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The 2017 General Election: From landslide to precipice

Source: PSE Aug/Sep 17

Chris Painter, Professor Emeritus at Birmingham City University, assesses the aftermath of yet another election shock.

Theresa May could not resist mouth-watering polling numbers in her favour, announcing an election in April 2017 well before the designated year of 2020. There was also an element of opportunism – against an already deteriorating economic backdrop – by clearing the decks for the daunting Brexit negotiations ahead and before income support cuts in the pipeline bite more deeply. 

Anticipation at the outset of the campaign was that there would be a resounding Conservative victory. When the exit poll was released at 10.00pm on 8 June, the nation took a sharp collective intake of breath as it absorbed yet another political shock. The largest movement in public opinion in modern times during the course of a general election had occurred. Instead of securing a landslide, May was left dangling over a precipice with the Conservatives the largest party in a hung Parliament. 

Constitutional reminders 

So much for the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act placed on the statute book by the Cameron-Clegg Coalition government. That Act was intended to prevent prime ministers having sole discretion to time elections to maximum partisan advantage. In other words, to avoid precisely the scenario we have just experienced.

What it underlined is that parliamentary sovereignty remains a fundamental principle underpinning the British constitution. No Parliament can bind its successors. Triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, that began the procedure for leaving the EU, demonstrated that even membership of international organisations is not at variance with this principle, contrary to impressions conveyed during the June 2016 EU referendum. 

Political pitches and social divisions 

Nor did the ostensible reason given by May for calling the 2017 general election stand up – the contention that whilst the country was coming together after a divisive referendum campaign, Parliament continued to be an obstacle to enacting the referendum mandate. 

During the 2010 general election David Cameron had, for political effect, latched onto the notion of a ‘broken’ society. What we currently have is a society more ‘fractured’ than ‘broken’, with multiple fissures not necessarily aligned with traditional party allegiances and electoral dynamics fluctuating from one part of the country to another. 

The vote in Parliament to trigger Article 50 prior to the election conversely magnified the narrow majority for leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum.  

In unusual election circumstances, due to the disruptive effects of both Brexit and two terrorist incidents, what was surprising was the extent to which support in June this year polarised around the two main parties in England and Wales. The joint vote share of the Conservative and Labour parties rose to over 82% from under 68% in the 2015 general election. Therefore, despite initial high expectations, the Liberal Democrats fared disappointingly after near wipe-out in that earlier general election, as did other smaller parties. 

Most dramatically, however, the Conservative Party failed to secure an outright majority in the House of Commons. In its UKIP-lite policy incarnation under May it had hoped to sweep up support from that quarter, which now looks a busted flush. In fact, there was a more nuanced redistribution of UKIP votes, although the Brexit effect did make itself felt in variable swings between Conservative and Labour in heavily Leave-voting and Remain-voting seats. With increased turnout, participation from younger demographic groups was also higher, albeit still well adrift of that by older people. 

Those factors – on which the relative financial experience of different demographic groups over the last decade had a bearing – boosted Labour support. The Conservatives secured a vote share comparable to Margaret Thatcher’s memorable victories in the 1980s, up by nearly 6% on the 2015 general election. But the Labour Party’s vote rose by nearly 10%, translating into a 2% swing in its favour. 

Under the leadership of an insurgent Jeremy Corbyn branded unelectable, the Labour Party achieved its highest percentage vote since Tony Blair’s 2001 re-election, contrary to predictions gaining rather than losing seats. How far this was contingent on an inept Conservative campaign is a moot point. But a radical Labour manifesto had surprising resonance, suggesting a degree of disaffection from the market-driven political economy shaping public policy since the 1980s. 

In Scotland, too, the political landscape showed signs of movement with the high-water mark of SNP support receding. It comfortably retained a majority of seats, but the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats all made gains at its expense. 

As for Northern Ireland, on top of suspended devolved governance came not only the tantalising Brexit question of the border with the Irish Republic, but also the post-election understanding May reached with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to prop up her parliamentary position. Representing one side of the historic provincial sectarian divide, the pay-off received by the DUP for this ‘confidence and supply’ agreement provided a classic illustration of pork-barrel politics. 

