England votes for a break from politics

Published: 19 December 2019
Author: Richard Parry

Richard Parry discusses the way that the 2019 UK General Election bucked the trend for surprise results.

The election result bears comparison with the Conservative victory of 1959 and the Labour one of 1966 - surprisingly large majorities that emerged from tight two-party configurations. But in both cases the governments hit mid-tem trouble, with many by-election losses, and the majority disappeared entirely next time round. 

Labour’s seat performance is indeed its worst since 1935, but this is distorted by the disappearance of its Scottish base, which delivered over 40 seats in every election from 1964 to 2010. Jeremy Corbyn’s UK vote (32.2%) was better than that secured by Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Michael Foot and by Neil Kinnock in 1987.

Labour’s eviction of other parties from big cities south of the border was maintained – it won every seat in Newcastle, Liverpool. Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham, Bristol and Cardiff and eight out of nine in Birmingham. It retained 23 out of the 38 seats it had won from the Conservatives in 2015 and 2017. It still holds 49 seats out of 73 in Greater London. The City Deal policy of building up modern urban powerhouses has not paid off electorally: the new Conservative seats are likely to be fickle friends, looking for public service delivery unlikely to be achieved in one term.

In Scotland the margins were tight, as the Conservative vote drop from 29% to 25% lost them half their seats. Scottish Labour was a sorry loser, with a vote share (19%) typical of European social democratic parties who have hit the rocks. The Liberal Democrats moved slightly forward but were the victims of the forensic decapitation by the SNP of their leader Jo Swinson. The SNP got two-thirds of the way back to their triumph of 2015 and overturned many assumptions that their support might weaken twelve years into office.

The new configuration will play out in terms of Brexit and Scottish independence. Brexit has not even started to get done on the ground; under the Withdrawal Agreement nothing changes before 31 December. The issue will now move into a post-parliamentary phase in which two recently subdued themes will re-emerge: the EU’s opposition to cherry-picking by the UK, and the UK’s attempts to link security co-operation with trade concessions. The extension deadline of 1 July was meant to allow a realistic appraisal of progress: instead it has been thrown away by the UK even to the point of renouncing it in UK law, a kind of new year’s resolution that advertises the temptation being resisted.  It is surely impossible to secure a comprehensive and ratified deal by the end of 2020: instead the focus will be on a rudimentary interim deal approved by the Commission and Council that would keep the show on the road and avoid tariffs on goods. The UK’s bargaining position is weak, with fisheries likely to be a bargaining ploy in another extra-hours negotiating drama in a year’s time.

The situation on independence reflects Nicola Sturgeon’s reluctance to pursue a referendum not considered legitimate by the UK government or to lose it (or maybe even win it very narrowly). She did not prevent Scotland being taken out of the EU against its will. The technical complexities thrown up by Brexit now reinforce the issues exposed by the lack of clarity on currency in 2014.

The obvious compromise of no referendum until after the 2021 Scottish elections, but then one if requested by the Scottish Parliament, is now virtually Labour’s position but has been rejected by the Conservatives in their present term. This leaves a path to IndyRef 2 that may appeal to the First Minister, via a Scottish win in 2021 and a good performance in the 2024 UK elections. There will be a lot of noise about the legal possibilities of a poll without UK permission but the more important element in 2014 was David Cameron’s political promise to implement the result. Sturgeon is lucky that Brexit got through without the precedent of a second, confirmatory referendum on the terms.

The 2019 contest was good for the pollsters but the broadcasters’ exit poll was out on the seat totals for Labour (191 against 203 actual) and the SNP (55 against 48). As a monopolistic poll that is weak on data about Scottish and Welsh variance there might be a need for more design work and reinforcement of the sample before next time.

This ‘normal’ election was a Christmas gift to Boris Johnson but he must now confront the fact that he is better on atmospherics than on policy implementation.  Labour is positioned as a resilient contender should it get its leadership team right – and learn from the many recent UK examples of unsuccessful party leaders.

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