Despite a fixed term Parliament act, a government can call an election in Britain with the support of opposition parties. With the ruling Conservatives ahead by over 20 percent in opinion polls and the UK’s short campaigning period of around 7 weeks, it seemed political suicide for the Labour Party to agree. The Conservative Party looked to be set for a majority of at least 100.
This however, has been a unique contest. In those few weeks, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who many compare to Bernie Sanders, put forward a positive message and a genuinely progressive manifesto to compare with Theresa May’s ‘Hard Brexit’ and more austerity.
The outcome was the biggest increase in Labour vote since 1945 with an upswing of nearly 10 percent, and a result that deprived May of her majority. She now has to rely on Northern Ireland’s 10 Democratic Unionist Party representatives, who strongly oppose a united Ireland and whose general politics probably align with someone like Mike Pence. Even with their support May’s majority is tiny and her program is shredded.
Jeremy Corbyn, on the other hand, has come out of the election with his reputation substantially enhanced, and with at least 29 more representatives elected. The Party manifesto was bold – and importantly – costed. Despite vicious attacks from Britain’s tabloid press, people warmed to both the party leader and what he had to say. Among the highlights of the 128 page manifesto were bringing the railways, postal services and utilities back into public ownership and tax increases for those earning over $100,000.
It also included a policy extending 30 free hours of childcare to all two year olds, and moving towards making some childcare available for one year olds and extending maternity pay to 12 months. They also advocated the abolition of student fees and increased spending on health services.
In the campaign other issues emerged. The Prime Minister had to be drawn on saying anything negative about Donald Trump on climate change or anything else and gave the impression of being in the President’s pocket. (The hard Brexiters want further distance from the European Union and a closer relationship with Trump). Corbyn took the opposite stance, was harshly critical and said he would withdraw the offer of a state visit. It might seem a trivial matter, but it played well to the public. Vociferously opposing Trump worked.
Like Bernie Sanders, Corbyn also energized young people and indeed they made a significant difference in a number of districts. More women voted Labour (and now 45 percent of elected Labour representatives are women), and 30 percent of the house are women (compare this to Democrats in the House of Representatives where 32 percent are women and around 20 percent of the entire house is female).
One other point is that in 2015 the right wing anti-EU UK Independence Party (UKIP) achieved over 12.5 percent of the vote, a significant amount being working class voters who felt ‘left behind’. UKIP were expected to do badly this time round and most of their vote was expected to go to the Conservatives. Their vote went down to just 2 percent, but what stopped this being a run-away victory for Theresa May is that perhaps as much as 40 percent of them went back to the Labour Party because they felt some of their wider issues about inequality were being addressed by Corbyn.
The Labour Party did much better than 2015 because it stood on a clear platform with a leader that appealed to young people and started to reach out to people who felt abandoned in the past. They didn’t win – perhaps because they had so much ground to make up – but what progressives can learn from this election is that campaigns actually matter.