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What Now? A Recap of the 2017 UK Election Results (Part 1)

Given the not so palatable result of the June 8th election, and the fact that the ‘majority’ party has still not been able to form a viable government, it is worth taking some time to reflect on where this election has left the various parties, the reasons for this upset and its possible implications. In other words, who won? And, perhaps more importantly, who lost? Here I will attempt to give a summary of all the major parties’ standing directly after the 2017 election, analysing vote share, number of seats and general direction of travel. This first part will focus solely on the national parties, while discussions of the major regional parties such as the SNP and DUP will form the next part of the analysis.


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Conservatives

Going into this election, the assumption was that the Tories would win an increased majority, perhaps 30 or 40 seats rather than their previous 16. The giddy heights of six months ago seemed to have faded in the summer breeze as a truly dire Tory campaign staggered drunkenly across the finish line. A few national commentators, however, considered a hung parliament a real possibility. The result was shocking to all sides, and left the party, and especially the prime minister, enfeebled and scrambling. May’s authority has vanished, and the only reason she is able to continue is that her party are terrified of the consequences should they kick her out. Calls for her resignation have come from all sides, and it is clear that if she loses the support of her party then she will not survive a day longer.

While hardly a crushing defeat for the Tory party in terms of seats, this election is a lot worse for them than the raw numbers suggest. Labour and the Lib-Dems have made substantial inroads into Tory-held seats across the country, but especially in London and other more urban areas. Gains by the Scottish Tories are a needed piece of good news, but they have masked the failure in the Tory vote in England. The promised Tory surge in Wales failed to materialise, with them actually losing three seats on their 2015 total. The fact that Amber Rudd, the home secretary, came within a whisker of losing her seat is testament to the sharp reversal of fortunes for the Conservatives.

The Tories’ demographic spread looks far weaker in 2017 than it was in 2015, when Cameron gained 33% of the BAME (Black and Ethnic Minority) vote, while according to Lord Ashcroft’s post-election poll May only gained 21% in 2017. These ethnic minority votes were hard-won by the Tory modernisers, and may not be easy to regain. The Tories also suffered serious losses in the 18-24, 25-34 and 34-44 bracket, showing that May’s plan to appeal to older, ex UKIP voters ended up turning off many younger and middle-aged ones.

Despite all this, there are some crumbs of comfort in these results for the Tories. I have already mentioned their exceptional night in Scotland, unseating twelve SNP MPs including big beasts like Angus Robertson and Alex Salmond. Ruth Davidson can be justly proud of her achievement, and May will be indebted to her for easing the Tory pain. Solace may also be found in an increase in vote-share of 5.5%, a result that actually gives them a higher share of the vote than Tony Blair got in 1997. This is combined with a 1% swing towards them in heavily Leave voting areas, although dwarfed by the 7% swing to Labour in heavily remain voting areas.

The Tories remain the largest party, however they have suffered a bitter blow that may take a long while to recover from. Direction of travel matters in politics, and in comparison to the 2010 hung parliament, they resemble Brown’s Labour more than Cameron’s Tories, directionless and disordered, thrashing around in confusion and despair. Their current plan to go in for a coalition with the DUP could see them hit even harder among young and diverse voters than they already were this election, and these are Tory demographics that Cameron spent years cultivating and adding to. May’s strategy didn’t deliver nearly enough voters to counteract those lost, and the Tories will be looking towards the next election with a feeling of dread and foreboding.


Labour

On the face of it Labour had a good night, adding 34 seats to their total and increasing their vote share by 9.5%. Coming from such a low in the polls before the election was announced, this is a real achievement, and credit must be given their campaign, especially since certain sources suggest that there was a late swing towards Labour (though others strongly deny that there was such a swing).

One of the most unexpected aspects of the surge in Labour support was how broad it was. Compared to 2015, Labour made large gains in all age brackets with the exception of 55-64 and 65+, where the Conservatives gained votes. However, they were not so lucky with the geographical range of support, making gains in seats and vote share mostly in urban areas as opposed to rural seats, continuing a long-term weakness of Labour’s electoral platform.

