Western Europe

Theresa Maybe: A Primer on the Upcoming UK General Election

By Shannon Togawa Mercer
Wednesday, June 7, 2017, 6:29 PM

This Thursday, while Americans watch former FBI Director James Comey’s Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, citizens in the United Kingdom will be making their way to the polls to select members of Parliament for the second time in just two years. Let’s outline the whats, whys, hows, and so-whats of the upcoming election—with a particular focus on Brexit and security.

This election is an extraordinary event. Until this April, the next U.K. general election was scheduled for 2020. In accordance with the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act, British general elections happen on a five year cycle, absent some intervening event. An early election may only be called if there is a vote of “no confidence” in the current government or if a two-thirds majority of the House of Commons votes to call an election. In April Prime Minister Theresa May surprised the United Kingdom and called for a snap general election by means of the latter method, with the intention to further solidify her stronghold in Parliament. The Government, currently the Conservative Party, holds 330 of the 650 seats in the House of Commons. The next largest party, or the opposition Labour party, holds 229 seats. A staggering number of MPs (522) voted in favor of an election.

The leader of the party that holds a majority of the seats in parliament becomes the Prime Minister, so a shift in the composition of Parliament risks more than just a party’s seats; it risks a wholesale change of leadership. Why would the Conservative Party take this risk? If April polling numbers had stayed constant, the Government would still have a 17 percent lead over Labour. At the time of the vote to hold the election, the Conservatives were primed to take around 400 of the 650 parliamentary seats. With Brexit negotiations beginning in June, a stronger majority would only have streamlined the domestic decision-making process. It seemed like a dominating Conservative win was there for the taking.

But the polling numbers have changed. While the data vary, as of a few days ago, Conservatives were only an average of seven percent above Labour in the polls. Their lead in June is less than half of what it was in April, prompting FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver to characterize the Government’s current position as, “only a normal-sized polling error away from a hung parliament.” In sum, the data are not clearly pointing to any one outcome right now.

In an added twist, the Economist endorsed the Liberal Democrats earlier this week. While not a realistic threat to the Government or the Opposition in this election, the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dems) represent what the Economist called a “party of the radical centre.” The Lib Dems argue that a vote for the Lib Dems is a “down-payment for the future.” Specifically, the Lib Dems present themselves as the only party not planning to alienate the U.K. from the EU and other channels of international commerce. While the Conservatives are pursuing Brexit, the manifestos the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has taken a sharp tack to the hard, anti-globalization left: Its manifesto promises that, “The next Labour government will rebuild communities ripped apart by globalisation and neglected for years by government.” The Conservatives meanwhile, insist that, “We...believe that immigration should be controlled and reduced, because when immigration is too fast and too high, it is difficult to build a cohesive society.” The two parties weirdly espouse similar beliefs about the need to stymie the effects of globalization.

To better understand the decision facing the British voters this Thursday, it’s worth understanding more about the “Manifestos,” or platforms, put forward by the two main party contenders, the Conservatives and the Labour Party, and the third party of interest, the Lib Dems.

The Conservative Party, current majority:

  • The Conservative Government is focused on delivering on the promise of a “hard” Brexit. That includes the well-advertised goal to diminish net migration to under 100,000 individuals. The Conservative vision of economic stability includes low taxes, a higher living wage, reforming financial regulations, and new free trade deals.
  • Conservative leader, Prime Minister May, has positioned her party aggressively since the attacks in Manchester and London as the party of security. On Tuesday, Michael Leiter wrote a comprehensive piece for Lawfare exploring notable follow-on effects of the London attack. May’s now famous “enough is enough” line has yet to manifest as a tangible policy plan, but her statement after the June 3 attack outlined four focus areas as summarized by Leiter: “(1) Defeating the ideology—Islamist extremism—that has motivated recent attacks; (2) the regulation of cyberspace to reduce extremism online; (3) reduction of real world safe-havens, both internationally and within the U.K.; and (4) reviewing U.K. government authorities to ensure adequacy to meet the threat.”
  • The Conservatives have proposed introducing legislation to change police practices if stop-and-search and stop-to-arrest methods are insufficient. The Prime Minister has also begun to focus on cyber policing, asking private companies to develop tools to identify those who generate harmful material and asking technology firms to allow the government access to “information as required.” Prime Minister May has additionally called for increased internet regulation, “effectively demanding the abolition of encryption.”
  • The party has planned to set up a commission to identify extremism and create criminal offenses for extremist acts. May has proposed increased prison sentences for those convicted of terrorist offenses, empowering the government to deport foreign terror suspects, restricting the freedom and movement of terror suspects and flouting existing human rights law (“And if human rights laws stop us from down it, we will change those laws so we can do it”). It also promises to create a “national infrastructure police force” to better protect infrastructure such as roads, railways, and nuclear sites. This force will be composed of the Civil Nuclear Constabulary, the Ministry of Defence Police and the British Transport Police. These changes would augment the Terrorism Prevention and Investigation Measures (TPIMs). It is difficult to tell what impact these recent pronouncements will have on the electorate, especially because the Conservative Government is only just recovering from criticism about its track-record of decreasing funding for the police force, with a proposed 10-40 percent cut in London that would have taken effect over the coming four years. There are also questions about how poorly information about the June 3 attackers was handled by May’s intelligence agencies. Lib Dem leader, Tim Farron, criticized her: “We have been here before—a kind of nuclear arms race in terror laws might give the appearance of action, but what the security services lack is not more power, but more resources. And the responsibility for that lies squarely with Theresa May.”

