UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s gamble to hold a snap election three years earlier than required has failed spectacularly. Her aim was to achieve a majority of 100 or more for the Conservative Party she heads. A larger majority, she argued, would strengthen her hand in negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU which begin on June 19.
Her decision, which was taken eight weeks ago, was, no doubt, swayed by the opinion polls that showed a massive 20-point lead for her party over Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party. However, the outcome was that the Conservatives fell short of the required majority of 326 in the House of Commons, winning 317 seats down from 330 prior to the election. Meanwhile, the Labour Party increased its tally of MP from 229 to 262. This meant that no single party had the required number of seats needed to form a majority government.
May’s roll of the dice has led to a stunning reversal of her political fortunes. By losing her majority, she is now a much-diminished political figure whose future as the leader of the Conservative Party and as the prime minister of her country hangs in the balance. By clinging on to power and entering into an alliance with the extreme right-wing sectarian Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, she has opened herself to the charge that she is imperilling the fragile peace process under the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland between the Catholics and Protestants for selfish political reasons.
The decline in the prime minister’s popularity began soon after the Conservatives unveiled their manifesto and announced that senior citizens receiving nursing care would have to pay for their own care subject to the value of their assets not falling below £100,000. The ‘dementia tax’ – which was named thus because many older people in nursing care suffer from dementia – was nothing less than an own goal since it angered a demographic that is mostly pro-Conservative. The subsequent uproar prompted a U-turn on the matter. But that only added to May’s reputation for being mendacious.
The prime minister’s wooden campaigning style and apparent discomfort when facing voters and the media contrasted sharply with the warm affability of Corbyn who appeared to thoroughly enjoy the rough and tumble of campaigning across the country and addressing the large crowds that came to see and hear him.
Despite being the target of an intense vilification campaign by tabloid newspapers that portrayed him as a terrorist-friendly, anti-Semitic, unelectable socialist who would undermine Britain’s security and prove to be a pushover during the Brexit negotiations with the EU, Corbyn stuck to his message without stooping to personal attacks that appealed to many voters – especially those who were under 30 – who came out in droves to vote for him.
By refusing to engage in a television debate with the Labour leader, the prime minister appeared anything but “strong and stable” – the catchphrase she used to describe her leadership. Instead, she appeared to be evasive and unable to articulate exactly what her Brexit strategy was. Her television appearance also backfired as she showed a lack of empathy for those who had been left behind because of the austerity policies instituted by the Conservatives since 2010. As a result, during the BBC programme ‘Question Time’, a nurse pointed out to the prime minister that her pay had declined by 14 percent in real (inflation-adjusted) terms since 2010 because of the cap set on public sector pay rises.
The prime minister’s initial response was to appreciate the hard work put in by the National Health Service (NHS) staff. But she then added that hard choices had to be made and that “there isn’t a magic money tree”. This prompted a riposte from David Dimbleby, the programme’s moderator, about whether she could “sleep happily” while some nurses have to go to food banks to make ends meet.
In contrast to the Conservative message for continued austerity – which has created wide inequalities and penalised various segments of the population, such as students, who are concerned about the burden of their debts, and first-time house buyers – the Labour Party’s manifesto promised a bold programme of old-fashioned Keynesian ‘tax and spend’ policies that would boost economic growth and expand the number of middle class jobs.
The main elements of the party’s programme entailed boosting infrastructural investment, increasing the minimum wage and spending more on education – especially, to abolish student fees at universities. The Labour Party also indicated that it would renationalise the railways sector, the water industry, the energy companies and the Royal Mail (the UK’s postal service that was privatised in 2014). They proposed to largely fund their programme by introducing tax increases on those who earn a higher income and raising the rate of the corporate tax.
The Labour Party’s opponents were quick to point out that their numbers to fund the proposed projects did not add up and were not fully accounted for, especially the renationalisation of key sectors. Further, by raising taxes the Labour Party’s policies would drive enterprising individuals and businesses away from the UK and thereby reduce investment and create economic uncertainty. Be that as it may, the Labour Party’s upbeat vision – which promises a better future “for the many, not the few’ –resonated strongly among voters who were tired of the prospect of continuing cutbacks in public services and the possibility that a failure to reach agreement with the EU, given May’s hardline negotiating stance, would harm their living standards.
There are some key takeaways from this election. First, the opinion polls can be helpful but only up to a point. Political campaigns can be ruthless in exposing the weaknesses of candidates, given the continual glare of the media spotlight. There is much truth in the saying attributed to former UK prime minister Harold Wilson that: “A week is a long time in politics”.
Second, decision-making that relies on a small cabal of advisers (a ‘kitchen cabinet’) – as May is reported to have done before making her election announcement, instead of taking her full cabinet into confidence – can be harmful for the decision-maker. This is because advisers tend to conform to what the leader is thinking instead of offering honest feedback. Third – and this is a point that Pakistani politicians should heed to – involves the vote-garnering potential of populist economic policies. Since the era of Z A Bhutto – who used a populist economic platform to his electoral advantage – we have seen nothing from all political parties but the usual neoliberal platitudes that have the blessings of the international financial institutions that Pakistan is so beholden to.
Fourth, tabloid newspapers in the West have lost the power to sway elections as compared to the use of social media. A smart social media campaign was instrumental in getting Corbyn the crucial youth vote. Lastly, two-party politics is back in the UK. Both major parties received more than 40 percent of the popular votes cast. The last time this occurred was in the June 1970 general elections in the UK.
Given the fraught political situation that May finds herself in, another general election is likely sooner rather than later. However, it is difficult to see how the Conservative Party will head into the next general election with May as its party leader given her poor campaign performance. On the other hand, Corbyn needs to bring in some heavyweights from his party on the opposition front benches to present a unified Labour Party that can be seen as a credible alternative to the Conservatives.
The writer is a group director at the Jang Group.