May’s election disaster and the road ahead

June 12, 2017

Britain's ruling Conservative Party government of Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a huge setback in the June 8 general election that May herself engineered--while the opposition center-left Labour Party defied all previous expectations with a major surge in votes and seats won in parliament. May and the Tories could remain in power if they make a deal with the right-wing Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, but this is a strong repudiation of the Conservatives' neoliberal agenda--and an endorsement of the avowedly left-wing alternative put forward by Corbyn, despite opposition from the Labour Party establishment.

Here, Amy Gilligan and Colin Wilson provide a morning-after analysis of the election in this article published at the revolutionary socialism in the 21st century website.

OPTIMISM GOING into the June 8 election turns out to have been well placed. The Tories, and particularly Theresa May, have been dealt a massive blow. Many Tories will be stunned by the result, asking themselves how they could have gone from a 24 percent lead in the polls to what comes down to defeat--and at the hands of Labour, led by the supposedly "unelectable" Jeremy Corbyn. To quote Tory MP Nigel Evans: "It was an amazing own goal. We didn't shoot ourselves in the foot, we shot ourselves in the head."

Labour has done better than most of us dared hope. A year ago--or even when May called the election in April--it would have seemed an unrealistic dream for Labour to defy the establishment pundits and right-wing media and destroy the Tories' majority. This is a historic victory for the left: Corbyn's message has been proved hugely popular. Labour has won 40 percent of the vote--just short of Tony Blair's result in 2001--and the support of almost 13 million people.

It was a mixed night for the Liberal Democrats, but anyone who was part of the student movement in 2010 will have celebrated as former leader Nick Clegg lost his seat--a final punishment for his support of the Tories, and a belated victory for all those on the streets seven years ago.

British Prime Minister Theresa May vows to remain in office
British Prime Minister Theresa May vows to remain in office

May is trying to patch together some kind of arrangement, which gives her a wafer-thin majority, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). The Northern Ireland Assembly collapsed in January when DUP leader Arlene Foster became involved in a corruption scandal over green energy payments. The DUP prevents women in Northern Ireland from getting abortions, has blocked same-sex marriage and describes climate change as a con. Corbyn was attacked in the election as a "terrorist sympathizer"--but the DUP has a long history of links with armed groups. These are the people May now relies on to remain in government.

The election result leaves many questions unresolved. May will try to struggle on as prime minister. Yet many Tory MPs are furious at how she mismanaged the election campaign and all too aware of how inadequate a politician she is. Talk of a leadership challenge had begun to circulate last night, even before the last results were declared. But who can replace her? In particular, who can pull together the different factions of a divided and traumatized Tory party? What will a coalition with the DUP mean for Brexit, for Ireland, and politics in Britain generally? How can Labour best exploit these divisions? How can the momentum of those who have been energized and politicized over the last few weeks be kept up to campaign against what the Tories and DUP will be trying to push over the coming months?

The Tories' Loss

May's election campaign has been a disaster. It's only eight weeks since the Daily Mail set out the Tory strategy with its front-page headline "Crush the Saboteurs." A landslide victory was to give the Tories a mandate for the Brexit negotiations--including their racist scapegoating and their refusal to grant UK citizenship to people from the European Union (EU) living here. The landslide was also going to enhance May's personal authority. She assumed that support for Brexit and the power of the Tory-supporting press would see her through.

But as the weeks went on, May came across as robotic and inauthentic, scared of meeting the public outside stage-managed events, while repeating her "strong and stable" mantra. For many people she came to look ridiculous--most of all, when she explained that the "naughtiest" thing she ever did was running through a field of wheat. Even David Cameron's former aide Steve Hilton called on her to resign in the wake of the London Bridge attacks.

The Tories' arrogance shone through. They claimed to be the party of economic competence, but their manifesto was uncosted. May felt she could get away with not turning up to the television debates. A turning point came with the Dementia Tax, a proposal that reinforced their image as cruel and alienated one of the most reliable parts of their voter base.

The Tory share of the vote in some locations was up on 2015. Often this was achieved on the back of UKIP's [the right-populist UK Independence Party] complete collapse, with former kippers returning to the Tory Party in the hope of getting the Brexit they want. But May's chances of any success in the Brexit talks are now hugely reduced. EU leaders want to punish Britain for leaving so as to deter any other country from trying the same thing, and this will make any deal at all hard to achieve. Then May, hugely weakened, has to keep happy two very different Tory constituencies--UKIP-leaning voters, who want to go back to a fantasy version of the 1950s, and big business, which wants agreed conditions for trade and access to a migrant workforce.