Another extremely important aspect in Labour’s success was Momentum’s -the Corbyn-aligned group- ability to flood targeted seats with activists, making good use of Labour’s large and committed party membership. Despite the questions over the willingness of new Labour supporters to go canvassing, the weeks before the election saw huge numbers of such supporters turn up to help campaign, showing that momentum as a political force is here to stay.

That being said, to say that Labour ‘won’ the election is premature and a little silly at best. They remain sixty-four seats behind an actual majority, and, because of this, would be unable to form a coalition government even with the help of the SNP, Lib-Dems, Plaid Cymru, Green Party and Sinn Fein, were the latter to actually take their seats in parliament. They are also fifty-six seats behind the Conservatives and down 2.4% to them in terms of vote share. Labour find themselves in an extremely good starting place for the next election cycle, but are unable to have any direct influence in Westminster for the time being.

It should also be noted that the headline increase in vote share masks potential problems in Leave-voting Labour constituencies. As mentioned before, there was a swing to the Tories in heavily Leave voting seats, leading to Labour having its majorities cut in seats such as Dudley North and Great Grimsby. This was neutralised for the time being because many UKIP voters did return to Labour, but it could potentially prove an issue later on; Labour’s attitude towards Brexit is muddled to say the least, and it will soon have to make hard choices that risk alienating either its Leave or Remain voting supporters.

Furthermore, the structural issues within Labour have not gone away, and may re-surface by this election. Corbyn remains an outlier within the PLP with regards to his political views, and while most Labour MPs will keep their heads down, for now it seems doubtful that many will suddenly become paid-up Corbyn supporters. Issues like Trident will continue to divide the party, while PLP infighting or any attempt at a ‘purge’ of centrist Labour MPs would see party divisions back on the front pages. The local and mayoral election results for Labour were poor, and it remains to be seen whether the galvanising effect of Labour’s campaign can be maintained going into opposition.

Regardless of this, Labour remain in a good place for the time being. Corbyn has won the right to run again as Labour leader, and as long as the Tories are divided, Labour’s own divisions will be masked. The cracks in Labour’s coalition, however, have been papered over, not fixed, and they could easily re-open should the Tories begin to re-assert themselves or Labour’s internal tensions boil over.


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Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats had a mixed night, with big beasts dying and being resurrected as if by the hand of some mad necromancer, but on the whole it went better for them than was expected. They gained eight seats but lost five, ending the night on twelve seats, three up from 2015. While this sounds like quite a modest result, they were also able to eat into Tory majorities in England and SNP majorities in Scotland, leaving them in a good place to capitalise on in the next election. The return of former ministers such as Vince Cable and Jo Swinson will help give some needed credibility back to the party, and the small margin by which they lost certain seats suggests that tactical voting by Labour or Tory voters could see a few more Lib Dems elected next time around.

Zac Goldsmith won Richmond Park for the Tories by only forty-five votes, while Elizabeth Riches failed to take Fife North East off the SNP by only two votes, suggesting that these seats will be very much in play next election. Their comeback in Scotland was unexpected, and a strong result in the next Holyrood elections would help the Lib Dems look relevant. Their current biggest issue is that many people do not see them as a serious player within British politics, and any gain in seats would help change that perception.

It was not all good news for the Lib Dems, however, as their high seat turnover meant that while they gained a good number of seats they also lost a good number, chief among those being Nick Clegg’s former seat Sheffield Hallam. The fall of the Lib Dems biggest beast to Labour, combined with the slashing of Tim Farron’s majority to 777, suggests that the Lib Dems could be vulnerable to an attack from the left in a way not previously considered. It is also worth noting that the Lib Dems are actually down 1.2% of the vote across the country when compared to 2015, seeing their vote share squeezed by both Labour and the Conservatives.

Finally the loss of the Lib Dem’s last Welsh seat to Plaid Cymru has come as a bitter loss considering the Lib Dems (and their predecessor the Liberal Party) have always held at least one seat in Wales since 1859. In addition to this the support for the Welsh Lib Dems has tanked when compared with even twelve years ago, their vote share has collapsed and in some areas they have even done worse than UKIP, a party which lost its deposit in every Welsh seat it contested. The Lib Dems are going to need a revival in the regions if they are to become relevant again, and in Wales it looks like they are going backwards.

