Well, it’s been a few days since the election, so here – in all its glory – are my thoughts on where we are now, how we got here, and where we go from there.
Let’s start with what we all know.
Theresa May called a snap election because she felt she needed a more recent and personal mandate to pursue her policy of a hard Brexit (a word I still despise, but am forced to use it to avoid grammatical nightmares). As we know, her parties slim majority turned to a slim minority, and we’re now all doing the math on what this actually means. The Conservatives are talking to the DUP, whose 10 MPS would push the balance of power beyond the ‘magic’ 326 number.
In the meantime, Labour are claiming a ‘moral’ victory, UKIP were basically wiped out, and surprisingly the SNP saw their Westminster powerbase slashed with many of their constituencies choosing the Auld Enemy by voting Tory.
That’s what the media are presenting, and what most people believe is the whole truth. But I suspect the reality is quite different, and more complex. And to understand why, we need to step into the Way Back Machine and take a journey to 2010…..
The General Election in 2010, as it did this time, gave us a hung parliament, where no one party has enough votes to form a working majority. As is the custom, the incumbent party has the first chance to form a coalition with other parties, and if they are unable to do so, the largest single party can have a go. Seven years ago, the Liberal Democrats rejected a coalition with Labour in favour of moving in with the Conservatives, and we saw five years of deal-making, deal-breaking, and the rise of UKIP as the more EU-friendly Lib Dems tempered the Eurosceptic elements of the Tories.
Fast forward to 2015. Many people feel that the Lib Dems have sold out for a taste of power, based on the items that they were unable to bargain away over the previous five years. UKIP’s media presence was looking likely to take seats and votes from the Conservatives. And so David Cameron and his team launched their ‘master-plan’ – a manifesto promise on our EU membership – the one thing UKIP were firmly against. This was, on the face of it, a quite clever idea. All the polls were suggesting there would be a second hung parliament, and this EU referendum was a simple thing to trade away when negotiating the terms of the new coalition. All was going seemingly, until the polls closed, and we discovered that the unthinkable had, in fact, happened: a Conservative majority. UKIP, whilst they pulled a reasonable number of votes, didn’t actually gain anywhere near enough in any constituencies to become a power in Parliament.
Now Cameron was in a quandary. He didn’t want to hold a referendum, but his choices were to either break his promise or do what he feared. And despite many, many lies and a campaign of mistrust and vitriol on both sides, the vote was a close decision to leave. Which prompted Cameron to do the same, as he really didn’t feel he could negotiate something he fundamentally felt was the wrong decision. Cue a leadership contest, and welcome to the stage Mrs T May, our second female Prime Minister.
Which basically brings us up to date as far as the history goes. And now we’re looking at the future. So let’s pause, and consider the actual numbers:
The important ones are: Conservative 318, DUP 10, making 328, which (if the DUP votes were guaranteed) makes a working majority of 2. In practice, this would be a working majority of eleven, as up to now Sinn Fein MPs have never taken their seats in Westminster. Something that – if the DUP have any voice in power – can no longer be taken as read.
Labour have 262 seats, so would need to bring in the SNP (who originally said they wouldn’t work with them unless a large amount of power was granted to them and IndyRef 2 was legislated), the Lib Dems (who have said they won’t work with Labour, and whose presence in parliament is still nowhere near its 2010 heyday) and the combined minor parties of Green and Plaid Cymru. This would still leave them short of the Tory total by 4 seats, and by 14 against the Tory/DUP coalition should it emerge. However, the level of back-room deal-making that would be required beggars belief in that scenario.
Enough about what the actual make up of Government is / might be. What’s in fact more revealing, is why.
It’s clear from the 82.4% who voted either Labour or Conservative, that there is a partisan split in the country. But that’s not the only split. The country is clearly also split over the EU, and within that over how the EU departure should be managed.
And it’s this latter split that’s probably the key here.
Yes, some people (I suspect mostly younger naïve first-time voters) went for Labour because he promised to end tuition fees and stuff. Others would have sought an alternative due to the inclusion of a Fox Hunting vote in the Tory manifesto (one of the more outlandish things to bring into an election campaign). But honestly? I think that the nation’s feelings over Brexit were clearly key. But not in the obvious way.
Had Labour declared itself a Europhile party, then they would have won by some margin, as would the Conservatives had they gone down that route. What we understand now is that it’s no longer a case of 52% against 48%. It’s more a case of 10% rabidly anti-Europe, 10% rabidly pro-EU, probably another 10% that want to continue the bolshy, hard negotiations we’ve seen so far, and 70% who want to make sure that if we absolutely have to leave the EU, we do it at a pace and in a manner that safeguards as much of our current trade agreements as possible. That allows us to remain in the Single Market, and that doesn’t leave us with excessive trade tariffs and import taxes. That allows EU nationals in the UK, and British citizens living abroad, to retain their rights and status. Kinda like a civil partnership. We’re not actually married to the EU, but a lot of the day-to-day stuff and legal protection still applies.
Evidence for this? Look at the seats that turned red. These were the ones not simply where the previous Tory majority was tiny, but where the Remain vote was strongest. Naturally, any anti-Tory vote would be most effective voting for the second-largest party, which is why these votes can be seen not as pro-Corbyn but anti-Brexit. In areas where the Leave vote was higher, the Tories did better, winning some seats from Labour into the bargain. On the whole, people don’t want a tough break-up with the EU. If we do have to leave, we want it to be on the best of terms, not the worst.
It’s very apparent that the EU was the pivotal factor in this election. That public opinion was misjudged by both sides. That Labour benefited from a protest against May’s strategy over the EU, but not by enough to make a significant difference due to also being anti-EU. And that what most people actually want is for the vocal, rabid minority to shut up and for the country to come together somewhere in the middle, sort out its differences and its problems and move on.