Back in the UK
Politics in the United Kingdom combines American-style two-party dominance with the minor and regional party influence of a typical Westminster-style parliament. The main battle is between the Conservatives and Labour, but that battle is frequently influenced by the multitude of smaller (sometimes much smaller) parties, making for rather interesting election dynamics. On June 8, 650 members of Parliament will be elected, with the largest party forming the government and their leader becoming Prime Minister.
Why now? The UK did just have a general election not so long ago. By the time Britons go to the polls in early June, it will have been just two years and one month since David Cameron’s surprise majority win in a election most observers expected to return a Labour minority government (a “hung parliament” in the British lexicon).
But obviously, two years and one month ago was an eternity given the earthquakes in British politics since then. First came Jeremy Corbyn’s outsider victory in the Labour Party’s leadership contest, which energized the party base but turned off moderate and independent voters. Then, of course, came Brexit, and afterwards, Cameron’s resignation and the elevation of Theresa May to Number 10 (that’s 10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister’s residence).
May had indicated many times that she was not going to call an election until one was mandated in 2020, but on April 18 she abruptly reversed course and announced her intention to call an election after all. The official rationale was in order to strengthen her government’s hand in Brexit negotiations, and there is some merit to that — the Conservatives hold only a bare majority, which gives them a weaker grasp in the eyes of the EU. A general election victory would give them a mandate to push for their terms of exiting the EU.
There is, of course, an opportunistic side to the election as well; Labour was polling at historical lows in the weeks leading up to the election being called, and if May can strengthen her party while weakening her biggest foe, it would give her a new five-year stretch with which to operate and additional breathing space to push her agenda.
Let’s have a look at the major, more or less national parties first. These parties are basically the only options in England, the home country of the UK that is by far the largest in almost every category, especially in population: 532 of the 650 seats are English.
Conservative (Theresa May): The oldest major party in the UK, the “Tories” date back to the early 19th Century in terms of organization, and many of the most well known Prime Ministers in the last two centuries were from the Conservatives, including Disraeli, Churchill, and Thatcher. Originally rather split on the topic of Brexit, the party has thrown itself fully into supporting the result of the referendum — May herself was opposed to Brexit prior to the “Leave” victory, but has committed herself and her government to upholding the will of the voters and that seems to have resonated well.
The political timing of the election certainly was meant to provide the Tories with maximum electoral benefit, and given the polls, anything less than a strong majority government would be a serious disappointment.
Labour (Jeremy Corbyn): After Labour’s shock loss in 2015, leader Ed Miliband went from expecting to be Prime Minister to resigning in the span of hours. With no clear choice to replace him, the left-wing to far-left elements of Labour threw their support to Corbyn, a hard left backbencher, who won in a surprising landslide that foreshadowed the popularity of Bernie Sanders in the United States — an old, curmudgeonly socialist with decades of time in office suddenly becoming the hero of activist youth. Unlike Sanders, however, Corbyn actually leads his party, and while he continues to capture the imagination of dyed-in-the-wool leftists, the larger electorate, especially the independents and liberals (in the European sense of the word) are turned off by his hard-left stances and his often haphazard governing style.
Corbyn’s passive support for the Remain side in the Brexit debate and his commitment to the result of the referendum has alienated many others, especially since prior to the vote there was little doubt that the vast majority of Labour members preferred to remain in the EU. While Corbyn survived a practical coup attempt last year following the referendum, the party now essentially faces threats from all but the most ardent left-wing activists.
Liberal Democrats (Tim Farron): Long the third party of British politics, the “Lib Dems” are descended from the Liberal Party which had been the main opposition to the Tories until Labour came on the scene in the early 20th Century. The Liberals haven’t formed government on their own since World War I, and haven’t been the official opposition since 1919. They were, however, part of the government after the 2010 elections that brought Cameron to power in what otherwise would have been a hung parliament. Their leader, Nick Clegg, actually led some polls during that election after strong debate performances, but ultimately the Lib Dems lost seats that year. He became Deputy Prime Minister in a power-sharing government nevertheless. He and his party were punished for being too close to the Tories in 2015 when they fell to just eight seats in Parliament and just 8% of the votes, both all-time lows.
Under Farron, and in the wake of Brexit, the Lib Dems have sought to position themselves to pick up votes from the portion of the electorate still hoping to stop Brexit from happening, as the party has been among the most pro-EU parties for quite some time. That’s a non-negligible portion of the voters, but still a distinct minority. A big part of their platform is to offer a second referendum on Brexit following the conclusion of terms with the EU, with the implication that voters can choose to stay within the EU. They certainly represent a threat to Labour, considering that there’s almost nowhere for the Lib Dems to go but up from their last election, and that they’re more likely to draw votes away from Labour than from the Tories.
UKIP (Paul Nuttall): Pronounced “YOU-kip,” the United Kingdom Independence Party. When you’re largely seen as a one-issue party, success on that one issue can come at a serious cost to your future success, ironically. That’s pretty much where UKIP is. The party can claim at least partial credit for Brexit, given that it was in many ways their threat to the Tories at the ballot box in 2015 that got the Brexit referendum put into the Conservative manifesto, which then got it realized after the surprise Tory win, and then their wildest dreams come true when their side won the day last year.
