Corbyn nearly topples May in U.K. election with 'revenge of the young' vote

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Photo: Andy Miah/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May will cling to power in Britain, propped up by the social conservative, right-of-centre Northern Ireland-based Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Early in the evening on Thursday it looked like Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party might be able to form a progressive alliance with the centrist (and very much anti-Brexit) Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the Scottish Nationals (SNP) and their Welsh  counterpart, the Plaid Cymru, but the numbers simply were not there.

Pre-election polls had shown a significant increase in Labour support, but very few had them at the 40 per cent of the popular vote they got on Thursday. That put Jeremy Corbyn's party a bit more than two points behind the Conservatives. 

British commentators are calling the vote the revenge of the young, who came out in large numbers to vote for Corbyn. The far-right, ethno-nationalist United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) collapsed. It had well over 12 per cent of the vote in 2015 but less than two per cent on Thursday. The majority of that vote went to the Conservatives. May made a play for it with her tough-talking, so-called "hard" Brexit strategy. But a good many previous UKIP voters returned to their working-class home in the Labour Party.

May should thank Northern Ireland and especially Scotland

Overall, both Labour and the Conservatives gained in popular vote, but Labour gained more. The Conservatives increased their vote by five and a half per cent vis-à-vis 2015, but Labour gained nearly 10 per cent over the last election, with their best result since Tony Blair's second majority win 2001. Labour did quite a bit better in popular vote share this time than did Blair in his last victory, in 2005, when the political map in Britain was more fragmented and Labour managed a majority with 35 per cent of the vote to the Tories' 32 per cent.

On Thursday, Theresa May's Conservatives lost 13 seats, bringing them to 318, eight short of a majority of 326. Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party picked up 30 seats, for a total of 262.

The Liberal Democrats dropped very slightly in popular vote share, but picked up four new seats, for a total of 12. The Lib-Dems, as the British call them, were formed in 1988 out of a merger of the once mighty Liberal Party, the party of the 19th-century reform laws that gradually extended the franchise in Britain and such political giants as prime ministers Gladstone and Lloyd George, and the centrist Social Democrats, who had split from the Labour Party in the 1980s.

If she manages to keep power at the head of a minority government, Theresa May will owe her fragile position to unexpected Conservative strength in Scotland, where the Conservatives made their only substantial gains on Thursday, winning 13 seats. They won only one seat in Scotland last time, and have not had much success there for many decades. The Scottish result was not really a May victory, however. British commentators are giving most of the credit to the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party, the affable and popular Ruth Davidson. Were it not for Scotland, the world would be talking about Prime Minister Jeremy Corbyn today.

The overall result is a typical, distorted artifact of the first-past-the-post system.

In 2010 the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition with Conservatives led by David Cameron, but would be much more inclined, this time, to support a Labour minority. Their 2.4 million votes gave them only 12 seats, however. May's newest best friends, the DUP, had a mere 292,000 votes, barely more than a 10th of the Liberal Democratic total. But while the Lib-Dem vote was spread over all of the U.K.'s 650 ridings, the DUP's tiny share was entirely concentrated in Northern Ireland's 18 seats. That gave the right-of-centre Northern Irish party 10 seats, just enough to give May the support she needs to carry on, for now at least. 

Canadians will recognize this sort of result. In this country, first-past-the-post once elevated the Bloc Québécois to the status of second place and Official Opposition, even though they came fourth in the popular vote.

Has Corbyn satisfied the skeptics in his own party?

For the many in the Labour Party establishment who had hoped a sharp electoral rebuke would help rid them of the radical Jeremy Corbyn, this election must have produced some rather mixed feelings. Corbyn will not be going to 10 Downing Street this time, but few will be calling for him to step down either -- quite the contrary. Some in the centre and on the right of the Labour Party are still saying that with a different leader Labour could have won. Theresa May's campaign, they say, was pathetic, and her party is still divided between its pro- and anti-European Union factions. It was only the antipathy of many potential Labour voters to Corbyn's lack of front bench or government experience and his reputation as a hard-left protest candidate that prevented Labour from achieving a Blair-style sweep.

Writing in the New Statesman (a pro-Labour weekly that has not been kind to Corbyn) Anoosh Chakelian dismisses that argument. Labour, she argues, did as well as it did because of, not despite Corbyn's unabashedly leftist policies -- which include free university tuition and bringing the British rail system back into public ownership -- and his unconventional style.

"Corbyn's big, old-fashioned rallies and bypassing of the usual channels to get his message across [...] appealed to voters in a way that Theresa May's stage-managed, distant approach did not," Chakelian writes. "His style of campaigning particularly appealed to young voters, whose unusually high turnout (estimated by some to be as high as 72 per cent) underpinned Labour's surge in this election."

As for Corbyn's notionally radical agenda, the New Statesman writer says:

"[C]learly his policies resonated; most of them were popular with the majority of voters when polled. His straightforward opposition to austerity [...] struck a chord with people who are fed up with their wages stagnating, benefits reducing, the cost of living rising, and public services failing."

Those who held their breath on Thursday, hoping to see Corbyn get a chance to put at least some of his ideas into practice, will be naturally disappointed. Nonetheless, they should take comfort from the fact that Theresa May's hold on power is at best tenuous. Her Northern Irish allies are pro-Brexit, but Northern Ireland, together with Scotland and London, voted strongly against Brexit in the 2016 referendum. In addition, a good many of May's Conservative colleagues continue to be staunchly pro-EU. British commentators are almost unanimous in saying that May will not now have the support she needs to pursue her hard Brexit strategy. She will also have to put significant water into the wine of her harsh austerity program.

Another election soon?

Despite her weak position, May could govern for quite a while at the head of a minority government. In Canada, we have seen minorities last nearly three years in the past, although the British have much less experience than we do with that sort of government.  Her own Tory party is not likely to be too kind to May, however. Tories do not like losing, and May quite deliberately made this election a test of her own leadership, a test a great many Tories will believe she failed.  

The tight result and Tory restiveness could well produce another election sooner rather than later. Those in the Labour Party who have been sniping behind Corbyn's back, and have considered him to be absolutely unelectable, might want to seriously reconsider where they stand now. 

Canadians, especially those on the left, will no doubt be examining the British election result carefully. If nothing else, Thursday's U.K. election proves that it is not electoral poison for a party and a leader to take a clear, left-of-centre stance, one that includes nationalization and expansion of social benefits. No doubt NDP leadership candidates are thinking hard about what that means for them and their party.

Photo: Andy Miah/flickr

Karl Nerenberg is your reporter on the Hill. Please consider supporting his work with a monthly donation. Support Karl on Patreon today for as little as $1 per month!

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