Article by Cia Mangat
On the 8th of June 2017, each of the 650 parliamentary constituencies in the UK will elect their own MP (Member of Parliament) to the House of Commons. The main contenders for Prime Minister are Theresa May of the Conservative Party (who is currently serving as Prime Minister) and Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party since September 2015. This general election in particular is rather special in that it was only called for in April, and that it is a direct result of the Brexit vote.
Why is this election happening anyway?
Since the introduction of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011, parliamentary general elections are only meant to take place once every five years; the next general election after 2015 was scheduled to take place in May 2020, but is instead taking place this year because of Theresa May’s decision to call for a snap election. Put simply, May is calling for this election because she hopes that she will turn her party’s lead in the opinion polls into a strong parliamentary majority and secure her vision for Brexit as a Conservative politician.
Usually, this wouldn’t be allowed to happen (because of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act), so May had to lay down a motion for an election in the House of Commons, requiring at least two-thirds of MPs to back it. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP (Scottish National Party) decided to back this decision. That’s why we’re here.
How does the General Election work?
Strictly speaking, Britons don’t actually elect a Prime Minister. Instead, the First Past the Post system is used in each constituency. The United Kingdom is split up into 650 constituencies. Every five years (or whenever a General Election is called), each constituency elects someone to represent them in the House of Commons as an MP. Each MP belongs to a party - the biggest ones are the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish National Party. Each MP gets a ‘seat’ in Parliament. In the House of Commons, there are 650 seats (one for each constituency): usually, the party that wins the majority of seats, i.e. over 326, forms the Government. Here’s a map of which party each constituency voted for in 2015:
[image description: a map of the United Kingdom with each constituency in the colour of the party it voted for.]
But who are the main parties?
[image description: Theresa May holds a copy of the Conservative Party Manifesto in front of a blue screen that says ‘A stronger Britain’ in white letters above the Conservatives logo.]
‘Strong and stable leadership in our national interest’
The Conservative Party, often represented by the colour blue, was formed in the 1830s as a centre-right party that was in favour of capitalism, free enterprise, restrictions on trade unions and a strong national defence. The name ‘Tory’ (plural ‘Tories’) to describe a Conservative Party member comes from the fact that the Conservative Party was founded from the Tory Party, which dissolved during the 19th century. The Conservative Party has dominated British politics for the majority of the 20th century - notable Conservative Prime Ministers include Margaret Thatcher (1979-1990), John Major (1990-1997), and, more recently, David Cameron (2010-2016). At the moment, the Tories are the largest party in Parliament, with 330 seats in the House of Commons.
The current Conservative Party leader is Prime Minister Theresa May. Prior to becoming Prime Minister in July 2016, May served as Home Secretary (2010-2016), Minister for Women and Equalities (2010-2012) and Chairman of the Conservative Party (2002-2003). She came into power following David Cameron’s resignation after the Brexit vote. In short, May became leader because of the lack of opposition within her party and the fact that Andrea Leadsom withdrew. You can read more about May and the Home Office here.
The current Conservative Party stands for Brexit. If you’ve been anywhere near British news over the past few months, you’ll know that May favours a ‘clean’ Brexit - she wants the UK to leave the European Union single market and its custom union which, according to Brexit supporters, will allow the UK to strike trade deals with other non-EU countries. One of the main reasons that many people voted Brexit was the high number of immigrants entering the UK; one of the main pull factors of the European Union is the premise of free travel within the EU. Effectively, this means that people from EU countries have the right to settle in the United Kingdom and work - many Brexit voters would argue that these immigrants are ‘stealing jobs’, which leads to calls for ‘taking back control’. You can read more about Brexit-related xenophobia here.
Attempting to summarise the entirety of the Conservative Party Manifesto would take up far too much time here (it’s 88 pages long!), so I’ll try to boil it down to the main points. Essentially, the Conservative Party’s manifesto is split between pumping more money into some things while making cuts to other things:
- It wants to increase NHS spending, reaching £8 billion extra per year by 2023
- It wants to increase the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher rate to £50,000 by 2020
- It wants to increase the National Living Wage to 60% of median earnings by 2020
- It wants to pump an extra £4 billion into schools by 2022.
