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Thursday’s historic UK election, explained

The British vote will affect millions of people’s lives outside of Britain.

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

LONDON — There’s excitement in the air here in London on Thursday. That’s because British voters are going to the polls — in one of the most bizarre, unpredictable, and momentous elections in the country’s long history.

Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May began the campaign on April 18 confident that she’d win by a massive margin. The opposition Labour Party was down by about 16 points in the national polls; its leader, left-wing firebrand Jeremy Corbyn, had a net-negative approval rating among voters from his own party.

But since then the race has gotten much closer, with Corbyn behind by a little under 8 points in the national poll averages heading into today’s vote. This owes largely to May’s own screw-ups — most notably a boneheaded health care proposal that would functionally tax elderly people for getting dementia — but nonetheless means that Corbyn has now made this a real race. Despite the fact that every objective indicator suggests May should win by a fair margin, things feel very unsettled — especially in the wake of Saturday’s deadly terrorist attack in London.

“My hunch is that the Conservatives will win a majority,” Matt Williams, a political scientist at the University of Oxford, says. “But it’s very difficult to predict these things.”

The stakes are very, very high. May and Corbyn disagree strongly on issues ranging from Brexit to the country’s relationship Donald Trump to the future of the NATO alliance, meaning that this election has the potential to further unsettle a global political system rocked by the controversial American president.

Millions of people outside Britain will be affected by what British voters do today. So what follows is a guide to the momentous 2017 election — who the major players are, how the British system works, and why this matters so much for Europe and America.

A guide to the 2017 UK general election

British Voters Go To The Polls In The 2017 General Election (Ian Forsyth/Getty Images)

The first interesting thing to note about this election is that it wasn’t supposed to happen at all. As recently as this April, Britain’s next national election was planned for 2020 — and then things changed.

Unlike America’s presidential system, where the chief executive is directly selected by the voters, the British system is parliamentary: Whichever party wins a majority of seats in the UK House of Commons, Britain’s more powerful equivalent of the House of Representatives, gets to pick the prime minister. Members of Parliament (MPs), like members of the US House, represent specific places (called constituencies) and stand for election in them.

There are 650 seats in the House of Commons; before the election, Theresa May’s Conservatives controlled 330 of them. This is a very narrow majority, which makes it hard for her to pass major legislation. (Think how much trouble Republicans are having getting an Obamacare replacement plan through.)

Hence the 2017 election. In April, May decided that her majority wasn’t large enough and called a new election (which you can do in parliamentary systems). The thinking behind this “snap election,” as it’s called, was that Labour was so unpopular that the Conservatives were sure to win, pad their majority, and use it to push through legislative priorities like pension cuts.

This was especially important in light of last year’s vote to leave the European Union. Theresa May had never actually won a national election: She was a cabinet minister in the prior government who took power after David Cameron, the last prime minister, quit. Cameron, like many in the Conservative Party, had opposed Brexit — and resigned in disgrace after the vote.

May, too, had opposed Brexit. But after taking office, she reinvented herself as a champion of the new “Brexit consensus,” the right person to stand for Britain in negotiations with the EU. Because Britain isn’t just quitting: It needs to come to terms with the EU over issues like access to the EU’s common market and whether Britain will continue to allow unrestricted immigration from EU countries.

This election was supposed to be a kind of coronation for May, a vote to anoint her Britain’s unchallenged representative to the EU.

“She needs an election win to give her a mandate to lead the country, the Conservative Party and the Brexit negotiations,” Tim Oliver, a professor at the London School of Economics who studies Brexit, explained in an April email to me. “The EU referendum result gives a mandate to leave the EU, but is not clear as to what ‘leave’ means and May needs a mandate from the people to back her interpretation of leave.”

May was confident that she’d get this mandate — owing largely to her opponent.

Corbyn is a socialist, a kind of politician that hadn’t led Labour since the 1980s. He is far to the left of Bernie Sanders: Corbyn has proposed renationalizing Britain’s rail system, abolishing tuition for British universities, massively hiking taxes, capping CEO salaries, and imposing rent controls to deal with Britain's affordable housing problem. He's even suggested reopening the coal mines that used to be a big part of Britain's economy. His position on Brexit was wishy-washy, meaning he didn’t seem like much of a threat on the key issue in the election.

