LONDON — Most of the United Kingdom appears to be in shock. Prime Minister Theresa May, once considered a virtual lock to dominate the 2017 election, actually lost 12 seats in the UK’s Parliament — enough to no longer control a majority. The Labour Party, led by left-wing insurgent Jeremy Corbyn, gained nearly 30.
It’s a stunning result — and a complicated one. To pick just one wrinkle at random: Despite the fact that May lost seats and lost control of the UK Parliament, she’s likely to remain prime minister.
Understanding the significance of this event — and make no mistake, this is a big deal for millions of people both in Britain and around the world — you need to go beyond the obvious, top-line results. You need to understand how this election shaped key parts of our world: which important politicians got stronger and which ideas became more or less persuasive as a result of the election.
What follows is an attempt to figure all that out, at least preliminarily. We’ll look at what this election means for both the powerful people, like Theresa May and Donald Trump, and the ordinary people whose lives hang in the balance when politicians make decisions.
So without further ado, here are the three winners and four losers in the UK election.
Loser: Theresa May
'Hi, I'm the ghost of bad decisions that will haunt you forever. From now on I will always be by your side.' pic.twitter.com/9oNOT24mNA— Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks) June 9, 2017
So, technically, May won the election.
Her Conservative Party (also called the “Tories”) got the most votes and the most seats in Parliament. While they didn’t win a majority of seats in Parliament — which is what gives you control of the government in the UK system — it looks like they’ll be able to form a government by forging an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a right-wing regional party in Northern Ireland.
The DUP will support the Tories in the key vote May needs to win to form a government, which means she will remain in the prime minister’s office at Number 10 Downing Street barring the deal’s collapse.
Nonetheless, this election is a catastrophe for both the Conservative Party and May personally.
“Anything other thing than a much bigger majority isn’t a success,” says Tony Travers, director of the London School of Economics’ Institute of Public Affairs.
You see, prior to the vote, May and the Conservatives did have a parliamentary majority. That meant they controlled enough seats to push through legislation on a party-line vote, without having to rely on unreliable partners like the DUP, on issues ranging from pension cuts to modernizing Britain’s nuclear arsenal to Brexit.
This wasn’t enough for May. She wanted to go even further: to win a larger majority so that she’d have a mandate to push for her preferred version of Brexit, one where the UK would sharply limit future immigration and trade with the European Union.
This isn’t my spin — it was her explicitly stated rationale.
"I have concluded the only way to guarantee certainty and security for years ahead is to hold this election," she said in in a televised statement explaining her decision on April 18. “Division in [Parliament] will risk our ability to make a success of Brexit."
Now she has no majority and even more division in Parliament. It’ll be much harder for her to pass any major Conservative priorities on any issue, be it economic, foreign, or social policy. The Conservative agenda will be largely stalled, and the harder Brexit May has been pushing might well be impossible (more on that later).
And it all seems to be mostly her fault: both for calling the election in the first place and for running a campaign that basically every British political observer believes was dreadful.
That’s both in terms of speeches and TV appearances, which were poorly received, and policy proposals, most notably a boneheaded health care proposal that would functionally tax elderly people for getting dementia. The unveiling of that idea, and her subsequent flip-flop on it after a public outcry, seemed to directly precipitate her drop in the polls.
Now, the knives are out for Theresa May. While Travers believes she’s likely to hang on as prime minister, this is due only to the fact that the Tories don’t want to fight an internal battle in the midst of Brexit negotiations — which are set to begin in just 10 days. Those last for roughly two years; after that, her premiership may very well be over.
They’ll want her to “see Brexit through,” Travers says. But, he cautions, “the Conservative Party is famously ruthless.”
Winner: Jeremy Corbyn
What the Labour leader has pulled off is nothing short of extraordinary.
After the 2015 election, in which Labour suffered a surprising defeat, Jeremy Corbyn announced that he’d be running for leadership of the party. The betting markets put his odds at 100 to 1. After all, who would expect that a far-left candidate who proposed nationalizing whole sectors of the British economy would actually be able to take over the same party that gave the world Iraq War supporter Tony Blair?
Well, whoever bet on Corbyn back then won big. Anyone who did the same this year probably did too.
