16/05/2017 - Analysis
On 18th April the British Prime Minister Theresa May (Conservative Party) took everyone by surprise as she announced the organisation of a snap election (3 years before the normal date) for the 8th June next.
The head of government, who took over from David Cameron in 10 Downing Street without passing via a ballot, hopes to strengthen her parliamentary majority just before the Brexit. Indeed, according to the calendar, the UK will officially leave the EU in 2019. Several unpopular measures might be taken before and after this date, so Theresa May has an interest in avoiding an election at those particular times. "I have now come to the conclusion that the only way to guarantee certainty and stability for the next few years is to organise this snap election to achieve your support," she declared.
Nor does she want to run the risk of a sanction vote in the general elections following the UK's exit of the EU, which if the deadlines are respected, would take place in 2020.
In addition to this the present situation is particularly favourable to the Tories, who hold a significant lead over their Labour rivals in all of the polls. Just three weeks before the general election the Conservative victory seems to be guaranteed. The only remaining question is how what the margin will be.
The last YouGov poll for The Sunday Times, published on 11th May last credits the Conservative Party with 49% of the vote ahead of Labour, 31%; the Liberal Democrats (Lib-Dem), 9% and the UK Independence Party (UKIP), 3% for the Scottish National Party (SNP) is due to win 5% of the vote.
The weariness of the British, who will be voting on 8th June next for the third time in three years (after the general elections of May 2015 and the referendum on the country's exit of the EU on 23rd June 2016 (and 4th time for the Scots who voted on their independence on 14th September 2014), is a real danger which might spoil the success forecast for the Conservatives. This threat was incidentally brandished by the Prime Minister, at a time when she dismissed the possibility of convening a snap election.
The Scottish National Party's decision (SNP) to initiate the process for a new referendum over Scotland's independence has undoubtedly played a major role in Theresa May's decision. Indeed she knows that she will not be able to satisfy both the supporters of the hard Brexit (i.e. which would lead the UK towards exiting the Single Market and the Customs Union as well as the end of all freedom of movement of workers and goods), and the Scots. The latter, who support the EU might, in the event of the hard Brexit, choose to vote to leave the UK, in short for independence in a new referendum. Conversely, a soft Brexit might challenge the support given by the most radical Brexiteers to the outgoing head of State.
Disunion is the other danger that hovers over the UK. Indeed although England voted mainly in support of the Brexit, Scotland and Northern Ireland however voted to remain. Ulster is suffering a political crisis and has had no government for the last two months. As for the Scottish nationalists, if they achieve a high score in the election on 8th June next they might pursue the organisation of a new popular consultation over Scotland's independence. Glasgow is dreaming of a Danish-style solution but in the Scandinavian kingdom, the region that does not belong to the EU, Greenland, is a tiny part of the country. For Scotland the situation would be the opposite and therefore not so easy to achieve.
The House of Commons, the lower house of parliament, where the Conservative Party has a majority of 16 seats with its allies from the Democratic Union Party (DUP) and Unionist Party (UUP) of Northern Ireland, was dissolved on 3rd May by 522 votes against 13 and around 100 abstentions.
Hence via this election outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May wants to assert her legitimacy, within her own party and in the face of her European partners and to strengthen her own personal authority. She also wants to bring a final end to all hope of a return, even of a second referendum organised on the UK's exit of the EU. To do this she aims to exploit the divisions that are now rife in the Labour party and take advantage of the exceptional position –according to the polls - enjoyed by the Conservative Party. These polls were confirmed in the ballot on 4th May last since the Tories won 38% of the vote in the by-elections (the best performance of a party in power in the last 40 years), ahead of Labour (28%) and the LibDems (18%). Labour suffered major defeat, losing 10 local councils (out of 37) in England, 3 out of 7 in Wales and 3 out of 3 in Scotland, where the Conservatives won 164 additional council seats, Labour lost 133. Jeremy Corbyn's party also lost the town hall of Glasgow, a Labour stronghold for decades.
"Theresa May is presenting the general elections on 8th June next as another referendum over the Brexit. Her party is divided over the issue of the Brexit, but Labour is even more divided and may find it hard to present an alternative position," stressed John Curtice, a professor of political science at the University of Strathclyde in Scotland. The election will indeed focus on this issue more than any other in terms of domestic policy. On 29th March last the British Ambassador to the EU delivered a letter to the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, thereby triggering article 50 and the UK's exit process from the EU.
A wide victory in the ballot might enable Theresa May to negotiate a strong position against the Europeans and also within her own party, without having to depend on the most radical wing of the Conservatives and without fearing the consequences of an agreement that would not give satisfaction to the supporters of a hard Brexit. "Each vote for the Tories will make me stronger when I negotiate with Brussels with the Prime Ministers, the presidents, the chancellors of the EU," repeats the head of government.
