Britain stands divided after its latest general election, as neither major party formed an outright majority. This unexpected result has led to questions raised about the showing of both parties, and to the question of which party holds the future. James Dail and Alec Sweet try and explain what the Labour and the Conservative parties have to do to once again win elections.
The Labour Party
The recent U.K. election has the makings of a classic underdog story. Theresa May arrogantly thought that calling the election would be a surefire political win for her. The Conservatives were expected to steamroll a Labour Party that was hopelessly divided and in disarray. But then the Conservative lead vanished. Labour won a stunning thirty-two seats . An ashamed May was forced to form a coalition government with the fringe Democratic Unionist Party. Yet the most striking feature of this narrative is that the Conservatives finished with the highest vote share, in spite of Labour’s “victory.” May is a deeply unpopular Prime Minister, and the Conservative decline in the pre-election polls roughly mirrors the decline in May’s approval rating . The Conservatives could easily bounce back if they were to get a new Prime Minister who was more competent and likable than May. If Labour wants to start winning elections again, then it needs to fix a plethora of internal problems and rebrand its core message.
The main problem is that Labour cannot seem to decide what type of party it wants to be. On one hand, there are those that want to buck Labour’s tradition of being hostile to immigration by embracing diversity and cosmopolitanism. This faction advocates opening Britain up to the world. It wanted to accept Syrian refugees and voted to remain in the European Union. It has had several successes that helped change Labour’s image, including electing Sadiq Khan, the first Islamic mayor of London. On the other hand is the faction that is epitomized by Jeremy Corbyn, the current Leader of the Opposition. He has supported Britain leaving NATO, and though he moderated himself before the election, he has a track record of making Eurosceptic statements  . The treacherous thing about deciding between the two options is that Labour stands to lose many of its constituents to other parties if it does so. The ideal of an open Britain and the ideal of a closed Britain are unreconcilable. Labour should instead seek to minimize these cultural differences between its constituents and emphasize the uniting factor: economic policy.
"Labour should instead seek to minimize these cultural differences between its constituents and emphasize the uniting factor: economic policy."
Focusing on Corbyn’s economic message would allow Labour to permanently alter its political identity and once again become the party of change, something that Britain is hungry for. The Third-Way movement, Labour’s moderating effort that began in the late 1990s, has failed the British people. Tony Blair, the poster child of the Third-Way movement, is one of the most deeply unpopular figures in Britain. A poll conducted by Business Insider found that a stunning 61% of the electorate would not consider voting for Labour if Blair was going to become the Prime Minister . This figure is even more shocking considering that Blair was able to lead Labour into its first election win after four consecutive losses . How is it that the man who led Labour’s post-Thatcher revival is one of the most disliked men in Britain? The answer is the failed policies of the Third-Way. Labour was founded as being the party of Britain’s working class. Its embrace of work requirements for welfare and private-public partnerships allowed the party to expand its outreach, but at the price of its soul. Labour left its base behind, and this experiment achieved dismal results, culminating in recession. Corbyn is turning Labour back into what it was originally meant to be: the tax and spend party that improves the lives of working class citizens through excellent social programs like the National Health Service.
However, there is far more to Labour’s internal dispute than policy positions. Despite the energy that is being generated by his economic message, Corbyn is sowing disunity. For one thing, many of his fellow lawmakers actively dislike him and have criticized his leadership style . A common criticism brought against him says that he is a well-intentioned if naive man who has trouble inspiring others. Furthermore, many are outraged at some of his policy positions that lie far outside the mainstream: in addition to the NATO issue, he is also staunchly opposed to military intervention of any kind, having compared actions of the US military to ISIS . He has also made statements supporting Hezbollah and Hamas . The British news media has joined with Labour members of parliament in denouncing Corbyn for these positions. The constant media onslaught may have cost Labour the election.
As a silver lining, the clock seems to be ticking for the Conservatives. Labour increasingly seems to be the party of the future, and demographics will help ensure electoral success in the long-run. Labour won a significant majority of young people, and that success was due, large part, to Corbyn . Again, his core message appeals to them. Many of them want to see a strengthened NHS. They are also impressed by Corbyn’s genuineness, as opposed to May’s floundering lack of consistency . In order to have electoral success, Labour needs to adopt the genuineness, the left-wing economic policies and anti-establishment tenor that made Corbyn popular while getting rid of the man himself. If they succeed, then next time David may actually topple Goliath.
The Conservative Party
On June 8th, citizens of Great Britain headed to the polls to vote on a new Parliament in a snap election. Theresa May and the Conservative Party anticipated the election handing them an even larger majority in Parliament and a clear mandate on Brexit. Instead, Labour gained 30 seats while the Conservatives lost 13 seats. The Conservatives now hold only a plurality of seats and are currently negotiating with the North Irish Democratic Unionist Party to form a minority government . How did an election which appeared to be going so favorably for the Conservative Party end with such disappointing results and how can the Conservatives rebound? The Conservative Party was plagued by issues within their ranks: poor campaigning, a generally poor performance by Theresa May which exposed flaws in her leadership, and recent terror attacks highlighted the failures of the ruling party to keep its citizens safe. These issues combined with an inability to effectively harness the populist tides that initiated Brexit allowed Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party to shock the Conservatives on their way to a much better showing than anyone had anticipated.
The Conservative Party Manifesto has been criticized by many as being much too weak on many issues. They did not put out substantial plans and were much too broad on economic policy promising lower taxes but giving no indication of following up on such a promise . Theresa May attempted to win the election on the issue of Brexit and her ability as a leader promising a stable government throughout the Brexit process. She failed on both fronts, Labour turned the election into one centered around Britain’s future post-Brexit and the Conservatives failed to properly lay out their vision. Similarly, Theresa May relied on a narrative of her “strong and stable leadership” but refused to debate Jeremy Corbyn . Studies have shown that the youth and first-time voters are the most swayed by debates and analysis of the vote has shown that nearly 63% of the youth of Britain voted Labour, a statistic that reinforces the idea that May’s refusal to debate hurt her and the Conservative Party at the polls .
If the current Prime Minister cannot debate a political opponent, it reflects poorly on her ability to properly represent Great Britain in Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Thus, Theresa May’s own performance undermined the narrative of “strong and stable leadership” and in fact weakened confidence in the Conservative leadership. For the Conservative Party to rebound and regain not only confidence in their leadership but also electoral dominance, they need to establish a clear vision for post-Brexit Britain. The Conservative Party needs to contrast their economic vision with that of Labour. They need to reaffirm their support for businesses and workers, stick firm to their limits on migration undermining the working class and learn from the heavily unpopular proposals in their current manifesto. They are already adapting their manifesto as they plan on removing the heavily criticized “dementia tax” from policies they intend on pursuing . They have also proposed scrapping the triple lock pension format and replacing it with a double lock format. The triple lock format ensures that the state pension increases by at least 2.5% each year while the double lock format increases pensions by the higher of the rate of inflation or average earnings but does not include the 2.5% baseline. By changing the pension system from a triple lock to a double lock system, the Conservatives intend on saving billions a year while using a portion of these savings on social programs to support the lower class.
"The Conservative Party needs to contrast their economic vision with that of Labour."
