The fact that the U.K.’s major parties were both sharply divided over Brexit makes it hard to predict exactly how an election dominated by the issue will turn out.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who was actually against Brexit before she was for it, made another dramatic U-turn on Tuesday, declaring that Britain needs to elect a new Parliament in June, three years ahead of schedule, despite her clear promise not to call an election when she campaigned to succeed David Cameron last year.
Her decision to subject Britons to a third national election campaign in just over two years — after the 2015 general election and the referendum on exiting the European Union ten months ago — was met with something less than enthusiasm by many voters.
Oh God it's an election— Nesrine Malik (@NesrineMalik) April 18, 2017
"Like the bit in Titanic where the end of the ship goes up before it actually sinks"— Daniel Trilling (@trillingual) April 18, 2017
In her address to the nation, May claimed that a fresh election was necessary to keep opposition parties from obstructing her Conservative government during negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.
That argument rang hollow, however, given that the opposition Labour Party had just voted for the government’s bill to begin the process of leaving the E.U. and is not campaigning to overturn the results of last year’s referendum.
Separatist leader vows to crack down on opposition "endangering security of millions" as vote could boost regime with sweeping new powers— Philip Oltermann (@philipoltermann) April 18, 2017
To most political observers, it was clear that May’s decision was driven by something else: a desire to capitalize on the unprecedented weakness of the Labour Party, which is divided over Brexit, and its own leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and has trailed the Conservatives by up to 21 points in recent polls.
As the writer Robert Harris and the broadcaster James O’Brien suggested, it might also be in May’s own self-interest, and that of her party, to ask the nation for a five-year term now, before the costs of Brexit become apparent.
It's almost as if they want to get an election out of the way before the consequences of Brexit start to become apparent— Robert Harris (@Robert___Harris) April 18, 2017
Although even many die-hard Labour supporters seemed resigned to defeat, some on the left welcomed the chance to vote against what they see as the potentially disastrous policy of a complete break with Europe.
People saying there’s no-one they can vote for. That's what Tories want. Vote for whoever has best chance of defeating the Tory candidate.— David Schneider (@davidschneider) April 18, 2017
Paul Mason, a journalist and filmmaker, suggested that Labour should accept that under Britain’s current electoral system, it can no longer win power alone and should form “a progressive alliance” with other center-left parties, including the Greens, Scottish and Welsh nationalists and, perhaps, Liberal Democrats.
Yes please, Theresa May: call an election now so majority who do not want hard Brexit can stop it. Labour: Progressive Alliance now!— Paul Mason (@paulmasonnews) April 18, 2017
This idea was described in detail last year by Jeremy Gilbert, a professor at the University of East London, who argued that it was nearly impossible to see “Labour winning a parliamentary majority without first completely selling out,” as it had under Tony Blair.
“In practice, Gilbert explained on the website Open Democracy, such an alliance “would mean coming to some kind of arrangement with other parties — especially Greens and Liberal Democrats — according to which they and Labour would stand down their candidates in key marginal constituencies in order to give whichever party had the best chance a clear run at beating the Tories.”
“Significantly, such a pragmatist strategy would probably mean accepting that Labour is finished in Scotland, and coming to some kind of arrangement with the SNP,” he added. “For now, most Scots don’t want independence — they want radical federalism. But they also want to be represented both in Holyrood and in Westminster by an unambiguously social democratic party. They do not trust Labour to be that party.”
While such a strategy seemed in line with the first remarks on the election released by the leader of the Scottish National Party, Nicola Sturgeon, it seemed significant that the Labour leader’s statement made no mention of opposing Brexit, the Conservative government’s signature issue and the specter haunting the nation.
Despite the confidence of the bookmakers and pollsters in predicting a Conservative victory in June, not everyone was convinced it would be a rout.
Surely the one thing we should have learned over the last two years is that voters don't always do what everyone so confidently expects.— Philip Cowley (@philipjcowley) April 18, 2017
“Conservatives will not just win seats. They will also lose them,” observed Ian Dunt, the author of “Brexit: What The Hell Happens Now?”
“The Conservatives are likely to lose most of the 27 seats they took off the Lib Dems in the last election,” Dunt explained, as a result of anger over Brexit from the 48 percent of the country that voted against it. “These are uniquely chaotic and volatile political times,” he added. “If a progressive alliance against hard Brexit could be formed, it would hit the Conservatives. It might not defeat them — but the prime minister needs to massively increase her majority in order to justify this decision.”
In other words, the fact that the U.K.’s major parties were both sharply divided over Brexit makes it hard to predict exactly how an election dominated by the issue will turn out.
“The fact that the leadership of both main parties has disintegrated would under normal circumstances be a big story, but in the current chaos it is no more than a side effect,” John Lanchester wrote in the London Review of Books last year, just after David Cameron resigned.
The deeper problem is that the referendum has exposed splits in society which aren’t mapped by the political parties as they are currently constituted. People talk about Britain being ‘divided’ as if that’s a new issue, but societies are often divided, and the interests of all groups and individuals do not align. If they did, humanity would be the Borg. Political parties are the mechanism through which divisions in society are argued over and competing interests asserted.
The trouble with where we are now is that the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved. To simplify, the Tories are a coalition of nationalists, who voted out, and business interests, who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals, who voted in, and the working class, who voted out. This means that if a general election were held tomorrow on the single issue of the referendum, the voter wouldn’t know whom to vote for. It wouldn’t be at all clear which faction in either party was likely to prevail when the hugely important details of what Brexit means come to be debated.