Another year, another unexpected election outcome to dissect. Here goes.
The national picture – Labour Up, Tories Down
The big story of the night is of course the decline of the Conservatives to the benefit of Labour.
I will admit from the outset I got this very wrong. I accepted the media view that a party led by Jeremy Corbyn would not be seen as plausible. This was clearly mistaken. It is evident that there *is* support for a more left-wing politics, and that Jeremy Corbyn has benefited from not being a typical career politician. He has definitely come across well throughout the campaign, and deserves credit for this. It may be that he can build a more left-wing labour party, but combine that with the professionalism of New Labour.
Having said that, I do believe that Labour benefitted hugely from a dreadful Conservative campaign. Going in to this election, the general public didn’t realise just how dreadful Mrs May is. Pre-election, there was a lot of discussion among politicos as to whether she was good or just lucky. It is clear now that pre-election she was just lucky. The Tory campaign was truly abysmal, and their policy platform was far to the right of the acceptable one-nation Conservatism of Cameron. Clearly, this position has been soundly rejected, along with their brutal Brexit.
More generally, we have seen a shift back towards a more bi-polar electoral map. The presidential feel of the campaign clearly helped Labour against the Tories, but it has also resulted in a shift back to extreme divisions between left and right, where people are more likely to vote to keep out the opposition they really dislike. Certainly Labour energised voters (it seems they even got the sought-after boost in young voters), but at least some of that vote will also have resulted from the desire to keep out the Tories, which is clearly more pronounced now that two years ago.
The Lib Dem Picture – we can build on this
As a proud Liberal Democrat, this election cycle has been one of huge personal swings, from massive optimism through to outright terror. At 8pm yesterday, I was pretty sure we would be down to about five seats and facing a Tory majority. On balance, I am not unhappy about moving from nine to twelve seats (an increase of 1/3). This is a small, but significant step to rebuilding the party. It is great to have Vince Cable and Ed Davy back in parliament, to have regained Bath and Eastbourne, to have taken Oxford West, and to have the beginnings of a restoration in Scotland.
There are, of course, great frustrations. Foremost amongst those was Fife North East (a seat once held by the late, great Sir Menzies Campbell), where just 2 votes stood between us and victory! Likewise, the loss of Richmond Park to Zac Goldsmith by 45 votes is a blow. However, small margins will, one hopes, spur the local parties to work even harder next time around – these seats are clearly winnable. Sarah Olney had been given little time to build a local presence, and of course this time round Zac Goldsmith had the full weight of the Tory party behind him (despite the party committing to Heathrow expansion in their manifesto, the policy which first led him to resign the whip).
Other seats we lost were greater blows – to have no MPs in Wales is a setback, as are the losses of Greg Mulholland and of course Nick Clegg, who, above all others, was a media-friendly face for the party (though his departure from the party’s front line may, with time, help us recover support among those who have still not forgiven us for the coalition era).
In terms of wider trends, we have suffered from the presidential, two-party style of this election, with a drop in vote share of 0.5%. The pattern of Labour up and Tories down has hit us too – our losses (with the exception of Richmond Park, and Southport, where we had lost our incumbency bonus with the retirement of John Pugh) were primarily to Labour. This trend also explains the failure of target seats such as Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes’ patch), and Cambridge (Julian Huppert), to turn orange (in the latter of those seats, I fear we are still haunted by tuition fees).
In contrast, our gains have been entirely from Tories and the SNP (who have been thoroughly bloodied). Opposition to the Tories explains successes in Bath and Oxford, in Eastbourne, Twickenham and Kingston & Surbiton. Some failed targets, such as Cheltenham, also saw positive swings to us.
So what can we learn from this. Our results prove yet again how deeply unfair our voting system is: 7.4% of the vote could, in a more representative system, give us some 48 seats (by the same token, the SNP’s 3% of the vote should have given them 19 seats, rather than 35). Sadly this is not about to change. Labour and the Tories both benefit from the status quo – this campaign proves that. With that in mind, it is a relief that our results show improved targeting. We must continue to build on this, with an ever more ruthless approach to local campaigns (as well as a realistic core vote strategy).
The results also give us a clear sense of our more obvious targets – socially liberal voters who would have considered Cameron, and Blair before him. Places like Richmond Park and Cheltenham are prime examples of where we need to look next, Bath and Oxford West of what we can achieve. These seats also, to some extent, vindicate our position on Brexit. No, we didn’t get 48% of the vote, but we did win remain voting seats from the Tories, and are seen as plausible in Scotland (which might not have been the case were we less ardently pro-remain)… It is arguable that we were seen as too much of a one issue party this time round (at a point when, as it turned out, this wasn’t the issue most on people’s minds). Nonetheless, our position on Brexit is a good indicator of our values (outward-looking, internationalist), and can, alongside policies such as 1p on income tax to fund the NHS, help highlight the distinctive voice of the Liberal Democrats in our politics,
All told, it may not be as good as we hoped, but these are results we can build on.
In the short term, we have a hung parliament. A Tory minority with support from the DUP looks like the most obvious outcome. Predictions for the date of the next election on a postcard please.
The big unknown in all this is of course Brexit. Mrs May went into this election seeking to strengthen her negotiating position – she has done exactly the opposite. If we are lucky, the EU will take pity on us, but time will tell. One thing is certain. The nation has voted for chaos.
Ohh, and UKIP need a new leader (again). Ant takers?!