And Now for Something Entirely Different: Confounding UK Election Results By Paul S. Adams
Just a few days before the June 8 elections, most scholars, pollsters, pundits, and even the public were busy competing with predictions of how large the Conservative landslide would be and by how much Theresa May’s legislative majority would grow. Despite some evidence that Labour had surged in support, few gave it much of a chance to eat into the Tory lead.
But with results in, not only did Labour do much better than anticipated, but the Tories failed to keep its majority and lost 13 seats. Labour gained 30 seats spread over Scotland and England and increased their vote share by 9.5% over 2015. The result of a hung parliament has led to plans for a minority government by the Tories with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland.
Tories and DUP make an extraordinarily odd couple as despite the shared “conservatism” of both parties they share little else as the DUP has virtually no important platform issues beyond those of the status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK, protecting Protestants, and opposing Sinn Fein.
The increased support of the DUP in Northern Ireland in many ways reflects their rebound from losses in the Northern Ireland Assembly elections in March where Sinn Fein fell just one seat short of the DUP total. Unionists and loyalists rallied to the DUP in this election and increased their share by two seats (even if they only garnered .3% more than in 2015).
Sinn Fein also saw its share rise by three seats and a 0.2% uptick from 2015. The DUP and Sinn Fein now hold all 5 seats from Northern Ireland in Westminster, with the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), once the two largest parties in Northern Ireland just two decades ago, relegated to the dustbin. Nonetheless, with the DUP holding the keys to May’s hope for a minority government, they are in a position to ask for much and must be considered one of the winners of this election as well.
Ultimately, despite increasing their vote share by 5.5% over their 2015 results, this was a bad defeat for May and the Conservatives. But it could have been far worse had the Tories not picked up 12 seats in Scotland. Scottish results surprised many, but there had been evidence that conservative Scottish voters, in opposition to the growing dominance of the Scottish National Party (SNP), were ripe for Tory gains. Tories did well in local elections in Scotland in March and followed it up with big wins in June.
The SNP was the biggest loser on election day as they dropped 21 seats (12 to Conservatives, 3 to the Liberal Democrats, 6 to Labour) even though they lost just 1.7% of the vote share from 2015. Hence, many conservative Scots put in with the Tories as the most strategically viable option. And this worked, the Tories not only picked up 12 seats but also scored districts that had been SNP since at least 2015 if not earlier, including the seats of former SNP party leader Alex Salmond and the current deputy chief of the SNP Angus Robertson.
The real defeat for Prime Minster May is that she will be denied a legislative majority and policy initiatives will likely come to a grinding halt. This will also frustrate efforts to negotiate Brexit as she will have a large and vocal anti-Brexit opposition in Westminster.
The UK Independence Party (UKIP) also lost its one seat from 2015, so another outcome has been a reduction in parties – eleven parties held seats in 2015, only eight do now with the losses of the UKIP, SDLP, and UUP. The most likely result is that this minority government will be short lived. The ad hoc arrangement between the Conservatives and DUP is tenuous and lacking substance. The minority status of her government will hobble almost all important initiatives and erode public confidence.
It would not be surprising to see new elections called for by as early as this fall or winter. Whether those elections end with different results remains to be seen, clearly much can change in just a month or two.
Paul S. Adams is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg and an Affiliated Faculty Member of the European Studies Center and Jean Monnet European Union Center of Excellence.