Stefan Rousseau - PA Wire - PA Images edit© Dominic Lipinski, PA Wire

Conservative Party power play

The dynamics of the Brexit negotiations from the perspective of the EU were likely to have been largely immune to the election outcome. The domestic politics surrounding those negotiations is another matter, with signs already that the British Cabinet is tempering unrealistic expectations previously aroused and notably softening its position on transitional arrangements.  

That’s not to say it will be any easier to manage factional tensions within the Conservative Party. May’s willingness to countenance state intervention combined with her social conservatism, as Andrew Gamble observed in Political Insight, published on behalf of the Political Studies Association, revealed there was much in her outlook that chimed with ‘retro Britain’, leavened with a dose of ‘nostalgic imperialism’.  

Yet, a vocal section of May’s party who are small state economic libertarians want to consummate the Thatcherite revolution, once freed by Brexit from the constraints of a ‘regulatory’ Europe. Matters are further complicated by the ‘modernising’ wing, uncomfortable with May’s hitherto uncompromising approach to Brexit. Now reinforced by a revived Scottish Conservative contingent, leverage from these modernisers will also be felt given the parliamentary arithmetic. 

Reimagining the welfare state 

Meanwhile, public services struggle to make sums add up. The Conservative manifesto pledged increased spending for education and health. Notwithstanding assurances on the impact of a new national funding formula, an initial tranche of additional core funding for English schools for 2018 and 2019 – released by raiding other programmes in the Department for Education’s portfolio – failed to fully assuage concerns about per pupil real-term budgets, given growing enrolment numbers and rising on-costs. 

NHS financial commitments do not meet even minimum projected requirements following a period of historically low real-term settlements. The controversial Conservative manifesto proposals to address the adult social care crisis look unlikely to survive a promised green paper, in any case failing to adequately address the near-term funding gap.  

There is belated acknowledgment of the role of social as well as private house-building in alleviating the crisis in that market. But as with so much else, resources committed are hardly commensurate with the scale of a task on which the Grenfell Tower disaster so poignantly focused minds. 

Prolongation of the strict public sector pay cap means, moreover, that even elementary issues of staff recruitment and retention have been propelled to the fore of debate. 

Funding dilemmas will become more acute if public finances suffer from a Brexit effect already making its presence felt. The Conservative manifesto, in contrast with that of 2015, at least provided some fiscal room for manoeuvre on future tax increases. Also, the target date for achieving a budget surplus has once again been deferred until 2025.  

Seeking to capitalise on political flux, spending ministers nonetheless encountered a Treasury still anxious about the resilience of the UK’s public finances. It remains to be seen therefore whether – other than in Northern Ireland – austerity fatigue takes its toll in the Autumn Budget. Emphasising the risk of public services dying a slow death in an April 2017 LSE posting, Lord Adebowale and Henry Kippin see this as reason enough for reconceptualising the welfare state as a ‘social investment’ state, with all that implies for system policy redesign.  

Navigating the rapids 

It was always going to be problematic centring the Conservative election campaign on May’s leadership, the first opportunity to expose her to any real scrutiny. Intended to strengthen her political stock, she has since struggled instead to restore a semblance of authority. 

As Cameron experienced, no sooner are champagne glasses emptied than apparent triumph turns to ashes in these volatile times. His strategic miscalculations in dealing with fractures in the British polity pale into insignificance when compared with the magnitude of political reconstruction now faced by May (or her successor) as the UK heads into uncharted waters. In her case champagne bottles were not even corked! 

Because of the difficult circumstances in which May assumed the premiership in July 2016, she had benefitted from considerable goodwill. There followed serious misjudgements, especially over-interpretation of the EU referendum result, culminating in a counter-productive ‘Brexit election’, with a tendency to misread the mood music continuing thereafter. A rapid descent from grace is evidenced in the recent decline of her personal poll ratings. 

Inevitably dominating business in the new Parliament, as the 2017 election campaign unfolded one could not, moreover, help an uneasy sense that Brexit is largely irrelevant to the pressing problems facing our economy and society. Underlined by a threadbare domestic legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech, current political stasis is certainly no recipe for the insight related challenges demand.

Top Image: © Ik Aldama, PA Images


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