2017, another 1923? UK Snap Election on the Cards

Theresa May Snap Election.jpgMid-morning on 18th April, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that she was seeking a snap general election on the 8th June. The next day, all but 13 MPs voted to give the Prime Minister her way. The PM said that, with the ongoing departure from the European Union, stability and strong leadership will be vital to Britain’s future.

Since 2011, with the addition of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act to British law, a two-thirds super-majority has been needed for a general election to be called by parliament. Before 2011, the PM was vested with the power to call a general election at any point. The most recent example of this power being exercised to call a premature election was in 2005.

Snap elections are nothing new to Britain, as the nation has hosted more than 7 general elections in the first 2 years of a government’s term in the last 90 years alone.

Mandate Snap Elections – 2017, another 1923?

At the beginning of 1923, the Conservatives had a majority government and the new Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, sought a mandate for his leadership (his predecessor Bonar-Law had resigned due to ill heath). Historically, referendums were “alien to our traditions”, as Clement Attlee (PM 1945-1950) put it. In fact, the first nationwide referendum was held relatively recently, on a topic we are all too familiar with – the EEC (the political ancestor of the European Union) membership referendum of 1975. Certainly before the Second World War, referendums were as ‘alien’ as they come. The convention used to be that a government could obtain a public mandate on a particular policy or issue by calling a general election. This was the case in 1923 when Stanley Baldwin sought to win a mandate for his plan to increase trade tariffs. A parallel could be drawn to 2017, where Theresa May appears to be seeking a mandate for Brexit or, more probably, her leadership of the Conservatives and of the country. Alas, Baldwin’s Conservative Party hemorrhaged 86 seats in 1923, leading to the formation of the first ever Labour government under Ramsay MacDonald. While the potential 2017 snap election is still 6 weeks away, it is safe to say that it won’t be a repeat of 1923.

1923 General Election Conservative Party Labour Party Liberal Party
Seats Won 258 191 158
Seat Gain/Loss -86 +49 +96*
Seats Before Election 344 142 62*

*In the post-war election of 1918, the Liberal Party split between supporters of David Lloyd George, the war-time Prime Minister, and supporters of Herbert Asquith, the official party leader. The party was still divided at the time of the 1922 general election. The Liberal factions won a combined 105 seats in 1922. By the time of the 1923 election, the party was reunited. In reality, the united party only won 53 more seats in 1923 than it had in the previous election.

1923 election posters dec1 2.JPG

Britain has witnessed several mandate snap elections; in 1955 an election was held by Anthony Eden. He had succeeded Churchill as leader of the governing Conservative Party that same year and he quickly called a snap election to ensure that the public backed his leadership. Fortunately for the PM, his party increased their majority by 23 seats, allowing the Conservatives to continue a domination of British politics which would last until the 1960s – despite the fact that Anthon Eden is remembered as one of the worst Prime Ministers Britain has ever had, not least for his failure to deal with the Suez Crisis.

Consolidation Snap Elections

On more occasions than not, governments have been known to call snap elections in order to strengthen their majority in the Commons. In 1951, PM Clement Attlee called a general election for this exact reason. In the 5 years from 1945, Attlee’s government had given Britain the welfare state. This meant housing projects on an unprecedented scale, the revered National Health Service and nationalisation of countless services, such as the Bank of England, the National Rail and the iron and steel industries, to mention a few. In 1950, Attlee won a second a general election with a reduced majority of 5 seats. The PM wanted to continue his ambitious programme of reform, but he needed a strong majority to do so. Accordingly, he called a snap election just one year into his second term. The snap election is considered to have been an ill-advised decision as Labour trailed behind the Conservatives in the polls, even before it was called. Unsurprisingly, the government were defeated (despite winning the popular vote by 0.8%) and the war PM, Winston Churchill, resumed office after a 6 year period in opposition.

attlee_churchill

PM Winston Churchill (1940-1945, 1951-1955) alongside his successor and then predecessor, Clement Attlee (1945-1951).

Harold Wilson called a snap election to consolidate Labour’s majority in 1966. Wilson’s government (1964-1970) was elected with an incredibly slim majority in 1964 – their majority was just 5 seats. Unlike the outcome of the election 15 years prior, the 1966 snap election was a triumph for the Labour government as they consolidated their majority by winning 48 more seats, giving them a 98 seat majority.

1966 Election Conservative Party Labour Party Liberal Party
Seats Won 253 364 12
Seat Gain/Loss -52 +48 +3
Seats Before 304 317 9

What to Expect this June

The most recent snap election – that is, a general election called in the first 2 years of a government’s term – was in October 1974. It was during the administration of the second Wilson ministry and was called due to parliamentary deadlock. The February 1974 election had made Labour the biggest party, but they did not win a majority. Parliament was hung and the government had to resolve this issue. Labour managed to make a comeback in this election, winning 18 more seats than they had 8 months previously. With a majority of 3 seats, Labour were able to remain in power for another 5 unstable years.

Now that Theresa May has got her way, she will carry snap elections into the 21st century in an unseen fashion. The polls already place the Conservatives favourably, suggesting that they will consolidate their existing working majority of 17 seats.

The snap election could also be made out as an effort to provide a mandate to May’s ongoing negotiations with the European Union, regarding Brexit, since she triggered Article 50 on 29th March. On the 23rd June, the British public went to the polls and 51.9% of voters voted to “Leave” the European Union. Of course, this was an oversimplified question, as the actions of the government since then have horrified some Leave voters, whilst enamouring others. Despite Paul Nuttall’s (leader of the UK Independence Party) announcement that a UKIP government would “deliver the Brexit that the British people voted for”, we cannot be sure what kind of Brexit the majority of Leave voters actually wanted. An election will either provide a mandate to the Conservatives current position on Brexit or it will show that voters want a different type of Brexit altogether.

Furthermore, the election outcome could provide a mandate to her very leadership itself. The Prime Minister was able to rapidly ascend into Downing Street following David Cameron’s departure from number 10 last June, amidst the aftermath of the shocking outcome of the EU referendum. The party leadership changing hands during a government’s term is a familiar event to Britons. It happened in 2007, for example, with the resignation of Tony Blair who passed the torch onto his left-hand man, Gordon Brown. But, what is distinctly different about May’s leadership is that she never faced a leadership election within her party, as her predecessors in Downing Street all had. The chaos following Cameron’s resignation spurred a race to fill the top job. Back-stabbing, betrayal and broken promises pursued, as one-by-one each of the candidates dropped out. Eventually, May came out on top and found herself unopposed, allowing her to grasp the reins of her party and, ergo, the country.

conservative leadership candidates 2016

The six front runners for the Conservative leadership in 2016.

In June, the electorate will finally get a say on Mrs May. Of course, this snap election is a blatant political game which the PM wouldn’t play if she didn’t think she was going to win. Nevertheless, PMs have fallen to snap elections before and they’ll fall to snap elections again. Just maybe not in 2017.

The British electorate has been witness to many snap elections, but none before have had the character, the composure and the confusion of the general election forecast for the 8th June, 2017. Unsurprisingly, only 13 MPs voted against the motion for a general election, after the Labour leadership expressed their support for an opportunity to face voters prematurely.

Whatever happens, it’s going to be an interesting 6 weeks.

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