This Is Not A
The Numbers Game
As promised last Friday morning, the numbers have been duly crunched and have duly crunched back (if you don't believe me on this, ask my left shoulder and neck muscles).
I don't have anything which could be dignified with the term 'analysis' on all this; this is just a set of impressions from my perusal of the figures:
- The number of marginal constituencies (that is, seats where the winning margin was ten per cent or less) has increased from 125 last time to 170 now, although that is still somewhat less than the 2010 figure of 198. The Tories hold 66 of them, Labour 54, the SNP as many as 31 (that is, 89 per cent of all of their seats), the LibDems eight, the DUP, Sinn Féin and Plaid Cymru three each, and the independent Unionist one.
- Of all those marginals, no fewer than eleven (up from three) had majorities of less than 100 votes; Labour and SNP four each, Tories two and Plaid one.
- There were only two three-way marginals compared to four last time.
- For all this, there was also a huge increase in the number of seats where the winning candidate polled at least 50 per cent of the total valid votes cast (up from 310 to 474), meaning 73 per cent of all seats are now in that category. That doesn't mean that they are all safe seats, because no fewer than twenty four of them were marginals..
- What we saw in that category of marginals (and this was reflected in a slightly more diffuse form elsewhere) was a massive squeezing out of any third-party involvement. All of the twenty four I referred to above are Lab-Tory/Tory-Lab, and you have to go down the list as far as Wells (204th most marginal seat overall) before you get a 50-per-cent-plus share which falls outside that pattern (the LibDems being second to the Conservatives there).
- What we appear to have witnessed, therefore - at least in England - is the return of the stultifying boredom that is 'two-party' electoral politics. There could be any number of reasons why this should have been so, not least of which being the fact that the Labour Party's manifesto was - for the first time in twenty-five years - sufficiently distinctive from the Tories' as to make for something resembling a real choice of options for the voter/consumer.
Now to look at the results as they impact on each of the parties:
That the Conservatives have royally FUBAR'd themselves is, of course, undeniable, and the waves of Schadenfreude which rippled across the land (and, for obvious reasons, across the continent as a whole) could be measured on the Richter scale. They ran a thoroughly ludicrous campaign, in which their cold, remote leader was placed at the centre of a cult where there was no discernable personality for it to form around. Not even the screaming of the scum press was enough to convince the Great British Public™ that Theresa May was either 'strong' or 'stable'; au contraire, it merely pointed her up as a monomanical android nonentity with a record for outrageous and consistent incompetence.
In terms of the numbers, losing the massive majority promised her from the outset by the polls was a political Isandlhwana, with the inevitable transformation from hubris to nemesis.
The thing that should worry them most as they look trepidantly ahead to a potential fresh election (perhaps before the year is out), is that this could be as good as it gets for them for the time being, and that things this time could have been far worse even than this democratic Dunkirk. For it is abundantly clear that many of the seats they held (even if not marginal) were only retained because of the collapse of the UKIP support. I remarked on the night and still believe - although these things are hard to confirm, as by no means all vote changes between Party 'A' and Party 'B' can be accounted for by direct transfers - that the ex-KIPper vote transferred to Tory rather than Labour by a ratio of between 3:2 and 4:1, and this proved to be the difference in a few dozen seats where the Labour vote rose substantially but was counter-balanced by the re-alignment on the Right. That will not happen next time, where UKIP will either have few voters left to change over or will have disappeared altogether. So many of their 66 marginals are therefore balanced on a knife-edge, and any further increase in Labour support will take many of them away.
It goes without saying that Labour have the most to be pleased with after Thursday. Far from the meltdown threatened by the early polls (and devoutly wished for by those in the party whose sense of self-regard has long outweighed any concerns about principles), the Labour campaign hit enough of the right targets enough times to counteract the torrent of vulgar abuse thrown at the party in general - and its leader in particular - by the Grub Street Highly Irregulars. Probably because it was far more of a grass-roots campaign than anything its opponents had to offer, and because - comprising as it did more passionate young operatives who were savvy in relation to social media (whereas the Tories were reduced to buying attack ads on Facebook) - the message got across.
Jeremy Corbyn visibly grew into the campaign. Not for him the carefully-vetted 'opportunities' indulged in by May - which rendered her at one and the same time risible and evasive in the eyes of the electorate - but instead actually going out and meeting real people and even...gasp!...discussing things with them in the street! That Corbyn appears to be a personable sort of chap anyway helped, of course. As did the fact that due to legal obligations the loyal Tory cadre of front-persons at the State Broadcaster were obliged to wind their necks in a bit, with even the egregious Kuenssberg being reduced to oblique nod-and-a-winkery.
For all this, however, Labour has to face one or two hard facts. Firstly, they finished more than sixty seats short of a majority, and seats they need to gain to get there next time will not necessarily come at the expense of the Tories (they ran the SNP close in no fewer than 23 seats, and picking those up would merely mean the anti-Tory vote changing hands rather than being augmented). Also, they actually lost seats to the Tories, most notably in parts of the Midlands (a possible Brexit effect being at work in at least some of them). They have nearly as many marginals as the Tories, and some of them (Kensington, Canterbury, Peterborough) are likely to change hands with the wind. Progress has been made, Momentum has been gained, but they have much still to do.
