The evening was still sweetly light at 9 o’clock when we stopped knocking on doors. I had gone too far down the hill and lost the team; I ran back up and at last found them, grouped for the last time before departure. A car back to HQ. I considered it, but decided it was time to go it alone. Farewell and thanks. Back down the hill, past a leisure centre polling station still open but doing little business. Feet battered by 6 hours of pavements went round Tesco. I broke my recent dietary restrictions and bought a meat feast pizza and a bottle of wine. At the checkout I was served by a familiar old cashier, seasoned, possibly not born here but in the West Indies. He saw my sticker, still blazoned as we prepared to go down in a blaze, and asked about the election. He turned out to know a lot about it, the whole narrative of manifestos and turning points. It reminded me of the depth and diversity (as well as sometimes the shallowness) of ordinary knowledge in the people you pass every day round here. Moved by the whole day, by his friendly interest, by the imminence of defeat, I shook his hand. It meant a lot at the time. I haven’t seen him since.
I turned on the TV and BBC were already on, sweeping around their studio. Dimbleby, like Kenneth Clarke I think, coming back for one more election when he’d thought he’d quit. (I will miss him; I have come to respect greatly his urbane and cogent drift across a scene of discussion. I don’t think for a moment that Huw Edwards is a replacement; his sense of stature is merely literal, from filling out; in fact I’m not sure what his distinction is supposed to be at all.) Kuenssberg, beavering at a computer, somehow inoffensive now she wasn’t dedicating herself to loaded partisan narratives. Robinson with his own tendency to fatuous tales. Curtice mysteriously up on his perpetual balcony, jibing or squabbling politely about polls with Kellner on the ground floor with the indirectness of an MP talking through the speaker. Emily Maitlis in bright red standing and hitting her screen. Other characters round the country: Andrew Marr always one whose presence I like, somehow detached from all this (he writes big bestseller books on poetry now) but actually very much part of it (he interviews leading politicians every week and once had the job held by Robinson and now Kuenssberg). And I turn over to ITV at times also, where George Osborne is continuing his campaign to seem like a sensible centrist rather than someone who set out to trash our country, and Ed Balls is content to seem a pea in a pod beside him rather than someone whose job used to be to oppose him. It makes their supposed differences seem nugatory, which might make a different view of the Labour Party seem more necessary.
The exit poll astounded me. (Dimbleby knows its outcome, doesn’t he, before going on air? They have the graphics ready so it’s not as though it’s genuinely secret till he opens an envelope.) Conservatives largest party rather than Conservative government. Conservatives at 314 rather than 380 or above. Labour at 266 rather than (my own prediction here) 190. The meaning of the crept in, in terms of how well the parties had done. The astonishment was accompanied by caution, a sense it couldn’t be true. The parties were reported to be saying this result didn’t fit their expectations or experience on the ground. The Con party specifically was quoted as saying this doesn’t sound right. Perhaps this amazing poll would be all wrong. But even if it was very wrong, say 30 seats out, that would still be a better result than I’d hoped for. I said to myself: this is the greatest night of my political life.
Politicians said ‘It’s very early yet, let’s wait for some results’. Results came in which might or might not corroborate it. Curtice and Kellner jousted. More and more interesting results arrived. Interviews were cut off to go to counts and announcements. People in municipal halls after midnight cheered. The SNP lost MPs, including very prominent ones: Alex Salmond, Angus Robertson, John Nicolson. Labour didn’t seem to be losing MPs. That was one curious thing – for this election was meant to mow them down like sheaves of wheat. They stood up and endured. They increased their votes and their leads over their opponents, by large margins. And Labour was gaining MPs also. As Reading East and Canterbury came to Labour it felt like a Tony Blair achievement. These Southern English constituencies, ruled out of contention for us since Blair. But won by the party of Jeremy Corbyn. It was unprecedented. The sky grew light: I could see it on TV pictures before I realized it was the same here if I opened the curtains. It’s June. Dawn breaking. I stayed up till after 6. At 5:52 a Hung Parliament was official, and the Prime Minister’s whole venture of calling an election was a ruin. At 6:08 Caroline Lucas, perhaps the British politician I respect the most, was reelected.
