A Humiliating Defeat for the Conservative Leadership

Last week Theresa May went to the British electorate asking for an increased mandate to negotiate a hard Brexit. The country said No.

Formerly a majority government, the Conservative Party is now a minority government, struggling to make an agreement with the 10-seat Democratic Unionist Party – a right-wing, ultra-religious party from Northern Ireland. There is huge opposition to such a governmental arrangement – it would give Britain its most right-wing government ever – and it is also causing great concern in Ireland, as it is likely to flout the Good Friday Agreement.

But even though the Conservatives remained the largest single party on 42.4%, the real winners of the election are understood to be the Corbyn-led Labour Party, on 40%. Labour increased its share of the vote by 9.9% gaining 30 seats, whereas the Conservative share increased by 5.5%, losing 13 seats. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and UKIP all lost vote shares, with UKIP losing the most at 10.8%. UKIP votes generally split, going to both Labour and Conservative. This was Labour’s first increase in seats since 1997 and its biggest increase in the share of the vote since 1945. 

Youth vote going to Labour

The election campaign was marked by massive hostile attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and his supposed weakness on the economy, security, and his refusal to press the nuclear button. In reality, his anti-war, anti-austerity and anti-nuclear policies proved hugely popular, particularly with young people. Now there was something different, that they liked, to mobilise for. A quarter of a million of them registered to vote in the last days of the campaign, and their votes had a decisive impact in a number of constituencies. In the 18 to 34 age group as a whole, 63% voted Labour, compared with 27% Conservative. This pro-Corbyn sentiment continues with enthusiasm – groups of youth are spontaneously chanting Jeremy’s name on the streets and at public events.

Turn towards policy rather than personality

The election campaign really turned around when Labour issued its manifesto, almost four weeks before the election. This was in many respects a social democratic manifesto, breaking with neo-liberalism, with popular radical elements – renationalisation, some redistribution of wealth, support for the National Health Service, abolition of student fees – and all fully costed. This brought the election campaign onto a serious basis and turned the discussions towards policy rather than personality. As well as the youth vote going to Labour, it is understood that the party was able to consolidate previous Labour supporters once the manifesto had produced economic policies that would actually benefit ordinary people. Polls also show that many of those who voted to Remain during the Brexit referendum, moved to support Labour, constituting progressive support for the Corbyn leadership.

The ruling class narrative has been broken

The last few days have seen chaos around the Conservative leadership and government and it’s an open question how long May will last, as she has been massively damaged by this humiliating defeat. A hung parliament of this nature is unusual in British politics and it may be that another general election will take place before too long. That would be good news for Labour – currently polls show a further surge in support for Labour, and for Corbyn as leader, that would lead them into government with a majority. This is a significant change in British politics. The dominant ruling class narrative – that had been embraced by Labour – that there was no alternative to neo-liberalism and austerity policies, has been broken.

It is now essential that Corbyn’s position and policies are defended within the Labour party. There will be no move against him from the party’s right-wing in the short term, but there are signs that they want to get in on the Corbyn success story, no doubt attempting to dilute his popular pro-people policies. There is all to fight for, and harnessing and building upon the energy of young people is crucial to further success.