While it was overall a good night for them, the Lib Dems are still too few to have any major impact on the outcome of this parliament. Their pledge of a second referendum may have helped in some areas but it clearly lacks widespread appeal, and they have not taken enough Tory votes to effectively compete in their old stomping grounds of the South West. Focusing hard on previously won marginals, especially if combined with a Welsh revival, could see them brush the low twenties at the next election; But they must be careful not to appear an irrelevance during the next parliament, and figuring out some method of persuading liberal minded Tory and Labour voters away from their natural habitats must be their first priority.


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UKIP

UKIP suffered what can only be described as a catastrophic reversal of fortune, plunging 10.8% compared to 2015, ending up with a paltry 1.2% share of the vote. The loss of 10,000 votes for UKIP leader Paul Nuttall in Boston and Skegness, the seat that had the largest majority for Leave in the country, is emblematic of the electoral free fall UKIP now find themselves in. Nuttall pulled in 3,308 votes, while the Conservative candidate won on 27,271, an increase of 19.8% on 2015. This pattern, of Tory and Labour candidates draining the UKIP vote share, was repeated across the country, and accounts for a good chunk of the Labour and the Conservatives increase in national vote share.

The muted reception given to Paul Nuttall’s resignation as UKIP leader (Nick Clegg’s loss had more of an impact on election night) symbolises UKIPs problem: nobody really cares about them anymore. The question for UKIP post-Brexit was always, ‘what do you now stand for?’ and it’s a question UKIP has resolutely failed to answer. Both Labour and the Conservatives support Brexit, although with some caveats, so there’s now nothing controversial in respecting the Leave vote. Nuttall’s attempt to make UKIP the guardians of hard Brexit seems to have fallen on deaf ears, and the loss of Nigel Farage deprived UKIP of their biggest electoral asset (and best media performer).

Wales remains the only country in the union where UKIP have ever had any serious electoral success, gaining seven seats on the Welsh assembly in 2016, and so the loss of every single Welsh UKIP deposit shows the extent of the hole UKIP are currently in. The only small glimmers of hope for them rest on Farage’s possible return to British politics, alongside Labour’s fudging of the immigration issue, something that may hurt Corbyn in the medium turn. Even if these were to happen, however, it is by no means certain that UKIP would be in any state to take advantage of them.

Without a single seat to their name and with a cratering vote share it is difficult to see any path back to relevancy for UKIP. To have any hope of success, their next leader will have to be a truly exceptional statesman.


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Green Party

As is the pattern for smaller parties this election, the Greens have lost substantial vote share on their 2015 result. The Green Party lost 2.1% of its 2015 vote share, meaning it took only 1.6% of all votes cast in the 2017 election. It also failed in its bid to gain a second parliamentary seat, with its targets of Bristol West and the Isle of Wight remaining Labour and Conservative held, respectively.

The election of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour leader seems to have tempted many away from the Green Party, and it is likely that the vast majority of the lost Green support has ended up going to Labour. Despite this, Green leader Caroline Lucas has announced her intention to ally with other ‘progressive’ parties in a bid to frustrate the Conservatives in Westminster. The similarities between the Greens and Corbyn’s Labour have been noted by many, and a swing from the Greens towards Labour was priced into the election forecasts. The Green Party is far more willing to work with other parties than is the norm in British politics, something that has no doubt taken the sting out of their loss of vote share.

They do also have reason to be cheerful, with their leader Caroline Lucas almost doubling her lead in Brighton Pavilion, ending up with a majority of 14,689 votes. Despite this their loss of vote share may have serious long-term consequences, in 2015 the Greens got over 5% of the vote in 127 seats, thus allowing them to keep their £500 deposit in all those seats. In 2017 they have only got over 5% of the vote in 7 seats, not only losing badly everywhere but also meaning that they have a lot more money to pay back than they did last time.

While in terms of shared politics Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party is a good thing for the Greens, Corbyn remaining as Labour leader will undoubtedly continue to depress the Green vote across the country, as left-wing voters who would otherwise vote Green are attracted by Labour’s new direction. For the Greens this may be a price worth paying, but ironically it means that as their ideas become more mainstream, it becomes harder for them to be elected.

About Will Lane

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