The 2019 General Election has come and gone and my oh my was it a seismic one!
In the months leading up to the vote, most polls were steadily forecasting a Conservative Majority. But then a day or so before the vote, YouGov published its MPR poll showing that while a Conservative majority was likely, a hung parliament was within the margin of error.
The exit poll swiftly put paid to that. As the clock struck 10, an 80 seat majority was forecasted with Conservatives taking 364 seats.
Then the results came in, thick and fast, with traditional Labour seats one by one turning blue. It was staggering to watch. Labour heartlands in the north east England yielded Conservative seats, many for the first time in 50, 60 even 70 years…and some for the first time ever. An emotional Ian Levy, the new Conservative MP for the former mining community of Blythe Valley, scarcely seemed to believe that he had won as he delivered his victory speech.
By dawn the results were there for all to see: Conservatives with 365 seats, Labour with 203.
The scale of the victory is breath-taking. The largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The worst Labour performance in terms of haul of seats since the Second World War (oustripping Michael Foot’s 209 seats in 1983). Lewis Baston has rightly referred to it as a landslide.
But what are we to make of all this?
Here are my four big take-aways from the 2019 UK General Election.
1. An End to the Parliamentary Gridlock
First of all, with a Conservative majority in the House of Commons we have an end to the deadlock that has plagued Brexit negotiations the past three and a half years.
Throughout the campaign, three words dominated the Conservative airwaves: “Get Brexit done”. A poll by Unherd suggests that these were the three words that won the election.
We asked a representative sample of 2,000 voters on the day of the election how they had voted and why. Of those who said they voted Conservative, 85% put ‘to get Brexit done’ in their top three reasons. That was also the choice of almost nine in 10 of the people who voted Conservative for the first time yesterday.James Johnson, Unherd
To be sure, there remains a heck of a lot of work to be done for Boris Johnson and his MPs “to get Brexit done”.
But there is now light at the end of the tunnel after months, years even, of uncertainty. And Johnson appears to be wasting no time, holding a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week which will secure the UK’s exit on 31st January. That of course is only the beginning. We then have the transition period during which parliament will thrash out (or square the circle of?) a variety of complex post-Brexit issues, including most prominently, the Irish border and a trade agreement.
Crucially, though, with the mandate this election has brought, there is finally some much needed clarity about our fate vis-a-vis the EU.
2. Corbyn Defeated and the Hope of a Credible Leader of the Opposition
Perhaps the biggest story of the night was the Conservative gain of stronghold Labour seats, particularly in the Northeast of the country (as this graphic makes clear). Commentators spoke of a “red wall” falling in Bishop Auckland, Durham North West, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) Darlington, Stockton South, and Redcar (which Johnson quipped had now become “Bluecar”).
As much as the promise of “getting Brexit done” seems to have worked to great effect for the Conservatives, the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn greatly aided for the Tory cause.
There was the ever-present scourge of deep anti-Semitism. Then the betrayal of Labour Leave voters with the promise of a Second Referendum.
The most revealing moment of the night came as Alan Johnson berated Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum (the Corbyn pressure group within Labour), for turning his back on the working class voters who voted Leave. It is a must watch.
The results in the Northeast raise the question: was this election more of a victory for the Conservatives or a loss Labour? A YouGov poll suggests that the general population perceives the result as more of a Labour loss (51%) than a Conservative victory (37%). It is a question that will continue to be asked and pondered in the months and years to come.
For my part, I hope that Labour think long and hard about who their next leader will be. Corbyn was simply toxic for vast swathes of the population and it is a wonder Labour stuck by him for so long. Moving forward, Britain will need a credible opposition to hold the government to account. This election has hastened that process.
3. The Union Looks in Doubt
While the reality of Brexit is now a certainty, big questions have been raised about the state of the Union. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in nationalist parties in large numbers.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept Scotland, taking 48 of a possible 59 seats and claiming 45% of the share of the vote. In line with her party’s manifesto, Nicola Sturgeon has already called for an IndyRef2, severely testing the unionist credentials of the PM.
Across the Irish Sea, there were changes in Northern Ireland as nationalists made gains and unionists lost seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (moderate nationalists) earned two seats while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two of their own including, most notably, that of Nigel Dodds, their deputy leader. Talk of an Irish independence referendum looms, even as the status of Northern Ireland’s relationship to the UK in Brexit negotiations remains uncertain.
I will admit to the state of the Union being my greatest source of anxiety stemming from this election. A crucial year or two lies ahead.
4. The Great Realignment of British Politics
Perhaps most significantly of all, though, the results of this election signal a seismic shift in the way we map British politics. The Blue Dawn in the northeast shows this realignment in particularly clear terms. Kent-based political scientist Matthew Goodwin has neatly summed up this shift as being “left-wing economically” and “broadly conservative socially”.
Goodwin puts it this way:
This realignment-of-sorts will, in itself, raise important questions. How will Johnson, an instinctive social and economic liberal, appease and retain voters who instinctively lean a little Left on the economy and a little Right on culture? Reflected in our changing political geography is a new Conservative electorate that will be looking not only for a meaningful break from the European Union, a tougher stance on crime, reform of immigration and a general slowing of the pace of change but also a more interventionist or even protectionist economic regime. Boris Johnson might be about to inherit a Conservative electorate of whom 86% want to see immigration reduced and 40% rail renationalised.Matthew Goodwin
In the eyes of many, Johnson appears to have squared this circle. His victory speech (bar the odd reference to anti-socialism) appeared conciliatory, magnanimous, even at points humble. He recognised that many would have voted for him for the first time. That many of them were Labour voters. Then, in his speech outside Downing Street, he spoke of the need to heal as a nation and his willingness to listen to those who felt an affinity to the EU.
So Johnson seems to tapping into something here. Here’s Goodwin again:
Johnson and his team are clearly aware of the dilemma. They already stand a little to the Left of where David Cameron and George Osborne were, revealing how it is the centre-right, and not the centre-left, that has a stronger grasp of where most voters instinctively are. Those who have spent recent months shrieking about Johnson’s desire to build a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ — a libertarian settlement fixated with deregulation and financial services — are today struggling to make sense of a Conservative manifesto that advocates higher public spending, a higher minimum wage, more money for the National Health Service, more money for infrastructure, more redistribution, more action on regional inequality, state aid for failing businesses and a buy-British procurement policy.
If Goodwin is right, and we are seeing a shift that is “left-wing economically” and “right-wing socially”, then this has some significant implications. Perhaps most importantly of all, this election suggests that those that live in places that are (or would describe themselves as) “liberal left”—socially liberal and economically liberal, or free-market—need to wake up to the fact that they are at odds with the pervading ethos of the country.
Whether or not we agree with this trajectory, we first of all need to acknowledge its explanatory power and seek to understand it. Judging by my social media feed, and the number of conversations I have had today with people in Cambridge, I’m not sure that many people have woken up. In the anger and hurt, the results are hastily blamed on racism and xenophobia. The urgency of stepping back, asking questions, getting out of our bubbles has never been more pressing.
In the wake of the EU referendum, many of us have had to “wake up” to the prevailing sense of public opinion. I know I’ve had to wake up.
This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the public opinion; what it does mean is trying to understand it so as to better engage with it.
My own story is that this process has been one of transformation and richness.
As the dust settles, I am cautiously optimistic. There are big opportunities and dangers ahead. We will need all the critical powers, all the grace at our disposal to meet these head-on, together.