative about governing. As a result, it is uncertain who will be the UK leaders that the EU’s negotiators will face in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. In addition, the economy has seen a rise in the rate of inflation, to 2.9%, the highest rate in several years.

Whilst the DUP has dropped some of its most glaring bigotry, it is being confronted by Ruth Davidson, the liberal leader of the Scottish Conservatives. Davidson is gay, and her partner is from Wexford in Ireland. This confrontation has led to the sense of a ruling party that is going through the motions. Although Parliament is back in session, there has thus far been no attempt by the Conservatives to turn any of their manifesto into legislation.

Many in the Conservative Party are openly blaming Theresa May for their crisis, and there is widespread recognition that her hold on power is fragile. Some have said that they expect her to be gone by the autumn, if there is not another election called this year. Yet there is no particular enthusiasm for any of the possible alternative party leaders that have been floated in the media. This serves as an illustration of how shallow the political gene pool is on the centre right in the UK.

There have been three terrorist attacks within as many months in London and Manchester. There has also been the deadly Grenville Tower fire, and now a racist attack in North London on Muslims who were leaving their mosque. In some cases, the response of the government has been to insist on censorship and repression––internet clampdowns, inspection of apps like Whatsapp, and implementation of additional counter-terror “Prevent Programme” measures. In other cases, the government has responded with complete inertia. For example, the Prime Minister visited Grenfell Tower only several days after the deadly fire, did not meet with any of the residents, and offered survivors no state aid or reassurance regarding their immigration status. This does not seem like a government that is at ease with itself.

[Edited July 6 to correct an error in geography.]

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