The Labour Party, current Opposition:

  • The Labour party, with its motto “For the Many, Not the Few,” will look to increase taxes for the top five percent of earners and corporations.
  • Labour also opposes the Conservative Party’s “hard” Brexit stance, vowing to create a deal that retains the benefits of the Single Market and Customs Union, and rejecting the “no deal” option and the Great Repeal Bill. Furthermore, the Labour Party has committed to giving Parliament a meaningful vote on the final Brexit agreement—something that the Conservative Party has been reticent to guarantee. Labour also rejects the net migration target set by the Conservatives.
  • Labor plans to invest £250 million in transportation infrastructure, technology infrastructure, and connectivity.
  • The partly will also reform corporate regulation to change the distribution of ownership such that employees have a “right to own,” or a right of first refusal for shares of their companies.
  • Further to its prioritization of distribution issues, Labour plans to nationalize public utilities, including rail companies, energy supply networks, water supply systems, and the Royal Mail.
  • On national security matters, Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party leader, has been questioned about being weak on terrorism as reflected by past meetings with leaders of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Sinn Fein. His party, however, seems to be making more concrete security policy statements in its manifesto than is the Government, pledging to recruit 10,000 more police officers, 1,000 more security and intelligence agency staff members, 500 more border guards, and supporting the police in its use of “‘whatever force is necessary to save lives.”
  • The Labour party is more modest than is the Conservative party concerning investigation and surveillance, calling for investigatory powers that are “proportionate and necessary” with the involvement of judicial oversight. Without coming to any conclusions, the Labour party proposes a strategic defense and security review that would evaluate the threats posed by online radicalism. That said, they have already discussed implementing a cybersecurity charter to be signed by any company working with the Ministry of Defence, memorializing the terms of cooperation with the government.

The Liberal Democrats, third party:

  • The Lib Dems want to hold a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, giving the people an option to remain in the EU. Like the Labour party, Lib Dems oppose the “hard” Brexit approach and commit to pressing for membership in the single market and the maintenance of the freedom of movement.
  • The Lib Dems have decided to make the case for immigration, as well as refugee intake, expanding the Syrian resettlement scheme to allow for 50,000 more people to enter the U.K. over the next Parliamentary lifetime. They have pledged to protect high-skilled immigration, student immigration and to fund a Migration Impact Fund to help communities support migrants. That said, their manifesto also suggests that they will impose the “strict control of borders.”
  • On national security, the Lib Dems have situated themselves in opposition to the Conservative undermining of encryption and expansion of surveillance powers. The Lib Dems, like the Labour party, emphasize the involvement of judicial oversight in surveillance and data collection actions. Lib Dem leader Tim Farron commented, “If we turn the internet into a tool for censorship and surveillance, the terrorists will have won.”
  • The Lib Dems will set aside £300 million for community policing.

Perhaps the most interesting dynamic in this election isn’t the convergence and divergence of party manifestos, but the dynamic within the parties that may lead to most of the political volatility. Front and center is Jeremy Corbyn, the unorthodox Labour leader who has garnered the youth vote but still contends with strong opposition within his own party. Corbyn was elected as Labour party leader in 2015, garnering 60 percent of the national Labour party vote but only eight percent of the vote of Labour MPs. Corbyn’s devisiveness is rooted in his tirelessly intensifying left-wing radicalism. Over the years he has been known as an extremist, sympathizing with the North Korean, Iranian, and Russian regimes; writing and editing a publication that praised IRA violence in the 1980s; ardently opposing Zionism; and, being embroiled in accusations of anti-Semitism. Even during the 2015 election, Corbyn was considered a “fringe” choice who found himself leading the Labour party because of a change in rules that allowed anyone paying three pounds, not just party members, MPs, and union members, to vote for Labour leadership. Now, accusations of his anti-Semitism and support of terror groups flood the British media and many of his supporters openly tout misogynist, anti-semitic, and homophobic views. Unsurprisingly, Politico described Corbyn as a left-wing Trump using “Trumpified” strategies such as welcoming controversy, focusing on left wing members of the party, and rallying constituents with populist and anti-globalist promises.

The clear division between national party members and members of parliament continues to characterize Corbyn’s leadership: he appeals to many left-wing voters otherwise alienated by the Conservative party, but has had little luck managing his party within the House of Commons. Just last summer, two-thirds of his “shadow” cabinet resigned and 172 of the 216 Labour MPs solidified a no-confidence in his leadership. If the Labour party were to gain more influence through this general election, there are significant questions as to whether Corbyn’s difficulty leading Labour MPs will prevent him from using that influence effectively.

