An Ignorant American's Guide to the UK Election
A Brit explains who Jeremy Corbyn is and why everyone is so mad at him all the time.
Left: Theresa May, photo by Neil Hall; right: Jeremy Corbyn, photo by Rob Stothard. Both via Getty
To many Americans, the UK is like an alternate reality where there is a Parliament and a Queen and everyone cares a great deal about baking. (It sounds pretty nice, to be honest.) But though British politics resembles the US version in some way—the Conservatives (Tories) and Labour are rough analogues of the Republicans and Democrats, respectively—there are a bunch of structural differences between the systems that make it tricky for Yanks to grasp what's going on in the UK, which is set to have an election this Thursday.
The UK's parliamentary system is in some ways simpler than the American model. If a party wins a majority of the seats in Parliament, it gets to control the government and its leader becomes prime minister. (If no party has a majority, the Tories or Labour would have to create a coalition government with minor parties—we'll get into that.) The UK is supposed to have an electoral calendar like the US does, but Prime Minister Theresa May, the Conservative leader, cast that aside and got Parliament vote to call a fresh election.
On the eve of the election, we emailed Oscar Rickett, a writer and journalist who has covered politics on both sides of the Atlantic, to sort out some of the issues at play when Britons head to the polls.
Why did Prime Minister Theresa May call an election?
There are lots of secondary reasons, but the main one is that she assumed she'd win and win big. With almost all the media and much of his party plotting his demise, Labour's leader Jeremy Corbyn was seen as the kind of sandal-wearing hippie no good, honest Brit would vote for. It was a bit like the beginning of the Democratic primary, when everyone thought Bernie Sanders was a total no-hoper.
Compared to Corbyn, Theresa May, the daughter of a vicar, nicknamed "Darth Vader" by some of her former employees, and reviled by her opponents for deliberately creating a "hostile environment" for refugees and asylum seekers in the UK (among other things), looked like the kind of politician Brits usually go for.
When she stood for the leadership of her party, May had actually been forced to promise fellow Conservatives that she wouldn't hold an early election. She also publicly said she wouldn't call one.
Her mind was changed by a small group of advisers with the thinking being that, once she'd beaten Corbyn, she'd have a mandate to do things her way. This means re-introducing Grammar schools (free schools that select their pupils based on exams), her big pet project, and negotiating the terms of Brexit.
Watch our documentary about a road trip across Britain in the lead-up to the UK election:
What are the major issues at stake in this election?
The National Health Service (NHS), Brexit, terrorism and national security, income inequality, how much money Britain has and what it should be spent on… I'm joking of course; the major issues are why Theresa May hates appearing in public and whether Jeremy Corbyn loves the IRA.
There is so much at stake, and some policies are being discussed and even debated, but as with most election campaigns in the age of big media, it is coming down to a clash of personalities, with May hoping everyone would see her as "strong and stable" and Corbyn hoping that everyone would see him as fair, principled, and offering some hope for the future.
On public services, which tend to be held in higher regard here than in America but which are far weaker now than they were before Margaret Thatcher and the neoliberal era, the clash is between a Conservative Party that continues to believe that cutting funding to them is good for the economy and a Labour Party that believes this "austerity" must end. Labour plans to tax corporations and the top 5 percent of earners more in order to fund public services like the NHS. The Conservatives say that this is only possible with the use of something they are very fond of calling the "magic money tree."
The terrorist attacks in Manchester and London have meant that national security is dominating headlines. Usually this would be bad for Labour, which is traditionally seen as being softer than the Tories. But May was the minister responsible for cutting police numbers over the last six years, and she sees no problem with Britain selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a major funder of extremists, so the facts aren't on her side.
Why are so many people angry at Corbyn all the time? Is he like a British Bernie Sanders?
Bernie and JC are both old (democratic) socialists who've spent their lives as political outsiders inside the political system. With more and more people feeling dissatisfied, defeated, or cast aside by an economic system that helps too few at the expense of too many, Sanders and Corbyn are having their moment. They have also both been steadfast in their opposition to Western warmongering and can come off as being a bit scruffy and cantankerous.
Corbyn is not as consistent a speaker or media performer as Sanders, but both men have also become lightning rods for issues that are often only vaguely connected to them. They are also powerfully representative of the existential battles gripping their parties. Labour, like the Democrats, spent two or three decades becoming more and more comfortable with wealth and wealth inequality, at the expense of the working class. Now there's a battle going on to move the party back to the left. Think of former Labour prime minister Tony Blair in the Hillary/Bill Clinton role, with Corbyn in the Bernie role.
As you mentioned, even people in his own party are sometimes critical of Corbyn. Why is he so controversial?
If you believe that Labour needs to be a party committed to left-wing positions and to being truly different from the Conservatives, then Corbyn is a good thing, even if he hasn't always been particularly good at some aspects of politics—making your opponents pay for their mistakes, dealing with the press, handling criticism from colleagues.
Corbyn's critics tend to view his actually (by British standards) perfectly reasonable and actually quite popular (when polled individually) policies as being too left wing. Tony Blair won three elections for Labour with much more centrist positions, and to Corbyn skeptics, there is no other way of doing things. Again, the comparison with Sanders and the Democrats is pretty obvious.
Corbyn has done very well during the campaign, and some of his detractors have had to admit that maybe he wasn't so bad after all, and that if the media and the political and financial establishment didn't hate him, it would have been easier for him to get his message across to the voters.
What's up with the parties that aren't the Conservatives or Labour? Do they have much power?
Britain's first-past-the-post electoral system has always made it tough for anyone other than the Conservatives and Labour.
This election is even more of a two-party race, except in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party, which wants independence for Scotland, will win most, if not all, the seats. That doesn't mean they will come anywhere near getting as many seats as Labour or the Conservatives, though. Northern Ireland and Wales also have local parties that always do well, but that doesn't translate to big power on the national stage.
UKIP, the party once led by Donald Trump ally Nigel Farage, seems to have lost most of its support. That's mostly because the Conservatives have presented themselves as a pro-Brexit, anti-immigration party, attracting people who used to be UKIP voters.
The traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats, were hurt badly by being in coalition with the Tories between 2010 and 2015. They are trying to attract voters who really want Britain to stay in the European Union by saying they will hold another referendum, but are hampered again and again by the refusal of their Christian leader Tim Farron to definitively say that being gay is not a sin. Also, he looks like a button.
Are the Tories going to win again?
Almost certainly. Labour has closed the gap in the polls, but it's unlikely to be enough, and it is still struggling desperately in the formerly industrial communities that were once its heartland but which have been, like the American Rust Belt, neglected for far too long. Age is also a factor: If this election excluded voters over 50, Labour would win, but there's a lot of old people in Britain, and they (particularly those over 65) tend to be keen on the Conservatives.
What happens if no one gets an outright majority? Is there an obvious coalition?
The Conservatives could probably rely on the Democratic Unionist Party, the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, once led by Protestant firebrand Reverend Ian Paisley, if they came up a little short. Otherwise, if the Conservatives don't win, some kind of progressive alliance could materialize in which Labour led in partnership with the Liberal Democrats, Scottish Nationalists, and the Green Party.
What would happen if Labour won? Would Brexit be softened or reversed?
It would be softened, but it's Labour's policy to go ahead with it because the vote has happened now, which means that THE PEOPLE HAVE SPOKEN, and we have to go ahead with Brexit, even if that makes us nothing more than polite lemmings trooping over a cliff.
Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.