Reflections in the cold light of (election) day

So we have another Conservative government – but for how long? With memories of the recent coalition still raw we’ve seen a return to two party politics as an unlikely Labour leader claimed the silver medal to widespread praise. Don’t laud him too much: this was a high turnout election (that’s good) but ‘highest ever Labour/Tory vote’ claims are disingenuous, as the electorate’s never been this big before.
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The irony is that this was a long, 7 week campaign which Theresa May could and should have won: her robotic, hermetically sealed, intensely personal approach was so dire it couldn’t disguise the lack of proper plans for Brexit or the economy; it was the Conservatives what lost it. It was a long campaign; if 3 weeks shorter Mrs May would not yet have tumbled down the polls so far and would have won. A short campaign delayed by 4 weeks, and the students would have dispersed from their university towns for the summer and made less of an impact (Canterbury – where 4 in ten electors are students – Reading and Sheffield Hallam might not have happened). And again the Tories would have won.
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The Tory campaign was without doubt the most inept I’ve ever seen from any party – and I remember 1983 – yet Labour still couldn’t beat them! We regained our 2010 position, itself the worst outcome for Labour for 30 years. The battleground ‘swing’ seats, especially of the East and West Midlands, stayed blue – except, I have to say, my own old constituency of High Peak (1997-2010) in Derbyshire, which Labour took on a 15% swing! I can’t explain that, especially as Labour lost all but one of its county councillors there just 5 weeks earlier. The seat voted 50:50 on Brexit but it has a well educated population and few traditional working class families for Labour to alienate. Plus a weak incumbent who’d made no mark in 7 years in office. High Peak behaved as its geography suggests – like a north-west seat, with a successful Andy Burnham trending on its local media – and not a Midlands one, where Labour provided little to prompt aspiration.
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Labour had no antidote for the Tory / Brexit onslaught which robbed them of Mansfield, Walsall, Stoke South and High Peak’s neighbour, North East Derbyshire – all losses which should have been even more remarkable than the gains of Kensington or Canterbury. We’ve taken such seats for granted for too long, not ‘working’ them enough between elections – which is when politics really happens.
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Labour’s ‘success’, such as it was, was based on four main things:
  • a campaign that suited Corbyn’s ‘rousing’ style (there’s a place for making existing supporters and idealists feel good and empowered, but it doesn’t attract swing voters);
  • a cohesive and radical manifesto that commanded broad support across Labour as it would have in any European social democrat party (but thank heavens we don’t now have to pay for it);
  • phenomenal success in London, where Sadiq Khan rules OK, where there’s little UKIP presence and a very strong anti-Brexit feeling – and where pretty well every Labour candidate (except Jeremy and Diane) was united in NOT having JC on their leaflets or visiting their patch!
  • Scotland, where the pendulum swung Labour’s way after a ‘couldn’t get any worse’, unrepresentative 2015 result.
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So now, today, we have the prospect of a Theresa May / Democratic Unionist Party ‘arrangement’ (the ‘Made-DUP’ alliance as some are calling it) keeping the Conservatives in office but not in power. I’m not too worried about the scary end of DUP politics – my dealings with them in the past suggest they are less monolithic, more tolerant on social and economic matters than they are painted, and the scary civil rights stuff ‘s a devolved issue, not for a Westminster coalition. But what’s really worrying is the impact that Government partisanship could have on Northern Ireland politics. As the neutral, the arbiter, Mrs May simply cannot slap Arlene Foster’s wrist in Stormont one day and beg the DUP battalion to follow her through the Westminster lobby the next… Either the ‘loose coalition’ won’t work or the peace process won’t. What a choice!
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The most promising thing to come out of politics in the last few days is the start of informal cross party talks between backbenchers (and others?) on how to organise and deliver a Parliamentary majority against the hardest interpretations of Brexit and the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ faction within the Tory party (they’re wrong, by the way, very wrong). That will involve breaking down tribal barriers and genuine engagement on the issues: is it too much to hope that Opposition leaders might follow their troops into battle on this, talking the language of friendship with the sizeable number of Tory backbenchers who see this as an opportunity to get the genuinely best deal from withdrawal from the EU – or even not withdraw completely?
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If we can do it on Europe I just hope that Labour’s Party managers are looking at other issues too, where Conservative allies, even ministers, can be enticed by the prospect of winning a majority vote of Parliament on manifesto issues common to all parties: on climate change, company governance, the relief of poverty, for starters.
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We’ll see. Meanwhile, don’t put those garden posters away quite yet…