Event ReportsPublished on Jan 09, 2020
The elections reflected the public discontent with the political deadlock on Brexit, and Boris Johnson’s strategy of reinforcing simple and clear slogans worked in his favour, bolstering the Conservative Party’s victory.
Now taking forward Brexit deal won’t be  a challenge

“The Conservative Party’s campaign in the recent UK parliamentary polls is a tribute to the effectiveness of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at making this election entirely about Brexit,” said Dr. Vinitha Revi, independent Researcher based in Chennai, while initiating a discussion on the ‘British Polls and After’ at Observer Research Foundation, Chennai, on 21 December 2019.

The discussion was centred on the recent British elections and its possible implications for Brexit in specific and future of British politics in general. She also discussed the dynamics within the defeated Labour Party and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as well as the issues surrounding Northern Ireland and Scotland.

Though the elections were not due until May, 2022, “a snap election was called for by Boris Johnson to put an end to the political deadlock on Brexit and to push forward the Brexit deal”, said Dr. Revi.  She noted that Theresa May had similarly called for a snap election in 2017. However, her party did not win by a majority and in order to retain control, she entered into what is known as a “confidence and supply arrangement” with the Democratic Unionist Party.

This time, while it was predicted that no party would gain a clear majority, the Conservative Party won by a huge majority -- winning 50 more seats since 2017, whereas the Labour Party had lost nearly 60 seats since the previous election. Dr. Revi said though the anti-Brexit MPs from the Conservative Party and the anti-Corbyn members from the Labour Party had defected to the LDP, their leader Jo Swinson had to resign after losing her seat to the Scottish National Party (SNP).

Fall of the ‘Red-wall’

While explaining the reasons for the Conservative Party’s victory, Dr. Revi highlighted the structure of the campaigns. “The Conservative Party’s campaign made Brexit their core campaign issue, as demonstrated by their slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’”, she said. On the other hand, the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn, believed that “voters would prioritise bread-and-butter issues” and structured their campaign around issues other than Brexit such as the NHS, economic reforms and living standards.

According to Dr. Revi, Corbyn’s proposal for a second referendum was unpopular as people felt that the first referendum in 2016 was itself a mistake and were daunted by the idea a second one. She added that Corbyn’s six-month plan for negotiating the Brexit deal was considered over-ambitious and his refusal to take a stand on Brexit swayed the people towards voting for the Conservative Party, which stated in no uncertain terms that Brexit would indeed be a reality.

The Conservatives managed to break through the red-wall i.e., the conventional strongholds of the Labour Party, which included Northern England and the Midlands, as observed by the speaker. For instance, in Burnley, the Labour Party lost to the Conservatives for the first time in over a century.

Divided Labour

Dr. Revi explained Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s radical-left personality did not enjoy widespread popularity and the fact that the Labour Party was being investigated for anti-Semitism was a black-mark upon him. According to Dr. Revi, divisions within the party, particularly between the moderates and the far-left supporters of Corbyn had been simmering for a while and eventually led to their loss.

The discussion also dealt with the electorate’s mentality, which helped shape the outcome of the election. Dr. Revi cited a study conducted by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London, which revealed that people were more concerned and felt strongly about Brexit, than they did about their political parties. Despite Johnson not enjoying popularity even within his own party, his clear message that his party would ‘Get Brexit Done’ proved to be a successful strategy.

Tactical voting is when people vote for a candidate that they normally would not choose, merely to avoid the other candidate from securing more votes. Though tactical voting was discussed widely during the six-week campaigning period, it didn’t prove successful. Dr. Revi commented on the electoral volatility, stating that “between 2010- 17, 49% of the public changed the party they voted for.” Such high levels of volatility is unheard of in British politics, Dr Revi pointed out. “the elections also signified public loss of trust in politics and aggregate economics.”

Prospects and challenges

The discussion also threw light on the aftermath of the elections and the impending Brexit deal. Dr. Revi opined that given the overwhelming majority with which the Conservative won, taking the Brexit deal forward won’t be a challenge. One of the major challenges pointed out by Dr. Revi is the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, which was earlier impossible. However, the question still remains as to whether the Conservatives can accomplish Brexit within the stated deadlines.

There are numerous uncertainties as to how Britain would address the issues regarding Ireland and Scotland. The question of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland remains unresolved. As for Scotland, Dr. Revi explained that the SNP did not favour Brexit, and Nicola Sturgen their leader has been calling for a second Scottish independence referendum with the purpose of remaining with the EU. “The Economy will take a hit, immigration will probably slow down and reports have shown that the price of medicines and food will almost certainly go up,” said Dr. Revi while explaining the challenges facing Britain post-Brexit.

“Brexit and elections revealed what Prof. Will Jennings refers to as the idea of two Englands divided geographically, economically and demographically. Brexit showed that the aged population who predominantly occupied the rural areas were against remaining with the EU” said Dr. Revi. She further added, Brexit was not just about Britain’s relationship with the EU, but more a protest vote to register their dissatisfaction.”

In conclusion, Dr Revi said, “There is great uncertainty regarding so many things…It is unclear how customs and trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will be put in place, the future of Scotland outside the EU is being questioned.” Though the EU is happy with Johnson’s victory because they too want to “get Brexit done” Dr Revi cited Prof. Anand Menon, who stated that the EU will be careful to examine the implications of the agreement before signing off. Only time will tell how Brexit would materialise and what it would hold for the future of Britain and its relations with other nations.

This report was prepared by Thejaswini Srikanth, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru

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