While Americans were riveted by the James Comey Senate hearings Thursday, another event, almost as important to our democracy, was happening across the pond. The British had a general election that pretty much upended the political order of the United Kingdom, the United States and Europe for the next several years.
Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May took all and everybody’s bets and lost, and now she and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn are in a race to see who can form a government first. What happened?
Less than a year after right-wing forces in England passed the Brexit “Make England more white again” vote, which was seen as the first in a wave of “Trump-like” policy leanings that would take over Europe, the left has pushed back in a major way. It looks as if black, brown, tan and Muslim Britons decided to take their country back; Americans should take note of how you can beat back a dangerous wave of right-wing politics.
Under a law passed in 2010, the British are to have a general election for the 650 seats in Parliament every five years. However, a sitting prime minister can call a “snap election”—meaning an early general election with about six weeks of campaigning—at any point during that five years if he or she chooses to do so.
Now, from an American perspective, we’re wondering why any politician in his or her right mind would call for an election early. Isn’t the goal to wait until the very last minute to make sure everything is in your favor before you face perpetually angry voters? Not if you think you’ve got a good hand, which is what May thought.
In April the polls showed Conservatives with a 20 percent voting lead over Labour. Even better, the left-wing Labour Party was still in minor revolt over its far-left new leader, Corbyn, who is essentially the Bernie Sanders of British politics, right up to the bad hair, interparty conflict and blind spot on racial issues. With the clock ticking, now seemed like the perfect time for a snap election that would increase the Conservatives’ 330-232 lead over Labour.
Why the rush? Because the Brexit negotiations with the European Union begin in mid-June, and May thought that her negotiating power would be stronger if she was coming in hot off a new election with an even larger majority.
Imagine if President Barack Obama could have called for an election right after announcing that the U.S. had killed Osama bin Laden. Imagine if Obama could have called for a congressional election after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn., because he felt he needed a more amenable Congress for gun control. Or if he called for an election right after the GOP shut down the government so that voters could punish the opposition. Calling a snap election is a pretty powerful tool in a prime minister’s arsenal if it works properly. Of course, for Theresa May it backfired. Bigly.
BME (a British political term denoting “black and minority ethnic”) and young-voter turnout surged in this general election, which flipped dozens of Conservative seats to Labour. The increased turnout by minorities was especially felt in the suburbs around London and Manchester that were once dominated by white voters. The Conservatives lost 12 seats, dropping to 318, while Labour gained 29 seats, jumping to 261, leaving each party short of the 326 members needed to form a majority government.
What sparked the turnout of minority votes? Clearly, the Labour Party under Corbyn sought out the youth vote, which overlaps with minority voters, and organizations like Operation Black Vote did massive voter-registration drives across the country, which played a role. However, for many minority voters it was the 41 percent rise in hate crimes post-Brexit, and the desire to fight back against the racial scapegoating in the wake of two ISIS-inspired terror attacks in the last month, that brought them to the polls. With 10 new minority members of Parliament elected (and only one loss), there are 51 BME MPs, the largest nonwhite representation in government in the nation’s history (7 percent), even if it’s only about half of the BME population in England.
All of this can be instructive for people of color looking to turn back the tide of racism and violence spawned since the election of President Donald Trump. At this point last year in England, right-wing UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage was the talk of the town, publicly accusing immigrants and minorities of being rapists and palling around with Trump. Now the country rallies around London’s Muslim mayor, Sadiq Khan, who got in a Twitter feud with Trump, a week after a terror attack launched by ISIS extremists. Life comes at you fast, especially in politics.
In America, everyone is wondering how so many voters could switch from educated, disciplined Obama to racist, misogynistic Trump in just four years. Easy: Trump offered those voters a racial pride and revenge that trumped Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals. But the British election suggests that you can win those voters back with the right candidates and policy.
A year ago in June, Brexit passed 51 percent to 48 percent, but on Thursday’s elections, constituencies that voted 50 percent or less for Brexit had the largest swings to multicultural Labour. This was also in the shadow of two devastating terrorist attacks. It goes to show that when a center-left party focuses on turnout (protecting it and encouraging it) and offers policies that help people across the board, with a mix of candidates who look like their voters, a nation can stem, if not reverse, the tide of reactionary bigoted politics.
Word is, Theresa May’s Conservative Party will form a minority coalition government with another party to reach the 326 threshold for a functioning government, but it will be a very weak government. Brexit will likely be delayed or made less severe, and Labour, despite its internal struggles, has realized that young people, women and especially minorities are essential to the party’s electoral future. That’s a lesson that hopefully the U.S. Democratic Party can figure out this year.