"Voters have the choice between a government that has brought stability and firm management and which is working in the national interest or a weak coalition government led by Jeremy Corbyn, supported by the LibDems, who want to re-open the divisions that appeared during the referendum on 23rd June last, and the Scottish nationalists led by Nicolas Sturgeon," she added.
Theresa May also hopes to count on the support of the widest possible majority to complete the reforms she intends for the country. She is targeting a 140 lead in the House of Commons. On 18th July last as she took office, the Prime Minister held an extremely social discourse that broke with the ideas of her predecessor in 10 Downing Street, David Cameron. She wants a protective, social State. For the time being she aims to postpone the goal of budgetary balance until 2020 and increase the budget allocated to the British army (NATO is obliging States to commitments of 2% of the GDP to the defence budget).
Theresa May hopes to reduce immigration to the UK.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn faces the general election in a bad position. Only 15% of the British (and less than a third of the Labour voters 30%) believe that he would make a better Prime Minister than Theresa May. The opposition party could also have prevented this election since the Prime Minister's decision absolutely had to be accepted by the majority of 2/3 of the House of Commons to be validated.
After the referendum on 23rd June last on the UK's exit of the EU nearly a dozen Labour ministers resigned from the Shadow Cabinet led by Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader was also challenged by ¾ of the party's MPs who rejected him, as they voted in a motion of censure, 172 votes against 40. Some weeks later on 24th September he was re-elected however as Labour's leader, opposite Owen Smith, with 61% of the vote, i.e. +2 points in comparison with his first election on 12th September 2015.
Finally at the beginning of the year three ministers from the Shadow Cabinet again resigned after the party signed a law notifying the establishment of the Brexit. 47 Labour MPs voted against it and around 7000 Labour Party members resigned in protest against Labour's position on the issue.
Jeremy Corbyn has been heavily criticised for having undertaken an extremely ambiguous, unconvincing campaign in the referendum on 23rd June last. Against the EU's membership of the EU in 1975, the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, the treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe in 2005 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, the Labour leader, shaken by the campaign he had undertaken jointly with the Conservative during the referendum on Scotland's independence, defended the Remain campaign without any real enthusiasm.
After that he was careful not to go against - a major share (one third of the labour supporters voted for the Brexit according to the polls) of his supporters - who were favourable to the UK's exit of the EU.
The main opposition party is fighting for London to retain the advantages that result from its membership of the Single Market and for a management of migration in line with the economic interests of Britain and the local authorities.
Labour maintains that if it wins on 8th June next parliament will be consulted about the agreement to be negotiated regarding London's exit of the EU and that MPs will be able to send the government back to the negotiating table if they are not satisfied with the text. "Labour is trying to win back ground by offering a softer version of the Brexit in the face of the hard stance defended by Theresa May. This might convince some of the electorate but putting the economy ahead of immigration is a risking wager," indicates Simon Hix, a political expert at the London School of Economics (LSE).
"I am happy to have the opportunity to stand before the British, against this government and its failed economic programme that has left the National Health Service (NHS) in a dire situation, which has impoverished our schools, damaged our living standards and left many people in uncertainty. We just want present our arguments to the British people, we want a society that takes care of everyone, an economy for all and a Brexit that functions for all," declared Jeremy Corbyn.
The Labour leader is accusing Theresa May of wanting to use the Brexit to transform the UK into a tax paradise for some and a country of low wages for others. "It is the establishment against the people," he maintained. In Jeremy Corbyn's opinion, the outgoing Prime Minister is leading a party of the privileged, who want to offer major tax rebates to big companies and to the richest, whilst cutting social spending and by turning immigrants and the beneficiaries of social aid into scapegoats.
Labour is putting forward an extremely left-wing programme that would like to represent the socialism of the 21st century and which highlights the defence of public services that are threatened by the budgetary austerity policy undertaken in its opinion by the Conservatives over the last 7 years.
Labour aims to increase the minimum wage, introduce free primary school education, build a million council housing, renationalise the railways, introduce a national education service that would last a lifetime, upgrade student grants and retirement pensions and reform the NHS. "We would no longer allow those at the top to live at the expense of others who break their backs with zero hour contracts or who are forced to make sacrifices to reimburse their loans or pay their rent," declared Jeremy Corbyn.
