It came as the biggest “I told you so” in political history. A great night for Tories, pollsters, and Brexit. A bad night for Labour, Hugh Grant, and, perhaps, bubbles.
From my own bubble here in the North West, where nothing as ever changed very much, I find myself wondering why so few – or apparently so few – predicted what is now so glaringly obvious. The polling had been indicating this result for weeks but anybody with an ounce of centrist DNA had spent years warning Labour that they would never win from so far over to the Left. So why did so few in the media echo it? Why was the election supposedly too close to call or did Hugh Grant really convince the country that this outcome was unlikely?
The cardinal sin, I suppose, is that it’s always easy to discount the obvious and forget the perennial. The obvious was that an election in which many voters planned to “hold their noses” and vote tactically was always going to be decided by the silent majority doing what they always do: simply pick the party that stank the least. The perennial is the fact that British politics is never won by splitting the vote.
The Tories realised both from the beginning. They cleverly neutralised the threat of the Brexit Party where they offered a bold but eminently clear message and then otherwise did absolutely nothing for five weeks, leaving the other parties to froth themselves into oblivion, waffling on about 4-day working weeks with everybody free to adopt their non-binary gender identity every second Friday when they’re not giving Scotland a referendum. Corbyn, as ever, did sanctimony better than anybody – usually involving the word “rather” – but it was always hard to see Britain electing a Prime Minister who could sound morally outraged about everything including the fact that “I make my own damson jam, thank you very much!” You could almost hear the electorate screaming: “Ooh! Look at him!”
As ever, it was also too easy to get obsessed with other narratives: Johnson avoiding the cameras, hiding in fridges, and all the other nonsense which obscured the conventional political wisdom that Labour never win elections from what was once more formally known as the “loony Left” and certainly not with a leader who has almost no appeal beyond his base. Labour didn’t learn their lesson from 2017 when they lost to a Tory campaign largely characterised by self-harm and a new
For all the talk of the Tory victory, there was much about the election that shows that the polarization across the country has only deepened. Parts of the North did turn blue and much will be said about hope and vision and all the things that make things feel better in the morning but underlying some of this is an English nationalism that is easy to rouse and difficult to quell. Tories should be wary. This time they are the beneficiaries of the pressures that caused this realignment, but they must now make a good job of Brexit whilst calming other passions aroused in the process. Some of the steam has been released from the vessel of British politics but it would be foolish to believe it won’t build again, especially around questions of the Union.
Where much of the Europhile rancour will now go is debatable. Remain have already claimed a moral victory now that John Curtice confirms that Remain parties took 52% of the vote but there’s no coming back from this. This was undoubtedly a win for Brexit, which will be done in whatever form it takes. The burden simply fell on the wrong shoulders, with the political ambitions of the progressive parties characterised by their usual naivety. The result in Kensington spoke volumes. The Lib Dems and Labour managed to stand on each other’s toes and hand victory to the Conservatives in a heavily Remain constituency. They really were that hopeless. It was also unforgivable.
The surprise wasn’t so much the Labour implosion – see above about the dull inevitability of it all – as the utter mess that Liberal Democrats made of what should have been a strong position. Whether you agree with the Lib Dem position or not (and I suspect that like most of the country you don’t), Jo Swinson had positioned her party well for the election. The problem was that she overplayed her hand, mistaking her transitory influence in parliament with her influence in the country. Rather than consolidating her power (perhaps by avoiding the election in the first place) and coordinating the Remain option, she succumbed to hubris and tried to position herself as “The Remain Party”. By the same logic, Jeremy Corbyn should have renamed Labour the “We All Like Jam Party”: a good selling point but you must also have something to sell that doesn’t stink of duplicity. The Lib Dems started poorly with leaflets posted in areas where they claimed they’d be the biggest party but all heavily footnoted to explain only if circumstances arose when they *would* be the biggest party. It was a lesson in circular illogic. Then, just to make sure they hadn’t unlined their craziness enough, they went big on transgender politics which are sure to be one of those muddy intellectual bogs where many a liberal career will founder.
We end, then, really where we began: Labour still unelectable, blaming their loss on “moderates”, and looking to repeat their mistakes with a younger and less Metropolitan cast; the Lib Dems looking for a leader who isn’t Vince Cable; and the Tories back in power even though over 50% of the electorate screamed “no”. Another generation of young politicians, meanwhile, will have learned the oldest lesson in politics: you either learn how to win or you might as well not bother turning up.