So what should those interested in British and U.S. national security pay attention to in the off-chance of a Labour victory? Certainly some British politicians, such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, are concerned about Corbyn’s foreign policy outlook. His ability to protect the United Kingdom from antagonistic groups has been periodically questioned during any number of incidents: his invitation of members of Hamas and Hezbollah to an event in Parliament; his invitation of senior Irish republican politicians to Parliament after the IRA bombed Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s hotel; his give appearances on Iranian government television; and his outspoken criticism of British intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan as causal elements in the current rash of attacks are only a few examples. That said, the security proposals in the Labour party’s manifesto, outlined briefly above, point toward a plan to increase the resources of the U.K. security apparatus while maintaining judicial review.

Despite Prime Minister May’s criticism of Corbyn’s opposition to counter-terrorism legislation, data provided by the BBC suggests that her voting record on terrorism legislation since 2000 only differs from Corbyn’s on votes concerning detention legislation and secrecy in judicial proceedings. From the information available about their voting record on ten key pieces of security legislation since 2000, the Prime Minister and Corbyn were only clearly opposed on three (the Justice and Security Act of 2013, The Terrorism Prevention and Investigatory Measures Act, and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001). In the cases of the Terrorism Act of 2000 and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001, Corbyn went against his own party’s voting bloc to oppose the bills. May was absent from the votes for the Terrorism Act of 2000, and the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act of 2001. In the case of the Justice and Security Act of 2013, then Home Secretary May introduced a bill granting powers to courts to have confidential national security hearings. The legislation granted ministers the right to request the closure of procedures to the public, press, and in some instances, the claimant. Corbyn opposed court secrecy. Both May and Corbyn voted against the Fourteen-Day Detention measure in the Criminal Justice Act of 2003, Control Orders in the 2005 Prevention of Terrorism Act, and 2006 ID Card legislation. May and Corbyn voted against the ninety-day detention provision in the 2006 Terrorism Act, but May eventually voted for the legislation after significant revisions were made limiting detention to twenty-eight days.

From the American perspective, Corbyn has stated that one of his first actions as Prime Minister would be to call Donald Trump and ask him for two things: to allow America to remain in the Paris Agreement and to “kindly reconsider” his June 3 tweets about Sadiq Khan, London mayor. Corbyn has previously expressed his distaste for the Trump administration: “Pandering to an erratic Trump administration will not deliver stability … So no more hand-holding with Donald Trump; a Labour government will conduct a robust and independent foreign policy made in London.” In reaction to this year’s American stance toward North Korea, Corbyn stated that Donald Trump risks making the world a more dangerous place. He has previously stated that Theresa May is “build[ing] a coalition of risk and insecurity with Donald Trump.” Labour’s desire to distance itself from the erratic American administration, the recent coldness fomented by United States leaks regarding the Manchester attack, and Labour’s opposition to sweeping and unregulated surveillance, could result in strained or fully damaged intelligence and law enforcement relations between the United Kingdom and the United States. Given current significant U.S.-U.K. cooperation and the crucial role the United Kingdom plays as a bridge to European relationships, the potential consequences of that fissure are endless.

That said, the possible results of the election aren’t binary. If the Government’s numbers rebound, it could find itself gaining in its majority, as May predicted. If the Government’s lead increases to ten percent, it will still give the Conservatives a majority of something like 50 MPs. If the seven percent lead stays, as average poll numbers currently suggest, May will only have increased her majority by a few members, but no harm no foul. It’s when the lead dips only a few points below current poll numbers that Conservatives must worry; at four percent, Conservatives may lose the majority and need to go back into coalition with the Lib Dems. If that happens, Theresa May may lose her position as party leader anyway.

Considering the likelihood that the Conservative Party will retain some form of majority, or at least significant influence, Conservative party dynamics are important. And it seems like they may be changing. Theresa May has declined in popularity recently due to a bungled policy initiative that purported to impose a tax on seniors for their social care without a cap on their spending (popularly known as the “Dementia Tax”), a push to revitalize fox hunting, and her dogged refusal to distance herself from the widely disliked President Trump. It is worth keeping an eye on her stature within the Conservative party to see if Theresa May’s reputation permanently shifts from that of the decisive leader to a more uncertain and unreliable politician. As I mentioned above, Corbyn has his own leadership problems with which to contend and it could be that both of the U.K.’s leading parties are slowed down by internal turmoil. Needless to say, many voters see themselves approaching this election with a choice between a the party of the Trump-positive hard-Brexiteers and a Labour party divided between its center-left principles and a radical leader. After some examination, it is not shocking that the Economist has put its eggs in an entirely different basket.

Prime Minister May’s confidence when calling the general election in April was reminiscent of David Cameron’s ill-fated confidence in the soundness of a Brexit referendum. Both votes were supposed to be perfunctory—formalities to prove what was a foregone conclusion. Instead, Cameron was blindsided by the exposed weaknesses of his party and, given the unpredicted spike in Labour popularity, Prime Minister May could very well be in the midst of making the same mistake as her predecessor.