He also has a long history of unsavory political associations. In the 1980s, British intelligence reportedly opened a file on him due to links to the terrorist Irish Republican Arm. More recently, in 2009, he invited members of the terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah to speak in Parliament. “It will be my pleasure and my honor to host an event in Parliament where our friends from Hezbollah will be speaking,” Corbyn said.

That’s a particularly bad problem for his party, which is already struggling to figure out how to handle Labour MPs who have made profoundly anti-Israel, and in some cases openly anti-Semitic, comments.

May gambled that Corbyn’s far-left economic views and sketchy ties would render him unelectable: That Labour voters, furious with the party’s past 20 years of relative centrism, had overcorrected. The poll numbers appeared to bear her out — at least at first.

The massive global stakes

Leaders Meet For NATO Summit
Theresa May with Trump.
(Dan Kitwood/Pool/Getty Images)

Normally, British elections don’t have major stakes for the rest of the world. But the Brexit referendum, the much-larger-than-normal ideological divide between the Conservatives and Labour, and the Trump presidency have all amped up the consequences. It’s not an overstatement to say this is one of the most profoundly significant British elections for the rest of the world in recent memory.

Brexit is the most obvious reason why. The Tories have taken a harsh anti-immigration position, calling for no more than 100,000 people to be admitted to Britain per year. For this to happen, they need to end the free flow of people between the European Union and Britain currently mandated by EU law. Three million EU citizens currently live in the UK; 250,000 EU citizens moved to the UK last year alone.

The problem, though, is that the EU is unlikely to agree to this and continue to allow the UK access to the EU’s common market, which grants all EU countries privileged trade status with each other. The UK depends on trade with the EU: About 44 percent of its exports go to the rest of Europe. Getting starkly cut off from the common market could, as a result, tank the UK economy — and likely damage the EU’s as well.

That scenario, a hard break from both EU immigration and trade laws, is called a “hard Brexit,” and will happen automatically unless the EU and UK come to softer terms. May appears very comfortable with it, judging by her campaign rhetoric: “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she’s said repeatedly.

Corbyn and Labour, by contrast, seem more willing to compromise on immigration. Whoever wins, then, will be in charge of negotiations that affect millions of immigrants’ lives and billions of dollars of economic activity.

Britain’s future role in global politics beyond the EU is in question too.

Traditionally, Britain has been America’s closest modern ally and played an active role in Western military operations. It’s one of the world’s nine nuclear powers, and an active participant in the NATO alliance. A May victory would basically mean status quo on all of these policies. Corbyn, in keeping with his left-wing politics, would mean something very different. He once called NATO “a danger to world peace,” and has suggested that the UK should give up its nuclear weapons.

The Labour leader has been cagey on whether he would actually act on this rhetoric if elected. But the mere fact of a Corbyn premiership would send a clear signal that Britain was about to retrench in some way — further weakening a Western alliance already reeling from Donald Trump’s refusal to commit wholeheartedly to its defense.

“As far as I know, Mr. Corbyn says that NATO should give up, go home, go away,” Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former secretary-general of NATO, said in a BBC appearance last year. “If he [Jeremy Corbyn] were to carry out what he said, it would tempt Mr. Putin to aggression, to test the resolve of NATO.”

The future of the US-UK relationship is also at stake in Thursday’s vote, largely because of Trump.

Theresa May and Trump are close — she literally held Trump’s hand when the two met in Washington earlier this year. Corbyn, by contrast, has told the US president that he needs to “grow up,” blasting May for “pandering to an erratic Trump administration.” Trump bashing is popular in the UK: Ben Walker, founder of the poll-watching site Britain Elects, estimates that just “10 percent” of Britons like the guy. And Labour candidates down the line have echoed some of Corbyn’s rhetoric.

“What greater cheerleader do we have for saying Muslims have no place in liberal democracy than the president of the United States?” Mike Katz, a relatively moderate Labour candidate for Parliament in Northern London, said when I asked him about Trump at a campaign event on Sunday.

A Labour Britain, then, would move further away from the United States, opening up a rift with one of the few allies Trump has been able to count on.

"It is very, very difficult to imagine Trump and Jeremy Corbyn getting on," Timothy Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, told USA Today. "Anything from May will be mild and muted compared to Corbyn."

How Theresa May botched a landslide — and made this a close race

Leader Of The Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn Casts His Vote In The 2017 General Election
Happy Corbyn.
(Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Though the stakes in the election have always been huge, it didn’t get as much attention internationally early on as you might have thought. That’s because, for the first month of the campaign, the outcome seemed clear. May’s lead remained steady at around 16 points, and even grew somewhat from April to mid-March.