Fervent supporters of Remain the LibDems have campaigned for a long time for another referendum, a promise that they gave up in order to focus on the fight for a soft Brexit. Their leader Tim Farron called for pro-Europeans to seize the opportunity these elections provide "to change direction and avoid the disaster of a hard Brexit, which would lead to London's exit of the Single Market." The LibDems are hoping to win between 20 and 30 seats in the House of Commons on 8th June.
For its part the UK Independence Party (UKIP) almost lost its reason for being and has been experiencing some difficulty in establishing a programme since the victory of the Brexit on 23rd June last year. Moreover, the party has been undermined by its internal divisions and is now without its historical leader (Nigel Farage left the party in November 2016; on 20th April last he announced that he would not stand in the general election) and of MPs that can represent it after its new leader Paul Nuttall was defeated by a Labour candidate in February in the by election in Stoke-on-Trent (one of the 30 biggest town councils in the country), a town where the highest majority had voted to leave the EU. Moreover its only MP Douglas Carswell, elected in the constituency of Clacton-on-Sea (Essex) left the party in March to re-join his former party, the Tories.
"UKIP is in total disarray. It is seeking another programme and does not simply want to put pressure on Theresa May, but in real terms it has nothing else to offer than a hard Brexit," indicated Brian Klaas, professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics. It will influence the election however since its decline in the ballot might allow the Conservatives to win, for the first time in more than a century, an absolute majority in Wales. Indeed although the electorate of the Paul Nuttall's party originally came from Labour many are now turning to the Conservative Party, notably in the North of England.
The British Parliament comprises two Houses: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. The House of Commons is elected for five years. For a long time the length of the legislature was not set and the Prime Minister could decide at any moment to convene an election. Since 2011 and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the general elections (when they are not early) take place on the first Thursday in May of the fourth year following the previous election. The House of Commons is automatically dissolved 25 days before this date.
For the general elections the UK is divided into 650 constituencies: 529 in England, 59 in Scotland, 40 in Wales and 18 in Northern Ireland. The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act of 2011 provided for the electoral re-zoning and the reduction of the number of MPs from 650 to 600. Since the law was amended in 2013 the rezoning of the constituencies will only occur in 2018. The vote takes place according to a majority single list in one round. Called First past the post, in reference to the jargon used in horse racing, this system privileges the candidate who comes out ahead in the election, whether he/she has won 80% or 30% of the vote. This system is fatal for the "small" parties which can only hope to win a seat if their votes are geographically concentrated as they are in certain regions (Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland) and where they succeed in winning some seats.
Any person aged 18 and over can stand in the general election except for members of the clergy of the Church of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church, certain high ranking civil servants, soldiers, professional policemen, judges and officers of the court, and finally ambassadors. Candidate lists have to be supported by at least 10 voters and a deposit of £500 (595€) has to be paid per constituency.
11 political parties won seats in the House of Commons after the last general elections on 7th May 2015:
– the Conservative Party (Conservative), created in the 19th century and led since 2016 by Theresa May has 331 seats;
– Labour Party (Labour), founded in 1900 and led by Jeremy Corbyn with 232 seats;
– the Scottish National Party (SNP), a secessionist party led by Nicola Sturgeon, has 56 seats;
– the Liberal Democrats (LibDem), created in 1988 and led by Tim Farron, has 8 seats ;
– The Democratic Ulster Party (DUP), a Protestant Unionist party which defends the interests of the Protestant community in Northern Ireland, and supports the upkeep of the region in the UK, is led by Arlene Foster with 8 seats;
– Sinn Fein (SF), an Irish republican, nationalist party led by Gerry Adams, has four seats;
– Plaid Cymru (PC), a Welsh regionalist party led by Leanne Wood, with 3 seats;
– the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), a Catholic party of Northern Ireland led by Colum Eastwood, with 3 seats;
– the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), a unionist party of Northern Ireland led by Robin Swann with 2 seats;
– the Green Party of England and Wales (G) an ecologist party led by Caroline Lucas and Jonathan Bartley, with 1 seat;
– the UK Independence Party (UKIP) which campaigned for the withdrawal of the UK from the EU led by Paul Nuttall with one seat.
The second house in the British parliament, the House of Lords, has 813 members at present (the figure is variable), of whom 257 are Conservatives and 207 Labour. It comprises life peers or people who have been knighted for their work done for the nation– former MPs, former high ranking civil servants, judges, industrialists - and hereditary Lords (hereditary Lords were abolished by the 1999 reform but 92 of them, chosen by their colleagues and the groups in the House of Lords, have temporarily retained their seats) and 26 Bishops of the Church of England. Every year each political party has the right to put forward the names of personalities that they want to raise to the rank of life peer. The Lords cannot block the vote on a law put forward by the government or the House of Commons but simply delay it, which they do very rarely.