The School of Geography, Politics and Sociology

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Few winners in a night of high drama

Dr Alistair Clark gives his view on the result of the 2017 general election

Remarkable night

This may seem a strange thing to say when 650 candidates have just been elected to the House of Commons. Yet, an election called by Prime Minister May to provide a ‘strong and stable government’ and avoid a ‘coalition of chaos’, has plunged the UK into a hung parliament unforeseen back in April when Mrs May called the election. Conscious of the risk of analysis at speed after a night’s commentating, here are some very early observations on a remarkable night.

Prime Minister May’s authority is the first casualty of the result. The Conservative Party has long overrated its ability to win majorities. David Cameron was denigrated for failing to win a majority in 2010 when in reality the Conservatives were so far behind, being able to form a coalition was a considerable achievement. The 2017 Conservative campaign was ill judged, focused on a leader who looked and sounded uncomfortable. She failed to appear in a debate with other leaders, seldom met any voters in uncontrolled situations and spoke in clichés. The manifesto launch was disastrous. Many other party figures were nowhere to be seen.

Brexit, the supposed reason for the election, was not addressed with any of the seriousness which it deserved. In addition to weakening May, this must surely see an end to the robotic, controlled single message type of campaigns run by the party’s Australian strategist, Lynton Crosby. Predictions of winning a majority of around 100 now seem hopelessly out of touch. Senior Conservative figures are already talking of Mrs May going, only the timing being in question.

Labour also shares some culpability. While Jeremy Corbyn certainly performed above expectations, this is because they were so low in the first place. Corbyn was underestimated by many, this writer included. He deserves reassessment and his achievement recognised. He is unlikely to be ceding his place anytime soon. He has enthused many, with a fairly radical manifesto. Labour’s campaign was successful to some degree but was never likely to win the election. His chaotic leadership, the party’s lack of unity with so many MPs refusing to serve under him, and his at best lukewarm support for remaining in the EU, led the Conservatives to believe that there was no effective opposition. This lulled them into a false sense of security in which they gambled on an election. Had Labour had a stronger leader, the election might not have happened in the first place.

Licking wounds

The SNP are also licking wounds. It remains the largest party in Scotland but has fallen from 56 seats to 35, losing some major party figures such as former leader Alex Salmond along the way. The push for an early independence referendum off the back of Scotland’s vote to remain in the EU in 2016 now looks premature. Many of its voters in rural and fishing areas were anti-EU. The SNP could only go downwards; it held all but three of Scotland’s seats and achieved 50% of the Scottish vote in 2015. But no polls had suggested the party would lose more than about 12 seats. Being still the third party in parliament means that the SNP will still hold some potential power at Westminster in the hard bargaining between parties that will now happen. But some hard thinking will need to be done about a second indyref, and a sustained period of concentration on public policy delivery in Scotland is necessary.

Two other losers – the electorate and Britain’s majoritarian, winner takes all political culture. The electorate because the UK faces serious issues. Instead of preparing to negotiate Brexit in a manner that does the least harm to the UK, time has been wasted on this election. Serious issues include, among many others, post-crash austerity, an ageing population, social care, a serious economic situation, and the potential onrush of technology and automation. Little has been said about any of this. Britain’s majoritarian political culture has played into this. With a majority, as Lord Hailsham famously said, Britain has an ‘elective dictatorship’.

Majority parties can ignore others should they wish to. This is what the Conservative Party has done over Brexit. They did so with tacit support from Labour. The ballot paper in the EU Referendum only asked about leaving the EU, not about the hard Brexit that so many in the Conservative Party, and UKIP, appeared so devoted to. One interpretation of what the electorate are saying in delivering a hung parliament is that they do not want parties to have untrammelled power, but to work together to solve the UK’s problems. Coalitions seem unlikely given that most parties have ruled out working with others. Most likely immediately after the results appeared a Conservative/DUP arrangement, however loose or organised that may be.

All this notwithstanding, there were some winners in the margins. The Scottish Conservatives paradoxically have returned 13 MPs, a level they have not had for decades in what was once barren territory for the party. This was one of the stories of the night. Opposition to indyref2 and Ruth Davidson’s forceful leadership appear part of the explanation. Labour and the Liberal Democrats also won seats in Scotland. Older patterns of voting appeared to be reasserting themselves north of the border.

What happens how

Pollster YouGov also had a good election. It looked like it had taken a brave position when it predicted a hung parliament around a week before polling day, with a new sophisticated methodology. This was out of step with what other pollsters and prediction models had been suggesting. YouGov were vindicated when the exit poll also indicated such a result and it came to pass. Other pollsters no doubt will be facing another inquiry into their methods.

What will happen now is a range of talks between the various parties. Reports of channels being opened between the Conservatives and DUP are already circulating. The crucial thing is to be able to command the confidence of the House of Commons for a Queens’ speech. The clock is ticking but Britain’s political culture is not used to such negotiation and compromise. The clock is also ticking on Brexit. Negotiations were due to begin in just over a week and need to be completed in less than two years.

May’s unnecessary gamble, trying to use the opportunity that the Brexit vote gave to increase the Conservative majority and impose a particular view on the UK, failed. It has placed Britain in an unprecedented situation. Consequently, don’t rule out going to the polls once again later this year.

published on: 12 June 2017