Now the dust has settled… – Election 2017: A Review

It was a bruising 7 week campaign. For weeks politicians and journalists alike took punch after punch in an effort to create a new Parliament and for Theresa May, a Conservative majority for a mandate for her unrepentent approach to Brexit. At the stroke of 10pm on June 8th it became apparent that that would not be the outcome with an exit poll predicting a hung parliament. Fast forward 10 hours and that is exactly what happened. The Conservatives lost the majority they won in 2015 and held until just days ago whilst the Labour surge sent a message to the heart of Downing Street and served as a rejection of austerity and right wing politics. In an election that was originally about Brexit, Labour turned it into a campaign of policy – left wing populism placing the individual at the heart of the everying government would do and how individual policies and benefits can help individual people.

I’ve written before on Theresa May’s manifesto problems and the self inflicted wounds of the campaign. After Thursday night however, we now know just how critical that one week of the campaign would be. Whilst it wasn’t all decided in that one moment, the manifesto launches are a pretty apt summary of what was a torrid campaign for the Conservatives. This then serves as a summary of the campaign and election night in general where once again, Britain’s political map was rewritten.

May loses her majority and mandate

The headline story is the obvious one. This will always be the campaign where the Conservatives blew a 20+ point lead. As I have said previously, this should have been easy, yet the electorate showed the blue side that at the end of the day, it is they and not the government who are the bosses when it comes to democracy. The result is particularly damaging (but not yet fatally so) for the Prime Minister who placed herself and her ‘strong and stable leadership’ at the heart of what was a very presidential campaign. This was the first true test of Theresa May’s leadership at the ballot box (let’s not forget that she wasn’t elected leader of her party) and it was one she failed miserably. Perhaps the greater story here is not a rejection of her personally (she still has relatively strong approval figures, though they did fall through the campaign), but rather it serves as a rejection of a mandate for her approach to a hard Brexit – removing the UK from the single market and the customs union and instead seeking a ‘deep and special partnership’ with the EU. May’s position going to EU negotiations in just a matter of days is on the face of it now much harder than it was before this election was called. Labour’s surge was partly in thanks to their softer Brexit plans (more below) and this result means one would think that May cannot simply steamroller her way to her Brexit. Indeed, today the leader of the Scottish Conservatives Ruth Davidson MSP, possibly exercising some of her newly found clout after a suceessful election night suggested to the PM that it is essential that they can “look again at issues like Brexit” whilst she told Sky News that they “have to listen to other parties”. Simply put, the brakes must be put on the so called ‘hard Brexit’ at least until clearer negotiating positions reach cross-party support. The goalposts for Brexit have moved with this election and therefore it is likely the UK’s starting position for Brexit will have to as well.

The Labour surge continues

The heading here really tells the story. The surge in the polls that Labour saw in the final three weeks running up to the election continued at the polling stations with Labour increasing their vote share by 9.5% on 2015 taking seats from the Conservatives as well benefiting in votes from the UKIP collapse. They defended key marginals such as Chester and won the Conservative marginals. Beyond that, they reached deep down the board of targets and took seats that were firmly held by the Conservatives until then such as Canterbury, a seat which up until the early hours of Friday morning had always been held by a Conservative since its conception in 1918. Another win was found in the London seat of Kensington – a 20 vote win here for Labour which saw them take a seat that had never been won by the party before and had always been held by the Conservatives. In Battersea, the Labour candidate Marsha De Cordova ousted a government member in the form of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health, Jane Ellison. High profile government members weren’t immune from the Labour charge as Home Secretary Amber Rudd saw her majority in Hastings and Rye cut to just 346 votes. Labour were also responsible for the demise of for Deputy PM, Nick Clegg as an MP – a 4% swing in Labour’s direction seeing him lose his. As will be discussed further below, Labour also had a night where they defied expectations in Scotland as well winning 6 seats more than last time around. It was a strong performance in Wales also with Labour increasing their seats by 3. Labour didn’t just win marginals, they won against members of the Government and prominent politicians with a national profile. The reached into Conservative safe seats and took them like candy from a baby. And on top of all that, not only was this done on the basis of a party and a manifesto led by the man many thought was unelectable as PM, Corbyn himself received over 40,000 votes in his constituency of Islington North, increased his majority to over 33,000 and saw a 12.7% increase in the share of his vote.