The Liberal Democrat 'revival' was always likely to be three parts wishful thinking to two parts pious hope, and so it proved. Their catastrophe of 2015 left them far too far back in far too many of their ostensible target seats for them to bridge the chasm in one go. They gained eight seats, all of which they had held at some point in the near past, but they also lost some seats which they had held for a length of time (Southport to the Conservatives, Leeds North West and - gloriously - Sheffield Hallam to Labour, Ceredigion to Plaid), and their leader squeaked home by less than 800 votes) to end with a net gain of just four. They came within an ace of regaining St. Ives, but their performance in the rest of Cornwall and in those parts of Devon and Somerset where they had previously had a strong presence was insufficient to make any impact. It's worth remembering too that eight of those twelve seats they now hold are marginals, although they may be helped by the fact that none of them has Labour in second. There is something to build upon, but - having been squeezed out in so many seats by a binary preference for either of the two largest parties - the way back is still set to be long and arduous.
That the Scottish National Party was never going to hold on to all of the 56 seats they won in their astonishing landslide just over two years ago would have been obvious enough even to the most passionate of their supporters. The loss of over a third of them, however, would have been considered almost absurd; hadn't they won most of those seats with majorities of close to or over five-figures?
And yet, when the dust had settled, 'The 56' had become 'The 35'. What was to account for so sharp a fall, even though the party's share of the vote more or less held up?
Depending on the constituency in question, a number of factors came into play:
- There was certainly a 'Corbyn Effect', whereby left-leaning voters, having been so appalled by the Scottish branch of the party's cosying up to the Tory view of things as to switch their support to the SNP in 2015, felt that, with the new UK leadership moving the party back to the left, they could now take the votes which they had lent to Nicola Sturgeon two years ago and hand them back to Labour. This led to Labour gaining six seats from the SNP, albeit with very slim majorities in each case.
- That there was tactical voting in some (though by no means all) constituencies was clear. There were clear indications that the Unionist parties were, with varying degrees of overt cynicism, encouraging a maximising of the pro-UK vote behind the most likely candidate to 'dish the Nats'. The manager of the Scottish branch of the Labour Party was absolutely clear that people should even, if needed, vote Tory if it meant costing the SNP the seat.
This caused some very strange results. In Renfrewshire East, for example - a seat held by Labour until 2015 - the Tories were shoved through from a fairly distant third to take the seat by just under nine per cent. OK, the Labour candidate was the ludicrous and offensive Blair McDougall, but all the same.
It became weirder still in the Highlands, where thousands of former LibDem voters in seats such as Gordon seemed to transfer their allegiance straight across to the Tories who won - or nearly won - seats where they had finished third (or, at least, a distant second) last time.
(Stu Campbell has a couple of interesting analysis pieces on this, here and here).
- After the high-water-mark of 2015, it was inevitable that a number of seats would in any case revert to type, hence the regaining of the far north by the LibDems and the returning of Tories through almost the entire north east.
- The SNP's campaign was, by all accounts, lacklustre and devoid of passion, stressing the party's managerial competence rather than any inspiring vision. Independence was scarcely mentioned, and the impression would have been given to some that the party fully expected to hold almost as of right at least 45 of the 56 seats they had going in to the contest.
- There is, however, little evidence - as much as the Unionist parties and their media helpers might wish us to think - that the issue of a second referendum on independence played any significant rôle in the SNP's loss of support, despite the Tories in particular harping on (or perhaps that should be 'fifing on' given the party's determination to play the Orange card throughout the campaign) about it. A second referendum is now effectively a done deal, having been endorsed earlier this year by a Scottish Parliament which was elected only a little over a year ago. Support for independence remains at the same level as before, partly because - and this may come as a surprise to some - the SNP isn't the independence movement, nor vice versa.
Nonetheless, the SNP has clear cause for concern. Although it retained 35 seats - a clear majority of them - all bar four of them are now marginals, and most of them would be vulnerable to any further increase in Labour aupport and to further tactical voting from the Unionist bloc. The party has to hold its nerve, observe developments, and be ready to strike back when the opportunity arises. Sturgeon is a shrewd operator, but she will need all her determination to face down those in and around her party who would retreat from its current positions.
Turning briefly to the other Great Britain parties who had seats coming in to the election:
That the Greens were not going to gain any seats was clear. Not only was the electoral system itself stacked as ever against them, but they were the party in England most likely to be hurt by a revival in the fortunes of Labour (and, to a far lesser degree, the LibDems). They comfortably held Brighton Pavilion with a further increase in Caroline Lucas' majority, but apart from finishing an extremely distant second in Speaker Bercow's constituency, that was it. The handful of second places they had gained last time vanished into the Labour ranks.