I wanted to buy the Guardian but I was asleep half the day. I missed it the next day too: I was at a BFI event all day with sunlight on the Thames at lunchtime. On Sunday I bought the Observer and read two dozen pages of commentary, end to end. I was awed by how much they had assembled, especially as so much had already been said. I was fascinated to look at the electoral map and study the changing vote figures; and the same with the wonderfully clean BBC web pages showing the data, UK-wide and locally. It’s now a week later and the effects of this election are still fresh, our politics still being remade. It brought shock and hope. Now I want to run through some elements of the result.
The disappointing result for the Con party suggests a collapse in their vote. But that’s not what happened at all: their vote and vote share grew to historically high levels, matching Thatcher and Blair landslides. In that sense it wasn’t a disaster for them at all. They were still popular and lots of people across Britain voted for them. Presumably most of the people who always vote for them, who read their newspapers and live in Con constituencies, voted for them as before. In lots of these places, much doesn’t change. And some new people voted for them: Tom Ewing sagely tried to divine who they were, thinking they were UKIP voters gone Con, people generally happy with Theresa May and oblivious to the supposed narrative of her failure (this is a great point from Ewing: many people don’t care or hear about these narratives, even if my cashier did), and Scottish Unionists tactically voting Con against the SNP. Ewing thought some of these voters could be won over in future. I hope so.
The Con victory was thus forestalled not by Con failure but Labour success. Where did all these Labour voters come from?
a) As UKIP collapsed, UKIP voters surprisingly went back to Labour as well as Con. In fact it was stated that where UKIP didn’t stand, more UKIP voters went back to Labour than where they did. This is a surprising defeat for the Regressive Coalition.
b) More young people voting, encouraged by student activists, student-friendly policies and so on.
c) More people in their 30s-40s voting also, the biggest swing to Labour I believe.
d) Pro-EU ‘Remain’ voters going for Labour. This pattern was announced by the BBC early on. But I find it hard to understand. The most pro-EU party was the Liberal Democrats. Labour had been fiercely attacked by its own side for voting for Article 50. The challenge to the Labour leader a year earlier was at least notionally triggered by his failure to campaign strongly enough to stay in the EU. He was still being criticized in similar when I attended the March for Europe this Spring. In policy, Labour is no longer a pro-Remain party. It is a Soft Brexit party. Odd that passionate EU people chose to vote for that rather than a party more like them.
Perhaps the larger reason is the one Paul Mason believes in: it’s an anti-austerity vote, a vote against cuts and for investment and public spending. This at least makes sense as ‘left populism’ in a volatile period.
Other factors: the popularity of local MPs, many of whom (like my MP) campaigned without reference to the Labour leadership (this was seen as the basis for us holding on to a rump of MPs) and still surged to new heights. People, maybe, voting Labour as a free protest as they were never going to win. (Maybe. But does this ring true as an action? Would you do it? Isn’t it simpler to say those people wanted to vote Labour because they had come to like the idea of what Labour said?) And a last factor that definitely can be credited to Mr Corbyn: the number of volunteers on the ground. Party membership at a level unprecedented in a long time; enough of those new members getting out and involved; more bodies to knock on doors and ring people; a victory for the campaigning grassroots politics that was perhaps Corbyn’s only strategic idea. A very old-fashioned idea, but thank goodness it still proved a good one. And credit one more time to Owen Jones: his one-man get-out-the-vote campaign can claim to have had more concrete influence on this campaign than any other individual in the media outside, presumably, the people still swaying people from right-wing papers whom I mostly get to avoid.
I’m puzzled that the Liberal Democrats didn’t do better – though this wasn’t really an election night surprise; it had been factored into polls all along. They went backwards in vote share, while going from 8 to 12 MPs: a non-‘proportional’ fact benefiting them for once though overall their vote of 2.5 million people merits more like 50 MPs. (The election leaves me more convinced than ever of the virtue of proportional representation.) When the campaign started, the LDs seemed set to take the pro-EU vote, which seemed substantial. They only managed this in a few places, and that can’t be the primary reason they came back a little in Scotland, as the SNP is equally pro-EU. The LDs were squeezed out by ‘the return of two-party politics’: the reverse of what Tim Farron rhetorically ventured in repeatedly saying ‘There’s a vacancy for an opposition in this country’. It’s odd now to recall that his whole pitch started from the assertion ‘Theresa May will be Prime Minister after this election’; I think he even said ‘If the opinion polls are correct, she will win by a landslide’. That forecast was wrong, but it looked right. Perhaps pitching from such a negative starting point wasn’t a winner – but I don’t feel able to blame Farron for starting from the same predictions as the rest of us.