When May called the election in April, Corbyn was down 16 points in the national poll averages. The center-left Labour establishment, who had never really reconciled themselves to Corbyn’s control of their party, were preparing for a loss — expecting Corbyn to cost Labour dozens of seats, and getting ready to argue that he was unfit to lead the party.
Then this happened:
Jeremy Corbyn has just increased Labour's share of the vote more than any other leader in any other election since Attlee in 1945 pic.twitter.com/CwcHzHZ04q— Fraser Nelson (@FraserNelson) June 9, 2017
What’s more, the initial data suggests some vindication for Corbyn’s theory of politics. He had banked on his radical proposals generating a surge of support from young people and other previous non-voters to counteract Conservative support among older voters. And there was, in fact, a youth surge: Turnout among voters ages 18 to 24 went from 43 percent in 2015 to 72 percent in 2017. They overwhelmingly went for Corbyn.
You can debate whether the victory was the result of his policy proposals platform, as his supporters argue vehemently, or May’s “dementia tax” and otherwise horrid campaign, or something else entirely — perhaps general anti-establishment sentiment. People will debate this, probably for years to come.
But this is a mostly academic exercise. For right now, the sheer scope and improbability of Labour’s gains mean that Corbyn’s leadership is safe from his rivals within the Labour Party. There’s even a serious chance that he could become prime minister in the next UK election.
Not bad for an old socialist very few people had even heard of three years ago.
Winner: the European Union
Normally, British elections don’t have major stakes for the rest of the world. Brexit is the first big obvious reason why this one was different — and the European Union came out way better than it started.
During the campaign, the Tories took 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 would 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 while continuing 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 tank the UK economy — and likely damage the EU’s as well.
That scenario, the so-called “hard Brexit,” will happen automatically unless the EU and UK come to softer terms. The EU doesn’t want a hard Brexit to happen, but preelection May appeared very comfortable with it, judging by her campaign rhetoric. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain” was a common phrase of hers.
Assuming Theresa May remains prime minister, she’s going to have to soften her line.
A huge chunk of Parliament, including many of members in her own party, were already leery about the prospect of a hard Brexit when they had a majority. Now that the election has come and gone, and voters rejected May’s request for a hard Brexit mandate, she simply won’t have the support to take such a hard line.
“At any point, a tiny number of either Conservative or Democratic elite could say no,” Travers says. “This will weaken her negotiations with the EU ... they will now know they could push further, hard — and she would have to give.”
The German government, a key player on the EU side of the negotiations, wasted no time in signaling that they understand this dynamic.
“Theresa May said she wanted a strong majority for Britain’s exit from the EU. But she didn’t get that,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said in a Friday morning statement. “The message of the election is: Have fair discussions with the EU and think about whether it’s actually good for Britain to leave the EU in this way.”
The result, then, is that May’s gamble for a hard Brexit mandate may end up leading to a much softer Brexit — one that has a much less negative impact on the free movement of people throughout Europe and the British economy than observers had worried.
Loser: Donald Trump
Theresa May is just about the only Western leader that Donald Trump seemed to get along with. Both of them came to power after nationalist surges in their respective countries, both are conservatives, and both speak English. They even were photographed holding hands during May’s state visit to Washington early this year (above, and also awwww).
Now, May is in the fight of her political life, and might well be ousted in the not-so-distant future. And there’s a plausible case that Trump helped make it happen.
After the terrorist attack on London Bridge last Saturday, Trump made a point of attacking Sadiq Khan, the popular Labour mayor of London:
At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is "no reason to be alarmed!"— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2017
Trump had taken Khan’s comments out of context (no surprise), and a lot of Brits were furious. Yet May repeatedly refused opportunities to attack Trump for his offensive statements, eventually offering only a tepid statement that “Donald Trump is wrong in what he said about Sadiq Khan.”
Labour politicians and the UK media excoriated May for this. It’s not crazy to think that this hurt her poll numbers at the margins, especially since May had faced persistent criticism prior to the vote for seeming too deferential to Trump. In an election this close, even a little Trump effect could make a big difference. (It’s also possible the attack itself mattered, but that’s very tough to say, as it plausibly could have benefitted either Labour or the Tories.)
This also fits with a broader pattern across Europe. Politicians across the political spectrum are increasingly seeing an advantage in attacking Trump on issues ranging from the travel ban to climate change to the trans-Atlantic alliance.