But the question is, now what? The Conservatives have pretty much usurped completely the Brexit element from UKIP now that they are basically, as a whole, moving the nation toward the door. Electorally, UKIP wasn’t a success in national elections despite pulling 13% of the vote as they returned just one member of parliament. They did much better in the preceding European elections, which they won due to the fact that seats are awarded proportionally to the overall vote.
A vote for UKIP used to be one to send a message to support the Brexit concept, but now what does it accomplish? That’s the challenge that UKIP has, especially now that its most visible leader, Nigel Farage, is no longer leading the party. Staunch Brexit supporters will likely find their vote having the most impact this year by voting for the Tories, since they’re actually in a position of power and a UKIP vote isn’t necessarily a “message” anymore. The party is trying to redefine itself in a more libertarian and populist vein, which is smart because there’s not really another party that fills that niche well, but it’s not a very big niche in the UK. UKIP votes drying up certainly hurts Labour given that most of that support is being diverted to the Conservatives, especially in marginal Labour seats.
Green (Caroline Lucas): A national party with candidates in most constituencies, the Greens pulled over a million votes in 2015 but, like UKIP, managed just one member of Parliament (Lucas) despite their growing popularity with the electorate ahead of the election. They appear unlikely to improve their standing given their positioning in the polls, which is similar to their percentage of the national vote in 2015. Inasmuch as UKIP’s crumbling support is a boost for Conservatives, the Greens are probably a drag to Labour, given that the vast majority of Green voters would probably be more likely to support Labour than the Tories.
There are unique dynamics in the other three home countries as well.
Politics in Scotland are dominated not only by Brexit but by the continued push for a second referendum on independence. Scotland’s last referendum came in 2014, when the “No” side won 55–45, but in the interim, the party most committed to independence won all but three of Scotland’s seats in Parliament.
Scotland returned the strongest “Remain” vote in the Brexit referendum, as 62% of Scots voted to remain in the EU. That reignited the independence debate as Holyrood (the Scottish Parliament) sought ways to keep Scotland in the EU in line with its own share of the vote.
The national parties all compete in Scotland, with Labour and the Lib Dems having some traditional strength there. But the beast in the room right now is the SNP, the left-wing party pursuing Scottish independence that also has a majority in Holyrood.
Scottish National Party (Nicola Sturgeon): The momentum the SNP had following the 2014 independence referendum translated into major victories in 2015 despite the referendum’s failure — independence advocates were simply still energized enough to deliver nearly all of Scotland to them. Holding just six seats prior to the election, they unseated a significant number of Labour and Lib Dem incumbents, winning 50 seats. One seat was retained by Labour, another by the Tories, and a third by the Lib Dems, but literally every other seat was won by the SNP, enough to make them the third largest party in Westminster.
The SNP opposes the Tories specifically, in part because Theresa May has already said that there will not be a second independence referendum (on which London has the final say), but also because of their practically absolute opposition to Brexit. Sturgeon is the head of the party, but serves as First Minister of Scotland rather than as a member of Parliament.
But Conservatives are cautiously optimistic for the first time in decades in Scotland, as recent polls have suggested that they could pick up as many as 10 seats, which would be by far their biggest haul since the Blair landslide 20 years ago. The SNP, naturally, would be the biggest victim of Tory success in Scotland given their almost total incumbency in Scottish constituencies, but they’re still likely to maintain the overall majority of Scotland’s 59 seats.
Meanwhile, Scotland could potentially lose its only remaining Labour seat, a shocking reversal considering that the party held 40 seats as recently as 2014. The decimation of Scottish Labour has put a serious damper on the party’s ability to reach the magic number necessary to form a government.
For quite some time, Wales has basically been a Labour stronghold — even after their defeat in 2015, Labour still held 14 more seats in Wales than the Tories. But after Wales joined England in voting to leave the EU, this year could see the Conservatives enjoy an historic breakthrough. As recently as 2001, the Tories did not hold a single Welsh seat, and Labour has returned the most votes in Wales in every single general election dating back to 1922.
Polls have suggested that the Conservatives could be primed for a huge return, potentially flipping as many as nine seats in their direction and, really for the first time ever, holding at least a plurality and potentially a majority of Welsh seats. The Tories moved in that direction in 2015, winning one constituency — by 27 votes — that had been held continuously by Labour for over a century.
There is one party that pertains only to Wales.
Plaid Cymru (Leanne Wood): Pronounced PLIED KUM-ree, since it’s in Welsh (and it’s Welsh for “Party of Wales”). They are essentially the Welsh equivalent to the SNP, only with far less popular support and perhaps not quite as focused on outright independence for Wales. “Plaid,” as it’s usually referred to, holds only three of Wales’ 40 seats in Parliament. They are, at best, a very minor influence in Welsh politics overall, really only viable in very rural areas.
Ireland is a completely different animal altogether. The major British parties, especially the Tories, have long tried to gain a foothold in Northern Ireland, but politics there are dominated by the sectarian split between the mostly Protestant unionists and the largely Catholic republicans. The four major parties in Northern Ireland are split along those lines.
