Some thoughts on an extraordinary General Election result
|Ian Levy is Blyth valley's first non-Labour MP in 69 years|
Consequently I have been little more than an interested observer, and sometimes not even that. I have felt detached from this election in a way that feels strange but not entirely unwelcome. I had an interest in the outcome but no real desire to be involved in a highly polarised and unpleasant election fight. It was difficult to avoid election banter on social media but, other than to correct misunderstandings - or on one occasion request that a member of my own church didn't refer to Liberal Democrat candidates as murderers - I've deliberately refused to engage with it.
This was not only an election I did not want; it was an election I knew the Conservatives would win. Only the likely scale of the majority has proved remotely surprising. No other result was ever on the cards, and the first thing I would say is that it was an enormous mistake for the Liberal Democrats and Labour to vote for it under the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act - and that it should have been obvious at the time that it was a mistake. I have tried to understand the rationale behind the decision to give the Prime Minister the election he wanted at the time he wanted, but I cannot given the situation and the nature of Boris Johnson's difficulties. The kindest thing that might be said is that Labour and Lib Dem MPs gambled recklessly ..
The Liberal Democrats
The challenging thing in any election is managing expectations. In spite of the public talk, the Lib Dems' expectations were realistically modest, due to the limited number of seats in which we achieved a second place finish in 2017. But there was hope of making some kind of breakthrough and of perhaps comfortably surpassing the total of 23 seats (1992 levels) - holding our own, making a few gains, keeping a lot more deposits and taking a lot more second places. If the exit poll is correct, it would seem that even such seemingly moderate objectives have proved well beyond our reach.
At the time of writing the full result is not known and it may be that we fare a little better than expected. But if the exit poll is correct, in the last three general elections we will have taken eight, twelve and thirteen seats respectively. Gradual recovery is, of course, still recovery but four and a half years after the coalition I would have hoped for - and expected - the picture to be a little more positive. It's a reality that is difficult to accept on many levels, but ultimately I think it reflects an even more unpalatable reality: that we are where we are because we deserve to be.
I don't mean for a minute that all my wonderful Lib Dem friends standing as candidates in all kinds of constituencies across the UK didn't deserve better. Of course they did. But our campaigning strategy was ineffective and unfocused, our messaging confused and lacklustre. Our supposedly distinctive stance on Brexit actually proved confusing for many voters thanks to our policy of revoking Article 50 being seemingly at odds with our previously often-expressed support for a People's Vote - something which a few weeks ago seemed highly likely but now is as remote a prospect as Cowdenbeath winning the Champions League.
Not only did the "Revoke Article 50" policy confuse voters, it was difficult to sell to them as a democratic alternative to a confirmatory referendum. It was also intellectually incoherent, as by the same logic the far more likely prospect of a Conservative majority could be deemed to settle Brexit in a different direction.
Yes, the media's approach (as always) didn't help us, or other parties such as the Greens and Plaid Cymru. Yes, Jo Swinson was the target of some unpleasant and unnecessary online trolling, as well as a campaign of disinformation. Yes, the electoral system worked against us. And yes, the inevitable two-party dichotomy advanced during a general election was always going to squeeze our vote. But none of this is new, and our campaigning should have been prepared for these challenges.
We were unable to communicate a clear message, not least on the central issue of the election. "Stop Brexit" might have worked better without the confusion as to how we might proceed to stop Brexit., but it also had a rather limited appeal for those for whom Brexit was less pressing that the NHS, education, transport or a range of other issues. While Boris Johnson was evading Andrew Neil and repeating "get Brexit Done" ad nauseum, Jo Swinson was making herself available for conversations on all kinds of subjects from reform of the Gender Recognition Act to her record as a coalition minister. Much of what she said was utterly sensible, but it did not help communicate any kind of concise message to voters in the way that the Prime Minister was able to.
I think Jo made some mistakes along the way and she has received personal criticism from some party members, frustrated at the largely uninspiring campaign. I share some of the concerns that have been expressed, but also felt at times Jo did perform well (especially the Andrew Neil interview) and became more convincing as the campaign progressed. What Jo was unable to do was to combat the Tories' "Get Brexit Done" rhetoric and demonstrate that Johnson's deal would do very little to actually remedy the mess that Brexit has become, and she also struggled to provide a clear reason why people should vote Lib Dem aside from "stopping Brexit". In Scotland, the Lib Dems' approach to the question of independence might appeal to party members, but appears incoherent to many voters who cannot understand why we have supported one further referendum while vehemently opposing another.