Plaid Cymru once again flattered to deceive. They may have regained Ceredigion by a tiny margin, but they ended up within 92 votes of losing their grip on Arfon - a seat they had held in its various forms since February 1974 - and even Jonathan Edwards saw his seat at Carmarthen East and Dinefwr become a marginal. It made no impact at all in those fabled Valleys, and not only failed to take their prime targets in Ynys Môn and Llanelli, but actually fell back to third in each. Nationally, their vote flatlined yet again, and other than a root-and-branch reappraisal of its stance in order to stress independence rather than pandering to various special interest lobbies, and a focus on developing young activists especially in the Valleys, it is difficult to see what the point of the party might be in the future.
But at least it still has a future of some sort. The same could not be said of UKIP. Denuded of any sense of distinctiveness now that its sole real policy had become that of the Government, and that that governing party had also co-opted its rhetoric and overall attitude, this was an election which came at that intervening period between the party losing its Unique Selling Point and disappearing altogether. Its voters from 2010 and 2015 - having either got what they wanted or having recoiled somewhat when they realised exactly what it was that they have ended up with - switched in huge proportions. As I remarked earlier, the KIPper vote seems to have gone far more to a Conservative party which had all but subsumed their obsessions and prejudice unto itself than to a Labour Party which - most bafflingly to some of us - seems to want to have a soi disant 'soft' Brexit and be outside the single market at the same time. The clattering and clanging of lost deposits was heard throughout the land, and the latest in the sequence of hapless idiots to 'lead' this golf-club wing of the Monday Club duly provided more bitter amusement than enlightenment. UKIP is - as they say - toast.
In the light of events over the past few days, we are now obliged to pay attention to John Bull's Other Island, or at least to that part of it which JB can't seem to get rid of however much it tries.
The final binarification (if the word doesn't exist, it should) of the Six Counties' Westminster representation is now complete. Only two parties (pace Sylvia Hermon, the sole 'independent' Unionist) now make up the House of Commons' cohort from Northern Ireland. The 'official' Unionists lost their last two seats (one to the DUP and one to Sinn Féin), and the SDLP was also wiped out, with Belfast South making the reverse journey to that of Fermanagh And South Tyrone, and the other two falling to Sinn Féin.
There are two points of significance to this: firstly, it means that Sinn Féin now hold all of the seats which adjoin the border with the Republic, meaning that - with Brexit looming - the border issue is going to become an even more fraught issue than before; and secondly, it means that the DUP is now the only remotely plausible ally to the Tories as they seek to cobble together their own 'Coalition of Chaos'. That the Paisleyites are as nice a bunch of religiously-bigoted, misogynistic, homophobic corruption-merchants as you're likely to find outside of the US Republican Party will cause little concern to Theresa May and her remaining supporters. They have the numbers and these fifers will call the tune. No matter that not only those Tories who are gay, but also those who are Roman Catholics, will view developments with concern, no matter that the whole matter of the governance of the 'province' - effectively in abeyance due to the intransigence of Arlene Foster (who, amongst other worrying traits, bears a disturbing resemblence to Paul Merton) - may be thrown into total chaos and direct rule, no matter that the whole cycle of violence which had been almost stopped due to the efforts of the departed Martin McGuinness and - to give credit where it is due - Ian Paisley senior may be prodded (sorry!) into life again (the DUP has already hinted that the so-called 'right' of mobs of tanked-up Linfield supporters to march through Catholic areas like a bunch of bowler-hatter and besashed Daleks will be one of the points for discussion). None of this matters to a Prime Minister whose desire for power and control (however chimerical) is the sole overarching consideration.
So, after all this (and I'm sorry that this piece has gone on a lot longer than I had intended; sometimes I just open a vein and it all comes out), where do we find ourselves?
With that phenomenon called - with undue delicacy - a 'hung' parliament; although in this case, it hangs like a chandelier on a cruise ship which has somehow found itself hurtling down a log flume. No party or group of parties can combine to prevent the Tories from continuing in office, although not necessarily in power, and their proposed 'understanding' with the DUP has 'doomed' written all over it.
Will there be another election soon, maybe this year? Quite possibly, although the Tories will be understandably wary of getting the rest of their hands burned as well as just their fingers, and although they will be conscious that Labour's popularity is continuing to grow, they know that they have the money behind them to take them through yet another campaign; one a bit more canny, a bit more cynical, and one which might just be enough to give them what they thought they were getting this time.
And where does this leave Brexit? In an even worse mess that it was to start with. It should be clear that, at the very least, there is little or no appetite for May's supposed preferred option of a hard, no-deal departure from the EU. This leaves her with very little option but to trim back towards something which - although every bit as catastrophic for our economy and society - might be enough to provide a face-saving measure for her, at least at home. The rest of Europe, however, will know that the Good Ship Saint Theresa is holed below the waterline, and will adjust their sights accordingly, probably to train their fire on the lifeboats.
Dull it won't be. Stay tuned...