One has to congratulate Theresa May. Knocking 18 points off one’s own poll lead in seven weeks is a very considerable feat, as is arranging for a party that was entirely united around you 11 months ago to be entirely united in staying off the airwaves for the day except for periodic “sources suggest” ideas that you may be on the dole sooner rather than later.
Still, a few points are worth noting:
- The polls were actually quite useful. Normally they insist on saying “this will happen”. Because they were all experimenting after 2015, this time they were playing with different weightings of the results. Thus it was clear for all to see that if the youth vote stayed at home the Tories would get a majority of 80 and if the youth vote came out the Tories would lose their majority. The youth vote, thus feeling empowered, turned out in larger numbers than usual and the Tories lost their majority.
- Presidential campaigns do not go down too well.
- Neither do early elections, particularly ones called to prove a politician has power. Attlee was pushed into one in 1951 (and lost); Heath called one in February 1974 (and lost); May called one seven weeks ago (and, all precedent considered, has done extremely well).
- John Major-esque soapboxes and megaphones in high streets are better than choreographed events in warehouses with bored activists behind you waving vacuous slogan-cards. They can even get people to vote for disunited parties offering policies that haven’t won elections in years.
- Negative campaigning has been used on the sinking side of the 2016 London mayoral elections, the 2016 EU referendum and the 2017 General Election. It may now be obvious to most people that it doesn’t work very well. First, it paints the negative campaigner as just being a whiner who doesn’t want the other side to get something (particularly awkward when the negative campaigner has called the vote and therefore has evidently only called it to stop the other side getting something). Second, the side who does want something tends to be more powerful than the side that doesn’t want them to have it (try reading a few books by manager Gerard Fiennes for practical demonstrations). Third, it leaves your voters with no positive reason to vote for you. Corbyn presented a wonderful sunlit upland where energy and rail fares are cheaper, university education is free for all, hospitals offer immediate service, schools are clean and effective, there are enough police around and the rich are being politely soaked. Theresa offered to devalue your house in your old age.
- Theresa was also very unlucky in her electorate. She got 13,650,900 votes, or a 42.4% vote share. In absolute votes this is almost what got Macmillan a 100-seat majority in 1959, though then it equated to a 49% vote share. It is about what Thatcher got in 1979 and more than Thatcher got in 1983, though without the benefit of a split opposition. It is of course some 500,000 less than John Major got in 1992 – the highest ever absolute vote total – which raises all sorts of questions as to whether spending a few months considering her wider legacy, her intricate policy positions and why people would be better-off all round at the end of her term of office might have actually seen Theresa become Britain’s Most Popular Prime Minister. As it is the honour remains with Major. Blair peaked at a shabby 13,518,167 votes, which combined with a split opposition and a 1% higher vote share to give him a majority of 179. In 2015 Cameron stuck at just over 11 million and 36% of the vote. May has therefore gained another 6% of the relative voters and another two million votes to lose a net 13 seats.
- What is striking is Jeremy Corbyn’s 12,858,652 votes, or 40% vote share. Gaitskill got 500,000 fewer votes in 1959, a higher vote share and three fewer seats in the days when the party still had a decent presence in Scotland. Callaghan shed a million more votes to the Liberals in 1979, but was rewarded with seven more seats (and the Liberals got eleven instead of the twelve they have this evening). It is four million more that Michael Foot got. Perhaps most strikingly it is two million more than Blair got in 2001, three million more than he got in 2005, four million more than Brown got in 2010 (but earning only a handful more seats) and three million more than Ed Miliband. He is the most popular Labour leader in over 16 years. In terms of absolute votes he is the most successful losing leader since Clement Attlee won the popular vote and lost the election in 1951. Any leader who won this many votes since then could reasonably expect to be the largest party.
- In traditional 1950s two-party politics a 49/ 46 vote split was common – still providing massive majorities. We are still in multi-party territory.
- Odd murmurings have floated around that this election proves centrist policies are good because the Nationalists (Tories) and Socialists (Labour) have both failed to win a majority. They have also got the highest absolute votes, highest vote share and highest turnout this millennium. This is a healthy democracy, if an indecisive one.
- The result is also likely to be good for Northern Ireland, as British majorities mean the separate Irish political system – and therefore the interests of the voters – can often be quietly ignored. Tonight the Democratic Unionist Party begin discussions on shoring up the British Government.
- The Lib-Dems are making a shaky return – popular vote is actually slightly down, but it is better targeted and has therefore made a net gain of seats.
- First-Past-The-Post has once again shown its power as an electoral system, taking two bad candidates and giving them impossible results. It’s strange how such a blunt system can do such a good job at capturing a mood – I’m sure I’m not the only one who wanted May to be untenable but Corbyn to lose…
Meanwhile I am off to write a re-make of Kind Hearts and Coronets about a Prime Minister who narrowly fails to get a majority so has small-majority opposition MPs quietly bumped off in the hope of winning the by-elections. I put this out there so that anyone who tries the same thing can sit comfortable in the knowledge that they will face the full force of copyright law.
Instead, why not consider the situation of this man, whose problems have been little discussed during the election: