Election night was a sleepless one for many of us, followed by a grey morning lit by occasional shafts of sunlight and by new and glorious confusion. Tory Prime Minister Theresa May had called the election on April 18 to increase her majority, consolidate her hold on her party and the country, and secure a mandate to negotiate our departure from the European Union as she sees fit. She told us little during the campaign of her negotiating plans or priorities, refused to debate with her rivals, sneered at Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s hopeless unreliability compared with her “strong and stable” control of Brexit and everything else, and asked us simply to “trust” her. She behaved as though she had no party and no colleagues, offering herself as our saviour, whose main qualification was that she’d once been called “a bloody difficult woman.”
She has been humiliated. Her party won the election as the party with the most seats, but it has no majority. Labour won 40 percent of the vote and gained 32 seats, most of them from the Tory party. May has formed an alliance with the ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland. Her chances of surviving the year as prime minister and leader of the Tories are slim.
This has been an extraordinary election, though extraordinary elections are by now, of course, the norm almost everywhere. May is a uniquely solitary figure within her party. Yet despite the dividedness of both the main parties, this has been an election between and about them, rather than the smaller parties. The Scottish National Party and U.K. Independence Party lost votes. The admirable Caroline Lucas remains our only Green MP, though she doubled her majority.
With exceptional hubris, Theresa May set off on the wrong foot by announcing an election after she had resolutely insisted that she wouldn’t, and then shot herself in the same foot by going back on her platform’s policy for funding elder care by getting us all to pay for most of it, but then she capped the assets that would be called upon in a way that favoured the rich and the very rich. The confusion was hardly lessened by her insistence that “nothing has changed.” She is thought to have lost a good many “old” votes in the process.
She could hardly be blamed for the hideous terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, but some held her responsible for the authorities’ failure to pursue those terrorists who had been known to the police. As Home Secretary for six years, she was instrumental in cutting the country’s police force by 20,000 as part of the Tory government’s austerity programme.
Some of us have bemoaned Jeremy Corbyn’s lack of interest in Europe and in preventing Brexit. Many in the party and outside it “wrote off” Labour as mortally divided between Tony Blair centrists and Jeremy Corbyn socialists. But he ran a spirited campaign that excited young voters by focussing on living standards, a living wage, funding for schools, the Health Service and Social Care, and renationalising the railways.
His platform budgeted for his proposals through higher taxes for corporations and people earning more than 80,000 pounds annually, and through being prepared to borrow. Some of us thought his redistributions were too universalist, such as ending university fees for the young and maintaining fuel subsidies for the old — something that a majority of the recipients don’t need. Such concessions would be better targeted through reforming the tax system instead.
I’m still floating on a huge, communal sigh of relief. May will have to drop several of her key promises, such as the revival of grammar schools, because they won’t get enough votes in the Commons, and she will need to keep off subjects like abortion and gay rights. It is rumoured that the E.U. will start Brexit by demanding billions of euros, which the Tories will refuse to pay, and insisting that we keep all European citizens who are already here, whom the Tories would like to get rid of. Talks may be more difficult than even a bloody difficult woman can manage. But there’s been a vigorous, enthusiastic and shared desire to do away with austerity, pessimism, chauvinism and gross inequality. Let’s have at least two cheers for democracy.