British Labour: From election success to Brexit conundrum.

Author:Shaw, Eric
Position:British Politics & Brexit

In Britain's June 2017 general election, the Labour Party achieved a result that far exceeded expectations. However, as the negotiations for Brexit became the focus of postelection British politics, the issues involved exposed multiple fractures in the party that the leadership will not find easy to manage.

Corbyn faces the voters

In the wake of Labour's severe defeat in the 2015 general election, elections were held for a new leader. To everyone's amazement, the winner was Jeremy Corbyn, the seasoned rebel on the "hard" left of the party. His hold on the throne was precarious and in 2016 he was forced into a second leadership election, which he also won handsomely. But his popularity among the party's rapidly expanding membership was not paralleled in the country; his poll ratings were dire.

So the mood in Labour circles was gloomy and apprehensive when Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election to be held on June 8, 2017. Labour had just suffered major reverses in local elections and parliamentary byelections and was riven by deep fractures. Corbyn was widely seen as a huge liability. Early in the campaign, polls were showing a Conservative lead of around 20 percentage points and a massive Tory majority was anticipated. (1)

The results were stunning. Far from being crushed, Labour won an additional 30 seats and 3.5 million votes, boosting its poll share by 9.5 percentage points to 40 per cent. This was the biggest swing to the party since the celebrated election of 1945. Theresa May was humiliated and forced into an embarrassing deal with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionists to maintain her majority. Her authority has been severely impaired.

Ironically, the Tories also performed well, increasing their share of the vote by 5.4 points to 42.3 per cent of the vote, their highest since the 1983 landslide. The biggest loser was the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), whose vote collapsed, but other minor parties--the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens--all suffered significant losses. Indeed, a striking outcome was the return of two-party politics, with the two main parties commanding an 82.4 per cent share of the vote, their highest combined share since 1970.

Many on the party's right and centre blamed Labour's 2015 rout on then-leader Ed Miliband's tilt to the left and clamoured for a return to middle-of-the-road politics. The Corbyn leadership instead pushed further to the left, drafting the most radical manifesto (For the Many, Not the Few) in decades. Denounced by the right-wing press for its alleged extravagance, extremism and irresponsibility, it did indeed mark a rupture from the New Labour paradigm--though its radicalism was exaggerated.

The manifesto contained some notably radical planks, such as pledges to renationalize the railways and the Royal Mail and extend public ownership into water and energy supply--promises that proved quite popular. But generally, the policies it offered lay within traditional social democratic parameters. (2) Its fiscal stance was mildly redistributive. Taxes would be raised but only for the wealthiest 5 per cent of taxpayers, those earning over [pounds sterling]80,000 each year. (3) A new tax band of 50 per cent would be introduced for those earning over [pounds sterling]123,000 while those earning over [pounds sterling]80,000 would pay at a 45 per cent rate. In addition, recent and planned reductions in corporation tax would be revoked, and an Excessive Pay Levy would be introduced on firms paying salaries of more than [pounds sterling]330,000. Emphasis was placed on much tougher curbs to combat Britain's rampant, out-of-control tax avoidance industry.

But in an attempt to reassure critics, the manifesto included a Fiscal Credibility Rule that promised to balance current spending against revenues, asserting that all spending pledges were fully costed. Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz commended Labour's economic proposals as "carefully thought-out... based on taxing those at the top and ensuring that corporations pay what they should." (4)

On the social side, there would be a significant increase in National Health Service (NHS) spending and a reversal of privatization and outsourcing. Redistributory measures included a minimum wage raised to [pounds sterling]10 per hour by 2020, extended free childcare, new trade union statutory rights and much greater legislative protection to those in insecure and precarious employment. Finally, the manifesto pledged to abolish university tuition fees, which tripled under the Conservative--Liberal Democratic coalition, loading many young people with heavy debts. (5)

The party leadership ascribed Labour's unexpected surge to the popularity of its manifesto. There is at present insufficient evidence to corroborate this claim--and it should be borne in mind that most voters have only the sketchiest familiarity with the content of manifestos. But contrary to the expectations of the party right, Labour's move to the left certainly did not lose votes. While voters may not have paid much attention to Labour's manifesto, there is evidence that many voters were apprehensive about the Tory promise to make cuts in health and other social spending. (6)

Voices on the party's right have also suggested that Labour's (relative) triumph was due more to the haplessness of the Tories' campaign than its own merits. It is true that May ran a singularly inept, poorly thought through campaign. She came across as wooden, distant and robotic, lacking any rapport with the voters, whereas Corbyn played to his strengths as a hugely experienced, energetic and surprisingly appealing campaigner. By the polling date, May's initial poll lead over her rival had dissipated.


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