This is the first article I have written in a foreign land, meant for an audience at home. Reminds me of Anthony Lewis’s Abroad At Home column in the New York Times. We in India complain of being a perpetual election machine, with state elections punctuating the general elections. Yet, Britain has had a series of elections over the past few years: the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, general elections in 2015, followed by the election of London’s Mayor, the 2016 Brexit referendum, followed by elections of regional mayors and municipalities, and then the sudden, surprise announcement of mid-term elections in May 2017.
This election points to the second miscalculation and misinterpretation of underlying trends, the first being the call for the referendum for leaving the Euro Area. Both were based on an assessment that the underlying social and economic mood would help the ruling party (and, specifically, the party leader) quell dissent, concentrate authority and strengthen negotiating hands and allow more decisive policy-making. Prime minister David Cameron lost his political gambit, and resigned not just his prime ministership, but also his membership of Parliament in 2016. Conservative leader and current PM Theresa May has emerged from what can only be called a debacle, and has considerably weakened her moral authority.
Of the total 650 seats, the Conservative Party (Tories) won 318 seats (49% vote share, down 13 seats from the 2015 election), Labour 262 (40% vote share, up 30 seats), Liberal Democrats (a centrist party, with a pro-Europe approach) 12 (2%), and the Scottish National Party, 35 (5%). The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland (more on this later) won 10 seats (1.5%).
So, how did this happen? May misjudged the wide positive gap in opinion polls in April 2017 between the Conservative and Labour parties, and the prime minister’s approval ratings, in particular. Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, with hard left-leaning tendencies, was polled as unpopular.
In previous elections, pre-election polls (as well as exit polls, mostly) often turned out wrong, but the errors were mostly in one direction. This time, there was a wide variation in pre-poll predictions and pollsters recognised that this was due to uncertainty about the turnout of young voters. This has reportedly made the difference this time.
Of course, the call for the election and the initial campaign, had focused on Brexit issues and the need for a strong negotiating position with an enhanced majority for the Tories in Parliament. This was though to help a “hard Brexit” deal and even to walk out if needed (no deal better than a bad deal).
But this election turned out to be much more than Brexit. “Economics is as much about humanity as policy”. Professor Swati Dhingra of the London School of Economics, in her article Salvaging Brexit, had written about the “long years of economic neglect”, leading to the disaffection and disillusion of large swathes of the UK population. Successful Brexit negotiations or not, by the time of the vote, the sustained cuts in healthcare, education and other social sectors—in real terms—had assumed larger dimensions.
This was mostly missed in the traditional media coverage on issues and personalities. While the mainstream media, electronic and print, tore the Labour leadership and party manifesto and agenda apart, there was a growing traction of the issues raised by Labour in the social media (For the Many, Not the Few). Facebook, YouTube and Twitter were used to motivate voters, particularly the youth. BBC Trending pointed out that some of the most active Facebook “filter bubbles” was filled with Corbynistas.
The style of campaigning was also noteworthy. The oft-repeated offer of “Strong And Stable Leadership (In The National Interest)” by May turned this campaign into a US presidential style, focusing on her personality. Mid-campaign muddles were amplified. First was the U-turn on the tax proposed on real estate and houses of the elderly in need of long-term active and palliative care, which had turned into an explosive backlash, with the media labelling it a “dementia tax”. May also inexplicably, largely tried to avoid public debates, including notoriously, a widely followed debate on the BBC. Media headlines lampooned her with a play on Margaret Thatcher’s famous rallying cry, “The Lady’s Not For Turning … Up!!” On the other hand, the normally uncommunicative Labour leader, Corbyn, emerged as a more sympathetic figure, and had extensively toured the constituencies, and even more remarkably, connected with the young.
Then came the terror attacks, with the London Bridge van and knife assault, quickly following up on the heels of the Manchester concert arena bombing. What was initially deemed to be a support for the Tories—who generally pride themselves as being tougher on crime and terrorism than the other parties—quickly became a mill around the neck of May, who had been the Home Secretary in charge of security for the past six years in the erstwhile government. The blame for the gaps in the measures to apprehend the terror attackers, which were previously known to the police and intelligence agencies, was blamed on her, particularly her prior decisions to cut the budgets of these organisations.
So, what next? May, at least for now, will continue as the head of a minority government, with likely support from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland. But schisms have already emerged on their potential partnership. Apart from the DUP’s very conservative views on abortion bans and same-sex marriage, there is the issue of a hard Brexit, which would likely entail the closure of the currently free border (for trade) between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
This environment now provides a significant opportunity to deepen, broaden and fortify the long, yet still shallow, economic, political and strategic partnership between the UK and India. A large part of the discussions will centre on the financial services sector and innovation, and we shall elaborate on these in the following articles.