At the same time, the Conservative Party promises to cut net migration to below 100,000, to increase the amount levied on firms employing non-EU migrant workers, and to maintain its pledge to cut corporation tax to 17% by 2020.
[image description: Jeremy Corbyn raises his right hand towards an unseen audience. Behind him, there is a red screen with the words ‘Your choice. Shape the future.’ written in white.]
‘For the many, not the few’
The Labour Party was set up in the late 19th century to give working people a voice in Parliament. It was created to represent the trade union movement - you can find out more about trade unions here. Labour is a centre-left party that’s often been described as a ‘big tent’ since it encompasses such a diverse variety of ideological trends, from strongly socialist to moderately social democratic. At the moment, Labour is the second biggest party at Westminster, with 229 seats after a 2015 election led by Ed Miliband. Previous Labour Prime Ministers include James Callaghan (1976-1979), Tony Blair (1997-2007) and Gordon Brown (2007-2010). Although it’s not particularly relevant to this election, the emergence of New Labour is rather fascinating: you can read about it here.
Jeremy Corbyn has served as both Leader of the Labour Party and Leader of the Opposition since September 2015. He’s been criticised for being ‘almost a caricature of the archetypal “bearded leftie”’ by his critics, but Corbyn is seen as a truly honest politician with the drive to inspire a new generation of activists by his supporters. A longstanding anti-war and anti-nuclear activist, Corbyn was the national chair of the Stop the War Coalition and a member of the Socialist Campaign Group until his election as leader of the Labour Party. As an MP, he was known for his activism and rebelliousness since he frequently voted against the Labour norm, including when ‘New Labour’ leaders Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were Prime Ministers.
The Labour Party campaigned against Brexit during the 2016 referendum - the vast majority of Labour MPs backed Remain ahead of the vote, leaving those who represented Brexit-supporting constituencies potentially at odds with their electorate. Despite the mass support for Remain, most MPs followed party order to allow Article 50 in February. In terms of the future, ‘Labour accepts the referendum and a Labour government will put the national interest first’, according to the Labour Party website. The Labour Party promises to prioritise jobs and living standards, build a close new relationship with the EU, protect EU workers’ rights and provide certainty to EU nationals. Essentially, Labour regards EU nationals as part of British society (as opposed to immigrating to the UK to act as parasites on British welfare) and puts jobs and the economy first.
At first glance, the Labour Party Manifesto seems much shorter than the Conservatives’ because it’s split up into sections on the Labour Party’s website - read it all here. Key policies in the manifesto include the following:
- Scrapping tuition fees;
- Nationalising England’s nine water companies and the Royal Mail as well as renationalising railways;
- Ending zero hours contracts;
- Hiring 10,000 new police officers and 3,000 new firefighters;
- Providing more free childcare for two, three and four year olds
- Re-introducing the 50p tax rate on those earning above £123,000 (basically, this means that half of all all income above £123,000 would be taxed).
Interestingly, the Labour Party’s stance on immigration is almost a polar opposite to the Conservatives’. Labour believes in the ‘reasonable management of migration’, but promises not to ‘scapegoat migrants’ and will not set a cap on immigration, describing targets as ‘bogus’.
[image description: Tim Farron addresses his party. Behind him, there is a yellow screen with the Liberal Democrats logo printed on in black.]
‘Change Britain’s future’
Historically, the Liberal Democrats have occupied the centre ground of British politics. Despite being the butt of many, many jokes over the years, the Liberal Democrats were once one of the two great UK political powers in opposition to the Conservatives in the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was known as the Liberal Party. This was until the First World War, when David Lloyd George decided to split the party into two factions, forming a coalition government. Shortly afterwards, in the 1920s, the Liberal Party was eclipsed by the rise of Labour. In 1988, the Social Democratic Party (a splinter group from Labour) and the remaining Liberals merged to form the Liberal Democrat Party we know today. Notable Liberal politicians include Winston Churchill (1904-1924) and David Lloyd George (1926-1931). Notable Liberal Democrats include Menzies Campbell (leader from 2006 to 2007) and Nick Clegg (leader from 2007 to 2015). In 2010, Nick Clegg became deputy prime minister to David Cameron - this isn’t strictly relevant to the 2017 election, but interesting nonetheless.