The UK’s third parties, which had been relatively strong in recent years, were also working to the Conservatives’ advantage. The Scottish National Party, SNP, is a regional party expected to get around 50 Parliament seats in one of Britain’s most historically left-wing regions. They sap votes from Labour a bit like the Green Party does in the US, only much more so. The Liberal Democrats, a center-left party running on opposition to leaving the EU, was also expected to draw votes from disgruntled Labour supporters who couldn’t bear to back Corbyn.

The far-right United Kingdom Independence Party, UKIP, traditionally drew votes from the conservatives. But their core issue was Brexit, which the Tories had now embraced, causing them to seem irrelevant. Their voters were fleeing to May, giving her yet another boost.

But then the Conservatives started to stumble. It began with a departure from their core Brexit message, taking high-profile stands on divisive issues like legalizing fox hunting, which is apparently a thing here.

“The Conservatives moved away from Brexit during the campaign,” Tom Clarkson, vice president of the political consultancy firm BritainThinks, says. “You could say that was a mistake, because they don’t lead as strongly on other issues as they do on Brexit.”

The critical turning point came on May 19 — when the Conservatives released their manifesto, the British equivalent of a party platform. That day, the Conservatives led Labour by 47.2 to 31 — a 16.2-point margin.

The margin started dropping almost immediately after that day, falling more than 6 full points down to roughly 10.1 (44.8 to 34.7). The race has continued to tighten since, with declines in third-party and Conservative support seemingly translating into Labour gains:

(Javier Zarracina/Vox)

The key problem with the Conservative manifesto was a proposal to require individuals who require in-home support services, like a nurse, to pay for these services on their own if their combined savings and assets, including property, total 100,000 pounds (roughly $130,000) or higher. Currently, the UK’s ”social care” system pays for this kind of in-home assistance for many more people than would be covered under the Conservatives’ plan.

The proposal, which reportedly was added to the manifesto at the last minute, was an immediate disaster. Critics dubbed it the “dementia tax,” as many people who rely on social care are elderly individuals afflicted with dementia. It came across as unnecessarily cruel, once again playing into a longstanding sense that the Conservatives aren’t really interested in helping Britain’s most vulnerable.

The criticism of the “dementia tax” was so overwhelming that, three days later, it was removed from the Conservative manifesto. This actually managed to make things worse: It suggested that May, who had been running on the slogan “strong and stable,” wasn’t actually to be trusted.

“We saw favorability for Theresa May crash that weekend, after the social care fiasco — and Jeremy Corbyn’s jump,” says Walker. “The Tory campaign has been perceived to have been bad — and, I think, it has been bad.”

Anti-May sentiment has only risen since. The fourth-most-popular song in the UK singles charts at this moment, by an artist named Captain Ska, is titled “Liar, Liar.” The chorus — “She’s a liar, liar / No, no you can’t trust her” — is of course referring to the prime minister.

After a Tory cockup of this magnitude, all Corbyn had to do to rise in the polls was not do something worse. But he did one better than that: The Labour leader actually performed relatively well in high-profile media interviews, like a live grilling from popular TV host Jeremy Paxman. This steady performance in the face of Conservative blunders made him seem like a fresher choice than most people thought.

“For Jeremy Corbyn, a lot of the members of the public had this perception of him as a complete disaster,” Clarkson says. “He’s outperformed the really, really low expectations.”

Interestingly, the first terrorist attack during the campaign — the deadly suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester that happened just after the Tory manifesto was released — did not become a major issue in the race.

But the London attack last Saturday was different, as the candidates pivoted directly to attacking each other’s approaches to jihadism. May attacked Corbyn as being soft on terror, while Corbyn blamed the attack on May’s cuts to police funding.

“I have to say I was pretty surprised, and slightly disappointed, that the parties ... were using these events to damage their opponents,” Williams said. “I had thought that British politics had a slightly higher sense of propriety — that they wouldn’t take advantage of these horrible events for their own political benefit.”

Normally, the Conservatives would clearly benefit from this debate. Polls have shown for some time that they’re the party with a stronger reputation on security and terrorism issues. Corbyn’s links to the IRA, Hamas, and Hezbollah have seriously damaged his credibility on these issues.

