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Saturday, 10 June 2017

The General Election: what it told us and what happens next

(Photo: sigmalive.com)


Considering the various General Election campaigns I've lived through and been involved in, until Thursday night at 10pm I'd have said the 2017 election was the most dismal, unnecessary and polarising in living memory.

And then came THAT exit poll.

Just as in 2010 and 2015, my initial reaction was disbelief. But unlike those previous occasions this time the exit poll gave cause for real optimism. No doubt it came as a surprise to absolutely everyone, but as the results rolled in it became gradually more obvious that the widely-held belief in the inevitability of a large Conservative majority that had framed much of the thinking during campaigning - fuelled by opinion polls that a mere day earlier had suggested a Tory super-majority of over 120 - was based on nothing more than fallacy and supposition.

It became apparent that Theresa May had gambled and lost badly in her attempt to secure a large majority that she vainly believed would be a formality. It also became stunningly clear that the supposed liability of British politics - Jeremy Corbyn - is far from an unelectable irrelevance.

The Conservative Party

A couple of months ago Theresa May called a General Election she promised not to, to obtain a mandate she already had for an action she campaigned against. That in itself came as a surprise for many, who were convinced the Fixed Term Parliaments Act would effectively have ended the habit of Prime Ministers calling elections on a whim. But her decision was understandable, hoping to exploit Labour weakness and capitalise on support for her Brexit plans - even if it did point to the presence of certain insecurities on Mrs May's part.

It's easy to say with the benefit of hindsight that the decision was the wrong one. I'm not so sure. If the Conservatives had played to their strengths and run a better campaign I believe that an improved majority would have been realised. Unfortunately for the Tories, from the outset their campaign was not only characterised by negativity and personal assaults on Labour's leader, it was also arrogant and complacent. How else can you explain the dreadful manifesto, the willingness to put foxhunting back on the agenda, the social care plans that alienated core supporters, and the refusal to attend debates or engage meaningfully with either the media or the public?

But even more fatal was the emphasis on the qualities of the leader. Few Prime Ministers have ever gone to the country simply to gain a larger majority; none has done so on the basis of their own popular appeal. True - Winston Churchill did something similar in 1945, with a manifesto entitled Mr Churchill's Declaration of Policy to the Voters, but that tactic made sense at the time even if it wasn't exactly successful. Mrs May, so convinced of the self-manufactured myth of her strength and political invincibility, opted for the highly personalised approach in making everything about her own fitness to lead - always risky but especially so in a leader lacking in personality. Even John Major would have had a better chance of convincing the electorate of "strength and stability".

She revelled in her reputation as "a bloody difficult woman", suggesting an adversarial approach towards EU negotiations. But, as it turned out, she was just "bloody difficult" to persuade to turn up to debates. Neither would she engage with "real people", or say anything other than "strong and stable", "coalition of chaos" or "strengthen my hand". Why would she need to when an easy victory was all but assured? In the final analysis, the opinion polling obscured the reality that the Emperor had no clothes - never before has a major political party gone into an election so intellectually naked.

Using a human tragedy to justify unmerited attacks on the Human Rights Act, while simultaneously trying to squirm away from tough questions about her counter-terrorist responsibilities as Home Secretary, underlined how out of touch the Prime Minister is.

So much more can be said about the Conservatives' abject campaign, but perhaps analysis pales into insignificance in comparison to Tory MP Nigel Evans' observation: "we shot ourselves in the head". A neater summary of the Tories' ineptitude would be difficult to find.

The Labour Party

Labour came into the election with very low expectations. Even the most loyal of Corbyn's supporters would have admitted holding what they had would have been an achievement. However, when all the odds appear to be stacked against you, it's often the case that caution is thrown to the wind: Labour chose to ignore not only the opinion polls but also the rhetoric of the press and Tory attempts to frame the debate on their own terms.

To his credit, Jeremy Corbyn avoided triumphalism (clearly learning from Kinnock) and showed something of the humanity May appeared to lack. He refused to engage with May's polarising "coalition of chaos" nonsense and dealt with some of the personal attacks directed towards him surprisingly convincingly. He always looked calm and unpressured - unlike some other members of his front-bench team. While Lib Dems may not want to admit it, he might also have got his "soft Brexit" pitch spot on. His response to the Manchester bombing was so much more empathetic and honest than the Prime Minister's, which I believe gave him personal credibility.

But there was also the Labour campaign, wisely focussing its attention on younger voters. It was, of course, risky to target the very group infamous for not turning out - but Labour did more than target. They reached out. They engaged. They listened. They inspired.

Of course, they fell short of victory. But the result will feel like a victory given the expectations. In winning seats like Canterbury for the first time ever they've showed they can win in unlikely places. It's undeniable that Labour has made progress - progress that seemed as likely as Greenock Morton's chances of winning the Champions League. No more can Corbyn be brushed aside, treated as an irrelevance and ridiculed as unelectable.