At the time I'm writing this (3.50am) East Dunbartonshire has just declared, and Jo Swinson has become the first party leader to lose their seat at a general election since Archibald Sinclair in 1945. This will obviously hurt the party and I can only imagine how it must feel for Jo personally. She cannot be faulted for her energy and political courage, and her speech at the count - in which she promised to "stand up for hope" - showed her character. But, in the final analysis, she is another leader who has failed to significantly move the party forwards.I am still hoping for a few more gains that the exit poll is projecting, but even if we were to secure around 20 seats it could still hardly be considered a great night for us, especially when the political momentum was very firmly with the PM's opponents only weeks ago. Our cause has been set back once again, and that of Remain is surely lost.
If it's a disappointing night for us, then it's a disaster for Labour with statistically their worst result since 1935. I'd make the claim, however, that it's their worst result since 1931, as at least under Attlee's leadership four years later the party gained over 100 seats. Either way, it's a catastrophe for the party and its current leader.
Labour, too, are where they are because they deserve to be. It pains me to say it, because we needed a strong opposition now more than ever - but if there is to be a recovery from Labour it must accept responsibility for its current predicament rather than point fingers elsewhere, as John McDonnell has already done. That narrative that Corbynism would have been successful if not for the backdrop of Brexit is nothing but wishful thinking.
The denial we saw from McDonnell when he was interviewed by Andrew Neil a couple of hours ago is both typical of Labour and symptomatic of its problem. Labour, far too focused on fighting Lib Dems, failed to appreciate the potential impact of the Brexit Party and its threat to Labour's heartlands. The evidence from the constituencies so far is that Labour are haemorrhaging votes to Nigel Farage's new party, aiding the Conservatives. Farage clearly intended his party to have this effect, which makes Labour's approach to campaigning all the more difficult to explain. Like the Lib Dems, the unclarity of Labour's messaging - especially on Brexit - has contributed to the result tonight. A supposedly "neutral stance" in prospective negotiations was never a coherent or credible approach to take, and while Corbyn may well have thought he was being clever he was, in fact, being deeply disingenuous. Any credibility he may have had as a leader-in-waiting was demolished with such insincerity. He never looked like a leader during this election. He didn't look much like a radical socialist visionary either, for that matter.
A telling moment in McDonnell's interview was when Neil questioned his assertion that the result was purely down to Brexit. Neil began to reel off Labour policies, at which the shadow chancellor reacted with genuine shock to the very suggestion that voters may have issues with such policies. Labour's problems are rooted in the institutional assumption that the electorate feels as it does. The idea that anyone might possibly not see renationalisation of railways as an immediate priority, or that any of Labour's well-developed policies might ever be unpopular among voters, affronted McDonnell.
Similarly, there seemed little acknowledgement from him that Labour's message had failed to resonate, or that the party had lost touch with many of its traditional supporters. The obsessive focus on policy detail proved counter-productive: not only are electorates not as interested in such detail as political activists tend to be, there was no real focus and way too many policy areas being developed and explored simultaneously - while all the time the Prime Minister's "Get Brexit Done" message was gaining traction. Inevitably the long list of policy pledges also raised legitimate questions about cost and the manifesto, to many, seemed simply incredible in spite of the many perfectly good policy ideas contained within it.
The anti-Semitism claims proved deeply problematic for Labour, and rightly so. I do not for a minute believe that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, but a leader has a responsibility to deal with claims of discrimination and prejudice - even historical claims - in a fair-minded and convincing way. Corbyn was never able to do that, in part because of unhelpful contributions from other Labour figures undermining his efforts.
