A volatile combination of events, personalities and political forces could lead to lasting change
According to the handbook A prime minister’s guide to general election engineering (author Harold Wilson), a small majority and a 20-point lead in the opinion polls means it’s time to call an election. Perhaps Theresa May made the mistake of believing history always repeats itself?
Please don’t Google books by the former Labour PM Harold Wilson for a guide to election strategy, as he never wrote such a tome, but he was acknowledged in his day for timing the use of the PM’s prerogative to call an election. After a long period of Conservative government, Wilson led Labour to a narrow victory in May 1964. His government only commanded a majority of four. When he deemed that the political winds were in his favour, Wilson called a snap election in 1966 and was returned with a majority of 96 seats.
Politics, though, is not a science. There is no simple formula to follow to guarantee results. Wilson’s Conservative counterpart, Ted Heath, got it spectacularly wrong in February 1974 when he triggered a general election. He campaigned on the slogan ‘Who governs Britain?’, but the electorate, in a result that contradicted the opinion polls, which had predicted a narrow Conservative victory (sound familiar?), decided it wasn’t going to be Heath and Labour ended up the larger party in a hung parliament. Wilson eventually formed a minority government. He went to the country again in October 1974 and Labour gained 18 seats, allowing them to form a government with a slim majority of three.
The 1974–79 Labour government introduced radical legislation such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Employment Protection Act 1975 (which established statutory maternity pay), as well as new rights to disability benefits. During this period, there was a growth in the services, including legal aid, that allowed the public to take up the rights such legislation had created. These achievements are often forgotten, though, as the dominant narrative about the 1974–79 government is that it ushered in a period of Conservative dominance due to its failure to find solutions to industrial unrest and economic woes, including double-digit inflation.
What that period demonstrates is that it is possible for a government to carry through a legislative programme without a clear majority (by-elections whittled away Wilson’s slim majority), though deals are necessary and it is always open to ambush. Theresa May, by negotiating an agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has created an uneasy juxtaposition. It potentially compromises the peace process in Northern Ireland and the DUP’s social conservatism, symbolised by its hostility to abortion and gay rights, is at odds with mainstream political opinion of all shades at Westminster. It’s possible a legal challenge (see page 4) could unravel any agreement with the DUP and force a general election.
It is possible for a government to carry through a legislative programme without a clear majority, though deals are necessary and it is always open to ambush.
May fought the election on her need to have a strong mandate to negotiate Brexit. The reality of the position the government finds itself in is that it does not have the number of MPs in parliament to agree a deal on Brexit without compromise. From Legal Action’s perspective, any agreement must ensure a fair and just migration system for EU citizens, membership of the customs union and access to the single market, within the framework of laws under the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The entrails of May’s failed election campaign have been picked over quite comprehensively in the past few weeks. I’d argue the Conservatives’ biggest mistake was fighting their campaign on a single issue that may have been the main concern for their party, but not of the electorate. Despite having been written off at the start of the campaign, Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn, managed to win seats from the Conservatives. It did this by articulating concerns that resonated with people, especially around affordable housing, low pay and the perilous state of public services, particularly the NHS, after seven years of austerity.
Many divisions across the electorate were exposed by this election, but the most striking of these is the one between young and old. Labour’s good result against expectations can be attributed in part to its mobilising young people to vote in greater numbers than they have in recent elections.
Legal Action believes that a volatile combination of events, personalities and political forces could lead to lasting change. The public, particularly in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, seems to be moving in favour of a more interventionist government and against austerity policies. There might well be criminal charges or, at the very least, severe criticism laid against public servants in the coming months. Grenfell could become a symbol of the sacrifice of the poor and vulnerable on the altar of austerity and a political turning point.
Politicians should not look for history to repeat itself, but learn lessons from it. A government propped up by support from a minority party does not necessarily fall within a few months. However, a government that fails to heed an electorate clamouring for a change in direction is ultimately doomed to fail.