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The many losers of UK elections

LiveMint logoLiveMint 13-06-2017 Salil Tripathi

London: In the election that wasn’t really necessary and many did not want, nobody won. But there were many losers: most prominent was Theresa May, Prime Minister, who lost her majority. But Labour too lost an election it could have won, given how unpopular the Prime Minister was towards the end of the campaign. (John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor of exchequer, said as much, that given two more weeks of campaigning, Labour could have won).

Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, too lost—Scotland sends 59 MPs to Westminster, but instead of 56 (the number of seats the Scottish National Party won in 2015), the SNP will send 35 MPs now, with Conservatives, Labour, and Liberal Democrats reasserting their presence in Scotland.

May, never elected Prime Minister, will now be one without majority. She was appointed Prime Minister by the Conservatives in an act akin to coronation last July, after David Cameron fell on his sword after his gamble—the EU referendum—failed spectacularly.

Cameron had thought that British voters would offer him enough votes so that he could shut up, for good, the backbenchers who kept sniping at him over Britain’s role in Europe. Lets ask the people, he said, instead of having an honest debate within the party. Cameron had thought that people would vote to stay in the EU; instead, by a narrow vote, British voters decided to leave, voting for Brexit, or leaving the European Union.

After a tragicomic drama, which included backstabbing and pantomime, May became the party leader, her opponents withdrawing one by one. Nobody knew what she would stand for, but many Tories hoped she would be the new Margaret Thatcher, who was the Conservative Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990. May was against Brexit, or so she said, but upon becoming Prime Minister said she would negotiate energetically for it. She mistook the margin of the referendum—52 to 48—to a winner-take-all proposition, as if the entire nation had enthusiastically voted for Brexit, and proceeded to spout inanities—“Brexit means Brexit”, whatever that tautology might mean.

In that she ignored the views of the Scots, as well as the larger cities (London in particular) and university towns (such as Oxford and Cambridge), which voted to remain.

Instead of trying to figure out a strategy to bring the nation together, she tried to do the work of the UK Independence Party, whose raison d’etre was to pull UK out of Europe, in the hope of picking up the surge in support the UKIP enjoyed, to further decimate the Labour Party. When internationally-minded Tories were aghast, she ridiculed them, saying, implausibly, that “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere”.

Former Prospect magazine editor David Goodheart analysed the phenomenon in his timely book, The Road To Somewhere, which challenges the idea that everyone wants to be like the cosmopolitan urbane citizens of a globalized world.

The fact was that Britain was divided between those who saw themselves as victims of globalization, who thought they were losing their jobs to young Europeans (and others) coming to the country and willing to work hard, keeping wages low, and those who loved the idea of a connected world, where you could seamlessly cross borders, with breakfast on the train to Paris, late lunch in Brussels, and dinner in Amsterdam—the nowhere men, who, the Beatles once sang, were “a bit like you and me”.

To create a united kingdom where both these constituencies could live together required imagination and personal conviction; May showed neither. Driven by an ideological commitment to starve services of resources, she had cut 20,000 jobs in the police force during her six years as the home secretary.

While there may be different triggers that set off the individuals who unleashed the three recent terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, it is fair to say that had the intelligence services been resourced adequately, these individuals would have faced greater scrutiny and the attacks could have been stopped, since the men were known to the security services and British Muslims had alerted the police about their odd behaviour.

But instead of backing labour-intensive, old-fashioned detective work based on community policing and intelligence, May talked of scrapping the human rights act and sought greater surveillance powers, including over the Internet.

Building her premise on the assumption that the 52% “leave” vote meant 100%, she proceeded to build a coalition that pandered to ideas that reinforced the perception of the Conservatives being a nasty party unconnected with modern reality.

She wanted to reopen how pensions would be calculated and threatened to make the elderly pay for their care by taking away their property—an inscrutable self-goal for a party hugely reliant on votes from older voters.

She wanted to bring back fox hunting, which was a priority for almost nobody. She backtracked on many points. Once it was clear to her and her close advisers that her campaign was evoking only lukewarm support, she refused to participate in debates with her rivals, and somewhat insensitively, she sent her home secretary Amber Rudd to one such debate days after Rudd’s father had died. (Rudd barely scraped through from her constituency, after a recount).