The Conservatives must also stay consistent on policy positions, or risk alienating their base. For example, the Conservatives endorsed the idea of an energy price cap in the recent election, an idea they denounced as “Marxist” only two years ago . This proposal is heavily criticized by business leaders who warn that it will reduce supply and hurt the very people the policy is intended to support . The Conservatives need to become the party that will protect Great Britain. Recent terror attacks have called into question the conservative’s ability to properly defend against such attacks. There are over 3,000 people currently being monitored in Britain and hundreds more of ISIS trained fighters have been returned from the Middle East . In fact, some of the terrorists in the most recent London terror attack were known to British intelligence but no action was taken . Conservatives must begin imposing stricter policies on these suspected terrorist sympathizers and look to take proactive measures like detainment and removal once ties to extremism are uncovered. Moreover, Labour under Corbyn is friendly with terror groups like Hamas and would expose Britain to more attacks under his policies . Hamas is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel and is sympathetic to other groups practicing extreme Islamism. A leader who is sympathetic to these causes will lack the initiative to take the proactive steps needed to secure the safety of Britain from further attacks by Islamic extremists. The Conservatives need to draw attention to these links and propose concrete policies to prevent future terror attacks. Theresa May is finally starting to strike a hard stance on these issues by arguing for harsher penalties for terrorists and easier methods to deport those suspected of having terrorist sympathies . However, time will tell if the Conservatives are truly dedicated to doing what needs to be done to keep Great Britain safe; failure to do so may mean further electoral losses in the future.
The Conservatives also must do a better job of harnessing the populist tides that are prevalent in British politics today. The Conservatives were stuck in the role of the establishment and Jeremy Corbyn effectively played his role of political maverick fighting against the elite. Theresa May attempted to frame the election around Brexit but was unable to secure the support of many who voted in favor of Brexit. The UK Independence Party lost most of its relevance this election with Brexit already voted on, as such many voters returned to their previous political homes. The Conservatives were unable to capture a significant number of those leaving UKIP and returning to their traditional Labour voting patterns. While the Conservatives grew their share of the vote by 5.5%, Labour grew at nearly double that rate at 9.5% . 85% of the electorate voted for a party that endorsed Brexit in their party manifesto, a significant endorsement of Brexit itself, yet the Conservatives were unable to convince many that their vision for post-Brexit Britain is the correct vision. The Conservatives appear to lack even a vision itself as Theresa May herself has refused to commit to a “hard” or “soft” Brexit. The uncertainty surrounding the leadership of the Conservatives regarding an issue as important as Brexit is disconcerting. Furthermore, Conservative support for Brexit is appearing to soften. Theresa May herself was in support of Remain before becoming Prime Minister and has been elevating conservative anti-Brexit MPs like Damian Green to positions of power within the Conservative government . This only makes Labour and Corbyn’s Euroscepticism more attractive to pro-Brexit voters and risks splintering the Conservative base.
The Conservatives would be well suited to elect a new Prime Minister such as Boris Johnson, someone who has been publicly supportive of Brexit, can negotiate effectively for Great Britain in talks with the EU, and will be able to harness the populism that drove first Brexit and now Corbyn to a near victory in the recent election. Continuing to ignore the rising force that is populism within Great Britain will certainly cripple the Conservative Party’s ability to become electorally dominant again.
While the recent election certainly went poorly for the Conservatives, it may, in fact, be a good thing for the long run. The Conservatives have the ability to look in the mirror and correct the mistakes they made in the election. While a minority government may be certainly be formed between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, in the event that the coalition falls apart, another election may soon be on the horizon and present a chance for Conservatives to rectify their mistakes. The Conservatives can reestablish themselves by staking a clear pro-business platform that seeks to reduce government interference in the market and reduce the burden on companies. They should commit to a hard Brexit and show that they respect the wishes of the electorate while seeking to negotiate the best deal possible from the EU but simultaneously be reaching out to the US and other countries to strengthen economic ties. Reducing immigration will reduce the competition for working class British citizens while preventing wage deflation that stifles the growth of the middle class and additionally provide Britain with increased security as those coming in can be better vetted. Pension reform is badly needed and the conservatives need to push to reform the system before it crumbles completely in bankruptcy. Adopting a platform of civic nationalism would appeal to both the Conservative base and the pro-Brexit Labour voters and provide Conservative leadership with a concrete package that they can begin to install. With a clearer vision, better leadership and the resolve to negotiate for Britain’s best interest in Brexit, the Conservative Party will claim a majority in Parliament once again in the near future.
Sources and Notes
Featured Image: "Emission" by onnola — Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons —https://c1.staticflickr.com/9/8051/8402095161_1306fccb24_b.jpg.