Well that was an interesting election wasn’t it! My prediction was predictably wide of the mark but I can at least claim that I got the number of Lib Dems right, that voters are increasingly volatile and changeable, and that it was worth waiting up for. At least too I didn’t predict a Tory landslide unlike many experts (see the attached set of predictions from the very reputable and non partisan Politics Studies Association) - https://www.psa.ac.uk/psa/news/expert-predictions-2017-general-election-survey-stephen-fisher-chris-hanretty-and-will Who indeed needs experts….. So what have we learnt other than making predictions leave you exposed, vulnerable and open to challenges: a bit like calling an unnecessary election and losing it! Well there is much that has and will be written about an election which I think will go down in history as one of the more dramatic ones in modern British history. Here’s 10 points to get you started with.
1. Two party politics (in England at any rate) is back albeit possibly temporarily unless or until the Lib Dems set sail again or someone (Farage?) performs CPR and brings back UKIP Lazarus like from the grave. Between them, Tories and Labour notched up just over 82% of the total vote – you have to go back to 1970 to find a higher figure (89% to be more exact). In recent elections it has hovered around two thirds, so this was not a good night for any of the smaller parties except for Sinn Fein and the Conservatives’ new best friends, the DUP. The Greens and UKIP both slumped disastrously seeing their combined vote slump from 5 million in 2015 to 1 million.
2. Tactical voting is on the rise at least anecdotally; in 2015 9% claimed they would vote tactically, in 2017 this rose to 20%, mainly it has to be said in a so-called progressive alliance ie anti Tory. There is much less evidence of UKIPers voting tactically even though there were some local pacts and the absence of UKIP candidates in some seats probably on balance helped the Tories to victory in a few seats. In most strong UKIP areas such as the south West and Lincolnshire though, they probably just bolstered Tory majorities. Those northern Brexit seats in Labour areas such as Hartlepool where UKIP came a strong second stayed Labour.
3. Young people will turn out and vote, and there is some evidence of a youthful Corbyn fanbase, but before we get too carried with blaming the young for voting for what they don’t have to pay for (all the magic money tree etc) or alternatively, being engaged and enthused by a new style of positive politics, some interesting observations from the BBC website:
If you look at the 35 Labour gains, only 15 of them had more 18 to 24 year olds than average.’ So it’s not that clear-cut, but the Conservatives did do especially badly in both university towns (Bristol, Canterbury, Oxford) and in large urban centres above all London which tend to be younger and more ethnically diverse. By contrast their vote held up extremely well in most of their suburban and rural heartlands – double digit majorities in most Hampshire seats outside the two main conurbations for example.
4. Failing to engage or at least go through the charade of engaging with the electorate is a bad move. It is easy and an open goal to accuse Theresa May of being robotic but… (Wheat fields really, not even rye or barley…). Her absence from the leaders’ debate with the glorious gift of hindsight now looks arrogant and completely misjudged, rather than an unnecessary risk or stateswomanlike. Corbyn had all the advantages of the outsider, took a few risks (letting Diane Abbot be interviewed was clearly one of them!) and at least came over as vaguely human and sincere. This was Sanders vs Clinton, only on this side of the pond and they were from different parties (though arguably so were Sanders and Clinton). What we lacked was a credible rightwing populist – where was Farage when you needed him; then we could truly emulate the US…
5. Exit polls can be believed, and Newcastle is quicker than Sunderland. FACT!
6. The electorate is incredibly volatile, and we shouldn’t assume this is a long term trend of a return to 2 party politics, with voters going back to their ancestral, tribal roots of political allegiance. The modern day voter is a crowd not an army. They need leaders and crave the celebrity and personality; there is too much emotion not enough reason when you follow the herd. Populism can emerge from the left and the right; in France it is currently the centre. This is actually quite worrying like most elements of post-modernism. We might decry the tribal attachments of all (still current of course in Ulster) but they were based on communities, shared values and group solidarity. Candidates and parties were ‘for people like us’. You (and they) knew where we stood. It could (and probably will) all change again.
7. Manifestos need not be particularly rational or practical (I remain to be convinced that Labour’s lavish manifesto spending commitments would end in anything less than a massive debt and ultimate disappointment, especially if they weren’t going to save a few billion by stopping the white elephant, nuclear fig leaf of Trident renewal – now that would be bold and brave, and worth Labour losing Barrow for). The policies do need though to be attractive to your core and consistently supported. The ‘dementia tax’ will go down in history as probably the biggest policy faux pas of any recent UK election, an own goal if ever there was one.
8. Social media matters, and thankfully is less open to manipulation by the rich and powerful, unlike the national press. It is of course open to distortion by the ignorant and ill-informed, but hey that’s democracy. Often fake news but I guess at least you have ownership of it. The Sun threw its hat in with the Conservatives, but it had no effect. The national press as an electoral force has never had it so bad.
9. Politics should be a team game if the captain isn’t the star player they (or at least their close advisers) think they are. May ran a very candidate centred campaign; her fellow Cabinet ministers were rarely let off the leash so it was May or nothing. Fine if you are Thatcher or Blair (in their early days at least) but not for Theresa May, who was as mentioned above, found wanting. She played a close game, and played it too close. It is now becoming clear just how small her inner core of advisers were, and how little she really used her fellow players. By contrast, Corbyn also went for the personalised campaign (probably because most of his parliamentary party wanted nothing to do with him at the start) but without portraying himself as a statesmanlike Prime Minister, but rather the principled outsider. He came (dangerously?) close to pulling it off, well sort of…
10. May lost the election (her overall majority gone, net loss of seats), Corbyn lost (Labour are still over 50 MPs behind the Tories), the SNP lost (fewer MPs, Indy2 dead in the water), the Lib Dems lost (only 4 more seats, their leader nearly lost his own seat, their previous one did; worst performance for at least 30 years in terms of vote share and seats). The only real winners were the arch tribalists of DUP up 2 MPs and of Sinn Fein up 3 MPs. So Ulster said both No and Yes with equal bombacity. Thus an electoral system that is supposed to deliver strong and stable governments (had to use that cliché somewhere) produced a weak and hamstrung government and a bunch of losers! I almost seem to be advocating electoral reform here, so perhaps best to quit while ahead or behind, or somewhere in the middle.