May squandered a 20-point lead over Labour. Strong performance in local elections had given her confidence. She assumed that her rival, Jeremy Corbyn, was universally disliked, because the newspapers—in particular the Tory-leaning tabloids, but also the left-leaning Guardian, said so. Most analysts were convinced that Corbyn represented an older politics—of the 1970s—and those were “unwinnable” ideas. Labour’s leaders were not able to add up their sums and balance their books—though Tories hardly kept a balanced budget and weren’t necessarily fiscally prudent.

And the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party didn’t like Corbyn; its own candidates were not naming him in their literature; and they had attempted to remove him only months ago.

But the young turned out to vote—according to Lord Ashcroft’s polls, 72% of the voters under 24 voted this time (many had sat out the European referendum) and they were seizing back their future from older voters who had snatched it away from them last June.

And so, the morning after the elections, Tories had the largest number of votes and seats, but it only added up to 318 MPs, fewer than what May had inherited from Cameron, losing her parliamentary majority, and she was going to have to rely on the right-wing, fundamentalist Democratic Unionist Party, from Northern Ireland, which wants to limit abortions, opposes gay marriage, and doesn’t believe in climate change. Ironically, the Tories came within inches of victory because of the 13 seats they won in Scotland, where its leader was the feisty and charismatic Ruth Davidson, who is gay, and promptly questioned any tie-up with the DUP.

With no other party willing to break bread with the Tories, May could form a government, but it will only mean that she is in office, but won’t have power. May wanted to shake up her cabinet, possibly even sacking the chancellor of exchequer, Philip Hammond; now she survives with their permission, as her rivals plot their next move, figuring out the most opportune movement to plunge the knife.

William Hague, a former Tory leader, had once described the Tories as being “like an absolute monarchy, moderated by regicide”. Statements of loyalty from foreign secretary Boris Johnson notwithstanding, it would be naïve to assume that she can be Prime Minister for much longer.

There is a mood of jubilation among the left. Labour added dozens of seats to its tally, and its vote share fell two percentage points short of the Tories. Its final tally added up to 262 seats. It did secure major upsets, including seats like Kensington and Chelsea in London, which has voted Conservative since it was created in 1997.

Many credit Corbyn for running a disciplined campaign focused on local issues—ending austerity and investing in health services and schools.

But Corbyn was a lacklustre supporter of the Remain camp during the EU referendum, and has often been profoundly skeptical of the European Union, seeing it as a neoliberal, capitalist conspiracy. If voters of a staunchly pro-remain constituency like Kensington and Chelsea voted for Labour, it was more out of their dismay over May’s hard Brexit line (she said no deal is better than a bad deal, which is unrealistic, improbably, and mindless, for it would mean miles-long queues at customs, planes unable to take passengers or cargo, and trade coming to a halt), and not because they suddenly developed a fondness for Corbyn’s brand of socialism.

To be sure, Corbyn won for Labour more votes than any Labour leader in generations, but then so did May win more votes than any Conservative leader in generations. (Labour gained 9.5% more votes than in 2015, but Tories too gained 5.5% more votes than in 2015, both gaining at the expense of UKIP primarily, which lost 10.8% of the vote).

Those larger votes were the result of a bigger turnout. And while the first-past-the-post system exaggerates the difference in seats between the two parties, it also hides the fact that millions of voters supported other parties—Liberal Democrats, Greens, and UKIP—but who have only a handful of MPs to show.

While many left-leaning supporters of the Labour Party see the outcome as a victory of sorts, it is anything but that. Given the fundamental weaknesses of Tories, some Labour leaders say, they should have won this election, particularly after the series of mistakes May made during her campaign. Instead, Labour has lost its third election in a row.

Whether winning more support requires a further shift to the left, as Corbyn’s die-hard supporters would want, or a more pragmatic approach, by using the talents of many skilled parliamentarians in Labour Party, who chose to sit out rather than serve under Corbyn, remains to be seen.

To use a cricketing analogy, Tories are now trying to save a test match, with three days left, and not a cloud in the sky, but they have an injured batsman at the crease with a tail-ender—it can’t last. And Labour? They’re like India at Lord’s in 2002—where the nation celebrated Ajit Agarkar scoring a century, but remember the result: India lost by 170 runs.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

Comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. Read Salil Tripathi’s previous Mint columns here.

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