The 2017 British General Election was of course most spectacularly marked by the advance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the loss of the Tories’ overall majority. But it also saw a shift to the left of the main part of the political spectrum and an increased polarisation with a decline of forces outside the two main left (Labour) and right (Tory) political parties. Votes for the main centre party (Liberal Democrats) continued to decline.
A table of the outcome of the 2017 general election, setting out shares of the UK vote, is below. The biggest shifts are clearly:
- The spectacular 9.6 per cent advance by the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn
- The fact that the combined vote for parties seen as ‘left’ at 45.1 per cent overtook the right (44.1 per cent) whereas in 2015 the right (49.4 per cent) had an almost a 10 per cent lead over left (39.6 per cent).
The Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn therefore both led an overall advance of the left and concentrated a greater proportion of these left forces around itself.
Outcome of the 2017 General Election in Britain, Votes %
UK vote share data from House of Commons Library
1 Left of centre parties: Labour, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green and TUSC. Right of centre parties: Tory, UKIP, BNP and English Democrats.
2 In 2015, but not 2017, the Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru stood on platforms to the left of Labour.
The table indicates the main features of the election outcome. Both Labour and the Tories significantly increased their vote shares, with Labour rising by 4.1 per cent more than the Tories. Votes both to the left of Labour and right of the Tories collapsed, with UKIP only retaining a 1.8 per cent share.
The Lib Dems, who present themselves as the classic ‘centre’ of British politics declined by 0.5 per cent, having already declined by 15.1 per cent at the 2015 General Election.
The greatest loses were suffered by UKIP, which lost a 10.1 per cent share of the electorate. Most of the Tories’ 5.5 per cent increase will have come from former UKIP voters and a smaller portion of the former UKIP vote went to Labour.
The Tories’ right-ward shifts have resulted in them dominating the entire right-wing of the political spectrum. Previous votes for the fascist BNP and the far right English Democrats had been absorbed by UKIP and now most of UKIP’s vote has been gained by the Tories.
To the left of the centre, the parties explicitly attacking austerity in 2017 (Labour, SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru) secured 45.1 per cent of the vote, where as in 2015 it was only 9.2 per cent, as Labour in that election endorsed the Tories’ economic plans.
Overall the balance of forces in 2017 between all the left and all the right combined was 45.1 per cent to 44.1 per cent, the left overtaking the right by a 1 per cent share. The left share of the vote has risen by 5.5 per cent, whilst the right share declined by 5.3 per cent.
Big changes to voting patterns have taken place since the 2008 financial crash. The economic recovery from this crisis, as in other advanced economies, is proceeding at a slower rate than after the 1929 crisis. The political result is a much reduced space for classic Liberal and right wing social democratic politics.
Slow economic growth plus inflation and the implementation of austerity have hit living standards, leading to increased political polarisation and collapse of the centre. Till the 2017 election the polarisation in British mass politics had been greater to the right than the left. This has changed in 2017.
Jeremy Corbyn’s positioning of Labour meant it could take advantage of the political situation, as demonstrated by Labour’s increased vote share of 9.6 per cent from 2015. The centre vote had already collapsed in 2015, so it was necessary for Labour to shift its framework to the left if it was going to advance. Corbyn led this shift in Labour’s agenda with a well judged manifesto and impeccable campaign.
The underlying stagnation of economic growth underpins the polarisation in politics. This new lead of the left over the right wing indicates the current direction that radicalisation is taking. But that lead is currently very slight and capital will mount an intense reactionary ideological campaign in an attempt to reverse this. The Tories will whip up racism The issue of immigration has been put to the fore in the rhetoric about the Brexit negotiations.
How Labour stands up to this racism will be an important factor in combating attempts to build up the right. How Labour fights to protect living standards and jobs will determine the left’s continued advance.
As the Brexit negotiations unfold it is important that Labour maintains and elaborates the core framework set out in its election manifesto: that immigration is a benefit to the country and the priority in the negotiations is the economy, not making concessions to racism.
Whilst the Tories can put together a minority government, it was the left that made the main advance in the election. Corybn’s Labour put forward a left social democratic manifesto that corresponds with the character of the left radicalisation that is taking place. The political mood amongst the population is moving leftwards. What is wanted is left reforms, not the Tories’ Hard Brexit, austerity, anti-immigrant and pro-war policies. It is a shift that favours civil liberties and the tackling of climate change.
As the Tories, backed by the DUP, step up their reactionary offensive it is important to recognise that the left in British politics is a growing force. There was a 9.2 per cent vote to the left of Labour in 2015. This was followed by a surge to the left within Labour to ensure the election and re-election of a left wing leader. At this year’s general election the left radicalisation overtook the right. This strengthens Corbyn and will contribute to the campaigns and battles ahead.