Snap election 2017: the historians’ verdict

What is the historical significance of the June 2017 snap election? Three historians consider the parallels with past general elections and offer their views on the results…

Britain's prime minister and leader of the Conservative Party Theresa May delivers a statement outside 10 Downing Street on June 9, 2017. (Image JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/Getty Images)
 

Seán Lang: “It's tempting to see a comparison between this snap election and Harold Wilson's even more disastrous one in 1970”

How Theresa May must be ruing that walking holiday in Wales. Perhaps if she had consulted more widely things might have been different. Leadership cults in British politics stretch from Thatcher and Blair to Gladstone and Disraeli and even Pitt and Fox, but Theresa May's disastrous decision to go to the polls appears to have relied on a leadership cult that did not actually exist. For an election strategy that was based on the appeal of a leader, her 11 months as prime minister was not a long enough period to build the sort of relationship with the electorate that was required.

Margaret Thatcher had been Conservative leader for four years before coming to power; Tony Blair had led Labour for three: plenty of time for supporters to fall under their spell. Theresa May was still a little-known quantity and her 'bloody difficult woman' tag, which she revelled in rather too obviously, never had the public appeal of Mrs Thatcher's 'Iron Lady' nickname. Difficult people, after all, tend to be endured rather than loved.

There is no obvious historical parallel for this election, because of the shadow that Brexit casts over it. Without Brexit, David Cameron would probably still be in Downing Street, and a major reason Theresa May is refusing to step down is because the Brexit negotiations cannot be delayed by another leadership election. It's tempting to see a comparison between this snap election and Harold Wilson's even more disastrous one in 1970, or Heath's in 1974, when he asked, "Who governs this country?" and got the reply, "Not you, mate". The way the DUP has moved quickly to keep the Conservative in power is reminiscent of the 1885 election, when Parnell's Irish Nationalists held the balance of power, though the DUP is much more in sympathy with Theresa May, and opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, than Parnell was with either Gladstone or Salisbury.

In 1945, Churchill went to the polls assuming that his wartime record and undoubted leadership qualities would be more than enough to win the vote. The Conservatives' campaign was lazy, admonishing the electorate with the stern message, "HELP HIM finish the job". Churchill soon learned that British General Elections are not won by leaders alone, not even national heroes.

Dr Seán Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British Empire. He is the author of Parliamentary Reform 1785–1928 (Routledge, 1999). You can follow him on Twitter @sf_lang.


British Labour leader of the opposition Harold Wilson (1916 - 1995) and his wife Mary (right) arrive to cast their votes in the general election, February 1974. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
 

Pete Dorey: “As the 2017 election has shown, calling a snap general election is a risky tactic”

Governments can serve for a maximum of five years, so it is relatively rare for a government to call a general election just a year or two after the previous one. The main reason for doing so is that the previous election failed to deliver an effective parliamentary majority, and so the government is hoping to win many more seats. However, as the 2017 election has shown, it is a risky tactic, because the government might actually lose seats, and thus the election itself.

This happened in 1951, when the Labour government, having been elected in 1950 with a majority of just six seats, called another general election, but lost to the Conservatives – even though Labour actually won more votes. Labour was more successful in the 1966 general election, winning a majority of 97 seats, after winning a majority of only five seats in the 1964 poll. 
The next such poll was in October 1974, after the February 1974 election had failed to deliver a majority for any of the parties. Following the break-down of coalition talks between the Conservatives and Liberals, the Labour Party formed a minority government, and then called a general election in the autumn. However, this only delivered a precarious majority of four seats, and the Labour government subsequently formed a ‘pact’ (but not a coalition) with the Liberals in order to pass its legislation through the House of Commons.


May expected to secure a landslide victory over the hitherto struggling Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, explains Pete Dorey. (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
 

Fast-forward to 2017, and Theresa May was hoping to increase the 11-seat majority which the Conservatives won in the 2015 general election. There were, though, three other key factors influencing her decision to call an early general election.

First, she was seeking a personal endorsement, having succeeded David Cameron a year earlier. Second, May was hoping that a greatly increased parliamentary majority would constitute a mandate for negotiating a ‘hard Brexit’. Third, May envisaged that she would secure a landslide victory over a Labour Party led by the hitherto struggling Jeremy Corbyn. After all, when she announced the election, opinion polls were suggesting that the Conservatives were 15-20 points ahead.

Yet Theresa May subsequently had a very poor election campaign – perhaps over-complacent and taking victory for granted – during which her, and the Conservative Party’s popularity, steadily declined, while Labour and Jeremy Corbyn’s support significantly increased. Having hoped to increase her parliamentary majority possibly into triple figures, May found herself, on 9 June 2017, eight seats short of a majority.  

Pete Dorey is a professor of British politics at Cardiff University. Dorey is the author of Policy Making in Britain: An Introduction (Sage Publications, 1st edition 2005; 2nd edition 2014).

 

Matt Cole: “Despite the British tradition for single-party government, our governments have quite often lacked majority support in the House of Commons”

The general election results on 9 June demonstrated that despite the British tradition for single-party government and the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, our governments have, like Theresa May’s, quite often lacked majority support in the House of Commons. There are three ways in which this has worked in recent years.

Unsupported minority government: this was the response of Harold Wilson when the general election of February 1974 left him with 301 out of 635 MPs – the largest single group, but vulnerable to outvoting by all the other parties’ MPs together. This provides clear government with a single programme, but it cannot be sustained for any length of time. Wilson held a second election in October of the same year, returning with an overall majority of four.

Other prime ministers without an overall majority have retained office by making informal or temporary pacts and deals with other parties. The partner party’s MPs do not enter government, but rather promise not to join with other parties to bring the government down or block the progress of its key legislation in exchange for influence over the government. The Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-78 was such an agreement: James Callaghan’s Labour Party was kept in office by the support of Liberal MPs who were consulted over legislation on electoral reform, economic policy and housing reforms. Similarly, in the 1990s John Major made ad hoc arrangements with the Liberal Democrats to get legislation on Europe through the Commons when he had lost his parliamentary majority. The disadvantage of this sort of approach is that it needs constant tending by conciliation with the smaller party, and its terms and demands are often interpreted differently by each side, leading to the collapse of the deal. 


Former Conservative prime minister John Major made arrangements during the 1990s to get legislation on Europe through the Commons, says Matt Cole. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)
 

The most formal and fixed solution to a hung parliament is a coalition government, in which members of more than one party are appointed to ministerial office and share decision-making powers. This is usually prompted by economic crisis (as in the 1930s) or war (both World Wars led to coalition governments). The coalition of 2010, however, was created mainly because parliamentary arithmetic made the formation of a minority one-party government unrealistic. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives shared cabinet positions, and a formal, published agreement over legislation was published. This proved to be consensual and stable, but led to accusations of betrayal against both parties in the coalition from their own supporters.

The prime minister seems to favour the second of these types of arrangement to bridge the gap between her MPs and an overall majority. Theresa May has opted to rely upon the Democratic Unionist Party to keep her in power. The challenges she will face are twofold: restraining her new political partners’ ambitions, whilst distinguishing herself from the DUP to her own supporters. This will require conciliation and compromise across, between and within all parties. The Conservative Party needs to decide whether Theresa May has the right personal credentials to do this.

Dr Matt Cole is a teaching fellow in history at the University of Birmingham and the author of Democracy in Britain (EUP, 2006) and Political Parties in Britain (EUP, 2012).

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here