December 13, 2019
Five lessons from last night's election
Last night's election has left many people questioning their long-held beliefs about UK politics, but there were a number of clear lessons to be learned from the outcome.
First, the election result last night was truly a disaster for the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn delivered the lowest number of seats for the party since 1935.
However, the picture is not quite as straightforward as that very stark metric suggests. Jeremy Corbyn achieved a vote share of 32.2pc that was materially higher than Gordon Brown in 2010 (29pc) and Ed Miliband in 2015 (30.4pc). Boris Johnson with 43.6pc only modestly bettered the performance of Theresa May in 2017 (42.4pc). He returns to 10 Downing Street with a sizeable majority of 80 seats due to the collapse of the Labour Party vote from 40pc in 2017, with Jeremy Corbyn losing votes to all-comers. After nine years of government and the turmoil of Brexit, for Boris Johnson to increase the vote share of the Conservative Party was a major achievement, but it was the collapse of the Labour Party that handed him such a weighty majority in seats. The Labour Party lost badly everywhere, but was destroyed in ‘traditional’ heartland seats where the Leave vote was high or very high. In these seats, the swing to Boris Johnson was greater than the national swing achieved by Tony Blair in his crushing landslide of 1997.
Second, Boris Johnson – or more accurately his chief strategist Dominic Cummings – ruthlessly exploited the Brexit impasse as a wider electoral issue to destroy the Labour Party where it mattered and deliver a majority.
A clear, simple and oft-repeated message of ‘Getting Brexit Done’ led to tens of thousands of Labour Party voters backing Boris and delivering scores of seats seemingly with a mandate of respecting the result of the 2016 Referendum. For an Old Etonian to sweep up the culturally and electorally rock solid Labour Party former mining fortresses such as Don Valley, North West Durham, Rother Valley, Bolsover and Bishop Auckland could only ever be achieved through exploitation of a single wedge issue – and whether through good luck or good judgement the Brexit blockage in Westminster handed this to the Conservative Party. The goal was open and the ball well and truly busted the net. This opportunity may not come again in ten political lifetimes and holding on to these seats will require some significant dexterity for the Prime Minister, at least once ‘Brexit is Done’.
Third, the Conservative Party in the House of Commons is today a different beast than at any time since the Thatcher zenith in the mid-1980s.
It now holds – albeit tenuously – a swathe of seats in the Midlands and North that it has never come close to winning before. The background, outlook and constituency priorities of these new MPs will change a parliamentary party that has been easily pastiched as rich, privileged and indifferent to the plight of ordinary people. Lose these seats and Boris Johnson would barely have a majority, so they will hold disproportionate sway in the direction of the Conservative Party in the five years to come.
Fourth, the Labour Party has an exceptionally long road to any recovery.
The biggest hurdle by far is the Labour Party itself. All party structures of influence, up to and including the ruling National Executive Committee are in control of the Corbynistas. The words and tone of the party leadership and their far left outriders in the hours since the catastrophic election result was delivered has shown little willingness to take ownership of this abject electoral failure. Their strategy now will be to slow down any transition to a new leader, riding out the coming days of denunciations from defeated Labour Party candidates and instead blaming the defeat on a one-off Brexit election, rather than what many believe was an overly ambitious manifesto and a leader of significant unpopularity. There are very serious doubts about whether the Labour Party has it within itself to deliver a new leader of moderate leanings such as Keir Starmer or Yvette Cooper. More likely is the Corbynista control of the party machine being harnessed in the months ahead to deliver a younger, more palatable version of Corbyn – with Rebecca Long-Bailey and Angela Rayner both having the advantage of representing North West seats and themselves converting to Leave-ism. Jeremy Corbyn is politically dead, but Corbynism will live on in the leadership of the Labour Party, albeit likely with a northern accent.
Fifth, Brexit will happen on 31 January 2020.
What is less certain now is whether Boris Johnson will feel compelled to be held by his previous commitment to end the transition period in the coming 12 months that represent the negotiating period for a UK/EU trade deal. While his majority and personal political capital may suggest he might be able to move this deadline if a wafer thin trade deal is all that looks likely by this time next year, the voters of newly acquired and heavily Leave-leaning seats are likely to be demanding masters and insist on a prompt and full exit from any relationship with the EU as represented by the implementation period. Satisfying and managing voters such as these who are desperate for change is likely to be harder than winning them. Similarly, with there being little credible evidence to demonstrate that the UK will be materially any better off outside the EU than within, there will similarly be huge pressure on Boris Johnson to attempt to mollify voters who backed Boris (and Brexit) as a means of improving their lot, to see that lot improved. The man or woman on the Don Valley Omnibus has experienced 30 years of economic hardship due to a painful process of deindustrialisation, so to think that Brexit can rectify this overnight is clearly a fantasy, but Boris Johnson will need to quickly demonstrate at least some positive benefit from Brexit to keep their support and his majority.