Elections to the British Parliament were held on 12 December. The Conservatives won a comprehensive victory, whilst the night proved disastrous for the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrats. Here is a rundown of five of the main takeaways.
- Johnson’s Personal Triumph
A year ago Boris Johnson’s top level career seemed to be over. He had resigned after an ineffectual spell as Foreign Secretary, and parliamentary colleagues briefed journalists about his countless failings.
Theresa May’s deal floundered though, and the Conservatives were crushed in the European elections. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and previously sceptical Tories threw their reservations aside in the hope that Johnson’s charismatic style would win back swaying voters.
The election result vindicated everything that has happened since. Johnson’s approach was often provocative, unlawfully proroguing and refusing to attend the traditional BBC interview, and arguably has a pernicious influence on faith in politics. However, in the immediate term there is no doubt that Johnson’s plan worked. He engineered the election that he and his chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, desired, and executed on the plan to target traditional working class Labour voting areas in the English North and Midlands.
Johnson still has his weaknesses; whilst being an entertaining raconteur, he is slow on his feet, and his policies (significant increased spending, without raising taxes or government debt) are often contradictory. Whether he can deliver on promises will be something to much for in the months and years ahead; for now, the size and personal nature of his victory, mean he is the most powerful British Prime Minister since Tony Blair.
- Brexit is now Certain
Over three and a half years after the referendum, the UK will now leave the EU. The Conservatives campaigned on a platform to close Brexit. This was a simplification – Brexit will continue to be a live issue throughout 2020 as the final end agreement is negotiated, and there is still a real possibility that businesses will face a no-deal Brexit come Christmas.
The Conservatives hope is that officially leaving the EU proves cathartic for the UK. Whilst this seems like wishful thinking given Johnson’s divisive status, after years of bitter internal debate there may be ready to stop the fighting. In addition, the terms of debate will change – remain will have to change to rejoin, a much harder philosophical lift. The eventual de-dramatisation of Brexit will be dependent upon the deal negotiated and practical consequences. If (and this is a large if) the bumps can be smoothed, and the effects minimised, then Brexit will start being seen as more procedural than existential.
- Labour Face a Bitter Internal Debate
By traditional metrics this should have been a good election for the Labour party. The Conservatives had overseen a decade of spluttering economic growth, had dealt with the main political issue of the day poorly, and were deeply divided. Instead, it was the Labour party that struggled, ending with its poorest result in the Second World War, including the loss of sundry seats in its industrial heartlands in the north and Midlands of England.
Three potential diagnoses for the poor performance have been offered. Firstly, that Labour’s Brexit position, where they eventually backed a second referendum, proved a major turn-off for Leave voters from traditional working class area. Secondly, that Labour’s revolutionary programme was simply too much for many voters, who felt it lacked credibility. The third theory states that there was nothing substantially wrong with the offering, but that party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was a turn-off. Proponents of this idea focus on national security, and Mr Corbyn’s historic alleged ambivalence to militant groups like the IRA and Hamas.
All of these theories have proponents. On Brexit, there does seem to be a correlation between Leave voting areas and Labour parliamentary losses. On the other hand, if Labour had backed Brexit, they may have lost pro-Remain voters to the EU-backing Liberal Democrats. On policy, Labour effectively admitted during the campaign that they had over-reached, when they appeared to walk back their four day-working week proposal. That said, a number of their individual proposals, like nationalising rail and utilities, and higher taxes on high earners, polled strongly. And whilst there is clear evidence that Corbyn attracted antipathy, he performed credibly enough in 2017.
Even if all of these theories are true, the Labour party could still perform a smooth turnaround. A lot of the heat will have dissipated from the Brexit debate by the next election, and Corbyn will be replaced in the coming months; none of the contenders have his controversial past. It would also be easy enough for a new leader to jettison some of the more radical proposals, whilst keeping the more popular ones. Labour, on this reasoning, could still return to power in five years’ time.
The real concern for Labour is that their problems run deeper. Labour (as its name suggests) was a party designed for the working class in a world based on traditional industrial roles. With manufacturing now only a small amount of the British economy, and organised labour increasingly a concept of the past, this poses an existential threat for the party.
