Saturday, 10 June 2017

The 2017 general election: what have we learned?

The 2017 general election, like the February 1974 general election, was a snap general election and both marked a real turning point in British politics.

February 1974, which elected the most Liberal MPs for 38 1/2 years, marked the point where the two party system had really cracked. It opened the door for many smaller parties to come through and politics locally and nationally became a more crowded field. The Green Party was one of them, and in England has reasserted itself as the fourth party with UKIP's collapse and imminent demise. Due to the unfairness of FPTP, Caroline Lucas is still the only Green MP and is one of only 9 MPs (the other 8 being Liberal Democrats) in England bearing neither the red rosette nor the blue rosette.

June 2017, conversely, marks a turning point back to two party politics in the UK, for the Conservatives achieved 42.4% of the vote, the highest since 1983 (and equal to their vote share of 1983), and Labour achieved 40% of the vote, not much less than that achieved in both of Tony Blair's landslide victories of 1997 and 2001. The combined Liberal Democrat, UKIP, and Green vote was meanwhile only 10.8% across the UK. In so many seats in England, and a few in Wales for that matter, the Labour and Conservative candidates were the only candidates to save their deposit. Many Liberal Democrat candidates even in previously strong constituencies dropped from second to third, or did not move up to third having been pushed there by UKIP in 2015.

So what can be concluded from this election?

1. Theresa May should never have called it in the first place.

This general election was called only 2 years and a month after the 2015 general election, and general elections are expected every four or five years at most (the maximum duration of any Parliament in peacetime is exactly five years). The only reason Theresa May called it was to take advantage of an apparently large lead over Labour in opinion polls, which despite having improved their methodology are often inaccurate, and to give her a mandate for a hard Brexit, which in the end she did not get. General elections should only be called when the Parliament's life has run its course, or when it is clear the government can no longer function. Theresa May had a working majority which she has now lost.

2. British politics has become much more polarised.

With the collapse of UKIP, and the Greens being squeezed in many constituencies, most races boiled down to whether Labour or the Conservatives would win, and many contests which were held by the incumbent party featured majorities of less than 1000 votes. Turnout sharply increased as a direct result in many constituencies, although the overall turnout increased by 2.3% due to a slight decrease in turnout over in Scotland. In a large proportion of cases the combined Conservative and Labour vote was 90% or more. If this continues a problematic return to two-party politics is on the cards, and neither the Conservatives nor Labour are interested in structural electoral reform (some Labour MPs are, though).

3. Plaid Cymru is now the third party of Wales and the key alternative.

Apart from their gain of Ceredigion, Plaid Cymru did not perform well in this election, partly due to Leanne Wood's stance being similar to Jeremy Corbyn's in socio-economic terms. However, in the majority of Welsh constituencies they did not win, Plaid Cymru finished third (but they pushed themselves up to second in Blaenau Gwent) as UKIP dropped out of sight and the Liberal Democrat vote continued to crumble even with only 10 Green Party candidates in Wales instead of 35 in 2015. The Liberal Democrats now have no MPs in Wales and dropped from 8 saved deposits to a pathetic four (Ceredigion, Brecon & Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, and Cardiff Central). Only in Powys and Ceredigion are they remotely competitive now. Plaid Cymru may be in for a hard fight in the long term, but they are nevertheless able to hold what they have.

4. The SNP will still be dominant in Scotland despite having lost 21 seats-but they must hold back independence ambitions for now.

Several SNP losses were by margins in the low hundreds, Stirling being a good example. A lot of people support Scottish independence, but so many people are still not convinced and also want to wait a few years before the question needs to come up again. Nicola Sturgeon failed to heed this, and in rural areas where support for independence was lower the SNP lost out badly. Most SNP losses were in rural constituencies, not urban ones. However, the SNP still had its second best ever set of results and remains the dominant force in Scotland for now, because it is able to unite those who support its cause and most of those who no longer support Labour.

5. There will be no second referendum on EU membership-we are leaving and that is final.

Neither Labour nor the Conservatives are going to hold a second referendum on EU membership, whichever side takes power. Even many Remain voters, who helped spark a backlash against the Conservatives especially in London, are willing to accept the result in return for concessions so that Britain does not end up with a bad deal once the Article 50 process finishes. The Green Party in particular did advocate that chance for voters to offer a new referendum in case the proposed deal was inadequate, but even many pro-EU voters did not take that chance as the election results show. We must therefore accept that Britain will be out of the EU for some time, whether Theresa May can form a government this year or not.

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