Journalists who were rubbing their hands with undisguised glee at the prospect of reporting on Jeremy Corbyn's resignation and Labour recriminations are having to tear up their script - this election was a very good one for Mr Corbyn and a very bad one for the Daily Mail.

The Liberal Democrats

Nick Clegg lost in Sheffield Hallam
Our parliamentary representation increased from 9 to 12. So there's undeniably been progress made here too. However, it's impossible to escape the fact that this is our worst performance in terms of vote share since 1959 - when the Liberal Party only stood in 216 constituencies - and the "Lib Dem fightback", if happening at all, is going to take a lot longer than seemed likely in the aftermath of the Richmond Park by-election.

The problem for the Lib Dems is that we allowed ourselves to listen to the views of the print media and believed the opinion polls. The early weeks of the campaign were characterised by misguided attempts to paint ourselves as the real opposition - we took as granted Theresa May's supposed strength and Jeremy Corbyn's weakness and unelectability. Accepting these myths proved to be our undoing. Kicking off a campaign by stating the governing party is heading for a landslide is not clever.

The question of what Tim Farron thinks of same-sex intercourse (I won't use the terms "gay sex", as it's a form of bi-erasure) was damaging and wouldn't go away. I agree that the line of questioning was unfair; I also accept that, in the bigger scheme of things, what politicians consider to be "sin" is largely irrelevant. However, the issue was never dealt with convincingly and it eroded Tim's personal credibility. In politics, especially among leaders, personal trustworthiness matters far more than policy positions - and this saga only served to undermine it.

Farron's evasiveness on that question wasn't the only own goal we managed to score. In Ceredigion, leaflets misrepresenting Plaid Cymru's position on Brexit effectively cost our party our only Welsh MP. A combined total of just 463 votes cost us four additional seats - in Ceredigion, St Ives, NE Fife and Richmond Park.

That latter case showed another weakness of the Lib Dem campaign - in relation to how we appeal to tactical voters. Selling our horse races and making statements about who can or cannot win somewhere is not sufficient to convince supporters of other parties to lend their votes. The combative anti-Labour positioning in the early part of the campaign only served to alienate, and we offered little in the way of inclusive messaging. Simply expecting Labour voters to support our candidate is not only arrogant but self-defeating.

It was also extremely painful to lose Nick Clegg, and for Simon Hughes and Julian Huppert to fall well short in their quests for re-election. What happened there? Did we simply expect Labour not to come out fighting?

And while no-one expected instant progress, the statistic of 375 lost deposits speaks for itself. That's even worse than the 335 lost in 2015.

It is true that many of us are relieved (to say the least) that we grew our parliamentary representation, especially given the pessimistic polling in the run-up to polling day. However, if we're being honest, how many Lib Dem supporters and activists would have settled for that when the election was announced? While it's a decent outcome, especially in the face of binary media messages, it also represents a missed opportunity and highlights significant campaigning weaknesses.

For all that, we saw some great results: Vince Cable winning in Twickenham, Tom Brake retaining Carshalton, Jamie Stone winning in Caithness, Christine Jardine's fantastic victory in Edinburgh West and - the result of the night - Layla Moran's stunning win to take Oxford West and Abingdon. They were more than encouraging.

We simply have to be better at targeting and we need to be better in our messaging. This will always be a challenge when the media are focussed on the "main" parties, but Labour succeeded in reaching out to young people in the face of an openly hostile media. We need simple and clear messages, not to mention trust. It's also an inescapable statement of fact that our leader is not the asset many of us thought he might be.

Scotland

The picture in Scotland was very different to the rest of the UK. This is not remotely surprising, given that effectively there were two distinct campaigns taking place.

Jo Swinson secured a fine victory
in East Dunmartonshire
For the Liberal Democrats, there were deserved wins for Jo Swinson and Christine Jardine. Alistair Carmichael retained his seat - with an impressive majority. The surprise was in Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, where former MSP Jamie Stone overturned Paul Monighan's near-4,000 majority. While the bigger picture isn't fantastic - the expected challenge in Argyll and Bute didn't materialise and to finish fourth in Gordon (which we held until 2015) shows the challenge ahead. But overall it was a good night.

It was also a decent night for Labour in Scotland, surprising everyone (including themselves) by winning seven seats. How much can be attribute to Kezia Dugdale is questionable, but at least Scottish Labour has shown it is (finally) moving forward after a series of ever-worsening election results.

Much analysis has focused on the SNP, and understandably so. The SNP lost 21 seats, many of them by the slimmest of margins. Their strategy came under fire and there are calls for Nicola Sturgeon to abandon her calls for a second independence referendum. However, the party still holds 35 of Scotland's 59 seats - their second best result ever - and is comfortably both the largest party and the dominant force in Scottish politics. Talk of the independence movement being dealt a fatal blow is both an exaggeration and somewhat premature, but I fully expect the First Minister to proceed more carefully. There was a definite public backlash against a second referendum and Ms Sturgeon appears to understand the need to reflect long and hard on this.