Labour also miscalculated Jeremy Corbyn's appeal. He has his supporters and understandably so, but they fail to appreciate that the vast majority of the electorate do not see the world as they do. Corbyn was never the kind of leader to unite a party, never mind a country (the evidence of the former I believe will become quite evident in the next few days and weeks, as Labour examine the reasons for their defeat and open up old wounds in the process). Unfortunately, "the people" do not love him as much as his supporters believed they do. He has his strengths but, unlike in 2017, on this occasion Labour's strategists did not play to them. He seemed indecisive and unsure, utterly lacking in conviction.
Labour's failure to challenge the Tories' "Get Brexit Done" narrative surrendered the initiative to the Prime Minister. They were never able to dictate the terms of the conversation, always responding rather than leading.
More pertinently, I believe one of Labour's fundamental difficulties has been the inability to accept that the First Past the Post electoral system no longer works for them. The sense of entitlement FPTP fuelled remains, but the system on which it is based has been far more effectively exploited by the Conservatives and SNP in recent years. Indeed, Jeremy Corbyn's inability to find any answers to the question of the SNP's continuing dominance in Scotland ruled out the possibility of a Labour majority before the election even kicked off.
The bottom line is that Jeremy Corbyn was the wrong leader at the wrong time. I would like to be kinder in my conclusion, but Corbyn's tenure has taken Labour backwards and it may well take many years (and elections) to recover. He needs to accept the inevitable and step down sooner rather than later - the idea that the outgoing leader should preside over the "period of reflection" he referred to is as absurd as it is inappropriate.
As for the SNP, there is no doubt it has been a successful election for them, even if they fall short of the 55 seats projected. Their impressive campaigning unit has now helped secure a majority of Scotland's seats for the party in the last three elections, and it is difficult to see how this dominance can be ended in the near future. The SNP's success inevitably raises questions about a further independence referendum, which surely cannot be ruled out indefinitely. How this will play out I could not say but I do not feel the Westminster government, even with a significant Conservative majority, could realistically deny Holyrood the opportunity to again put the question to Scottish voters without creating the kind of "democratic deficit" situation that proved problematic to previous Tory administrations attempting to force their will onto Scotland.
The Conservatives, however, are the real winners. To take seats like Workington, Wrexham and Blyth Valley represents a stunning achievement. However uncomfortable that statement of fact is, it would be churlish to deny the significance. The Tories' targeting has been highly effective, their refusal to play by the rule book even more so. The smears against Jeremy Corbyn, while shameful and hypocritical, worked. The unofficial arrangement with the Brexit Party proved to be far more productive than any so-called "Remain Alliance".
Most tellingly for the Conservatives, Johnson was able to appeal to a certain kind of "blue collar" voter, especially in the north of England. His strategy of saying very little paid off handsomely, and when he did speak - especially on domestic issues - he took care to do so with positivity and with broad brushstrokes rather than with focus on detail as per Labour's example. Much as he came across very poorly to certain voters, he knew the audience to which he had to appeal - taking a leaf from Donald Trump's book in keeping messaging simple and memorable. But he was able to reach out beyond his usual constituency in unexpected ways, especially in working class areas, and that must be recognised. Inconceivable as it may seem, there has been a discernible "Boris bounce".
One challenge facing Johnson is the apparent collapse of the Tory vote in Scotland. The Conservatives have once again abandoned Scotland to the SNP, and have become very much an "English party", something that may well affect the political dynamic in the coming months and years. The other, of course, is what he does with his majority, and whether he can finally unite the Conservative Party with his Brexit strategy. In that sense, the hard work very definitely lies ahead. We still have no idea what Brexit looks like, only that it needs to be "done". I fully expect further wrangling and fraught dialogue, and the inevitability that whatever model of Brexit is finally "done" will disappoint many leavers who will feel betrayed by it.
No doubt the Conservatives will be delighted with the result and their performance, but it remains the case that Labour lost this election - an election they should have been in a position to win with relative ease. Corbyn - and Corbynism - failed to take their opportunity and build on the relative successes of 2017.
These are, naturally, simply my initial reactions based on an exit poll and the first few results of the night. There may well be some surprises in store yet, but it is apparent there has been a seismic shift in UK politics - and one that is as unwelcome as it was unnecessary.
Of course, I'm both sad and angry at the result and the damage it will do to our party, our communities, our society and our country. The challenge is how to adequately respond to this disturbing actuality when Labour and the Lib Dems are in such disarray.