Tim Farron currently serves as Leader of the Liberal Democrats and has been doing so since July 2015. Unlike his predecessor, Nick Clegg, Farron hasn’t managed to achieve a particularly impressive political presence amongst the general public. At the moment, there are only nine Liberal Democrat MPs in Parliament; Farron has set his sight on doubling this number by regaining lost seats in the party’s traditional strongholds, including the West Country and South-West London.
One of the Liberal Democrats’ strong suits is most definitely its views in terms of Brexit. As the only major party to unequivocally support the Remain vote, it hopes to pick up a sizeable chunk of Bremain voters who previously sided with Labour or the Conservatives. Brexit’s ability to convert Conservative voters into Lib Dem voters was demonstrated in Richmond Park - a constituency with one of the biggest Remain majorities - where Liberal Democrat Sarah Olney beat Conservative Zac Goldsmith in the Richmond Park by-election in 2016. In the words of Tim Farron, campaigning against a ‘hard’ Brexit (which would involve the UK leaving both the single market and the customs union) is ‘front and centre’ of the party’s election campaign.
Unlike the Conservative and Labour Parties’ manifestos, the Liberal Democrats’ Manifesto includes a commitment to a second EU referendum on the Brexit deal, in which voters would either decide to remain in the EU or accept Brexit. The Lib Dems also want to maintain EU environmental standards and the UK’s membership of the single market and customs union. Other key policies include the following:
- Investing over £6 billion in education;
- Ending imprisonment for possession of illegal drugs for personal use;
- Increasing the maximum sentence for animal cruelty from six months to five years;
- Extending free childcare and introducing an additional month’s paid paternity leave for dads
- Reinstating university maintenance grants for students with financial difficulties.
[image description: Nicola Sturgeon stands behind a lectern bearing the SNP slogan with both arms raised at the end of an address to her party.]
‘Stronger for Scotland’
The Scottish National Party was founded in 1934, initially made up of the Scottish Party and the National Party of Scotland. The SNP is a Scottish nationalist stroke social democratic party that supports and campaigns for Scottish independence from the United Kingdom. The party found it difficult to make a significant political impact, but grew steadily throughout the 1960s and 1970s. In the general election of 1997, the SNP won six seats in the House of Commons. Later on, in 1999, the formation of a Scottish Parliament presented an opportunity for the SNP to become a real political force.
The two key players in the Scottish National Party are Nicola Sturgeon and Alex Salmond. Although Nicola Sturgeon (pictured above) has no seat at Westminster and will not be running for one this election, her strong performances during the televised debates in 2015 were credited with the SNP’s success (since they held 54 out of 59 Scottish seats), which makes her the dominant SNP figure in this election campaign. The previous SNP leader Alex Salmond, from whom Sturgeon took over after the independence referendum in 2014, has campaigned on global warming and environmentalism many times during his career as a politician. You can read about his ‘fractious’ relationship with Donald Trump with regards to his environmental and economical impact on Scotland here.
The Scottish National Party opposes Brexit, but only to a certain extent. Nicola Sturgeon’s view is that Scotland’s interests are best served by being a member of the EU, despite the Union’s imperfections. At the same time, around a third of SNP supporters voted Brexit - other Brexiteers within the SNP include their former health secretary, Alex Neil. The Brexit/Bremain vote and the prospect of Scottish independence are more inextricably linked than ever: many Scottish voters are frustrated about the fact that the country is being dragged out of the EU, despite voting decisively in favour of Remain last June.
The SNP’s manifesto is made up of three main points:
- Scotland is to have a special status after Brexit is triggered, meaning that it will remain in the single market;
- There will be a second referendum in Scotland on independence from the UK;
- There will opposition to the ‘rape clause’.
