For the second year in a row, the British electorate has thoroughly confounded analysts and observers by voting in an entirely unexpected manner. In April, when the British Prime Minister Theresa May announced her intention to hold an early election, she justified her decision by stating that an enhanced majority for the Conservative party would provide her with a stronger mandate to push for a ‘hard’ Brexit, if necessary, during negotiations that would determine the nature of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union. Possessing a majority of just twelve members in the House of Commons, May’s electoral gambit was partly premised on a series of polls that repeatedly showed the Conservative party enjoying double-digit leads over Labour which, if translated into actual seats in parliament, would have meant a landslide victory and a massive majority in the Commons. However, following an impassioned month of campaigning by Jeremy Corbyn, Labour’s avowedly left-wing leader, the election on 8 June 2017 delivered a hung parliament in which the Conservatives lost their majority and Labour saw the greatest increase in its share of the vote since 1945.

For now, Theresa May has managed to hold on to her premiership, heading a minority government that intends to enact its legislative agenda with support from the ten MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish party characterised by strong social conservatism and enthusiastic support for Brexit. Whether this government will survive over the next few months, let alone deliver on the promises that were made during the election campaign, remains to be seen. Indeed, amidst rumblings of discontent from within the Conservative party, the election has made it clear that the kind of ‘hard’ Brexit envisaged by the party’s Eurosceptics, which would entail withdrawal from the single market and customs union unless the EU were to make concessions regarding the free movement of labour and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (demands that are unlikely to be met), will be difficult to achieve.

Beyond Brexit, however, there are important lessons to be learnt from the election. For one, Labour’s unexpected success, coming as it did despite tremendous opposition from the right-wing press and a Conservative campaign that attempted to put national security at the heart of the debate in the wake of terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, demonstrates the limits of the kind of toxic, chauvinistic nationalism that has become the hallmark of right-wing parties across the West. While it would not be correct to equate the Conservative party with the kind of anti-establishment forces embodied in France’s National Front of the Dutch Freedom Party, both of which lost elections earlier this year, there is arguably a common thread of xenophobia that ties these parties together. This does not mean that anti-immigrant or Islamophobic sentiment does not exist in the UK or elsewhere, or even that it is in retreat; the Conservatives are still in power, after all, and Brexit is very much on the agenda. What it does suggest, however, is that when presented with a political alternative that offers real hope and the promise of changing the status quo, voters will respond positively.

This is a tendency that was apparent in the US election last year as well. While much has been made of how Donald Trump’s victory was precipitated by his ability to harness the rage of voters disillusioned with the political establishment, it is arguably the case that Bernie Sanders would have been able to do the same had he secured the Democratic party’s nomination for the presidency. The difference, of course, was that Sanders would have done so from the opposite end of the political spectrum, combining calls for social justice with promises to reverse decades of neo-liberal economic policy that had marginalized and impoverished large sections of the industrial working class. It is not coincidental that Wisconsin and Michigan – two crucial states that Trump won in 2016 – were picked up by Sanders during the Democratic primaries. Ravaged by deindustrialization and home to the kinds of disenchanted working class voters whose support Trump sought, Wisconsin and Michigan might have both been more receptive to the kind of economic message that Sanders emphasized in his own campaign.

When Jeremy Corbyn stood for election as leader of the Labour Party in 2015, his candidacy was not meant to succeed. Then, the aim had simply been to use the elections as a platform from which to initiate a debate about the need to move the party away from the centrism of the Blair years and take it in a more progressive, traditionally left-wing direction. Corbyn’s unexpected victory in the leadership elections, made possible by a surge of support from new and passionate young supporters who were able to take advantage of changes in the party’s rules of membership, prompted many of the party’s old guard and a significant number of its parliamentarians to openly question Corbyn’s ability to actually lead the party and win a general election. It was argued that his avowed socialism made him unelectable, and a string of defeats in different by-elections even led to a leadership challenge which Corbyn managed to survive. Heading in to the 2017 elections, many within the Labour Party believed that Corbyn would preside over one of the party’s worst defeats in history.

Instead, the opposite happened. The scale of Corbyn’s achievement has made his position as leader of the Labour Party unassailable but, more importantly, has powerfully demonstrated that voters are extremely receptive to the idea that the economic status quo must change. By abandoning the neo-liberal consensus of the past thirty years and embracing ideas like nationalisation, increased public spending on welfare, stricter regulation of the market, and enhanced protections for workers, Corbyn has shown that addressing the economic causes of popular discontent represents the best way to combat the virulent racism and authoritarianism of the right.


The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.