I’ve said that Labour seems to have picked up the pro-EU vote, despite abandoning the EU. If I were a passionate pro-EU Liberal Democrat, I’d be very frustrated by that. As people have now been able to point out since the election, 80% voted for parties that accept Brexit. You could say that amounts to a new Brexit mandate, enlarging upon that of 2016 – if you believed things were this simple, or if you were keen to find new Brexit mandates. I don’t know if the people who chose Labour over LD were people looking for a practical way to challenge the PM’s search for a Brexit mandate (which succeeded terrifically), or people who had given up on resistance to Brexit and become resigned to it. In this supposed Brexit election, Brexit was rarely discussed in any explicit detail. Maybe the LD eclipse amounted to shelving of that concern and a turn to others – ‘austerity’, ‘public services’ and the like. Though even here, the LDs revived their Ashdown-era policy of a hyothecated penny on income tax, and that didn’t make an impact either!
A few days after the election, Tim Farron resigned. He said it was down to the conflict between his religious beliefs and the needs of leading a modern progressive liberal party. I find this odd, as he has held the beliefs all his life and has worked towards being the leader of a modern progressive liberal party for about 20 years. If the conflict is so stark, you’d think he would have noticed it sooner. Farron might simply have been talking about media perceptions and spin. But it seemed more than that. As often, he suggested an inner intensity which is rare in our politics, and which exposes a measure of hypocrisy in how politics and religion are discussed. It’s good for a politician to be ‘the vicar’s daughter’, ‘the son of the manse’, or indeed ‘guided by his Muslim faith’. But it’s not OK to say you have given yourself to Jesus Christ. You should sound religious … but not really.
Then again: if Farron had done better electorally, likely none of this would have mattered. Maybe the religious stuff was an excuse for quitting while he was slightly ahead. I regret his departure, because I liked him and his musical taste, and because he’s on the left of the LDs. His replacement will make any progressive coalition more difficult and less sustainable, and will make a future Con-Lib coalition more feasible.
That’s a good cue to add this observation on Con-Lib coalitions. For seven years it has been solemnly maintained that Nick Clegg + his LD party ‘did the right and necessary, though difficult thing’ and ‘put the country first at a time of crisis’ by going into coalition with a Con party that had not won a majority.
In 2017, with Brexit talks starting in a week, no one has said that Tim Farron and his (admittedly much smaller, so less politically useful) LD party is compelled to ‘do the right and necessary, though difficult thing’ and ‘put the country first at a time of crisis’ by going into coalition with a Con party that has not won a majority. (Notably, no one even says that the DUP must do this either! There is no pressure on them to join a formal coalition.)
On the contrary, it is accepted that this would be inappropriate because the LDs have different views from the Cons on central issues. It is accepted that it is better to leave the Con party staggering on rather than compromise on these views. (And again it’s notable that it’s suggested that, for policy reasons, it could be inappropriate for the Con party to associate with the DUP in order to produce stability.)
This suggests to me that the original talk of Clegg et al doing the difficult but right thing and putting the country first (which they are still solemnly maintaining to this day – which Clegg will still be saying when he is a grey grandee) was in fact false and self-serving, a high-toned non-sequitur which conceals the fact that the 2010 LDs in fact did not have sufficient policy differences with the damagingly pro-austerity Con party; especially as I think the crisis we face now (Brexit negotiation) is more serious and immediate and long-term in its consequences than the supposed crisis in 2010 (a financial situation which, as far as I know, the government has still not managed to rectify). The 2010 Osborne talk of ‘We’re hours from becoming another Greece’ seems even more utterly absurd now than it did then.
