LONDON — We hunkered down in the only pub in Notting Hill, London, that could accommodate 12 diners at one table and would change the TV station to BBC for the 10 p.m. British general election exit polls. The group of us, deemed the #HoyasInUK, had just spent the past week meeting with members of Parliament, campaign consultants and journalists to better understand the effect of the sudden June 8 election on the United Kingdom’s political landscape.
The trip was announced almost as soon as British Prime Minister Theresa May called for the snap election in late April. Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service and Institute for Politics and Public Service announced they would sponsor a trip to the U.K. for Georgetown students. The 10 of us were notified we would have the amazing opportunity to witness history in action, led by two GU Politics staffers.
Before us lay a chance to witness a referendum on a referendum: Would the British people be willing to solidify May’s power in negotiating a British exit from the European Union?
Throughout election day, experts from both ends of the British political spectrum assured us that May’s Conservative and Unionist Party would comfortably take a 40- to 80-seat parliamentary majority.
In a GU Politics Facebook live stream on Election Day, eight of the 10 students here projected a Conservative sweep. Of the two dissidents, Tyler Micheletti (COL ’18) went out on a limb and predicted a surprise victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party, and only Sean Paul (GRD ’18) projected a hung Parliament.
“I think that while Theresa May was obviously way ahead in the polls in the beginning, it has tightened up a lot, and she has frankly not run the inspiring campaign that many people expected her to,” Paul said on Election Day. “Jeremy Corbyn, however, has been bringing out the crowds at the rallies. I think that there are a lot of young people that are excited about him, but, at the same time, I don’t think that the campaign was long enough for [him].”
It is a good thing he bet 50 pounds sterling — the equivalent of $65 — on it, too.
Britons would wake up the next morning to a hung Parliament, with Conservatives failing to retain their majority in Parliament, Labour gaining 30 seats and the Scottish National Party seeing its support cut in half.
The unexpected results and Corbyn’s stunning populist influence among young and working class voters felt eerily familiar to us Americans, just six months after a major election of our own. As a feeling of uncertainty swept over the remaining days of our stay, many students considered the global political identity crisis far from over.
“June’s elections prove there’s still an unpredictable populist energy at work in world politics,” Edward Weizenegger (GRD ’18) said. “It can be captured by the left or the right in the same year, but whether either end of the establishment can effectively harness it for change remains to be seen.”
Other than the bartenders, the only other person in the pub that night was an elderly man who quietly watched the exit poll commentary alongside us. The man told Micheletti he was a lifelong Labour voter who nevertheless thought Corbyn’s rise to 10 Downing Street would be disastrous for the nation.
Corbyn’s brand of progressive and populist politics certainly contrasts with former prime minister Tony Blair’s centrist New Labour movement during the 1997 general election. A Corbyn-led Labour majority would not necessarily resemble the party the man in the bar had supported for several years.
Only steps away, out on the sidewalk, we encountered our fellow pub-dweller’s polar opposite. Scott, a young man out for the night, said he consistently favored the Conservative policy platform — or “manifesto,” to the Brits — but felt invigorated by Corbyn’s personal and progressive style.
“I actually preferred Corbyn as a leader, but I preferred the Conservatives as a manifesto,” Scott said. “I like Corbyn; he represents the people.”
While the voters we talked to ultimately said they voted on policy along party lines, the nitty-gritty of policy seemed to take a back seat in conversation. Instead, personality politics dominated voters’ comparisons between Corbyn and May.
Corbyn’s radical past and populist rhetoric became points of concern and praise for many voters. Talk of “Theresa May’s team” and “strong and stable leadership” were plastered on the walls of the Conservative Campaign Headquarters and billboards across the city.
Moments after we observed the release of the exit polls, Tammy Evdokimova (SFS ’19), drew parallels to the last U.K. general election in 2015 and the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“It sounds like we’re judging this election the way we judged the election [eight months] ago,” Evdokimova said, still processing the results. “I think we see that people care a lot less about facts and what the policies are and a lot more about personality and what they think is true rather than what is.”
BritainThinks, a consulting firm we visited on Election Day, did not predict a hung Parliament, but it had a finger on the pulse of the dynamics Evdokimova noticed.
In a report titled “The Voters’ Perspective,” BritainThinks found that the average British citizens in six swing constituencies only pay attention to politics for a matter of minutes each day. When they did, very few substantive issues from the campaign trail cut through.
Small moments like Diane Abbott, Labour’s interior affairs spokeswoman, forgetting her figures in a live interview stuck in the public’s mind. The Conservatives’ renewed position on fox-hunting spurred general outrage. Media figures and common discussion reinforced stereotypes of Labour as “chaotic” and the Conservatives as “posh.”
Our team was shocked to learn of the brevity and simplicity of the British general election; with six weeks to campaign, there were no paid TV advertisements, and radio time and overall spending were limited.
“I was incredibly fond of how understated the election seemed to be — it wasn’t the title but the ‘info-tainment’ spectacle we’re used to stateside,” Weizenegger said.
Though May summoned the surprise snap election, the campaigns progressed at the usual pace. Back in the states, we found out we were selected to cross the pond at the beginning of May, just weeks after the election was announced, and we arrived in London a month later, with the election only days away.
Comparatively, in the United States, previous candidates’ campaigns have begun more than 18 months before the actual election date. Former President Barack Obama announced his campaign in February 2007; Hillary Clinton launched her second presidential bid in April 2015; and President Donald Trump began his campaign in June 2015.
Disparities aside, our #HoyasInUK adventure proved to be a valuable experience for us, as students, to test out our political intuitions, dive deeply into another country’s government and gain valuable knowledge to employ in future coursework.
GU Politics Chief of Staff Hanna Hope reflected proudly on a week well-spent in London.
“My favorite part of the #HoyasInUK experience was watching our students take in all that they learned from the different journalists, politicians and political operatives we spoke with, synthesize the information and form their own opinions and predictions,” Hope said. “Ultimately, their analysis was more sophisticated than that of many people we had met with, and the highlight of the trip for me was watching them dissect the results on election night. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to travel with and learn from such incredible students.”
International politics currently continues to mirror the tumult we experienced on the streets of Notting Hill late on election night. Passersby were an eclectic mix of apathetic citizens, staunch partisans and holders of opposing opinions. As uncertainty reigns across the globe, from the U.K. to Germany and the Middle East to the United States, some points of clarity emerge out of the fray.
The loss of the Conservative majority signals a rebuff of the 2016 “leave” vote, a rejection of British politics as usual. With Emanuel Macron’s centrist En Marche! party’s recent sweep of French Parliament, and our own 2018 midterm elections after a series of nail-biting congressional races, the world watches to see if global politics coalesce around the center after several atypically turbulent years.
Politics reacts to people. According to the London-based Telegraph, the 2017 general election lured the highest voter turnout in the country in 25 years, with nearly 70 percent of the electorate making it to the ballot box. With increased engagement among youth and other communities, people can have a stake in their politics now more than ever.
The experience was eye-opening and, more than anything, demonstrated the power of democracy and of the people to defy any expectations, for better or worse. In both the states and the island kingdom, the people who felt most left behind and angry were willing to storm to the voting booths to defy experts and elites alike.
Polls can say one thing, but reality has a way of clapping back.
Though there are few harbingers to signal the world we will enter after Georgetown, experiences like #HoyasInUK leave me excited and energized to tackle the problems of tomorrow. To pull a line from one of my favorite American politicians, former President Barack Obama, after this week in London, I feel “fired up, ready to go.”