The 2017 Westminster Election: Three Observations
Following last week's surprising Westminster election results, Dr Chris Raymond offers his own observations on the election and the results.
The 2017 Westminster election has added yet another bit of excitement to the still-unfolding drama that is contemporary UK politics. While the post-mortem continues on the results many (but not all!) did not expect, three observations are immediately obvious.
It Wasn’t About Brexit (It Was All About Brexit)
At the start of the election campaign, Prime Minister Theresa May tried to strengthen her hand in the upcoming negotiations with the EU by making this election about Brexit. She seized on the belief the issue was largely settled in the public’s mind, with many remain voters now supporting Brexit. By appealing to leave and remain-turned-leave voters, she hoped to decimate UKIP and draw leave voters away from Labour. After Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stated the Brexit issue had been settled, the campaign discourse shifted to talk about other issues.
While many commentators and journalists concluded this election was not about Brexit, the data suggest otherwise. One of the strongest predictors of voting intention in surveys leading up to the election was whether one voted leave/remain, as well as whether one had accepted Brexit after voting last year to remain. Even if they did not consciously do so (and parties did not speak directly to Brexit), many voters divided along leave/remain lines. The hung parliament offers remain voters the prospect that a hard Brexit can still be prevented; this, in turn, suggests the issues surrounding Brexit will be with us for the medium term.
This election was also a continuation of Brexit in another sense. While many leave and former UKIP voters broke for the Conservatives on the promise of leaving the EU and limiting immigration, there is evidence suggesting other such voters broke for Labour over broken promises made during the EU referendum campaign. Although most leave and former UKIP voters saw the Conservatives as best-placed to deliver on issues of immigration and Brexit, they were more evenly divided between the Conservatives and Labour on health, housing, and education. After Corbyn accepted the referendum result, some erstwhile leave/UKIP voters sided with Labour on bread-and-butter issues.
The Youth Strike Back
One of the major talking points on election night was the impact of the youth vote on the surge for Labour. After their parents and grandparents came out to vote in far larger numbers in last year’s EU referendum, early speculation suggested that young people turned out in large numbers for a Labour Party and a Labour leader who appealed directly and vigorously for their support.
While discussion of turnout is premature (turnout figures will not be available for another week), there is evidence to suggest that young people turned out to vote and provided a major boost to Labour. Many pollsters appear to have been so surprised by the self-reported turnout intentions of young voters that they adjusted their data to account for recent patterns of voting behaviour among young voters. The seat projections that predicted a hung parliament earlier this week were predicated on a high turnout among the youth, while many of the seat projections that did not predict a hung parliament assumed low levels of turnout among young voters in line with previous elections.
Whether or not turnout among the young was up as significantly as pre-election polls suggested, the fact remains that the young voters who did turn out voted overwhelmingly for Labour. Data from both YouGov’s final pre-election poll and Lord Ashcroft’s polling on election day showed roughly 45 percentage-point gaps between Labour and the Conservatives among 18-24 year-olds; among those aged 65 and up, the pattern was nearly the exact opposite. After their parents and grandparents voted to take them out of the EU against their wishes, most young voters turned around and dealt their Conservative-voting elders a blow by voting overwhelmingly for Labour.
Northern Ireland Matters for UK Politics
To be sure, the Conservatives finished in pole position in part because the party was able to make inroads into Scotland, where a backlash against the Scottish National Party’s calls for a second independence referendum among unionist voters helped the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party to pick up 12 seats. However, pole position in this instance did not equal a majority. With the Liberal Democrats ruling out another coalition with the Conservatives (and with little chance of coalition with Labour/the SNP), the Conservatives are now depending on the support of the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs elected in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland actually mattered in two ways in 2017. For one, the fact Sinn Féin picked up three seats (seven in total) meant the number of seats needed to command a majority was reduced to 322. Because the Conservatives failed to reach even that reduced threshold, they will have to rely on the DUP’s 10 seats to command a majority in Parliament.
These two results forced many in Great Britain to revisit their understanding of Northern Ireland politics and the key players. With NI politics elevated to the attention of the wider UK public, there will be more focus on the key players and their interests – and particularly on the demands of the DUP as they play kingmaker for the Conservatives – as we watch how the Conservatives try to hold on to a bare-minimum working majority. It will also draw more attention to the specific context and issues in Northern Ireland, and how the parties in the North will interact with the parties in Great Britain (and Corbyn in particular) on issues relating to the past and the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland.
As the dust settles after yet another wild election, many feel as though everything we thought we knew about UK politics has been turned on its head yet again. That said, the immediate future suggests three sets of issues will continue to play out and have significant effects on UK politics.
Though the EU referendum was meant to be settled in last year’s referendum, Brexit has shaken up British politics yet again; a hung parliament opens the possibility that the issue will be revisited during this parliamentary term.
Related, young people seem to be more engaged in this and other debates affecting them. And with the election results in Northern Ireland having consequences for the day-to-day affairs at Westminster, the political issues specific to Northern Ireland and the consequences of Brexit particular to this part of the UK have been elevated to national attention.