In short, the outcome of the 2017 election exposes how bogus the outcome of the 2010 election was.
Northern Ireland suddenly soars back to the centre of political talk. People sound newly expert on the Democratic Unionist Party. I share the doubts about a government propped up by them, but also suspect that some of the fear and anger about their influence are overblown; I doubt they can have much influence in making UK-wide social policy less liberal. I think they just want handouts for NI, which will make them more popular in their own country.
In fact: over the last few weeks of the election I have come to feel that Northern Ireland’s party politics are too distinct to be, logically, a part of Westminster politics. A concrete illustration of this: on TV debates, Plaid and the SNP show up and debate with the UK-wide parties with which they are competing in Wales and Scotland respectively, even though a majority of viewers will be unable to vote for Plaid and the SNP however much we admire what they say. Meanwhile, it is never proposed or expected that the NI parties should contribute to such debates, nor that British parties should go to NI and propose anything. It is always accepted without question that NI parties are, in effect, having ‘their own election’, in which it would be inappropriate to interfere in any way.
Even the prospect of, for instance, Tim Farron saying something substantial about NI politics during a campaign would probably be roundly disdained by all NI parties: it is not really viewed as appropriate for a British political leader to have a view on anything specific that goes on in NI, even though NI parties will join the same Parliament as Farron.
It’s fair to note that this state of affairs results from UK parties’ neglect to stand in NI. Given that UK parties haven’t made themselves an option to NI voters, how can NI voters choose anything but what they have locally? But that then raises the question of why UK parties have stood aside (I’m not sure – it’s a fact that almost no one in the UK ever discusses, too easily taken for granted, but I imagine it’s about not wanting to be caught up in a sectarian scenario which eventually turned to conflict), and whether they could do anything other now. If they can’t, if NI is destined to be contested just by NI parties – then given its pride in its distinct political traditions, it seems most logical that NI should gain some form of political independence, sustained by benign trade arrangements and friendly border agreements with its neighbours.
The SNP’s fall from utter hegemony is precipitous, but should it be so surprising? Isn’t it part of a natural cycle, in which what goes up comes down somewhat? That’s what SNP leaders implied in their own expectation management ahead of the vote. The return of Scottish Cons is incongruous, as the rejection of the Con party seems to have become part of Scotland’s political identity. But I always hazarded that an independent Scotland would see a shake-up with a renewed Con party reasserting its place against the supposed social-democratic norm, now that London was no longer the foe embodying Conservatism. That seems to have happened much sooner than I imagined, in a non-independent Scotland, and in large part as a means to avert independence. Finally, I never really understood why from 2015 people said ‘Labour is finished in Scotland’. I thought that political cycles should be able to bring Labour back to some kind of contention, if they could stick around; and they ought to be helped by having such deep roots in the country. They’ve now multiplied their MPs by seven, and I read that they are only slightly behind the SNP in numerous constituencies. Maybe Scotland is still one of the places should be going for the MPs it needs to gain next time.
What else should Labour do? Yet another election could come sooner than in my political lifetime. I don’t know if boundary changes will come in first: maybe not if the election comes that soon, but as politics becomes tight again they’re a significant factor. A Radio 4 mathematics programme says that boundary changes will benefit Cons, but not as much as you’d think: it calculates that in a 600-seat Commons they’d be short of a majority by a similar number.
It seems unprecedented for Labour to do this well from where they were: not just the polls, not just the local election results during the general election campaign, not just the tabloid vilification and BBC marginalization, but rather the internal disarray, the fact that 80% of MPs had condemned the leader less than a year before the vote – after that, to rise by 3.45 million must be unprecedented. And it leaves you thinking, if they can do this well from that position, how much better could they do?
Owen Jones and others are loudly calling for Theresa May to leave office. I think I understand the value of the atmosphere this creates: untenability, instability, illegitimacy, things that make the government seem fragile and prone to political attack when it would like to be shoring itself up and restoring respectability. I think I also see how having sought a mandate and lost the mandate she had, she could reasonably be expected to quit – indeed the BBC were wondering about it on election night. Nonetheless I’m not sure her departure would be good political news. She would be replaced by another Con who could only be more popular, and might bring the polling scenario back to their favour. I suppose the only question is how long May stays, and when it best suits us (rather than them) for her to leave office.