But Theresa May’s previous job in the cabinet was as Home Secretary, a cabinet position responsible for (among other things) internal security, prior to being prime minister. There’s a real argument that Britain’s terrorism problem manifested on her watch; that she’s had ample time to do something about it, and failed to do so.

Polling so far has been inconclusive as to who’s winning this debate. The effect this final horror will have on the election is very far from clear.

A Conservative victory is still the most likely outcome — but the margin really matters

Leader Of The Conservative Party Theresa May Casts Her Vote In The 2017 General Election
Happy May.
(Matt Cardy/Getty Images)

It’s important to be clear about this: Both the numbers and the fundamental nature of British politics point to a clear Tory victory.

None of Britain’s major polling firms have shown Labour ahead. Lord Ashcroft, one of Britain’s most eminent number-crunchers, projects that the Tories will end the night with a significantly enhanced parliamentary majority — gaining about 50 seats over what it had before the election. BritainElect’s projections are nearly identical.

Polls also find strong underlying support for May and the Conservatives on the most important issues.

“A party that is behind on leadership and economic competence is heading for defeat,” Peter Kellner, the former head of the polling firm YouGov, writes in the UK’s Prospect magazine. “On both the Conservatives still enjoy clear, if reduced, leads — by 13 points as to who would make the best PM, and 8 points on managing the economy.”

What’s more, there’s are regional dynamics that make this harder. The Scottish Nationalist Party’s dominance in Scotland makes it hard for Labour to get a majority; Scotland is one of the more progressive parts of Britain, so every seat the SNP wins there is one seat that otherwise would have gone to Labour.

Outside of Scotland, Labour’s voters tend to cluster in cities like London. The Conservatives, by contrast, have worked successfully to appeal to more working-class voters in former Labour strongholds like the Northeast of England, places that emerged as Brexit bastions in last year’s referendum.

“The feeling on the ground outside the capital is very different — just like the referendum,” one Tory insider explains.

The result is a kind of sorting of British politics: Labour voters have become more concentrated in a handful of constituencies in cities, while Conservatives have gotten stronger in a much larger number of constituencies.

One Labour activist I spoke to agreed. He said that even if the poll surge continued and Labour ended up outright winning the popular vote, the Conservatives would still retain a majority of seats in Parliament — a bit like how Trump won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote, or how Democrats consistently lose the House despite winning a national majority of votes in House elections.

When you tally up these regional effects, the intrinsic Conservative advantage is truly staggering. BuzzFeed UK’s James Ball and Tom Phillips estimate that Labour would need to win the popular vote by at least 7 points in order to win a bare minimum majority. Since they’re down by nearly 8 in the averages, the polls would have to be off by 15 points for Labour to win outright. British polls have been off in the past, but this would be unprecedented.

All that being said, it’s important not to rule anything out — even a Labour victory. Anything is still possible, according to experts like Clarkson and Walker — and the key reason why is the youth vote.

Corbyn’s poll surge in the past month seems to come principally from young voters and people who didn’t vote in the last election, among whom he is extremely popular. Typically, these people vote. If the traditional pattern holds, then the polls are actually underestimating Theresa May’s support — and we’re headed for a Tory landslide, perhaps over a 100-seat majority.

If that’s the case, then May’s gamble will have more than paid off. Some observers have speculated that this scenario would produce a civil war in the Labour party, where anti-Corbyn centrists try to topple him or even split off and form their own party.

“In recent days, I have been speaking to Labour candidates, including those defending small majorities in marginal seats, as well as to activists. The picture emerging is bleaker than the polls would suggest,” writes Jason Cowley, the editor of the left-wing New Statesman. “What will come next? No one knows.”

But this could all be wrong if young voters and previous nonvoters turn out in historically unprecedented numbers, as Corbyn allies are suggesting. If that’s true, then the poll average is considerably underestimating his support. If that’s the case, the Tories might lose seats. This could create chaos short of a full Labour victory: If the Tories don’t win an absolute majority, then there’s what’s called “hung Parliament,” when no one can really govern alone. British politics would crawl to a standstill at a critical time in global politics.

In that scenario, Corbyn and his allies will cement their control on the Labour Party. Meanwhile, it’s May’s head that would be on the chopping block. Tories furious about her decision to call an election that lost seats might rebel and vote her out of the party leadership.

“I do wonder if this next term will be her last,” Walker muses. “She ain’t Maggie Thatcher.”

The point, then, is that there’s a large band of potential results — and each of them could have profoundly different consequences for both British politics and the world.

Buckle up.