Darren Lilleker on the 2017 UK Election

Political Communication and Cognition

Darren Lilleker is Associate Professor in Political Communication in The Media School, Bournemouth University, UK. He is the series editor of Palgrave Macmillan's 'Political, Campaigning and Communication' series and author of Political Communication and Cognition (2014).

The UK 2017 election was called specifically to increase the personal mandate of Prime Minister Theresa May, and the authority of the Conservative government. In this respect it was an abject failure. The result demonstrates diminishing support for the Conservatives, an increased share of votes and seats for Labour, as well as perhaps signalling the death of UKIP. The Scottish independence issue is also brought into question, with the SNP losing ground to all three of their competitors. 

So how did this happen? 

The Campaign

Theresa May called the election, placed herself centre stage, and in doing so had to prove herself as a leader. Instead, her campaign faltered and at key times she avoided the limelight. While terrorist attacks diverted the attention of the government, and May in particular, these also undermined the image of May herself. Therefore we saw a cautious and remote campaign that may have been based on a 'safety first' logic but that did not engage voters.

 The contrast was a campaign where Jeremy Corbyn gets hugged by ordinary people, shares jokes with them and gets cheers on the streets and from debate audiences. Despite memorably forgetting his figures, and he was not alone in doing so, the campaign offered a clear message, a leader that appeared in-touch and personable and whose integrity was never called into question.


May's rationale for the election was to have a strong hand in Brexit negotiations. That was to be the key selling point of her campaign. However it would appear that this was no longer the key priority for voters. The manifesto launch was quickly overshadowed by questions regarding the care for the elderly, a core Conservative demographic, and the Conservatives proved weak in responding to any questions on their social care record. 

Again, in stark contrast, Labour's manifesto was popular. The focus was on a vision for the future that encompassed Brexit but so much more. Due perhaps to the attempts by May to have a narrow focus, Corbyn gained more airtime to talk about the whole package of policies offered. In vox-pops, voters repeated back many of his promises, suggesting Labour were the party gaining traction. Voters who wanted a ruthless leader to go into Brexit negotiations backed May, while those who saw this as a secondary concern appeared to back Corbyn.

The coalition of chaos

At points during the campaign, there seemed to be a united front forming against the Conservatives. While all parties put forward their own case to voters, the consensus around the vision for Britain was around the one put forward by Labour. Conservatives repeatedly came under fire from all sides, their only ally being UKIP on the issue of Brexit. But on social policy, what perhaps drove many to vote for an alternative to May's Conservatives, the other parties appeared to agree. The agenda of the campaign thus shifted to territory more comfortable for Corbyn and Labour, and as the myriad leaders made their cases, a consensus formed around many of Labour's manifesto promises.

What now?

No party has an absolute majority. Early indications show the Conservatives won 43% of the national vote and 57% voted for an alternative vision. While a narrower majority determined the direction of the country during the EU referendum, that cannot be the case now. Whoever is to be prime minister is going to be hostage to minority parties. The Conservatives need the full support of the Democratic Unionists, which means concessions are necessary, particularly on the approach to Brexit. Labour would need to form a rainbow coalition – an anti-Conservative alliance. While the Con-DUP deal might be problematic, the latter would be fraught with challenges. Hence we find ourselves in uncertain territory. The likelihood is that either May or Corbyn will attempt to form a minority government, but whether that is sustainable is a big question. The smart gambler would be on a further general election, but that would put a further brake on the Brexit negotiations with the clock constantly ticking away. Britain is much further from having strong and stable leadership than it was in March. May's gamble did not pay off; that error of judgment compounded by a weak campaign performance likely signals the end of her political career.