Saturday, 10 June 2017

Five 2017 General Election Takeaways

It is less than 40 hours since that moment. When jaws dropped across the country as the exit poll provided a snapshot of what was to come. Yet, whilst the time is yet to come for considered analysis to take place, the time has arrived for initial reaction to be provided. So with the benefit of nothing other than the official results, initial reaction and my own thinking, here are five takeaways from the election that surprised Britain. All thoughts seem to be out of line with the main analysis emerging so I wanted to get them down on paper.

The Return to 2 Party Politics
It seems to be the mantra of all that this was the return to 2 party policies and with the 2 main parties amassing over 82% of the vote that does seem a reasonable take at first. However, I disagree.

What this election provided first and foremost was a result of the electoral system allied with an increasing understanding of it. I have not yet crunched the statistics, but I think this was the election when people had a choice of one or the other. The concept of wasted votes and removing a candidate caught on in a way that it had not done previously.

Equally, this was assisted by the rejection of the centre. A topic which fascinates me and I shall return to at a later time. For as long as I have followed elections, they have been fought from the centre with the differences between the two leading parties evident yet narrow. This was different. Both parties had moved away from the centre, approaching positions in some ways reminiscent of 1983. Ironically, this neutered the protest vote. Those who considered the Tories too wet previously, returned. Those who considered Labour too Blairite, returned.

However, not for one second do the stances of the main parties represent 82% of the voting electorate. In fact, more than ever a number of political followers are homeless. How they move forward will be of great interest.

Negative Campaigns work. When all is well.
It is universally agreed that the Tory campaign was negative. It focused more on the fears of people, than their hopes. Such campaigning is not new but well established and it is well established because it works.

However, negative campaigning can only work when the alternative is something to genuinely be afraid of. In 2015 for instance, the Tories were able to latch onto fears that Labour could erode the work they claimed to have done to help the country move forward.

2017 was different. There are nurses using food banks. The NHS is in peril. Schools are underfunded and becoming over crowded. And whilst I am reticent to mention them, the recent murders in Manchester and London raised the spectre of people's security.

Yes, people may believe that Labour's approach could make things worse. But when things are already unpleasant, the risk becomes one worth taking. And focusing on the alternative only serves to bring to mind people's dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Road to hard Brexit
The result of the election has led many to claim that hard Brexit is dead. It can no longer be achieved and whilst I agree that the road to hard Brexit is now more difficult, I still share a huge fear this will happen and I think it could happen in a relatively straightforward way.

To realise why that could happen however, one needs to consider the view of some towards Brexit. For a number of politicians, Brexit is their raison d'etre. It is their political dream. It is what they got into politics for and what they want more than anything.

Whilst the number of politicians who share this view is low (I am referring to the likes of Steve Baker, Bill Cash, John Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith and Jacob Rees Mogg), their influence is not. Ever since Maastricht, the right wing, Brexit supporting faction of the Tory party have held an influence far greater than their numbers alone. Allied with a press that, at best is hostile to the EU, they have used this influence to keep Europe on the agenda at all times. For as badly as David Cameron's referendum strategy paid off, such a move was necessary to try to once and for all deal with this faction.

Whilst she may not belong to this faction, Theresa May was even before the election little more than a stitch in their pocket. Indeed, her tone between the Maidenhead count and the speech outside 10 Downing Street coincided with these politicians coming to the airwaves demanding she stay. A desire she acquiesced to, as opposed to David Cameron's response following the EU referendum.

Using their latest pawn, EU negotiations could commence in line with expectations before British withdrawal on the grounds of a lack of EU co-operation. At this point, May resigns observing that she has not got the support of the British public to carry on with these negotiations and that a new face is needed. At this point, EU hostility within the media is raised to fever pitch.

A new leader emerges and, whilst compromising on some issues such as the total immigration cap, uses this hostility, conducts negotiations on a basis in line with the wishes of the Tory right. At this point, I would not even rule out a new election. The Tories learning the lesson from this election, run a more positive campaign overall, compromising on austerity whilst continuing to heavily criticise the Corbyn approach to win a majority.

Maybe my pessimism is shining through but after observing the power the Tory right holds, I do not think Hard Brexit is going away anytime soon.

Contradiction of Corbyn

Going into this election, the majority of the focus was on the dissatisfaction with Jeremy Corbyn. From his appearance to his approach to his words, anything and everything was up for criticism. Yet throughout the campaign, the more air time he received, the more populist policies he espoused, the more the dissatisfaction quietened. So, was it all the Blairites fault? Not quite.

The fact is that to many, Jeremy Corbyn possess cooties like a 5 year old girl does to a boy of the same age. In traditional Labour heartlands, he not only holds no appeal, he forces voters to move away from the party. The focus on the lack of Labour swing in the early North East seats were evidence of this. I know of many lifelong Labour voters who could not hold their nose to vote for Jeremy Corbyn. Yet, this disappeal is limited and mainly localised to seats where Labour can withhold such a swing.

Meanwhile, Corbyn has tremendous political appeal to those who years of centre ground politics had resulted in anti Labour tendencies. The rallies his appearances resulted in were truly unprecedented and helped, alongside a disastrous Tory campaign, to soften the national mood.

The Labour approach had very much been on not trying to appeal directly to Tory voters (although the triple lock was one exception), but rather to focus on their stance and hope that converted. It remains to be seen, outside of the youth vote, how much of the Labour vote was a vote for Corbyn or a vote against austerity. Certainly, the UKIP vote which seems to have broken far more evenly than anticipated appears to have been a result of a protest vote finding a different home.

Yet, going forward Labour continues to face many difficulties. As a Parliamentary leader, the Corbyn opposition was by any standards, woeful. He is a much better campaigner than he is at holding governments to account. Labour must improve in this area. Their Brexit stance is largely out of line with many young people and this needs clarifying.

However, regardless of one's views on Jeremy Corbyn, he has earned the right to a further period of opposition. Hopefully, his backbench critics will now offer him support and lend their experience at holding governments to account. A united Labour party is not just in the interest of Labour. It is in the interest of all in holding a marginal government to account.

A country divided
About the only thing the UK is able to agree on at the moment, is its division. Ever since the financial crisis, inequality has spread between the haves and the have nots with age, education and locality being the defining features.

The EU referendum, previous government policies and this election have done nothing but widen this chasm. Major cities attracting investment are on the up and have bounced back from 2008. Small towns continue to see their infrastructure crumble and together with population growth see a decline in the available public services.

Clearly, this can only be addressed by a restructure of public resources but the central fact appears to be that the country cannot support the standards all wish to have in the current economic situation. How to resolve this is the issue that the next government needs to focus on. Like a student with a deadline, sideshow attractions like Brexit continue to distract from the most pressing issue at hand. However, the clock is now approaching the deadline and there are still 500 words to write.

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