Election 2017: Hope, but not victory

A blue van showing a Tory slogan overturned on a motorway. A truck has stopped to its left and there are police cars with lights flashing.So, the election results are in ([1], [2]), with only one seat remaining at the time of writing. The Tories have lost their majority, coming 8 seats short of the 326 needed to form a majority government. The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has performed spectacularly well, taking a number of large-town and small-city seats which had been Tory since 2010 (places like Ipswich and Peterborough), lost fewer seats in the North than had been predicted and won some places which have been Conservative for decades (e.g. Canterbury in Kent). The turnout was higher than usual because of a higher participation among the youth, and there was a well-directed student vote which may well explain why they polled well in small university cities like Norwich and Cambridge. Labour secured 40% of the vote compared to the Tories’ 42.4%, which is remarkable considering that earlier on in Corbyn’s leadership, figures on the Right of the party had been suggesting that Corbynites would be content to retreat to a rump of 30 seats. At the time of writing only Kensington in London remains still to declare, with the result on a knife edge after a fourth recount was demanded.

Sadly, what this means is that despite Labour’s good showing, the likely outcome is a coalition of the Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party, a reactionary, sectarian, pro-Brexit party which operates only in Northern Ireland and represents the Protestant community and whose MPs are on record as saying climate change is a big con and that homosexuality is not merely a sin but worse than child sexual abuse. Were it not for the instability of such a coalition (it was Tories who legislated for gay marriage and many are also mindful of the importance of neutrality in Northern Ireland), this outcome would be worse than a Tory majority as the DUP would demand a hardline stance on Northern Ireland’s position within the UK and outside the EU, risking the collapse of the peace process which was always predicated on both the UK and the Irish republic being members of the European Union. (Northern Ireland as a whole voted against Brexit, but the majority of the Protestant community voted for it and the DUP were always opposed to the EU and the EEC before it.) It would still be a majority of just one or two (as Stavvers put it on Twitter, “if someone has the shits one day, no majority”), but it gives them the levers of power on a day-to-day basis all the same. Another option would be a Tory-Labour coalition, which makes some sense as both parties are in principle committed to Brexit and aren’t overtly sectarian on the Northern Ireland question (Corbyn’s past dalliances with the IRA notwithstanding), but (unlike in Germany where “grand coalitions” of the Social and Christian Democrats have been common) this would be unthinkable to many on both sides and has not happened since the end of the Second World War.

Some conclusions to be drawn from this result:

1. Clearly in this election, the electorate were not put off Corbyn by the propaganda directed at him by the tabloids — a very welcome break with ‘tradition’ in which Murdoch was seen as the man who “backed winners”. Much of the ‘dirt’ thrown at him was about things that happened in the 1980s, well before today’s young voters were even born and even those in lower middle age do not remember them that well. The tabloids thought they could scare voters with memories of the Cold War when the Cold War is a distant memory for many people and not a memory at all for young people, and the realities of 1983 are not the realities of 2017. Even if Corbyn was a Marxist, as the Sun alleges, a Marxist PM in a government of democratic socialists (let alone in a coalition with the Tories) is not in a position to take the country very far down the “road to Socialism”. Similarly, the fact that he sympathised with the IRA (as, in fact, did a lot of people, particularly before the mainland bombing campaign began) does not put as many people off as thought; the Good Friday Agreement, one of the crowning glories of the Blair governments, put Sinn Fein (and the equally extreme, hardly less violent and even more socially reactionary DUP) in power in Northern Ireland. As with the Cold War, today’s young adults do not remember the Troubles or the IRA bombs. Many of us who do remember it also remember the violence of the Loyalist terrorist gangs, which did not stop after the GFA.

2. The result is plainly a rebuttal to the figures on the Labour Right who insisted that Corbyn could not possibly win an election and might in fact lose huge numbers of seats in socially-conservative working-class constituencies, particularly in the North. They have, in fact, sustained very few losses in these areas, although perhaps one is too many given the Tories’ revived vote in eastern Scotland. I can somewhat understand the concern that Corbyn was notorious for voting against the party line throughout the Blair period (at one point briefly defecting to the Liberal Democrats during the Iraq war), but many Labour voters had to put up with Blair’s, Campbell’s and their acolytes’ anti-democratic behaviour in the party (and in organisations such as student unions) when they were in office and just before; indeed, it was this which led to the collapse of the Labour vote in Scotland in 2015, something Corbyn has been unable to reverse despite improving its vote share in England and Wales. The Labour Right will have to understand now (as it clearly didn’t after the Brexit referendum) that its policy of taking its core vote for granted is no longer viable.

