Thoughts on the British Election

Ain’t it typical – my first post over here in months, and I find myself having to put off my essay on modern liberalism yet again. Honestly, writer’s block on that subject has been a major reason I haven’t been active in a while, and with the British election the other day, I want to get some thoughts out there while the iron’s at least lukewarm. I’ve leaned away from my usual focus on American politics once before, of course, when I discussed my thoughts on South Korean politics, but I was interested in large part because of a parallel I noticed with American politics in the past and what that might mean for the future. This will be different, because I don’t so much have a thesis guiding everything this time so much as a bunch of scattered observations, so I’ll basically be presenting things with glorified bullet points today.

I think an interesting way to start is to perform a thought exercise suggested by someone on a discussion board I frequent, and to imagine the results as if they’d happened in the last British election two years ago. Labour would, if anything, be a little disappointed to have been stuck in roughly the same position they were after 2010, with the main consolation being the defeat of Nick Clegg, then leader of the Liberal Democrats, a fair punishment for his Party’s coalition with David Cameron’s Conservatives. For their part, the Conservatives would be thrilled to have gotten so close to a majority of Parliament’s 650 seats, not least since they’d have had few expectations of getting a majority anyways. Even the Scottish National Party would be happy to have won a majority in Scotland’s Parliament. The real losers of the night would be the Liberal Democrats, who’d be down to 12 seats from their 2010 high of 62, as well as losing their Party leader.

This is all to say that the results of an election, in Britain or anywhere else, hinges on expectations. The Conservatives didn’t expect to win a majority in 2015, but managed it anyways, which colors their failure to repeat the same feat this year. The Scottish National Party has retained its majority north of the Tweed, but they still took a beating compared to 2015, and having lost over twenty seats, many of them to the Conservatives, weakens leader Nicola Sturgeon’s bid for another independence referendum. Actually, the Scottish results have me wondering if the region is really as pro-EU as we’d thought back when the Brexit vote happened. And as for the undeniable winner of the night (one of them, we’ll get to the other in a bit), Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party may have only just matched its 2010 performance in terms of how many seats they won, but considering the immense disadvantage his Party was facing mere weeks ago, which was what made Prime Minister Theresa May confident enough to call this election in the first place, it was still a shockingly good night for them. And that’s only evaluating their results on average; it’s also worth noting that many of the Conservative victories, especially ones in and around London, were by very narrow margins – Home Secretary Amber Rudd has held on with barely 300 votes – had things tipped just a little farther in Labour’s direction on Thursday, then a real massacre may have ensued. As it is, they managed to win in constituencies that were previously considered inhospitable for the Party, most notably a seat in Canterbury which, in nearly 100 years since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1918, has never voted for Labour before.

What does this mean for the future of British politics? Well, I suppose it’s also worth pointing out that Labour now controls the richest and some of the poorest constituencies in the United Kingdom simultaneously. It’ll be a while before I can parse the implications of this out, but my first impression is that Jeremy Corbyn might have had some success in drawing away a portion of the United Kingdom Independence Party’s voters – UKIP, once a significant enough force in British politics to make the Brexit referendum a reality, has basically collapsed afterwards, as their success means the Party now lacks a purpose. Combined with his undeniable success at turning out the youth vote, which went for him by two to one margins. Combine that with what looks like a resurgence for Labour in Northern England, the UK equivalent of the American Rust Belt, and it looks like Corbyn’s hit upon an effective response to voters concerned with the effects of globalization, and left his Party in a good position moving forwards. Not bad for a former backbencher the rest of the Party had been ignoring until two years ago.