Labour is now on some kind of ‘permanent election footing’. But note the mundane aspects: given another election in, say, 3 or 9 months, can they reuse the same slogan (itself unabashedly reused from Tony Blair 20 years before)? Will they need another one? Is someone drafting and testing them? I hope so. Will they use the same manifesto? I think so, as it was called the star of the campaign. Can they have the same underdog, insurgent status? Can we still get those supposed votes of people who voted Labour because we couldn’t win? Will we have lost some of what turned out to be our strategic advantages?
I think the loss of these advantages should be offset by gains. For one thing, the press threw everything they had at Corbyn, to surprisingly little effect. To have neutralized that is an incredible power, like a Terminator (a Corbynator) emerging out of a blast zone unvanquished. We have spent two years waiting for the full onslaught on him under election conditions; now it is hard to see what else they can say about him.
For another, success breeds success. New electoral strength places us in a better position. We’re no longer clinging desperately to longstanding MPs as we thought. We’re clinging to new MPs – needing to hold on to these prizes of Reading and Canterbury, a big strategic job itself – and striking out for new territory. Membership has grown since the election, to 800,000. Those people will likely be more keen to get out and fight next time than last time – which is saying something. We have 70 more MPs to fight the cause and support each others’ campaigns than I expected; and 30 of those have come in on a Corbyn surge.
Labour should make life difficult for the government. But I think it should also take a new confident tone: essentially ‘government in waiting’. It should sound calm, composed, competent. I’m afraid I don’t think Labour should be talking about ‘socialist alternative’ or ‘the chance of a left-wing government in our country’ – which almost no one does, except that John McDonnell is wayward enough to do it. I think Labour should mostly talk the same middling way it has for over 20 years: ‘a fair deal’, ‘a better way for Britain’, ‘standing up for you’, et al. Jeremy Corbyn, so often seen as dogmatic and unimaginative, seems intuitively to get this. I think it was on election night itself that he said something about ‘the new mainstream in our politics’. That’s where I think we need to be, rhetorically: claiming our own social democratic view as the centre ground, not positing it as marginal. ‘Progressive alliance’ talk, which I thoroughly support, should help not hinder that.
I’m not sure how far former doubters and rebels should be brought into key posts, when they’ve been held by people who were willing to serve. I don’t share the view that Chuka Umunna should be made Shadow Chancellor – though I look forward to Rebecca Long-Bailey as Chancellor one day. But I do think the grandees whose indifference I lambasted in a previous post here should follow John Prescott and join in. Alan Johnson can appeal to people in England; Gordon Brown can do his barnstorming job in Scotland; either or more could sway things fractionally our way.
Politics often seems to be about ‘narrative’, in a way that can be banal and dismaying. When ‘the narrative’ is about the uselessness of terrorist sympathizer Corbyn and the stability of sensible Theresa May, you want to get away from narrative to talking sense and facts. That is still a good aspiration. But it just happens that miraculously the narrative has moved. It’s going against hard Brexit, against austerity, and something even more ambitious – against the system, the way things have been, whether you call it neoliberalism or neo-Thatcherism.
Less than a week after the election, Grenfell Tower was ruined by fire, killing over 50 people. Such an awful event shouldn’t be political, you might think. But others, including many residents, say: it is political, in reflecting political choices, issues of social housing and cost-cutting. And the producers of the ongoing ‘narrative’ are happy for it to be political too. One week after the election the images circulated of May gazing up at the towers, surrounded by police; Corbyn hugging and praising a survivor, a little like Bill Clinton after 9/11. Maybe it only looks this way inside my own bubble (which I share with a few million people); maybe the worst of the press are still refusing to show Corbyn in this light, though they probably can’t bring themselves to praise May’s behaviour either. But it seems to me as though the narrative has temporarily gone our way, and we may as well as make the most of this despite knowing that it’s a vacuous way for politics to be understood. One thing does seem to have happened: Jeremy Corbyn is taken seriously. He’s the Leader of the Opposition and he is finally treated as such. When he talks, people pay attention. What he says seems to matter. That’s new.