3. The Lib Dems did not capitalise on the pro-Remain vote as I had been expecting them to do, particularly in southern England. I live in an area Labour could not win and never has done; I voted Lib Dem and happily the Lib Dem (Ed Davey), who had been the local MP from 1997 to 2015, won. Vince Cable, the former business secretary who represented Twickenham until 2015, also won his seat back but the Lib Dems’ new MP in Richmond Park, Sarah Olney, lost hers (by a tiny number of votes) to Zac Goldsmith, who stood again as a Tory. They made a net gain of three, but it was a game of musical chairs for them: they lost five of their eight former seats and gained others from the Tories and SNP (though not Labour), overturning a few quite large majorities (e.g. Oxford West & Abingdon) in the process, although they did not gain back any of their former south-western heartland and the Tories increased their majorities in east Wales. Their former leader, Nick Clegg, also lost his seat (to Labour) and they also lost their one remaining Welsh seat, Ceredigion (to Plaid Cymru; more on that in a minute). This is a hugely disappointing result for them, and probably says a lot about the credibility of its leader, whose liberal credentials were brought into question the moment the election was called, as well as the viability of opposition to Brexit as an electoral policy. Most of their old heartlands voted for Brexit.

4. Much is being said of Corbyn’s very positive campaign as what inspired the Labour surge, but the sloppiness of the Tory campaign probably had as much to do with it: they alienated a chunk of their own voter base with their “dementia tax” proposal, Theresa May refused to engage in public debates and refused most interviews, sometimes sending other cabinet members including on one occasion Amber Rudd whose father had just died. This gave the impression of either being supremely confident that she could wing it without having to share space with Corbyn, or that she had something to hide, and I suspect many voters took the latter view. That said, Corbyn’s promises of free university tuition and an end to austerity, as well as the message of hope and change (as with Barack Obama in 2008) definitely helped get the youth vote out, something Ed Miliband hardly even attempted to do in 2015.

5. The Tories in Scotland won a lot of seats very convincingly, with shares in the upper 40s; other wins were marginal and one has to question the legitimacy of an MP who wins on a first-past-the-post basis with just 29.2% of the vote, as did Ben Lake for Plaid Cymru in Ceredigion, west Wales. If this is not an advert for electoral reform, I do not know what is. The same is true of a system whereby a tiny, extremist party such as the DUP can have the balance of power, such that they “wag the dog” in a coalition. There need to be rules about coalitions; the most important one is that the large second party is sought before a small third, and that there is a cordon sanitaire around both racist and sectarian parties and those with close links to terrorism. This should include the DUP as much as the British National Party, regardless of its popularity among the Protestant settler population of Northern Ireland. I would like to see the Single Transferable Vote introduced in this country, which would allow people to vote for their chosen party without fear of splitting the vote, and would allow people access to a like-minded MP in their region even if they were the minority, but this would lead to coalitions almost inevitably, so rules and agreements would have to be in place to prevent coalitions of convenience involving extremists. (A written constitution with a formal bill of rights would prevent them actually putting their policies into practice.)

A poster showing a young woman (a stock photo of a model) with the slogan 'I want an MP who answers to us, not to the Tories. I'm voting DUP".Finally, Labour activists have to realise that the party lost. They gained a much bigger share of the vote than expected (and a bigger share than Blair did in 2005) and gained some long-term Tory seats, possibly as a result of targeted student votes (e.g, Warwick & Leamington, Canterbury), but they gained fewer votes than the Tories and did not gain a majority, nor a big enough minority to even form a coalition with the SNP and the Lib Dems. It is possible that a further general election might follow this autumn or potentially even later in the summer, and the spectacle of the Tories forming a coalition with the DUP might result in another swing towards Labour, but although the techniques can be repeated, it is not certain that the turnout will be repeated. While it’s true that the Tories will probably fall apart over the next few weeks and months as the toxicity of the DUP takes its toll, there is no such thing in politics as “parking the bus” as there is in football, especially for a Labour party with such open divisions as this one has. The result has shown that the tabloids do not hold all the cards and that a new politics is possible; it’s a hopeful result, but it is not a victory, and Labour still has to fight for that.

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