[image description: Caroline Lucas stands behind a pair of microphones while delivering a speech to the Green Party. The wall behind her is also green.]
The left-of-centre Green Party began in the mid 70s as the Ecology Party, which was rooted in campaigns to protect the environment. The Ecology Party adopted a ‘Manifesto for a Sustainable Society’, which would eventually become blueprint for the Green Party of England and Wales (note: Scotland has its own Green Party) as we know it today, which began in 1985. Until 2008, the Greens opted not to have a leader (instead being represented by two ‘principal speakers’), when it ditched the policy and elected Caroline Lucas. Currently, the Greens have a single seat at Westminster - Brighton Pavilion - which has been held by Caroline Lucas since 2010. Lucas is a veteran campaigner who has been politically active since joining the anti-nuclear peace camp at Greenham Common. Before becoming an MP, she served as an MEP (Member of the European Parliament) for ten years.
Essentially, the Green Party hopes to form an alliance with other left-of-centre parties to try to prevent a Tory landslide victory. The Lib Dems have agreed to this, but Labour has rejected the Greens’ advances. This ‘progressive alliance’ is affectionately referred to as a ‘coalition of chaos’ by Theresa May in her campaign.
Despite the constant pigeonholing of the Greens as a single-issue party, the Green Party’s Manifesto addresses issues outside of the environment. Key policies include the following:
- A second Brexit referendum, with 16 and 17-year old getting the vote;
- A new Clean Air Act and an Environmental Protection Act to safeguard EU laws that protect British wildlife;
- A ban on fracking and scrapping plans for new nuclear power stations;
- A fair energy system;
- A bottle deposit scheme to reduce pollution in the UK.
[image description: Paul Nuttall stands behind a microphone at a UKIP party gathering. Behind him, to the right of the image, the UKIP logo is visible.]
The UK Independence Party is another rather new party, having only been formed in 1991. UKIP is a right-wing populist party. From the beginning, UKIP’s main aim has been to campaign to leave the EU, following signing of the Maastricht Treaty. UKIP has always been trying to move away from its associations with far-right organisations such as the BNP, stressing that it isn’t a racist organisation, despite articles like this, this and this being written about the party and its members. UKIP seems to think that most of Britain’s problems only exist because of immigration. More on UKIP’s hatred for immigrants later.
UKIP’s leader was Nigel Farage until the result of the EU referendum was announced. He was a key figure in the Leave Campaign - his name’s often associated with the phrase ‘Let’s take back control’ and the whole NHS bus fiasco. ’The current leader is Paul Nuttall, pictured above, who has been leader since November 2016. In terms of Brexit, UKIP wants the UK to make a clean break from the EU. Many have said that Nuttall’s leadership has brought UKIP even further right than before. Despite this, Nuttall wants UKIP voters to back Brexit-supporting Labour candidates in certain constituencies. It’s complicated. You can read more about Farage here and Nuttall here.
The main points of UKIP’s manifesto are the following:
- Cut net migration levels to zero by 2022 by reducing immigration by almost 50%
- Ban unskilled/ low-skilled labour until 2022; have skilled workers and students acquire visas
- Freeze the opening of new Muslim faith schools until more progress has been made integrating Muslims into society
- Ban sharia courts and the wearing of veils (hijabs, burkas etc) in public places
Tomorrow, the UK will elect a new Prime Minister. If you are eligible to vote in this election, please do so responsibly.
Here are some extra resources about British politics:
- GE2017.com’s quiz to find out who you ought to vote for/ which party represents your views
- The BBC Election Debate - the leaders(available to those in the UK only)
- The General Election Debate - the voters (available to those in the UK only)
- Jay Foreman’s Politics Unboringed series on YouTube: in this series of videos, comedian Jay Foreman explains some of the main aspects of British politics in less than five minutes.
- CGP Grey’s videos: The Problems with the First Past the Post Voting Explained - further contextualised in Why the UK Election Results are the Worst in History (about the 2015 election)