Scotland – the Conservatives’ saving grace

If it wasn’t for the voters of Scotland, the Conservatives’ position would be far more precarious than it is as I write this. In total, the Conservatives gained 12 seats, taking them to 13 seats overall. Whilst this may seem a small number (and indeed as a proportion of the 59 seats in Scotland it is), it is worth bearing in mind that this is the strongest performance for the Conservatives in Scotland since the Margaret Thatcher’s 1983 victory and 21 seats. Four years later, Thatcher would only secure 10 seats North of the Border. The North-East and the Borders were the core hubs of support for the Conservatives in this election, whilst support was found also in Perthshire as well as in the Renfrewshire East consituency to the south of Glasgow. The seats that were won weren’t just marginals – Aberdeen South saw a 14.75% swing from the SNP to the Conservatives with the Conservatives overtuning a 7,000+ seat SNP majority, increasing their vote share by 19.3% and building a 4,752 seat majority of their own in the first place. What is more, 2 years ago this seat wasn’t even their own. The SNP took it from Dame Anne Begg of Labour – the last time they held the seat was 1992. The Conservatives’ performance removed some SNP heavy hitters. A Conservative win in the most Eurosceptic constituency in Scotland, Moray saw the SNP lose their Westminster leader, Angus Robertson. The night saw them also lose a prominent (now former) MP in Tasmina Ahmed-Sheikh OBE in Ochill and South Perthshire, and nearly saw them lose their Westminster spokesman for Europe Stephen Gethins, who retained his seat in North East Fife by only two votes. Perhaps the biggest loss for the SNP came in the Gordon constituency to the north west of Aberdeen which saw former SNP leader, First Minister and in the 2015-17 parliament Foreign Affairs Spokesman Alex Salmond lose his seat. Indeed, since its conception in 1983, the Conservatives had never won that seat. A 20.4% swing to the Conservatives and a 29% increase in their vote share now sees them holding the seat by over 2,000 votes.

SNP lose more ground than expected but still remain the largest party in Scotland

In 2015, the SNP won an unprecedented 56 of 59 seats in Scotland. It was inevitable that the SNP would lose ground but even the most recent polls before the election indicated a double digit lead, with support anywhere between 39 and 41% which roughly would result in a loss of between 8 and 12 seats. No one predicted what happened and indeed even when the exit poll was released, there was a healthy degree of scepticism over the extent of the SNP’s losses. In the end the exit poll got the outcome nearly bang on predicting 34 seats for the Nationalists. Ultimately the SNP would do one better than that, winning 35 seats across Scotland losing 21 seats and 13.1% of their vote. Whilst this was a bad night for the SNP which saw (as noted above) heavy hitters lose their seats it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the SNP are still the largest party in Scotland. For the Unionist parties however, the election has proven that seats once considered to be SNP strongholds are not in fact inpenetrable. This wasn’t just a bad night for the SNP and an exceptional one for the Conservatives but it was also a success for Labour who won a total of 7 seats, up 6 and increased their vote share by just short of 3%. For them this meant progress in Edinburgh, East Lothian, parts of Glasgow and in Fife where Labour won back Gordon Brown’s old seat of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and just fell short of ousting Stephen Gethins from North East Fife (see above). The Lib Dems also brought seats back in Scotland including winning Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross with just under a 9% swing in their favour from the SNP.

What can explain this sudden change in fortunes? Whilst other factors were no doubt at play (Brexit for one), Independence was the major factor being heavily played upon in Scotland and mostly by the Conservatives. At the core of their electioneering, the Scottish Conservatives had a clear message – a vote for us is a vote against another independence referendum. I also don’t believe that it was a coincidence that all the parties which saw gains (CON, LAB, LD) are all unionist parties. These gains would also tally with a YouGov poll on Scottish Independence which showed that support for indpendence had dropped to 38%.

