What the Bloody Hell Is Happening? The U.K. Election, Explained

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

Dearest American reader: You may be familiar with the feeling of overwhelming depression at a right-wing victory in a national election. Well, the Brits are about to have our third of those in as many years. In the 2015 general election, after all the polls and dumb idiots in the media predicted a loss for the Conservative Party would leave no party with a majority, the top-hatted twats actually increased their Parliamentary majority.

A year later, the same thing happened with Brexit. No one ever really thought it would happen, though the polling indicated a tightening race towards the end. But then, there we were, bleary eyed on a Friday morning, with the prospect of Britain leaving the EU to swallow with our Weetabix.

And here we are again. Tomorrow, Brits will vote in yet another bloody election—and it’s not going to be good.


What is happening?

In April, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election, which is a thing in the U.K.. Until 2011, it was up to the prime minister when elections were held, but they had to do it at least once every 5 years, and an election could be forced through a vote of no confidence in Parliament. A 2011 law set a fixed term of elections every five years, starting in 2015, and a prime minister could only call a new election with a two-thirds vote in Parliament. But May rather quickly showed how toothless this law is: She wanted her election, and it’s politically difficult for the opposition to say anything other than “bring it on,” so here we are. The Conservative manifesto this year also pledges to abolish that 2011 law, so we can go back to the good old days of prime ministers calling elections whenever their opponents have just slipped on a banana peel. (Oh, and they also want to introduce voter ID.)

Who is Theresa May?

Theresa May is the prime minister (PM) and the leader of the Conservative Party (a.k.a. the Tories). She took power last year after David Cameron resigned as a result of thoroughly owning himself with the Brexit referendum. Though she was against Brexit before the vote, as PM she has opted for a full-on Thelma and Louise driving into the Grand Canyon approach, saying she will pursue a “hard Brexit” wherein Britain will leave the single European market and regain control over immigration. Before she was prime minister, she was Home Secretary under Cameron, where she oversaw, among other things, a program to send vans around the country warning undocumented immigrants to “GO HOME.”


Who’s the other bloke?

May’s main opponent is Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party since 2015, when he won the leadership election with a massive majority after running on a platform of moving the Labour Party left. One good introduction to Corbyn’s political persona (and appeal) is this video in which a stern Tory looks very mad that Corbyn keeps showing up to Parliament wearing a sweater his mother knitted him:

Since becoming leader, Corbyn has baffled and appalled the largely horrible British press. They immediately pounced on and amplified his every misstep, while also inventing some missteps on their own. They claimed he stole sandwiches from veterans (he didn’t) and that he snubbed the Queen by missing a Privy Council meeting (he was on holiday; also, what a stupid country). He also made some odd unforced errors, some of which are the result of his just being a very unpolished politician, like not even miming along to the bloody national anthem. More seriously, some argued he didn’t promote the Remain campaign enough, and one of his enemies in the party even alleged he secretly voted Leave. It’s important to remember that while Corbyn is a regular target of the U.K.’s right-wing press, he has been most hated—and most attacked—by many of the country’s ostensible liberals. He was so loathed by the Blairite, centrist wing of the Labour party that they forced a leadership election after Brexit, which Corbyn won resoundingly. Whoops.


Anyone else important?

Other parties that played a bigger role in previous elections, like the centrist Liberal Democrats and the far-right UKIP, are much more marginal this time around. The Tories are benefitting from the collapse of UKIP support; now that Theresa May has gone all-in on a hard Brexit, there isn’t as much reason to vote for UKIP and risk wasting your vote. The Lib Dems, vaporous centrist buffoons who showed themselves to be utterly useless during five years in a governing coalition with the Tories, are all dead. They died. RIP to them.


Why is this happening now?

May ostensibly called the election to “unify” the country before it enters into negotiations with the European Union over Brexit. But like Cameron calling the Brexit referendum itself, it was a cynical political move: In this case, perceiving a weak opposition under Corbyn, May thought she’d be able to consolidate power, crush the opposition, boost her majority, and proceed with fucking up the country for another five years undeterred.


She sounds shit. Will she lose?

It brings me great pain to tell you: She probably won’t.

You might not expect this if your only knowledge of the election comes from seeing the odd poll on Twitter. When May called the election, the Tories had a commanding lead of around 20 points. That lead has collapsed. Some polls show Labour neck and neck with the Tories now, and a Telegraph average of polls shows a gap of just 5 points. YouGov even predicts May will fall 21 seats short of being able to form a government.


But it’s still likely that Theresa May will remain in power. Most projections, including polling expert Lord Ashcroft and Britain Elects, predict the Conservative Party will increase its majority in Parliament even further.

That’s partly because polls in the UK are just a bit shit. On average they get results wrong by a much larger margin than in the U.S.. Like the U.S., we don’t decide our leader with a simple national vote, though the British system is still a lot more sensible than the electoral college: The prime minister is the leader of the majority party in Parliament, so it depends on who wins the most seats. But, also like the U.S., this system gives more weight to some voters than others: In 2015, the Conservative party won 50 percent of the seats in the House of Commons with 36 percent of the vote.


