The British election of 8 June 2017 was extraordinary in several respects. First, there was no need for an election. The Conservatives won a working majority of 17 seats in May 2015, and the next election was due in May 2020 (according to the Fixed Term Parliament Act). In this election the Tories lost a dozen seats, and it is anticipated that they will end up with 318 (326 is needed for a majority), while Labour will win around 261. Above all, on 29 March 2017 the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to start the two-year exit process from the European Union, and negotiations with the EU were due to start at the end of the month. Now all of this has been cast into doubt.
Second, with a hung parliament, we may not even have a government at the end of the month. We may not even have the same Prime Minister. Theresa May’s position is difficult, if not untenable. She called an unnecessary election, then fought a dreadful mean-minded and nasty campaign, and then lost seats and the Conservative’s lost their majority. In normal circumstances a PM could not survive such a litany of mistakes. The country has entered a long period of uncertainty.
Third, perhaps the most interesting outcome is not only the survival of the Labour Party but its rejuvenation under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Even his opponents concede that he fought an impressive campaign. At public meetings, squares and halls were packed. The Labour Party manifesto was fully costed (however disputed the figures), and promised a radicalism that breaks with the stifling and divisive neoliberal policies pursued by the Tories and New Labour over the last 30 years. Corbyn turned out to be far smarter than his opponents (including within the Labour Party) had expected. Labour won some 30 seats, giving them 261 in the next Parliament (as of writing, four seats have still to declare). In my own constituency of Canterbury Labour won, for the first time since the seat was created in 1918. This is something that they could not achieve even in Clement Attlee’s landside Labour victory in July 1945.
Fourth, the political establishment and the public are in something of a state of shock. In part, this is because almost none of the opinion polls predicted this result – yet another failure of this branch of the sociological profession. Few polls predicted the actual outcome: 42% for the Tories, and 40% for Labour, representing a two per cent swing to Labour on a 69% turnout, one of the highest in decades. However, the exit poll announced at 10pm as the polling stations closed was surprisingly accurate. The country has yet again been plunged into a period of uncertainty. Who will be prime minister, who will form the government, and what will be the policies? There may well have to be yet another election by the end of the year or in early 2018.
Fifth, above all, these events take place against the background of the most momentous discussions in the country’s recent history over our relationship with the EU. The EU has long been prepared for substantive talks, whereas Theresa May at this critical time called an election that she herself had long argued was unnecessary. Instead of strengthening her hand in Brexit discussions, the UK’s position has been greatly weakened. For the 48% who voted ‘Remain’, the result gives hope that the extreme ‘hard’ Brexit that was signalled by May will now be modified. Some even suggest that Brexit itself may be in question, and pulling out of the single market may now be modified. For the 3.2 million continental EU citizens living in the UK, and the 1.2 million UK citizens in the continental EU, the result will only prolong the painful uncertainty over their future.
Overall, the period of turbulence in Atlantic politics continues. Although the French political situation has stabilised quickly under Emmanuel Macron, the UK will remain in an extended period of crisis. This turbulence reflects deeper sociological and political changes. Corbyn is putting issues on the agenda that have been suppressed for 30 years, such as questions of social justice, economic rationality, and above all the inadequacies of the European and global security order. Periods of crisis are also periods of opportunity, and 8 June 2017 will join the annals of history as a moment when the tide of history began to change.