If the intention of Scottish voters in these areas of SNP losses was to send a pro-union, anti-independence message, it is certainly a message that given the scale of the losses and the magnitude of the MPs lost that carries strength. Some analysts have suggested that this puts to bed the issue of independence for some time to come, whilst the political impact is still developing. Nicola Sturgeon has though said that independence was ‘undoubtedly’ a factor in the election whilst Ruth Davidson has called for the second referendum to be taken “off the table”.

Leave/Remain – a divided country with new fault lines

The Brexit effect that has been hanging over Westminster since the EU referendum last year was ever present in the election and indeed served to form new fault line on the UK’s electoral map. This manifested in two ways. First was the collapse of the UKIP vote – across the UK there was a 10.8% decrease in vote share. That vote share has to go somewhere. and where it went is story number 2. For those reading in the UK and within 28 days of the morning after the election, go and watch Jeremy Vine’s explanation of this (1:55:23, 1:58:00 for the Brexit impact) but in essence it boils down to this. The general increase in the vote meant that Labour gained the most marginal Conservative-Labour marginals. Where things get more interesting is that there were several constituencies that were far Labour targets – i.e: ones that were unlikely to be won with a ‘normal’ swing. It is here where the Brexit effect comes into play. Of those far targets won by Labour, most were seats that voted Remain last year – including the aforementioned seat of Canterbury. Remain seats broke for Labour, Leave seats broke for the Conservatives and indeed the marginal seats that the Conservatives took from Labour also tended to be Leave seats.

Does a north/south divide still exist? Well, when you look at the electoral map, it’s not really possible to say so. The correlation between socio-economic class is also still present but less relevant than before. The divide appears to be much more based upon other factors – urban areas generally fall Labour (see London, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool, Cardiff) or in Scotland, SNP (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee) whilst age now appears one of the biggest dividers with young voters 51 percentage points more in favour of Corbyn than the national average whilst over-65s fall for the Conservatives.

Youth vote

“Young people don’t vote” – it’s a common stereotype and up until this year it was absolutely true. Young people were far less likely to turnout than older age groups. In 2015, only 43% of the electorate aged 18-24 turned out to vote compared to 72% of 45-54 year olds and 78% of those over the age of 65. Is it any wonder then that political parties don’t see the youth vote as fruitful ground and therefore have previously given little attention to it in election manifestos. Jeremy Corbyn and his manifesto changed this perception by increasing youth engagement and it is in this area that if current estimates of youth turnout are to be believed, it is where the Labour party thoroughly outplayed the Conservatives. At this point, there are no concrete figures of turnout for the 18-24 age group and, per the BBC Ipsos Mori research on the topic won’t be available until next week. What information we do have is anecdotal at best – social media reports of young people in the lines at polling stations and the like. One figure as high as 72% has been mooted but several aspersions have been cast on this figure as Buzzfeed reported. In reality we won’t know until next week at the earliest what the actual figure was. Even if the turnout wasn’t drastically higher, Labour still outplayed the Conservatives in this area. They far better utilised a variety social media platforms to reach out directly to youth voters. These are platforms that young people are more likely to engage with and are in many cases more likely to look to as a source of news. Crucially for young people, social media acts as a platform for them to share their views in an instant.

Beyond this, those in the 18-24 age group had something immediate to gain by voting Labour – for those looking to University, free tuition fees. For those looking to move into work a guaranteed £10 an hour living wage – and all payed for by hitting the rich. For young people just starting off in life this is, on a personal level, likely to strike a chord. What did the Conservatives offer in this regard? Well, they didn’t reach out via innovative uses of social media and policy wise they offered very little that would have a direct and immediate impact on individuals within that age group. Sure, ‘strong and stable leadership’ may work out and provide in the long term, but that could be another 5-10 years away. It also doesn’t help that that ‘strong and stable leadership’ was being touted in relation to Brexit, something that 18-24s didn’t vote for by majority in the first place. It has no short term gain and by the end of the campaign, sounded like a hollow slogan more than anything else. After this election it is clear, political parties cannot simply ignore the youth vote. They are vocal and are ready to use new technologies to advance their cause. Even if they don’t turnout themselves, they’ll shout enough about the ills of the party they don’t like on social media enough to turn heads and possibly change votes. Speaking of…