Both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have explicitly positioned themselves during their own campaigns as Trump foils. They’re right to: Surveys of European public opinion and studies of European newspapers find broad and deep opposition to the new American president among continental voters.
What all of this suggests, then, is that Trump may be becoming toxic, at least in the West: that anyone who might want to align with him risks paying a price at home. Not exactly what the president was hoping for when he promised to stop foreigners from “laughing” at America.
The story of 2016 was a story of rising nationalism: The Brexit referendum, Donald Trump’s victory, and a surge in support for anti-immigrant parties across the European continent all suggested that a nationalist backlash against immigration and global institutions like the EU might continue to cause new electoral shocks.
But the 2017 British election didn’t follow this script. The UK Independence Party, the UK’s far-right nationalist party that was the driving force behind the Brexit referendum, collapsed. Their share of the national vote plummeted, from 12.6 in 2015 all the way down to 2 percent in 2017, and they lost their only seat in Parliament.
This was somewhat expected: UKIP’s core purpose was to get the UK out of the EU and, now that that’s happening, the party feels sort of irrelevant. But it also comes on the heels of a slew of defeats for other far-right nationalist parties in Europe: Austria’s far-right presidential candidate in December, Dutch anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders’s underperformance in a parliamentary election in March, and France’s Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, losing by a whopping 31 points to centrist Emmanuel Macron in May.
This suggests that nationalism may not be as powerful a force in global politics as it looked last year.
Winner: left-wing populism
When the news of the Labour Party’s stunning success reached Washington, at least one person was happy: Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I am delighted to see Labour do so well,” Sanders wrote in an email to the Washington Post’s Dave Weigel. “All over the world people are rising up against austerity and massive levels of income and wealth inequality. People in the UK, the US and elsewhere want governments that represent all the people, not just the 1 percent.”
Sanders is right to see a kindred spirit in Corbyn. Though Corbyn is much further left than Sanders is, both share the same insurgent approach to politics: an attempt to win over a center-left party to their relatively much further left-wing approach, and to do so by foregrounding populist economic appeals.
Left-wingers the world over are taking note, and taking heart. Corbyn is for them a sign that there is still hope, that the world isn’t consigned to a choice between market-friendly liberalism and far-right nationalism.
“His success provides a blueprint for what democratic socialists need to do in the years to come,” Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of the popular Marxist magazine Jacobin, writes. He continues:
Labour’s surge confirms what the Left has long argued: people like a straightforward, honest defense of public goods. Labour’s manifesto was sweeping — its most socialist in decades. It was a straight-forward document, calling for nationalization of key utilities, access to education, housing, and health services for all, and measures to redistribute income from corporations and the rich to ordinary people.
Sunkara is right to take heart.
Corbyn’s election is a strong data point supporting the idea that their approach to politics may have a bigger constituency than previous evidence suggested. Some British polls suggest that Corbyn’s ideas were popular, with reporting suggested they particularly resonated with voters ages 18 to 24. If this is right, this could explain the youth surge that was so critical in Corbyn’s victory. It also mirrors a high level of youth support for the left-wing populist in the recent French election, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and for Sanders himself.
We can’t be sure that this theory of Corbyn’s victory is true yet: We’ll need a lot more data and fine-grained analysis to be certain about this kind of result. Already, there appear to be regional patterns — for instance, Labour performing stronger in the North of England than expected — that require deeper and more targeted analysis.
“It may be all sorts of different things going into different mixes in different places,” cautions Travers.
But if the initial evidence holds up, then the new left-wing populists — the Bernie Sanderses of the world — should be very happy.
The closer Jeremy Corbyn gets to 10 Downing Street, the more risk there is to the Western alliance’s coherence.
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. May is going to keep these policies, at least as long as she’s in office.
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 spark fears that Britain might be heading toward less active involvement in NATO — 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 were to carry out what he said, it would tempt Mr. Putin to aggression, to test the resolve of NATO.”
The risk here isn’t immediate. But the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn — and the very real chance that he could win a national election in the near future — has to be alarming NATO planners who can no longer be sure how long they can count on Britain’s military. That’ll be especially keenly felt in Eastern European countries, many of whose leaders see NATO as the only thing standing between them and a Russian-sponsored dirty war like the one currently raging in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin, by contrast, is probably in a pretty good mood.