Theresa May lost the election. But she somehow still has to ‘lead’ the UK government, lead her party, and lead the UK through Brexit negotiations. None of those constituencies wants her as leader.
Many things will be said about all this. Here are just a few fairly quick observations and reflections, first on the results, and then on their implications.
Mulling over the statistics
As we all know by now, Labour increased its share of the vote from 30.5% to 40% (from 9.3m to 12.9m). The Tories also increased their share from 36.9% to to 42.4% (from 11.3m to 13.7m). Both parties have won significant parliamentary majorities in the recent past with those kind of numbers: in 2001 Tony Blair’s Labour won 413 MPs with 10.7m votes (40.7%); in 1987 Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives won 376 MPs with 13.7m votes (42.2%). But this time the two main parties cancelled each other out.
The UKIP demographic is interesting not only in that UKIP got wiped out (0.6m votes compared to 12.9m two years ago), but also because Labour arguably gained as many former UKIP voters as the Tories did. Given how hard May had worked to absorb UKIP, this is astounding. She gave the Tory proposal a clearly ‘nasty‘ flavour, alienating several fellow Conservatives, and yet failed. Labour put forward a positive ‘left-wing’ vision and gained at least as many former UKIP voters. Surely ‘the left’ everywhere should take note.
Both SNP and the Greens also bled votes, to pro-union and anti-austerity parties respectively, it seems. The Tories, but Labour too and even the Lib Dems, all absorbed former SNP voters. Many Green voters seem to have voted tactically for Labour (and perhaps many 2010 Lib Dem voters did too). You could say this is a victory for tactical alliances, but it’s also a victory for those who don’t want to change an out-dated disproportionate first-past-the-post system.
Turnout among the 18-24 year olds is reported to be around 72% compared to the 68.6% national average. In 2015, the turnout was apparently only 43%. It seem a significant majority within the 18-24 bracket will have voted for Labour, and made a big difference. Casting your mind back on Brexit, this tends to confirm an increasing generational divide in the UK: younger voters tend to prefer Remain and Labour (but will settle for Lexit). The Tories are relying on an older demographic, which could be interesting come the 2030s.
Some traditional Tory voters could not bring themselves to vote for Theresa May’s manifesto. It was too nasty for them. Labour, whose manifesto was framed by some as alarmingly left-wing, actually pulled 3m more votes than ‘Red Ed’ in 2015. Maybe we rather need to stop talking in simplistic right vs left terms. After all, it’s a crass oversimplification which cannot begin to accurately map in its strictly linear fashion the varied positions of all political actors on issues as varied as social justice, market regulation, Europe, immigration, LGTB issues, the environment and so much else. Either way, on many of its core proposals, Labour was neither ‘loony’ nor ‘extreme’, but popular.
As for polling organisations, it turns out YouGov and Survation were ‘most’ accurate. What’s particularly interesting about YouGov is that they used a completely redesigned methodology, and proved ultimately quite good at seat-by-seat predictions, apart from in Scotland where they didn’t foresee the extent of the SNP-to-Tory swing. No doubt they’ll refine their Scottish data for next time.
Of course it’s silly to talk just of ‘winner’ and ‘losers’, but there are still some actors and policies that clearly come out thumbs-up and thumbs-down. Winners, I reckon, include: YouGov and Survation; the Guardian and Independent; Corbyn, Momentum door-knockers, and Labour’s policies (despite hysteric media bias); tactical voting, and the two-party system. Losers: obviously May, the Tories, UKIP and the SNP, but also the gutter press (for all their self-appointment as representatives of the people); and also Scottish independence.
The UK finds itself governed by a lame duck PM heading an unstable minority/coalition government propped up by a group some see as ‘terrorist’. The policies this government will pursue over anything between 3 months and 5 years will probably not include fox hunting or the dementia tax. Austerity will be harder to sell (the DUP might want to remember what happened to the Lib Dems when they propped up Cameron’s austerity), though I’m sure they’ll try: it was in the manifesto, after all.
The Tories can look ahead to renewed infighting and regicide. They have to pretend to get along with the DUP (might be interesting on gay marriage for rising star Ruth Davidson). The party will struggle to look united, even if it knows full well that disunity tends to be punished at the polls (Labour were remarkable well behaved during the campaign). As austerity keep biting and Brexit uncertainties go into overdrive, they’ll need a seriously different message led by a serious and different leader to approach the next election with any real ambition.
Labour, by contrast, should avoid any leadership election any time soon. Even Mandelson and Campbell are basically asking to rejoin the ship and rolling up their sleeves. An army of door-knockers will remain available at the next election. Labour can sit in the comfortable benches of the Official Opposition and snipe away relentlessly as the Tories make a dog’s breakfast of Britain’s future.
Brexit negotiations do need to begin soon. In fairness not much headway is realistic before the German elections, but then there is the cliff-fall of the Article 50 deadline to bear in mind, and entire archives of complex legal and trading arrangements to unearth and renegotiate. Brexit negotiations cannot but start soon, but the government might find it harder to bluff on a hard Brexit. And of course the DUP want no hard border in Ireland. This means people in Ireland (the EU) can move freely into Northern Ireland (the UK). Yes, Brexit means the injustices of the detached workers directive can be stopped, but controlling immigration flows more generally will be an interesting one for the Tories to manage in a way they’d hope to later spin as trustworthy and effective.
I reckon several media outlets will have realised they need to be fairer on Labour, if only by aiming at least also at the Tories. I would not be surprised if the Sun backed Corbyn at the next election. Kuenssberg might not become much fairer with Labour, but she might at least be nastier with the Tories. The Daily Mail is less likely to turn away from belching UKIP odours, but hardly anyone takes its politics seriously. Establishment broadsheets will probably still favour the Conservatives, but not without some criticism, and perhaps even with some openness to Labour ideas. The way key outlets could reconfigure their framing of Labour v Tory policies will be interesting to watch.
As for public debate more generally, perhaps the orthodoxy of hard Brexit can henceforth stop sounding so hegemonic. Ditto for austerity. Brexit will dominate the news for at least two years though, so let’s try to also keep the debate calm and sensible on immigration, trade compromises and so much else. If Corbyn can keep being himself and the Parliamentary Labour Party bat away alongside him like a machine, Tory MPs with an eye on their constituency (and their thoughts with Julian Brazier) are going to increasingly find it difficult to pursue policies they know to be unpopular and frankly unnecessarily austere.
Who said politics was boring? Oh and we have parliamentary elections in France this weekend.