Media under fire as much as the politicians, for the aggreived, social media is the way forward

Now is not the time to be a broadcast journalist. Since Scottish Independence referendum in 2014, the perception of bias within the press has percolataed to the forefront of poltical campaigning – particularly if the subject of the campaign is populist or has some form of a grassroots backing. We saw it with independence and the SNP, we saw it with Trump, we saw it with Brexit and now we see it with Corbyn. I wrote previously on the idea that amongst his supporters, Jeremy Corbyn could do no wrong. For many of his supporters and those on the left, TV journalists are biased and the entire media establishment is biased against Corbyn. Okay.. Maybe I exaggerate a little but anyone who broswed the replies to tweets sent by broadcast journalists in the campaign would see that I’m not a million miles away from the truth. We have now reached a point where political journalists are booed at press conferences and harassed online for doing their job (beware, report contains NSFW tweets) – asking tough questions to politicians. HBO drama The Newsroom featured a short monologue on perceived media bias (I’m sure you can still find it in some corner of the internet) whilst academic research exists that shows that perception of media bias exists even where it does not and this is based upon ideological perceptions of the source.

For those aggreived by the perceived inherent bias of the mainstream media, social media once again is the sword with which to fight all battles. Through this campaign, activists have called out (or harrassed/sent expletive filled messages) to their least favourite journalists, they have posted incorrect or misleading stories about the party, candidates or political figure they oppose and, when running out of logical arguments to make, they have been able to post memes as well. Social media is an unfiltered and un-fact checked playground where ironically you are more likely to encounter misleading or biased stories than anything broadcast on your TV. Despite this, amongst the electorate who lack trust in the media, social media remains a direct way to engage with the news and receive it free from biased distillation from the mainstream sources.

Manifestos Matter

The final story in all of this is that the Brexit election, turned out not to really be about Brexit at all. May tried to make it about Brexit negotiations and the alternative to her ‘strong and stable leadership’. To use a football analogy, she played the man and not the ball. Labour played both – they criticised the PM for what they viewed as her failings as both Home Secretary and Prime Minister but crucially also presented a strong manifesto – a populist manifesto designed to speak to the electorate as individuals rather than in larger abstract terms. They presented an alternative vision for Britain whilst the Conservatives offered the more of the same with some additional divisive policies thrown in for good measure – see the ‘Dementia Tax’ and the free vote on fox hunting (widely reported on social media as the Conservatives supporting removing the ban – TM is personally in favour of fox-hunting but the party manifesto only proposed a free vote). In an election that was filled with own-goals for the Conservatives, the manifesto was the one that kicked it all off and was also the one that had the greatest impact.

Conclusion

What we see then is a Britian that remains divided and with less political stability than when we started. In going to the polls, Theresa May went nearly all in on black, but when the ball fell it landed firmly in red. As it stands, the PM is down to her last couple of chips and is lucky that she still has those. Given all that we have seen over the last month, it is perhaps unsurprising that the latest poll from Survation shows Labour with a lead over the Conservatives and a falling perception of the PM.

How long this lasts, I don’t know. The first test for the new May administration will be an upcoming Queen’s Speech followed by a budget in October and at some point there will be a Great Repeal Bill making its way through the House. But, with opposition benches filled with progressive, populist and left wing politicians it will take all of Theresa May’s best political maneuvering as well as a successful start to Brexit talks before any degree of confidence can be found in her and this new government. Who knows, we could all be doing this again sometime soon…

Sources:

For full election results, see:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2017/results

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_general_election,_2017_(Scotland)

Other:

https://www.conservatives.com/manifesto

http://www.labour.org.uk/page/-/Images/manifesto-2017/Labour%20Manifesto%202017.pdf

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39955886

https://www.ipsos.com/ipsos-mori/en-uk/how-britain-voted-2015?language_content_entity=en-uk

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-40216748

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