At the same time, Labour has faced a structural problem in the last three elections following the collapse in Scotland. A historical Labour heartland, Scotland could previously be relied upon to consistently deliver 40-50 MPs. Without these, the maths doesn’t stack up for a Labour majority. To make matters worse, the seats in Scotland have gone to the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP). The only realistic majority Labour can put together involves a level of support from the SNP, a party viewed with intense scepticism by moderate voters in England. In recent elections the Conservatives, have exploited this dynamic ruthlessly, and it is an illustration of how potent it is that their “coalition of chaos” branding was effective, despite the rudderless recent years. Any new Labour leaders must address these deep-seated challenges as well as the obvious problems.
- The Liberal Democrats’ Nightmare
The disastrous performance, and inevitable post-mortem, of Labour has meant less focus on the Liberal Democrats’ horrific night. The Party had hoped to capitalise on its position as the only (British-wide) unequivocally Remain party. Early campaign polling had suggested they could gain dozens of seats; instead they went backwards.
To make matters even worse, the party’s leader, Jo Swinson, lost her seat to the resurgent SNP. As party rules require that the party leader is an MP, (yet) another leadership contest will now be held. In a tragicomic sign of the tiny number of seats won, leadership candidates only require to be proposed by one MP.
The immediate analysis of why the Liberal Democrats performed poorly is less clear than for Labour. Ms Swinson, a new face to a lot of the public, proved less popular than hoped. The party’s policy to revoke Brexit without a referendum, also proved unpopular, with Remain backers concerned about subverting democracy. The real issue, though, may be the disciplining effect of Britain’s first past the post system. This has traditional been the Liberal Democrats’ foe, as the system inevitably leads to a narrative of whether the Conservative or Labour leader will be Prime Minister. Swinson had hoped that the sheer unpopularity of Corbyn and Johnson would dilute the effect of this question. This gamble seems to have been wrong; whilst not particularly keen on either Prime Ministerial candidate, voters had a clear idea of which they liked least. In a strange way, Corbyn’s unpopularity affected the Liberal Democrats as much as Labour, by keeping disaffected Conservatives in the tent.
- The Union Under Pressure
Out of the four biggest parties, there was no middle ground. The night was as successful for the Conservatives as it was disastrous for Labour and the Liberal Democrats. As for the SNP, they won 48 out of a possible 59 Scottish seats, and confounded any suggestions of a decline.
What the success will be used for is less clear. The SNP are pushing for a second independence referendum, but Johnson has said that he will not permit it. Under the devolution settlement, constitutional change is a matter reserved for Westminster. Many Scottish-based Conservatives have, though, been more nuanced than the Prime Minister, careful so as not to appear undemocratic. Shadow boxing is likely to continue for a while, with the Scottish Parliament elections in May 2021, a potential natural end point. If pro-independence parties were to win an absolute majority in that poll, it would become increasingly difficult for the Conservatives to bat questions away.
Whilst Scotland’s position in the Union is still vulnerable, Northern Ireland’s is potentially even more precarious. This election was the first Northern Irish election ever, where Irish nationalist candidates won more seats than (pro-British) Unionists. Unionists have long-feared that differential demographic change will result in them being in the minority, and this tipping point looks like being in the next few years.
Brexit will also influence matters. As Northern Ireland will de facto remain in the EU customs union, it is likely to commercially gravitate slowly towards the Republic; which is why Unionist politicians are livid at Boris Johnson over the deal he negotiated.
Given the island’s torrid history, all sides are approaching the situation with sensitivity. There are all kinds of practical questions, including cultural ones like how to respect the centuries old Protestant culture in the north of Ireland. There are also purely practical ones; Northern Ireland receives a multi-billion Pound annual subsidy from the UK government. This can be shared comfortably enough by Britain’s 65 million residents, but not necessarily by the 5 million in the Republic of Ireland. The terms of the conversation have clearly shifted though, and the prospect of a re-unification poll in the coming decades is no longer fantastical.