Following the departure of Teresa May and her replacement as Prime Minister by Boris Johnson, British politics was in a state of paralysis as the government could not command a majority in Parliament. The government’s major task - exit from the European Union – became subject to successful blocking tactics by the elected members and also faced calls for a ‘people’s vote’ (another referendum) to remain. The hastily called election which took place on 12 December 2019 was a gamble by Johnson and pundits even on the eve of the election were predicting another ‘hung’Parliament.
The Election Results
Defining the agenda of an election informs the issues on which the campaign is fought. Two major scenarios framed the contest. Boris Johnson’s agenda was Brexit: ‘get Brexit done and we move forward’. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party defined the issues as economic and social: renew the economic infrastructure and redistribute resources ‘to the many, not the few’.
The election led to a resounding victory for Johnson’s Conservative Party and a devastating defeat for Jeremy Corbyn. On only a slightly lower electoral turnout (67 per cent of the electorate voted) the Conservatives received 43.6 per cent of the vote and 365 seats, with Labour taking 32.1 percent and 203 seats. The residual votes went to smaller parties mostly in favour of ‘remain’. The new Johnson administration will have a secure majority of 78 over all other parties. Even allowing for disagreements and splits within the Conservative Party, this gives the new administration a massive lead and a commanding role. The result reflects public support for Johnson over Brexit. Labour lost 59 seats which were mainly clustered in traditional areas of support for leave – the former industrial heartlands of the North and Midlands. Labour’s feeble policy on Brexit (calling for another ‘confirmatory’ referendum) was the major cause for defeat in its traditional areas. Here membership of the European Union (EU) was blamed for de-industrialisation, economic decay and the poverty which has followed. The leader, Jeremy Corbyn, had some electoral liabilities, but these were no different from the previous election when, under Corbyn, Labour had a significant rise in votes to one of its highest in its history.
The results will change the political landscape in the UK. For the Labour Party in the UK Parliament, the loss of MPs from the former industrial areas of the country will strengthen the middle-class and southern image of the Party. The Party’s London commentariat is already ‘blaming the voters’ for its defeat. On social media the Labour downfall has been interpreted as ‘a victory for the old against the young, racists over people of colour, selfishness over the planet’ (Paul Mason, cited by John Denham, Daily Telegraph 14 December 2019). The Conservative Party in Parliament will also make way for new members from working class constituencies, hitherto represented by Labour, who will press for greater welfare distribution and state support for their areas. The Conservatives will then become in reality what Boris Johnson contends they are: a ‘one nation’ Party.
Consequences for the Regions
In Scotland results were also dramatic. Once a solid fortress of Labour support built on the mining, metal working and shipbuilding industries, Labour now only has one seat (out of 59); a major shift has led to the Scottish National Party (SNP) securing 48 seats. The spectre of Scottish nationalism and the SNP’s call for an independence referendum puts the future of the union of England and Scotland into question. Claims by Scotland for independence were defeated in the referendum in Scotland in 2014: a total of 84.6 of the electorate voted – but only 44.7 per cent in favour of independence. All indications are that the movement for independence is growing. Unlike England and Wales, Scotland voted positively in the EU Referendum to remain in the EU and the UK’s departure will strengthen the claim for another referendum on Scottish independence. The implications here are that Scotland would re-join the EU if it were able to fulfil the EU’s financial and other conditions. There would also be implications for NATO as the SNP would expel the Trident submarine from Scottish waters and the SNP is opposed to any nuclear weapons in Scotland.
The national question also is an issue in Ireland. The Democratic Unionist Party (in favour of staying with the UK) suffered a 5.4 per cent decline in their support in Northern Ireland; although still the largest Party, calls are made there for a referendum on unification with Ireland. Added legitimacy to this demand is to be found in Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU – which would be achieved through unification with the Republic of Ireland.
Future Political Outcomes
The outcome will put to rest any uncertainty about the UK’s exit from the European Union (EU). After securing the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK will leave the EU on 31 January 2020. This is not the end of negotiations, however, as then the two sides must come to agreements on their future relationships (notably trading terms) by 31 December 2020. Unlike Teresa May, Johnson will now be able to play a very strong hand as he will be able to command support in Parliament and even threaten a ‘no deal’ on tariffs and trading conditions. This will be a period of political wrangling. It is in the interest of both the EU and UK to maintain positive trade and cultural links. The EU has a considerable trade surplus with the UK and exports from Germany would suffer greatly in the event of a tariff war.
The UK would not be bound by constraints on government support for failing British firms and support for UK industry is likely to increase. The Conservative government in cutting away from the EU will certainly strengthen links with the Trump administration and former British Commonwealth countries. No doubt the Americans will want some reciprocity from the UK: a closer linkage on NATO and foreign affairs policies in general is likely. As the EU becomes more of a political entity, the Atlantic Alliance will probably strengthen and a revival of the Anglo sphere is also likely.
The EU will be significantly weakened by the exit of the UK. Brexit entails the rejection of what the EU stands for: the four freedoms ensuring the unrestricted mobility of capital, labour, services and goods plus the rights of ‘establishment’; the centralised EU administrative power over the member states; the demands for even greater and deeper union. A more positive result is that the EU’s political leadership will not be compromised by the UK’s transatlantic ties and allegiances; Germany and France will undoubtedly become more powerful. Geo-politically, it seems likely that the EU will be able to adopt a more independent foreign policy which might have implications for normalising relations with the states of the Eurasian Economic Union.
Politically, there are lessons to be learned by the EU from the UK’s departure. There has been a tendency for members of the EU Commission to dismiss demands from member states for more sovereignty. The groundswell of popular opposition to the EU in the UK, despite the concerted attempts of the incumbent political classes, are paralleled by movements in all the EU member states. And the UK’s successful exit will give a psychological boost to these developments. As the member states are closely integrated politically and economically into the EU structure, exit for them is not a practical political possibility. Any alternative currently is worse. Internal disruption and extra-legal havoc, along the lines of the Mouvement des gilets jaunes (‘yellow jackets’) in France and challenges to EU laws (as in Poland and Hungary), are likely to magnify - unless current policies are seriously reconsidered and amended. There are clearly costs involved in the present free market framework, particularly with respect to the free movement of capital and labour, as well as with the restrictions on the role of state governments in support of national economies. The EU, however, may learn another lesson: not to allow the electorate a vote of confidence on its membership.
David Lane is a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences and currently Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge University; he was previously Professor of Sociology at the University of Birmingham. Recent publications include: Changing Regional Alliances for China and the West (With G. Zhu) (2018); The Eurasian Project in Global Perspective (2016); (With V. Samokhvalov) The Eurasian Project and Europe (2015); Elites and Identity in the Transformation of State Socialism (2014).