The impact of Northern Ireland in Westminster is almost nil. There are only 18 seats in Ireland out of 650 total, and since none of the major parties compete there, it’s never really a focus of campaigns. But the issues there are unique and of some interest, especially considering the potential powder keg they always represent historically for the integrity of the United Kingdom.
A scandal in the Northern Irish Assembly led to a shocking result in elections this past March— for the first time since the Irish partition, republican parties won more seats in an election than unionist parties. Power sharing talks required by the Good Friday Agreement have been fruitless thus far, leading to the possibility that Northern Irish self-rule could be in jeopardy.
Democratic Unionist Party (Arlene Foster): The primary unionist party for the last decade plus, the DUP formed early in “The Troubles” by elements tenuously linked to the loyalist paramilitary units that conducted their own terror campaigns against republicans in the same way the IRA terrorized unionists. Closely linked with social conservatism and the Protestant community since its foundation, the DUP gained in stature after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 — an agreement they initially opposed.
Foster is the center of the scandal engulfing Stormont (the Assembly), so her continued leadership of the DUP and the political crisis that the March election caused could spill over into this national election.
Sinn Féin (Gerry Adams): Pronounced “shin feign.” The largest of the nationalist parties is very unique in Westminster politics for one simple reason — after election to Parliament, Sinn Féin members do not take their seats, owing to the pledge of loyalty to the crown that members of Parliament must make. Sinn Féin MPs have offices in Northern Ireland, hold meetings with constituents, everything you’d expect an MP to have in the area they represent, they simply abstain from going to London and casting votes.
These abstentions can have an impact on Parliament in super close elections like 2015, because for every two Sinn Féin MPs elected, the technical number needed for an actual majority decreases by one. In 2015, this meant the Tories actually needed 324 seats for a majority instead of 326 (and they got to 329 anyway).
Long considered the political wing of the IRA (and Adams its official spokesman), Sinn Féin re-entered Westminster politics in the early 1980s. While they are no longer associated with the IRA after the end of “The Troubles” 20 years ago, they still have as their primary aim the reunification of Ireland. In the last 10 years they have re-entered politics in the Republic of Ireland, and Adams himself actually sits in the Dail Eireann, the Irish parliament, rather than in the Northern Irish Assembly, a body in which Sinn Féin does participate.
Social Democratic and Labour Party (Colum Eastwood): The SDLP are a center-left party that supports Irish republicanism, but not as zealously as Sinn Féin and also unlike Sinn Féin, they take their seats in Parliament when they win them. During “The Troubles,” they were the party of choice for Irish republicans who rejected the IRA’s campaign, but since the end of hostilities they have struggled to keep pace with Sinn Féin. The fact that they take their seats at Westminster is one of their key selling points.
Ulster Unionist Party (Robin Swann): Like the SDLP, the UUP was traditionally the key party for one side of the sectarian divide (in this case, the unionists), that has more recently been usurped by a party started by what had been a more hard-line element. Since the rise of the DUP, the Ulster Unionists have struggled to maintain their relevance, twice in the last three elections winning no seats at all in parliament and relegated to junior status in Stormont among unionist parties.
Alliance Party (Naomi Long): Relative newcomers to the Northern Irish political scene, the Alliance Party seeks to rise above the sectarian divide and does not take a position on Irish reunification. Long unexpectedly won a seat in Parliament in 2010, but she was defeated by the DUP candidate in 2015. Still, the Alliance Party has grown to play a minor role in Stormont in the last few years, so their influence in Northern Ireland is growing and the DUP scandal could potentially help them gain traction.
The strength of May and the Conservatives following the Brexit referendum, the perceived weakness of Labour under Corbyn, and the seeming collapse of UKIP has set the table for, at the very least, a solid win for the Tories. Anything less than an increased majority — realistically, a substantially increased majority — would be akin to a loss for the Conservatives.
Polls point to Tory breakthroughs in Wales and Scotland, and nationally they could be looking at a landslide that could potentially mirror the Blair landslides of 1997 and 2001, providing the Conservatives with their largest majority since the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, or possibly even since Winston Churchill.
The pressure is on for Corbyn to deliver for his party, as bleak as those chances look for him. Having already survived one threat to his leadership, a disastrous showing in June’s election could likely seal his fate. It’s been said that he’s playing the long game: he’s sought to focus on Britain’s National Health Service as his main platform element rather than Brexit, and the public does actually seem to care more about problems with the NHS more than the Brexit negotiations. But Brexit falls into the “urgent” category, given the timeframe requirements, which means that the debate has to be had now or never in political terms and it’s naturally still dominating the election. Labour may well be able to regain an edge on domestic politics in five years when Brexit has come and gone, but will Corbyn still be there to lead that debate? It depends on how well he can manage expectations and deliver a surprise at the ballot box next month. He could potentially survive if the expected Tory tsunami is lighter than the pundits expect, but any sizable victory for May and the Labour Party is likely to be looking elsewhere for a new leader, and the next leader is likely to hew far closer to the mainstream and establishment.