(This pre-election comment was originally published in La Razon, on Thursday 8 June. Read the original article here )
On April 18, the British Prime Minister Theresa May dissolved the Parliament and called snap elections for June 8, supported by the required two-thirds of the chamber. Although May persistently denied this could be possible, the sudden surprising move seemed to seek to achieve a safe comfortable majority in view of nearing challenging talks on Brexit. At that time, polls were giving confidence to the Conservative Party, leading 44% over the Labour Party, at 23%.
Meanwhile on May 29 the European Union published two draft EU position papers on Article 50 negotiations, where priorities, as expected, revolve around ensuring citizens’ rights and the UK financial settlement by the time the country leaves the EU. Contested debates emerge on the confrontational approach adopted by the UK, the unresolved issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the costs and an endless number of administrative issue following Brexit.
With just one week to go, the Labour Party stood at just three points to May’s Conservatives. In just four weeks, different polling services have unavoidably reduced the advantage, despite Theresa May still retaining more trust as leader vis-à-vis Corbyn, in particular among those who are 65 and older (63% vs. 15%), and still more than double among those aged 50-64 (51% vs. 22%). The advantage reverts among those aged 18-24 (20% vs. 52%) and 25-49 (34% vs. 49%) (YouGov data, 1 June 2017).
The TV debates, with individual interviews given by Theresa May, who declined any debate with the other candidates, viewed increasing disappointment towards the electoral campaign of the Prime Minister, with the Labour Party decreasing the wide gap it had in mid-April. The Labour Party was at 46% (+2% vs. 35% for the Conservative Party) in Wales, and at 50% (vs. 33% for the Conservatives) in London the week before the elections (YouGov data, fieldwork 26-31 May, published on June, 1).
Then there is the youth vote. Fact checks carried out for the Conversation confirm, on the basis of the 2015 British Election Studies, that young people are more absent from the ballot box (also keeping into consideration the standard over-sampling), with 57% of the 18-24 age group who voted in 2015 and 76% among those 25 and older. In addition, when voting, young people are likely to choose an alternative party to the Conservatives. But even considering all the possible options, an increase of 30% in youth turnout would still be minimal on the outcome in a first-past-the-post system as the British one.
Uncertainty, though, still seems to characterise these general elections. With the leadership and youth vote factors still fluctuating in the polls and the precedents that led to the British Polling Council’s inquiry, concomitantly with a plunge in the levels of support for Nicola Sturgeon, the UK political situation does not seem so strong and stable. As recently commented in a Financial Times piece, the candidates seem to belong to different ages, Theresa May to the 1950s England, and Jeremy Corbyn to the 1970s.
It is hard to compare May’s Britain to the international place of Britain that Cameron and Osborne’s Tory had, in a globalized and competitive market. She is after the common English families struggling in economic hardship and challenged by the competition coming from EU immigration and security threats (‘enough is enough’). Corbyn, on the other hand, has always been closer to peripheral groups of the Left, or taking skeptical positions towards the EU. For this reason, despite May presenting herself and her idea of Britain as ‘strong and stable’, hardly these elections will view an alternative winner to Theresa May. Corbyn has definitely improved his rate of support during the campaign, but is still considered not a credible alternative to Mrs May, but across the youth vote, a group that generally cast less votes than the other age groups and than the votes expected after asking before the elections.
From a recent undergoing research project, carried out with Dr Evangelos Fanoulis, at Metropolitan University in Prague, formerly at the University of Leicester, we point to the idea of Britain that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have, in an idealised conception of the community (their narrative) would serve. It brings together their own people, a comfortable place they belong to, and one that the 2016 British EU referendum brought back, with a large share of feelings and emotions that had been left unspoken for a long time. The recent economic crisis and the consequent adoption of austerity programmes have impacted on the emergence, and the resurgence or success of, sometimes opposing, political phenomena that are strictly linked to emotions and unchartered corrosive feelings reacting to a possible threat represented by a social change.
‘The people’ or the community belonging to the same nostalgic heartland are not just an important feature of extreme right-wing populism, but, as in SYRIZA, in Greece, can be articulated as an inclusive ally against the economic crisis and the social costs of austerity. The people can mobilize active citizenship against the crisis. This views also the emergence of tensions against the EU integration process and the social costs of the crisis, which are able to find an ally within a narrative that moves beyond the boundary of disenfranchized citizens by empowering them, and enabling them to contest what in their eyes appear as a sedimented, unfair political status quo.
But while the debate on the Brexit negotiation process has completely remained absent from the general election campaign, as too challenging both for May and Corbyn, an unexpected high level of turnout among young people can hardly defy Theresa May, while the scope she sought for (ie: a strong and stable Britain to strengthen the British position in view of the Brexit talks), when she called them in April, completely and miserably failed.
- This article was originally published in La Razón, Thursday 8 June 2017, Un Reino Unido en blanco y negro (A Divided United Kingdom). Read the original article here
Simona Guerra is associate professor in politics at the University of Leicester.