UK General Election — what it means

State Opening of Parliament, Copyright Parliament.uk

Theresa May has just been very clever. She has called a snap election on June 8th, having said previously she would not.

Let’s look at the background.

In a quirk of British Democracy, May became Prime Minister through an internal party vote, not through an election — a vote by the people. This is actually quite common, and how John Major and Gordon Brown became Prime Minister. Both ended up calling a general election to avoid the accusation that they had no real mandate from the people.

For the non-British audience, we are very different to America. In America, the people vote for a President, who then forms a government. In the UK we vote for a party, which has a Leader. The winning party forms the Government, and the leader of that Party becomes Prime Minister. The PM then forms a Cabinet mainly from people within the winning party’s elected MPs. That is ‘The Government.’ So it is possible for the winning party to change the leader, and that new leader becomes the Prime Minister by default.

The country did not vote for May, they voted for the Conservatives. In a way it is more democratic, because we are voting for a group of people and their collective ideas, rather than for one person who can then appoint whoever he wants to form a government. Consequently, the British Government is formed primarily of elected Parliamentarians, or of appointed Parliamentarians who have to be given a Peerage to sit in the Upper House of Lords. All of them are members of one of the Houses of Parliament.

Theresa May has been ruling, and in particular seeing through Brexit, on the basis of having been elected Prime Minister by her party, not by the people, and on the outcome of a non-legally binding referendum. Both are pretty weak mandates. The strongest mandate we have in the UK is a General Election.

So Theresa May is calling an election both to secure her personal mandate as Prime Minister — if she wins, she has been elected by the people — and to secure a stronger mandate for her Brexit plans.

The previous Conservative-Liberal coalition government passed a law to make elections happen every five years. Previously, the Government could call an election when they wanted. Typically they would wait until the economy looked good, or whatever other strategic situation gave them an upper hand, then call a quick election to prolong their mandate. It also risked governments manipulating statistics, and the economy in particular, to play into an election date of their choosing.

The new system was meant to stop governments from manipulating the electoral process to make it easier for them to win elections. So this snap election is a surprise. So far she has clearly been timing Brexit around an assumed election in 2020, the date of which was set in stone, not of her choosing. Now she is trying to call an election, at a time which gives her a massive strategic advantage.

The Fixed Term Parliament Act of 2011 decrees that general elections should take place on the first Thursday of May, every five years, so the next election was due in May 2020. May has to secure a vote of 2/3 of the seats (not just those who vote) in Parliament to call an election under the terms of the Act.

That advantage is that all opposing politicians thought they had until 2020 before the next election, and were just starting to explore what an anti-Brexit, anti-May campaign might look like. Nick Clegg, the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and their Brexit spokesperson very recently said he would work with any flavour of politician to take on May’s approach to Brexit. That opened the way for a mixed coalition of pro-Europe / anti-hard Brexit parties and politicians to create a united front to campaign against Theresa May’s government at the next election. They now have just under 6 weeks to pull something together, which looks unlikely.

Meanwhile, the Labour party is in the middle of a death spiral. Labour and the Conservatives have a pattern over recent decades of being in power for around 20 years, losing power, collapsing, and then having 2 decades to rebuild and win another election — though more accurately to win when the governing party has burned out and loses the election. Both Thatcher’s Conservatives, and Blair’s Labour ran out of steam just as the other had regrouped and become electable again.

Labour is nowhere near the end of that process, and possibly isn’t even at the beginning. Labour looks to be comprehensively unelectable. Corbyn’s supporters point to the fact that they have the largest membership of a political party in Europe, but that membership comes nowhere near to a majority in an election. Furthermore, they have made no real effort to counter May’s hard Brexit so they do not look like an alternative to the Conservatives.

The Liberal Democrats remain pretty invisible, despite some impressive local by-election wins recently. As with Labour, they are hampered by a leader who appears neither ready nor able to win an election and run the country. Ironically, the only voice of the Liberal Democrats to have been noticed recently is that of their former leader, Nick Clegg.

So currently there is no real pro-Europe, anti-hard Brexit political party able to give the Conservatives a run for their money. Theresa May has decided to take advantage of that fact and call an election she knows she is very likely to win, and win comprehensively. After that, she has 5 year in which to do whatever she wants, essentially unopposed.

