by Kyle Williamson
Let me take you back to 1974, where Edward Heath, the former Conservative Prime Minister, decided to call a snap General Election. His lead in the polls was clear and Britain was in social turmoil because of the Miners strike and the decision to join the European Union. A New Statesman article says the following about this election: ‘In February 1974, faced with the unappetising choice of a failed Tory administration and an incoherent Labour opposition, the country shrugged’. (Bush, 2015). Except Labour was not incoherent. Labour, under Harold Wilson, had put together an inspirational manifesto which included full nationalisation of Britain’s offshore oil reserves, the renegotiation of Heath’s terms of entry into the European Common Market and price control on commodities (Labour Party, 1974) – the very things that would make Murdoch explode with a fit of rage.
Wilson gained 37.2% of the vote whereas Heath received 37.9% (Rallings and Thrasher, 2012). Labour had managed to gain 20 seats from the Tories in what was seen by many as a shock. To Marxists and those on the Left, the reasons of the results are obvious: the Tories were drawing the country into chaos and Labour were clearly offering a better alternative. The February election resulted in a coalition government with the Liberals lead by Heath. This lasted all of several months when a new election was called. In October 1974, Labour managed to secure a victory. Wilson had achieved 39.2% of the vote whereas Heath managed 35.8%, enough for a clear Labour majority (Rallings and Thrasher, 2012).
There are a lot of parallels being drawn between the 1974 election and the result of the most recent General Election; both sought a bigger mandate to deal with pressing national issues, and more importantly both elections were so called snap elections – meaning they were called before the parliamentary term expired. You would have thought Theresa May ought to have learned from her predecessor and waited until 2020, but she wanted a large majority to bulldoze through her hard Brexit.
In this article, I will attempt to explain what lead up to the result on June 8th and most importantly explore whether the deal with the DUP will keep May in power, or whether she will suffer a Heath moment and be forced to resign and call another general election.
Plenty of themes were playing on people’s minds during the election. Issues such as Brexit, the thought of a second Scottish independence referendum and the effects of seven years of Tory rule over Britain. The Tories of course were pushing for a hard Brexit, which would have meant withdrawing from the single market and the customs union and the potential of a physical border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland – an issue I will come back to later. Nicola Sturgeon, since being made First Minister of Scotland, has also repeated her wish for a second IndyRef, claiming that Brexit was reason enough for Scotland to become independent from the UK. The SNP, boosted by their 2015 Westminster success were certainly in a politically strong position to call for a second vote on independence. Lastly, most people in Britain would have seen the affect that seven years of Tory rule has had. The public sector has been cut and its pay capped at 1%, we have the NHS in ruins and the use of food banks going up. There’s not one main reason why people voted to punish the Tories in England, but in Scotland there can be no doubt that the referendum played on people’s minds. With a minority Tory government relying on support from the hard-right DUP, Theresa May will struggle to push a hard Brexit, and policies such as enhanced surveillance and further public sector cuts, through parliament.
There are a number of ways the aftermath of this election could play out. I am not convinced that May can keep her government going up until 2020, and, according to the press, neither are the Tory ministers currently inside Downing Street. Currently the Conservatives plus the DUP have a working majority of two seats, which could be in jeopardy when Craig McKinnley, the Tory who denied Farage a seat in the 2015 election and is facing charges of electoral fraud, is due to face trial on 4th July. If convicted, he will lose his seat, which would leave the Tory-DUP alliance with a working majority of one. This might not be enough to bring the May government down, though. The deal with the DUP could just simply fall apart, as they have an agreement on an issue by issue basis rather than a formal coalition. Many have also argued that any deal with the DUP would be in direct violation of the Good Friday Agreement, which states that Britain and Ireland will:
affirm that whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland, the power of the sovereign government with jurisdiction there shall be exercised with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in the diversity of their identities and traditions and shall be founded on the principles of full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities (Belfast Agreement, Constitutional Issues, 1998).
The consequence of this agreement being broken is a return to sectarian fighting in Northern Ireland, which has the danger of filtering back into the UK. Another issue with a deal with the DUP is the differences in policy that they have with May and the Conservative Party. The DUP have made it clear that they refuse any situation where a physical border exists between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, leaving the customs union will result in just that. Should May continue the course that she set to appease the backbenchers in her party and UKIP, it will lead to the DUP walking away, which could leave the DUP to vote down anything she attempts to put through the Commons as revenge. Should this happen, Theresa May would have lost any authority to govern and this will lead to another general election.
Finally, I would like to talk about Labour. Marxist World has adopted critical support for the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn on the grounds that he does not subscribe to the neoliberal policies of Blair and a majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. Labour went into the election divided and with little hope of gaining a majority. While very few people were under the expectation that Labour would win an outright majority, no one expected the party would end up taking 32 seats from the Tories and the SNP. Labour gained marginal seats such as Crewe and Nantwich, Croydon Central, Brighton Kemptown and Bury North (BBC, 2017).
In addition, Labour has turned several Tory safe seats into new marginals such as Hastings and Rye, Putney and Kensington and Chelsea (BBC, 2017). Corbyn’s critics feared that Labour would end up with just 100 seats; Instead it ended up with 262 (BBC, 2017). While Labour did not win the election, winning 32 seats and proving that the politics of Blair are no longer relevant was a huge win for the Left and for Corbyn, who has now been vindicated as a popular leader. Polls released days after the election put Labour on 45% and the Conservatives on 39% (Independent, 2017). This is where the comparison to 1974 comes in: if May’s government collapses, which is highly likely given what I’ve mentioned above, then Corbyn will almost certainly win a general election and should be able to form a government straight away.
What happens now, turning away from the General Election, is anybody’s guess. As of writing this article, the Tories and the DUP have yet to agree terms of a supply and confidence deal, and the European Union negotiators have already said that talks for Brexit will have to be delayed. Of course, there is a chance that May can survive the 5 years and all of the hypothetical situations I have thrown up don’t happen. Regardless, as Marxists we should be prepared to take on the Tories no matter how long their government lasts. We should also be prepared to challenge any right-wing Labour MP who wants Corbyn to change from his manifesto, apart from to go further left. We should also be building up our trade unions in the workplace to ensure that all workers don’t suffer the effects of a Tory government. While the conditions of the governance of the UK has changed, our tasks haven’t and we should keep going with them.
BBC News. (2017). Results of the 2017 General Election – BBC News. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2017/results [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].
Gov.uk. (2017). The Belfast Agreement – GOV.UK. [online] Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].
Khan, S. (2017). Labour has a six-point lead over the Tories, new poll finds. [online] The Independent. Available at: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-party-jeremy-corbyn-lead-theresa-may-conservatives-tories-survation-poll-general-election-a7784171.html [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].
Labour Party (1974) Labour Party Election Manifesto February 1974 [online] Available at: http://www.politicsresources.net/area/uk/man/lab74feb.htm [Accessed 12 June 2017]
Newstatesman.com. (2017). What happened in the 1974 election?. [online] Available at: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/04/what-happened-1974-election [Accessed 12 Jun. 2017].
Rallings, C. and Thrasher, M. (2000). British electoral facts, 1832-1999. Aldershot: Ashgate.