Refections on the General Election

A few days after the election a colleague tweeted:

“Rise in support for Corbyn, Sanders & other movements tells us… people are open to big narratives about structural change” #systemschange

The reason I don’t think this is true, even though the respected economist Stephanie Flanders said the same thing to the RSA after the Brexit vote, is as follows.

Brexit, Trump, Saunders, Netherlands, Austria (first time round) were all examples of people voting principally for candidates defined by what they opposed, usually ‘the establishment’; they were not votes in favour of a particular ideology or plan. So too the election and re-election of Corbyn within the Labour Party – brought about not least by frustration from some Party stalwarts and ideological support from newer, inexperienced and predominantly young members. In its own way Macron’s vote in France was negative too, rejecting both traditional parties as well as the obvious (and established) FN ‘protest’ option; though En Marche’s subsequent Parliamentary vote has set course for a positive way forward. The problem with installing a government on the basis that they oppose what you oppose is that you have no yardstick by which to judge success – who do you vote for when they disappoint? That way anarchy lies.

I was talking to arch-Brexiteer Daniel Hannan earlier in the year: I said that everyone who supported ‘Remain’ knew what they wanted the world to look like in the weeks after the vote, whilst barely no two Brexiteers could agree on their vision of life in or out of Europe – and he agreed. Research shows that although many people who voted Brexit (overwhelmingly the less well educated) had no vision: they were voting ‘against’ the establishment both for conventional, rational reasons but also through anti-foreigner, anti-establishment, even anti-Green and anti-feminist sentiments. There was no coherence to the Brexit ‘movement’ other than around what it was – and is – against.

On June 8th in the UK election we saw exactly the same happening, not on a national scale but on a local one:

– In Scotland there was a swing against the majority party (the fact that both Con and Lab benefited from this suggests it was an anti-SNP/anti-independence swing, not a pro-Lab or pro-Con one)

– In England (apart from London and the North West) there was an ‘anti-the-party-of-my-local-MP’ swing – big anti-Labour swings in the north east (though not enough to lose seats) but also across the east and west Midlands, taking out Stoke South, Mansfield, Walsall N, North East Derbyshire; Tories lost vote share (and seats) in their heartlands too.

– London was different; Labour did exceptionally well because its people and most of its MPs are solidly ‘Remain’, because there was no sizeable UKIP vote ‘up for grabs’ and because Sadiq Khan is popular and active.

– I’ve had to revise my analysis to account for the North West, where Labour did well. It has to be seen in the context of doing very badly in the county elections, nationwide, just five weeks earlier. What changed in the interim was Andy Burnham’s election as Manchester Mayor (highlighted by perceptions of his leadership around the Manchester bombing). The words ‘Labour’ and ‘success’ came together in the media and Labour held North West marginal seats that it had contemplated losing.

The seat I used to represent, High Peak, is a case in point. In May we lost 3 of our 4 Labour county council seats there yet Ruth George won the Parliamentary seat on June 8th with an incredible 14% swing – despite being in the East Midlands. Does this contradict what I said about the Midlands above? No – because in High Peak (split 50:50 on Brexit) 90% of the population receive their media from Manchester, not the East Midlands (the rest get Yorkshire TV). High Peak was thus infected by the ‘Burnham Buzz’, the equivalent of London’s ‘Khan Chorus’. (High Peak also has an extremely sophisticated electorate – who, in their wisdom, elected me three times from 1997. Blue collar workers, who moved away from Labour elsewhere, are under-represented there).

Two more seats: by no stretch of the imagination need Labour ever contemplate relying on Canterbury or Kensington to deliver a majority. Canterbury was a fluke: a massive 40% of the electorate are students there and the timing of the election was perfect in maximising both anti-Tory passion (corralled by Labour’s policy on student fees – thank heaven we don’t have to implement that now!) and the phase of the University year. Sheffield Hallam was similar. Three weeks later, after term had ended, that vote would have been dispersed to the four winds. In Kensington an unpopular MP linked to a very unpopular cause (Brexit, in London) paid the price; her Labour successor has had an unenviable, literal, baptism of fire. Backing up this claim I cite the fact that in my own west London home the three forever Conservative wards of Chiswick all returned Labour majorities for the first time ever – because the Tory candidate lost votes by not opposing Brexit in this 70% ‘Remain’ area.

So, don’t get out the bunting quite yet. There’s a long way to go before a very fluid electorate is likely to coalesce around a progressive government or coalition… Meanwhile Labour’s big challenge is to consolidate those areas once called ‘heartlands’ as well as the conventional ‘swing seats’, where a distinct and worrying lack of progress was made in June. Perhaps this reflects the fact that our leadership has little or no experience of ‘pitching’ for the swing vote in the centre ground of politics…