The Election will be about Brexit. It is likely to be about hard versus soft Brexit, rather than an attempt to reverse the referendum. A lot is at stake in the debate over whether we rip the country out of the EU regardless of the cost, or try to do so in an orderly manner, and allow compromises in order to get a deal that is good for the country.

The general election is going to pose problems for a number of different voter constituencies. Let’s look at these separately.

1. Conservative, pro-Europe / anti-hard Brexit

They have a choice of either voting Conservative, because of their political loyalty, or not voting. They will not vote Labour, and a vote for the Liberal Democrats may be perceived as nothing more than a protest vote. Possibly they will just abstain, and some of those more angry with May might punish her with a vote for the Lib Dems.

2. Labour, pro-Europe

Many traditional Labour voters will find it very hard to vote for the current Labour party, especially if they are pro-Europe. Corbyn has done nothing to oppose May when it comes to Brexit. Also, a large number of Labour voters are just generally appalled by Corby and the current Labour party. Some will swallow hard and stick with their political loyalty. Many will abstain, and many more will vote Liberal Democrat.

3. Labour, pro-Brexit

Logically they would vote Labour, but many labour voters will find it hard to vote for Corbyn. What got and kept Labour in power under Blair was a shift right, towards a more centrist ground. Corbyn has taken the party back very hard left, and many more recent Labour voters will not want to go with that. They will also not vote Liberal Democrat, as they are pro-Europe. Very anti-Europe Labour voters may actually vote Conservative, or more likely abstain.

4. Liberal Democrats

They are by definition pro-Europe, and will see this election as an opportunity for the Lib Dems to make a come-back. They are likely to turn out with enthusiasm.

5. UKIP

UKIP voters may now feel they can vote Conservative, as May has taken on the mantel of Farage against Europe, and meanwhile UKIP itself has fallen into even more disarray than usual.

6. SNP

Scotland will be the mystery. The SNP already rules Scotland with a majority that some perceive as unhealthy. The election in Scotland will be about Brexit and about leaving the UK. It is likely the SNP will continue to ‘own’ Scotland politically. Traditionally the Conservatives have no traction in Scotland, and Labour was wiped out by the SNP. Given Labour’s current state, it is unlikely they can reverse that.

What does this mean?

If you look Labour voters who feel they cannot vote Labour, and Conservatives who don’t want to back a hard Brexit, and UKIP voters who feel they can vote Conservative, it makes for some weird maths. Possibly it means Labour will do very badly, the Lib Dems will do very well (relative to their current starting position), UKIP may be wiped out completely, but the Conservatives will get a huge majority. That majority could be down to the large number of people who don’t vote because they can’t find anyone to vote for.

This is not a good position for a democracy — a party winning by default; worst of a bad lot. The Opposition could be in even more disarray than it is now, if that’s possible. One hope could be that Labour bottoms out and Corbyn is removed, so at least they can start to rebuild and form an operative Opposition, or that the Liberal Democrats become stronger and gain a meaningful voice in Parliament, making up for the lack of Labour voice in Opposition. It will be interesting to see if or how the SNP, Labour, and Liberal Democrats could work together on some sort of common platforms. It is important, regardless of your political views, that this country has a strong Opposition.

Meanwhile, May will have reset the clock and bought herself 5 years, and therefore some time after Brexit to try to patch things up in time for the next election. It’s all very clever, but now the scattered oppositions need to group up fast and find both a leader and a plan. Labour and UKIP could be wiped out. Corbyn is surely for the chop, and the Lib Dems have to seize this opportunity to try to limp in second to Labour’s car crash if they are to have a future.

It will be interesting to see how Nick Clegg reacts now, and where the dispossessed Labour and pro-Europe Conservative voters choose to cast their vote.

A lot of people who thought they had until May 2020 to come up with a plan now have 5 weeks. Theresa May continues to surprise us.

*Disclaimer: all political predictions are likely to be proved wrong, of course.

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Tobias Stone

Tobias Stone

Writing about politics, history, and society. Also at www.tswriting.substack.com, www.tswriting.co, @ts_writing