The United Kingdom's general elections are in full swing. In this brief explainer I'll go into some detail about what's going on today, who's running, what's at stake, who's winning, and when we can expect the results.
Why are the Brits voting again? Didn't they already have an election in 2015?
Indeed they did. The 2015 general elections were won handily by the Conservatives and decimated Labour, the LibDems, and even the far-right UKIP. The only other real winners of that election were Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish National Party. But then the 2016 Brexit referendum threw soot into the food, and all of a sudden all of UK politics had to readjust to a new political reality. After Theresa May, a previous opponent of Brexit, became Prime Minister in July 2016, she's had to find a way to lead Britain out of the EU without losing too much support and with an acceptable Brexit deal. Rather unexpectedly, May called for early elections in April of this year, after repeatedly stating she wouldn’t. There are various explanations as to why: first, back in April her party had a huge polling lead over Labour and its other rivals. Calling for an election that seemed so safe looked like a good way to solidify the Conservatives’ mandate to rule. A big Tory win would also strengthen the party’s current 17-seat majority, which for many Conservatives is a bit too close for comfort. Second, May needed to show Europe that Brexit really means Brexit, and suppress any lingering doubts that the United Kingdom might back out of the process altogether. In that sense, this election should be seen as a vote on how the terms of Brexit are going to be negotiated.
So who’s running?
On the Conservative side we have Theresa May, of course. Previously known as a reluctant Remainer, she’s done a 180 and is now pressing for a hard Brexit that would take the United Kingdom out of the EU single market. Labour is run by Jeremy Corbyn, who’s known as a very reluctant Brexiteer. He’s long been on the left side of the spectrum even within his own party, and has already faced (and survived) a leadership challenge. The Liberal Democrats (LibDems), run by Timothy Farron, see Brexit as a total disaster. They’ve called for a second EU referendum if they win. They were also almost wiped out in the 2015 elections, and are hoping for a revival. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), run by Paul Nuttall, was a huge supporter of Brexit even before the referendum was called, and is very happy that the United Kingdom is now leaving the European Union. They’re calling for ‘real Brexit’ because they see May’s approach as too soft. The Greens, run by Caroline Lucas, currently hold one seat (hers), and are hoping to hold on to it. They hold similar views to the LibDems and are also calling for a second Brexit referendum. And finally, the two regional parties, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru (Wales), are hoping to do well too. Especially the Scottish situation is one to look out for. In 2015, the SNP and its leader Nicola Sturgeon won almost every seat there was to win in Scotland, and the party currently holds a tremendous amount of leverage over Westminster in the Brexit negotiations: Sturgeon has already said that she’s willing to call for another referendum on Scottish independence if Brexit negotiations go awry, which is something nobody in Westminster is keen to let happen.
What’s at stake?
A lot, but mostly this election is about the terms of Brexit. Most politicians and the majority of the British public have by now resigned to the inevitability of leaving the EU. All that’s left is deciding how the game is going to be played. May calls for a hard exit, and favours control over immigration over staying in the EU single market and holding on to economic and political ties with Europe. To her, no deal is better than a bad deal. Corbyn has taken a more moderate stance. He’s said that “no Brexit deal is a bad deal”, and doesn’t want Britain to suffer catastrophic economic losses. At the same time, however, he’s stated that the Brexit issue is settled, that the people have spoken, and that there won’t be a second referendum. The LibDems and Greens don’t seem to have managed to articulate their anti-Brexit vision very well. Their manifesto hasn’t resonated much among the British populace, meaning that Brexit is probably a done deal.
What’s kind of odd is that May and Corbyn haven’t exactly been clashing over Brexit in recent weeks. It’s almost as if they made a tacit agreement to not talk about it, like Fight Club. Instead, Corbyn has asked for May’s resignation (or “to be removed by voters”, to be more precise) over her cuts to police budgets, in the aftermath of recent terror attacks in London and Manchester. Not to be outdone, May has accused Corbyn of trying to take Britain back to the 1970s with his supposedly archaic economic programs. They also haven’t faced each other in a direct debate, mostly because May has refused to debate Corbyn throughout the campaign.
And who’s winning?
It’s hard to say, but probably the Tories. May’s 20-point polling lead has all but evaporated in recent weeks and Corbyn has been making a comeback. But that doesn’t mean we’re in for a surprise. The way the British electoral system works is by simple majority, or ‘first past the post’. The country is divided up into constituencies where candidates from different parties can stand for election. If a candidate wins a district, he or she is elected to parliament. This means that national polling data is all but useless, as it doesn’t really say who’s going to win which constituency. So even though May and Corbyn appear to be going head-to-head, a Conservative victory is still very likely, simply because they’re poised to win more seats than Labour is. Their current majority might shrink, however.
When can we expect the results?
Depending on the results, somewhere in the early morning on Friday. If either the Tories or Labour manage to pull off a big win (unlikely), we’ll hear about it between 1AM and 3AM. If not, results are likely to be announced somewhere between 4 and 6AM. But who knows: if it’s a hung parliament where no party as a simple majority of 326 seats, it could take a while before we know what’s what.
Where can I follow what’s going on?
There’s live feeds literally everywhere. Just Google it, I’m not going to hold your hand.