But where British politics is going is less clear. Traditional party loyalties have broken down, and the country’s divisions are becoming clearer for all to see — between young and old, urban and rural, south and north, digital and industrial, cosmopolitan and nationalist.
As Britain struggles to find cohesion now on how it plans to leave the European Union, its politics is becoming more and more European. But Britain lacks the common European proportional voting system that allows smaller parties to thrive, but it also means coalition governments, requiring political compromise. In Britain, hung Parliaments are the new norm.
Prime Minister Theresa May, on an early election, said on Friday, “What the country needs more than ever is certainty,” even as her own cabinet members began circling, smelling wounded prey. Certainty seems very far away.
A year after the referendum to leave the European Union and a week before the scheduled start of negotiations with Brussels on how to do it, Britain has a weak government, a likely lame-duck prime minister and no negotiating position that could command a parliamentary majority, let alone national consensus.
European negotiators are ready, the clock is ticking, and a first set of meetings can be easily held around Britain’s divorce settlement. But they know, as Mrs. May must know, that she is unlikely to be the prime minister to see the meetings to fruition, and there is the unsettling prospect of another leadership fight and another British election before March 29, 2019, when Britain is out of the bloc, deal or not.
“Britain doesn’t feel stable anymore,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “We’re a European country, with voters becoming more volatile over time. People don’t have the same tribal loyalties that they used to. Voters are more consumerist, much more willing to switch depending on the offer.”
Voters must be wooed by programs and personalities, no longer content with the old, predictable divisions of class and regional identity. Robert Tombs, a historian at St. John’s College at Cambridge, described the breakdown in tribal loyalty this way: “The electorate is no longer an army. It’s a crowd.”
At the same time, Professor Bale said, “We don’t have the same flexibility in finding governing options as the Europeans do.” In most European Parliaments, there are various smaller parties to the left and right of the major ones, eager for coalition. “But here,” he added, “the Conservatives are limited to one” plausible option, the hard-line, predominantly Protestant, socially conservative of Northern Ireland.
Even as traditional party loyalties have fractured, this election showed a surge in support for the two major parties, which increased their share of the vote. The Conservatives, despite losing 13 seats and their majority, , 5.5 percent higher than in 2015, when David Cameron won a surprising majority.
Labour won 40 percent of the vote, to make a resounding 9.5 percent improvement over 2015, but still remains 64 seats short of a majority.
Many governments have achieved stable majorities with much smaller voting percentages. In every election back to 1970, the Conservative vote share, 42.4 percent, would have guaranteed a clear majority. And so would have Labour’s 40.0 percent. In 2005, Tony Blair won a large majority for Labour in the House of Commons with 35 percent of the vote.
But each of Britain’s 650 voting constituencies has its own, winner-take-all election, so piling up votes in safe seats is comforting but inefficient. The outcome simply displayed the country’s increasing geographic and urban-suburban divisions.
While both parties together received nearly 82 percent of the votes, they are politically further apart now than almost any time since 1983, when Labour was also more openly socialist. Britain has simply become much more fiercely divided ideologically, with the cross-party consensus of pro-European neo-liberalism in tatters, along with the now derided “third way” of Mr. Blair, the last Labour leader to win an election, let alone three in a row.
Mr. Corbyn has pulled the party back to the harder left, promising more state ownership and economic intervention. His passionate campaign consolidated his leadership and the dominance of the “Corbynistas,” although many Labour legislators fear that a hard-left party cannot win enough votes across the country to regain power.
But was intended to respond to popular dissatisfaction with seven years of Conservative austerity and cuts to social welfare benefits. It made sweeping commitments to more spending on everything from the health service to police, promised young people free tuition, a higher minimum wage and another four holidays, while advocating renationalizing the railways and utilities.
It would all to be paid for by increased borrowing and sharply higher taxes on corporations and those paid more than $104,000 a year. Taxation would have been the highest ever in peacetime Britain, according to the independent
With the British economy already heading into the doldrums, in part because of looming Brexit costs, low productivity and a national debt approaching 90 percent of gross domestic product, the Labour platform frightened the middle class and businesspeople and was, to some degree, a fantasy, given that even Labour leaders did not expect to win the election.
Still, despite Labour’s better performance and its success in denying Mrs. May a majority, the party has lost its third general election in a row. With its strong showing among a newer generation, and normal voter fatigue with any party in power, Labour may eventually find its way back to Downing Street, more likely with a minority government. But as now, the party will have difficulty finding willing coalition partners with enough seats of their own to push it over the top.
Divisions over Brexit — the 2016 referendum vote was 52 percent to 48 percent — were only enhanced by this election. The Conservatives, promising a hard Brexit, with Britain out of the European single market and customs union, garnered votes and some seats in areas like the north and West Midlands, that voted heavily to quit the European Union and gave the U.K. Independence Party large votes in 2015. But that tough stance also put off some who had voted to remain.
Labour, which also committed to Brexit but in a vaguer, softer way that would try to preserve free trade with Europe, did well in big cities and the south, which voted predominantly to remain. And it also kept the votes of some former Labour voters who were more put off by Mrs. May’s austerity plans and poor campaign than by their cultural and political discomfort with Mr. Corbyn.
In the new media culture, said Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, “people are switching loyalties, not tribally, but like consumers.”
In the 1950s, some 96 percent of voters chose one of the two main parties, which were class-based. About 45 percent always voted Labour or Conservative, and only 6 percent moved back and forth, he said.
The two major parties’ vote share fell to about 65 percent in the previous two elections, with the rise (and now the fall) of the Liberal Democrats and UKIP. But the resurgence this time, Mr. Travers argued, “is not just a resuscitation of the two-party system,” but also a sense among voters that they need to pick between them to have some hope of voting for a winner.
“People are not tribal, but switch loyalties depending on which of the two parties most represent what I want to achieve,” he said, whether the goal be a judgment on Brexit, or foreign policy, or tax or tuition. “That makes it very complicated for political parties, for pollsters and for political scientists — let alone Britain’s allies.”
But in the next election — which could, given the current chaos, come within the year — “the voters could churn again, back to another majority party or off to a minor party,” said Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London.
“Traditional politics are disrupted,” said Professor Bale. “Voters are no longer so easy to please. And we shouldn’t see this as an aberration. This is the new normal.”