With that general overview of the results done, some other thoughts:

  • There’s a crisis of confidence in polling – and it’s mostly needless. During the 2016 Presidential primaries, Nate Silver published a mea culpa about his failure to foresee Trump’s nomination, saying that he ultimately let his qualitative judgment get the best of him and didn’t believe the polls enough, even though they showed a Trump advantage all along. Something more complicated but similar happened in this campaign, whose results could have been foreseen if you looked at polls coming from YouGov or Survation instead of other outlets. What made those two stand out was that they correctly predicted a higher than usual youth turnout, but many observers (myself included) didn’t believe their numbers because of our deep-seated cynicism about young peoples’ willingness to turn out and vote. And so most polling outfits predicted a major win for the Conservatives on the assumption that youth turnout would tank. The sad thing is, even YouGov eventually lost confidence in their results, with their last poll before the election changing its assumptions to fit in more with the consensus. This goes to show that we should trust our data more than our instincts a lot of the time.
  • Theresa May was the big loser in Thursday night’s results, but unlike David Cameron before her, who resigned when the Brexit vote went against him, she doesn’t seem inclined to fall on her sword over this. That said, despite recriminations from within her Party coming in, I no longer expect her to be challenged for leadership of the Conservatives the way I did the night of the election. Her most obvious successor, Boris Johnson, the guy who looks a lot like Donald Trump, still faces some significant enemies of his own within the Conservative Party, which explains his failure to become Prime Minister after Cameron resigned last year. More generally, being Prime Minister just isn’t the most attractive prize right now, for two reasons.
  • Reason one is that with the Conservatives no longer enjoying a majority in Parliament, they’ve been forced into making what’s called a minority government with the help of the Democratic Union Party, a Northern Irish bloc that’s learned from the mistake of the Liberal Democrats in 2010 and isn’t joining a coalition with the Conservatives, instead voting to keep the government running and guaranteeing nothing more. The result is that in order to pass any legislation, the Conservatives need to appease the DUP for the extra votes they need. This ties into the second reason nobody would want to be PM right now, that being Brexit.
  • The negotiation of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU has been really sluggish so far, and Theresa May pushed back the start of negotiations with the EU’s authorities in order to have this election. Her stated rationale was that she needed a stronger mandate from the British public to have a better bargaining position during the negotiations, hopefully achieving her personal vision of an exit that involves Britain leaving the EU’s common market (allowing the UK and the EU to put up tariffs against each other) in exchange for keeping EU immigrants out of the UK. This hope for a “hard Brexit” is definitely dead now, though, between May’s election gambit backfiring and destroying her Parliamentary majority, as well as the whims of her now political partners, the Democratic Union Party.
  • In fact, I’d say that the future of British politics runs through Belfast right now, because the DUP are in a very influential position at the moment despite only having ten seats in Parliament. The first thing they want is a softer version of Brexit, that might allow Britain to stay in the EU market in exchange for fewer immigration restrictions than a harder exit would entail. They want this in large part because Northern Ireland is dependent on trade with its southern counterpart, and they’d be hit hard if their EU neighbor got to throw up tariffs against them. So local concerns in Northern Ireland are a big driver of the DUP’s policy. Of course, this sort of parochialism has led to an embarrassing scandal coming to light recently involving the DUP’s leader Arlene Foster, so that’s another issue to contend with.
  • The other issue involving the DUP is this: they’re probably the closest equivalent in Europe to America’s Republicans. This includes opposition to gay marriage, denial of climate change, an absolutist stance against abortion even for rape victims, the whole nine yards. Also disturbingly, the DUP has been historically linked with the Protestant paramilitary side of the Troubles, which seems less like a thing of the past when you consider that Sinn Fein also did quite well in the recent elections (between them and the DUP, the more centrist UUP and SDLP parties have been wiped out in Northern Ireland), and also that Jeremy Corbyn has sympathized with the IRA in the past, an additional source of tension. In this chaotic environment, you can all understand why I’m worried about the Troubles potentially bursting open again and making things even worse. For maximum awkwardness, it’s also worth pointing out that Theresa May has a Catholic background herself.

During the campaign, Theresa May warned us about the possibility of  a “coalition of chaos” if the election went the wrong way. Half the internet has beaten me to this observation, but I can certainly say that she’s delivered on that much.

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