Labour's Victories

Labour gained seats and votes across the UK, not just because the Tories did badly, but because they ran an excellent campaign. People supported them not just out of hatred for the Conservatives, but because Labour offered a positive vision which would make people's lives better: a £10 per hour minimum wage, free child care, no university fees, rail nationalization and an end to NHS privatization. That Labour alternative shifted the terrain of debate from Brexit, which the Tories wanted to be the main topic of the election, to public services and austerity.

Pundits were unanimous that Corbyn would be a liability for Labour. In fact, he was the party's greatest strength. He remained calm, authentic and principled. He put forward left politics in a way that people could relate to. The massive rallies during the campaign were testament to that--as John Prescott commented, Labour didn't manage anything similar even at the height of Blair's popularity in 1997. A host of initiatives, like Grime for Corbyn, sprang up as people--many of whom had previously had no time for politicians--seized the chance to campaign for change.

This is a personal vindication for Corbyn, who has weathered personal attacks on him and seen his personal approval ratings more than double over the course of the campaign. Diane Abbott's triumph in Hackney North, where she won over 75 percent of the vote, is likewise a vindication after the disgusting racist and misogynistic abuse she has faced.

But the election result is not just a personal triumph for Corbyn--it marks the end of a political era, one which began in 1994 when Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party. Since then, the common sense of politics has been that you win from the center ground, a center ground where all parties accept the free market, privatization and war. In that view, socialism was dead and left politics were electoral poison. Last night marks the death of that common sense. As ITV's Robert Peston put it, "Real politics is back."

We've already seen commentators and pundits shifting to take account of that new reality. The Guardian called for a Labour vote. Guardian columnists like Polly Toynbee, who have attacked Corbyn relentlessly for the last two years, were enthusiastic for the manifesto. Labour MPs last night were admitting that Corbyn had done well and that they had been wrong to assume the election would be a disaster. If the Guardian and the Labour right are now going to get behind Corbyn, good. Certainly most Labour voters will feel that's what they should do. But we also shouldn't be naïve. It's only a few weeks since many members of the Parliamentary Labour Party assumed that losing the election would give them their best chance yet to kick Corbyn out. The Labour right still has a base in local councils which have been happy to work with the Tories. The Guardian's strategy for financial survival relies on building a global brand around politics like those of Clinton and Macron. Anti-Corbyn voices will be quieter, but will not go away.


South of the border, surprise has been expressed about the results in Scotland, particularly the Tories gaining 12 seats, gains concentrated in mainly rural areas in the Borders and the North East. This isn't an entirely unexpected result--the Tories made gains in recent council elections and in the Scottish Parliament elections last year--though it's worse than might have been hoped for. One factor here is that the Unionist vote in the election consolidated behind the Tories, who fought the election on opposition to Indyref2, especially in areas that prior to 1997 had been Tory strongholds.

But the real story is the fall in the vote for the Scottish National Party (SNP), which also lost six seats to Labour. The SNP achieved its second-best result ever in terms of Westminster seats, but the election was undoubtedly a night of disappointment for them. The surge in 2015 that gave the SNP 56 of out of 59 seats was in many ways a freak result, with the party being able to channel the energy of the independence campaign into votes.

Now the desire for change that was reflected in near-victory in the independence referendum and the SNP's 2015 results has pushed up the Labour vote. This increase is down to Corbyn, not a rejection of Indyref2 as some of the right of the Scottish Labour Party would like to claim. The problems faced by Scottish Labour will continue unless they make a shift to the type of politics coming from Corbyn instead of obsessing over potential independence referendums.

Where Next?

Everyone on the left will be celebrating today. May's credibility is in tatters. If the Tory government manages to remains in power, they only do so with the support of the Neanderthals of the DUP. The most radical Labour manifesto any of us can remember has gained the support of millions of people.

For decades now, we've heard that socialism is dead. The result last night shows that socialism is not just alive, but is capable of winning the support of huge numbers of people--in particular, the support of an overwhelming majority of young people--who are sick of insecure jobs, poor housing and cuts to health care. As the slogan of the anti-capitalist movement put it at the beginning of this century, "Another world is possible."

The election result should inspire us all now to fight for the kind of future we want. Many people will want to defend Corbyn, and take forward those struggles, inside the Labour Party. We wish them well. But we still believe that parliament is not where real change happens. We still remember how the Greek leftists of SYRIZA were defeated by the EU and the International Monetary Fund when they tried to challenge capitalism by electoral means. That debate, between reform and revolution, is one we'll continue to have on the left.

For now, we need to celebrate, and then seize this opportunity. We can't rely on MPs to deliver a socialist future for us from above. We must build on the election campaign and look beyond parliament--to the streets, the workplaces, communities, campaigns where we can build this future ourselves.

First published at the rs21 website.

Further Reading

From the archives