The polls themselves aren’t necessarily that helpful, either. There aren’t polls of swing constituencies in the U.K. like polls of swing states in the U.S., so the gap between national popular vote and how many seats each party will actually get can be pretty huge. The polls showing the best results for Labour have tended to have a much more optimistic sample for youth turnout, and young people are generally much less likely to actually show up on the day.

On the other hand: One million people aged 18-24 have registered to vote since 2015. Corbyn’s best hope for victory is if an unprecedented number of young people make it to the polls.


What would that mean?

It’s very unlikely that Labour would win enough seats to achieve an overall majority. Labour’s best hope is for the Tories to lose enough seats to form a hung parliament—that’s where no party has a clear majority so no party can form a government.


In that case, the question would be whether Labour can whip up a coalition government. Their most likely partner would be Scottish National Party, whose politics are very similar to Labour, but with a commitment to an independent Scotland thrown in. The leader of the SNP has pointedly declined to rule out joining such a coalition. The prospect has also long been a Tory talking point. In 2015, not long after the failed Scottish independence referendum, the prospect of a Labour/SNP coalition was used to try and frighten voters into voting Tory.

Before you get too invested in the details of coalition government, though, I should probably remind you that this is all still exceedingly unlikely to happen.


So why are we even talking about Labour, if they’re going to lose?

Mostly because it wasn’t supposed to be this close at all. Everyone thought the British public would roundly reject Corbyn’s “radicalism,” but instead, Corbyn’s actual agenda, and not the caricatured version of it, has proven to be popular enough to narrow a 20-point national polling gap to single digits.

This image was removed due to legal reasons.

The biggest turning point for Labour was May’s introduction of, and then U-turn on, the so-called “dementia tax.”


Under the current system, the state will pay for the cost of caring for elderly people in nursing homes if they have assets of less than £23,250, including their property (if they are well enough to receive in-home care, the value of their property doesn’t count). The “dementia tax” plan would have paid for all social care costs, but it would have introduced a ceiling of £100,000 on the amount of money relatives would be able to keep from the value of those assets. So, if the cost of caring for an older person was high—-for example because they lived for a long time with dementia—the government would help itself to the rest of the value of their assets above £100,000. That policy was so hated that May had to walk it back.

The other definitive issue is the two horrific terror attacks that Britain has experienced in the past few weeks, in Manchester in May and in London just last weekend. While May has argued (predictably) that Corbyn is soft on terror, it hasn’t been the devastating blow to Corbyn that she might have hoped for—perhaps because the Conservatives have controlled the government for year, and May was, obviously, prime minister during those attacks.


Corbyn has attacked May on cuts to the police under the Conservative government, even calling on her to resign. May’s also been hurt by revelations that the Manchester suicide bomber was reported to the anti-extremism hotline by a Muslim community worker and known to MI5, and that the London Bridge attacker was featured in a documentary on Islamic extremism in the U.K..

Attacks on Corbyn for voting against anti-terrorism measures have also fallen a little flat, given that May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson also voted against several of those measures under Labour. May, for her part, has promised to change human rights laws to allow her to, for example, deport terror suspects to countries where they would likely be tortured, something she was desperate to do as Home Secretary.


Generally, the campaign has made an extremely funny joke of May’s “Strong and Stable” slogan. She said no to head-to-head debates back in April, and she stuck to that plan, but after the dementia tax debacle, her absence was much more noticeable. Journalists pushed her on whether she was “frightened” to debate Corbyn, and Corbyn hammered her on it, too. May sent Home Secretary Amber Rudd to take her place in the debate, which didn’t go great; the Green Party leader Caroline Lucas slammed May for skipping the debate, saying the “first rule of leadership is to show up.” There were even rumors that May was refusing to go on any local radio shows. Overall, May’s campaign has lately created the impression that they the less the public sees of May, the better their chances of victory, which is hardly a reassuring message for a country about to negotiate its exit from the EU.

Can Jezza do it, Libby?

If the last two years taught us anything, it’s that predicting elections is a mug’s game. The unexpected keeps happening. Every pundit who dismissed Corbyn as a smelly old lefty in a weird jumper who doesn’t even love THE QUEEN HERSELF has to reckon with, if not a Corbyn victory, the fact that they were just plain wrong about Corbyn’s potential for broad appeal.


Unfortunately, the rule of the last two years—expect the unexpected—probably won’t apply here. Labour will probably lose, and it will be heartbreaking for those who wish for a fairer and more just Britain. But instead of that sense of Nothing Matters dread we felt on November 9, there might be the smallest whiff of hope. This campaign didn’t go how Theresa May hoped; she didn’t blow Corbyn and his left agenda to bits. That agenda actually turned out to be quite popular, and Strong and Stable turned out not to mean much at all.

Of course, there’s nothing more British than secretly nursing optimism for a victory, then later claiming you always knew it was hopeless (see: every World Cup since 1966). Cross your fingers, hope for a huge youth turnout, and have a cup of tea. Things can only get better. Right?

Splinter politics writer. libby.watson@splinternews.com

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