Wednesday, 14 June 2017

An election of all the losers

Who needs a “none of the above” option on a ballot paper? Certainly not the British electorate. It has found a way of delivering that verdict using just the classic old “pick one candidate” form.

The 8 June election was the one everyone lost.

The poor old Liberal Democrats won only a handful more seats, taking their total to 12. That’s far behind the glory days when after two generations of hard work, they peaked at 57 under Nick Clegg, becoming a real force in British politics. Unfortunately, Clegg took them into coalition with the Conservatives, securing himself a cabinet seat on which to park his bum, but turning his party into mini-Tories. Why would anyone vote for a Tory lookalike when they can choose the real thing instead? It’s going to take a long time yet to come back from the car crash the Lib Dems created for themselves under Clegg – who lost his own parliamentary seat on 8 June.

Then there was UKIP. This is the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party which used to be led by Nigel Farage. He made clear what “Independence” meant in his book: he spoke at the Republican Party congress in the US and disappeared up Donald Trump’s fundament at the earliest possible opportunity after the Donald took the White House. Farage is a perfect expression of the Brexit spirit: it removes us from dependence on all those shifty Europeans, instead making us completely subservient to the Trumpiverse.

In one of the better pieces of news from the election, UKIP saw its vote fall from 3,881,099 to 593,852. Essentially a wipeout, and it couldn’t happen to a more deserving bunch.

Then there was the Scottish National Party. It reached previously unimaginable heights of success in 2015, taking 56 out of the 59 seats in Scotland, reducing the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and Labour to just one seat each. There was, inevitably, only one way for the SNP to go but the extent of its fall was impressive: a loss of 21 seats, leaving it still the largest party north of the border, but much chastened. That was the price of insisting on another independence referendum at a time when the electorate had become tired of the subject.

The fate of the Conservative Party was a joy to behold. Theresa May went for an unnecessary election to convert her small majority into a much larger one. “Strong and stable” was her mantra, repeated to the point of nausea; in the event, she lost her majority altogether, leading to her scrabbling to find a little provisional stability by a pact with Northern Ireland’s pious and bigoted Democratic Unionist Party. That means fumbling to form an enfeebled government within which her own position is substantially weaker.

Theresa May promised strength and stability
but ended up feeble and fumbling
And finally, there was Labour. Most people, and I was very much of that number, expected the leader Jeremy Corbyn to run a weak campaign and take the party to its worst result since 1935 or at least 1983. Well, we were all wrong. Corbyn found an inspiring dynamism that I didn’t expect him to produce and the party did far less badly than expected. It had a huge surge in its popular vote (but even the unhappy Tories achieved an increase, if a far smaller one). Disappointingly, the surge only delivered Labour 32 more seats, leaving it just four ahead of the number it took from the defeat of 2010. However, the 2010 score had one great advantage over that of 2015: it was close enough to a majority to make the victory at a future election a realistic prospect. We are, at least, back in that position again.

In many ways, Labour emerged strongest – or at any rate, least injured – from the election. There’s no denying that it was defeated, but it is on the way up where all its main rivals are on the way down. That’s encouraging but mustn’t lead to complacency. There’s still a mountain to climb: Labour needs twice the growth – 64 additional seats – to secure a parliamentary majority at the next election than it achieved at this one.

That’s going to need some brilliant, inspiring and effective opposition over the next few years. Perhaps not many years: minority governments tend not to last long. But for that time, long or short, we’re going to need to see Corbyn at his best, the dynamic figure who emerged from the election campaign, to consolidate the party’s position today and prepare to take the huge step remaining to get back into office.

In fact, it means winning the confidence of a far bigger tranche of the electorate. So, next time, unlike this one, voters don’t go for “none of the above”. And we don’t see another election of all the losers.

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