The SNP lost some senior figures - most obviously Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond. I do not grieve Mr Salmond's loss, but I find it hard to celebrate the Conservatives winning a seat we held for 32 years prior to the last General Election. The party will have expected some losses, but the result will no doubt have created some anxieties. The momentum is firmly with their opponents for the first time in over a decade.

The real story in Scotland is not about the SNP but the Tories. How can a party with whom the Scottish electorate has had such a difficult relationship with for over 20 years suddenly make such incredible gains? There are no easy answers, but much is surely down to Ruth Davidson's leadership. She did what Theresa May could not, replacing cheap soundbites with a credible message. She was a real vote-winner, even if the extreme Unionism and obsession with independence dominated her campaign. She was able to successfully project herself as a listening politician.

What does this mean for Scotland going forward? Clearly, the question of independence will not be disappearing any time soon. The idea that a revived Scottish Conservative party would be the effective king-makers in a UK-wide election would have been unthinkable only weeks ago. Underestimate Ruth Davidson at your peril - be assured that, whatever turns and twists lie ahead in the coming weeks, she will be an absolutely pivotal figure.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland should have been at the centre of this General Election given the ongoing difficulties there, but the media predictably took little notice. In spite of that, the prospective deal with the DUP suddenly has brought Ulster politics to the interest of the mainstream news outlets.

Aside from whether Theresa May should be negotiating any kind of arrangement with a party of homophobes, climate change deniers and anti-abortionists with historical connections to terrorism, it is concerning that the increasing polarisation we have seen in recent years in NI politics has become complete. The moderate SDLP and UUP no longer have any Westminster representation, having been eclipsed by Sinn Fein and the DUP.

With Stormont still suspended, this development has to be of concern. Even more worrying are Mrs May's overtures towards the DUP, which surely compromises the terms of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to the British government's neutrality. Alienating not only the other Ulster parties but also the Catholic population of Northern Ireland for short-term "stability" would appear to be yet another stunningly naïve decision from the Prime Minister, and one with significant ramifications.

As Alliance Leader Naomi Long has said, this move endangers the talks process in Stormont:  "This arrangement, if it happens, appears to have been made along a very fine margin and I would not be surprised if it struggled to last any length of time It has also made the possibility of successful talks more remote – there is now no credibility for the Tory government to be an independent chair, putting the entire process in real danger of collapsing.

“This promises to be a real eye-opener for people in Britain who may have never encountered the DUP before. Their regressive policies, particularly in relation to social issues, murky relationship with active paramilitaries and a number of outstanding allegations around financial scandals will be unwelcome news to many, who will be surprised as to who the Conservatives have jumped into bed with. There is a severe risk in having the DUP unilaterally dictating the direction of travel on Brexit and controlling what, if any, special arrangements are put in place for Northern Ireland. This region only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. That is made all the more difficult when one side of the two diametrically opposed parties here has untold influence over the government.”

Conservative-DUP talks

At the moment we're not precisely sure what's under discussion. But the fact that talks are taking place at all is disturbing enough. We should all be concerned at the prospect of the DUP being anywhere near the reins of power. A wiser Prime Minister may well have opted for minority government (as the SNP did in 2007) or even offered her opposition the opportunity to form a government.

There is unlikely to be a formal coalition, and I suspect that isn't what Theresa May wants. She wants something short-term, to guarantee her survival until next year at least. The real question isn't what is currently under discussion, but how Conservative MPs will react to it. I see no way May can convince even a majority of her MPs that a DUP deal is in the party's or the national interest, and I suspect this will prove her undoing as cannier Tory politicians than Mrs May will understand any relationship with the DUP will lose them support and votes. I could of course be wrong, but either way I imagine there will be a further election in the next 18 months. Whatever the DUP offers the Prime Minister, stability won't be part of the package.

Brexit

Of course, this was the Brexit election. So, what happens now?

Theresa May sought a mandate for her Brexit programme - clearly, she didn't obtain this. What is clear is that, contrary to what Theresa May wanted us to believe, there is no real popular consensus on Brexit. So where does that leave us?  Given the electorate rejected her "hard Brexit", and that even her new friends in the DUP are opposed to it. surely she now has to abandon this destructive idea altogether? It is unlikely that political uncertainty will put Brexit talks at risk entirely, but certainly a rethink on the Tories' position on the single market and customs union is not only possible but probable.

What is now glaringly obvious is that, contrary to the line Theresa May has been spinning for months, "the people" are far from united in what they want - and indeed expect - from Brexit negotiations. There is no clearly discernible popular will. But what the election has shown is that the Prime Minister has not been sufficiently trusted to act in the national interest. May's EU plan has completely unravelled.

And what's the alternative? A soft Brexit? EFTA membership? The referendum on the final deal as proposed by the Greens and Lib Dems? Just like Theresa May's future, it's impossible to know with certainty...

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