UK General Election 2019: Some Reflections
After the UK General Election that took place yesterday, some member of the POLIR team have shared some preliminary reflections.
David Bates: “From Canterbury to Workington”
In Canterbury the Labour Party put together a successful hegemonic moment, uniting the remain vote around the figure of the widely popular local MP Rosie Duffield. The Labour project at the national level failed, in part because of how the public came to perceive Corbyn, and his Party’s policies (particularly on Brexit).
On the other hand, the Conservative Party managed to bring together traditional Tories, the wreckage of the ‘old working class’ and the generally apolitical into a moment united under the empty signifier ‘get Brexit done’. By an empty signifier, I refer to an empty phrase, which those of quite differing ideological orientation can fill with meaning. So, for the entrepreneurially minded Tories, this echoes the management mantra ‘get the job done’. For others, it seems more like a desperate cry ‘just get Brexit done, for goodness sake; please make this end’.
Once we look at the social basis of these hegemonic moments, the picture becomes a little clearer. The socio-demographic basis of Canterbury is shifting. It has a large student population with three universities and an increasingly privileged middle class who have come to the Labour Party later in the day, but who have little connection with its more traditional working- class base (what we might term the ‘Whitstable effect’). In short, Canterbury is increasingly socially liberal and pro-EU in a way which sets it apart from those Labour constituencies which the Conservatives have managed to capture; for this reason, the Conservatives may struggle to ‘recapture’ it.
But the social and demographic base of areas such as Workington is quite different. The BBC journalist Laura Kuenssberg repeated Johnson’s words, stating that traditional Labour supporters had ‘lent’ their vote to the Conservatives. But the collective social basis which tied such workers to the Labour Party has eroded. The solidarity generated in the context of the exercise of skilled labour, has been replaced by mass unemployment, and debt fuelled individualism. The constituency of areas such as Workington could not represent themselves, so they must be represented. It is not really surprising that it is to the right that their attachment has been made.
The question is whether this new attachment will last?
Laura Cashman: “Time will tell”
This election was bitter and divisive. The outcome has shocked many but we need to take a step back (and out of the safety of our echo chamber bubbles), to understand the bigger picture. Everything that is wrong with the 24 hours news cycle has crystallised in this election, where the deluge of new updates for social media channels suffocated any possibility to pause and critique the campaign frenzy.
This combativeness has energised some to forge new networks in pursuit of common goals. However, it has alienated many others who yearn for more measured and thoughtful debate. Slogans like ‘Get Brexit Done’ or ‘Stop Brexit’ were simplistic and disingenuous but the results, at first glance, seem to show that there was no appetite among voters for anything more nuanced. That assessment is incorrect. When we vote in this country one tick in one box represents a host of contradictory positions. The first past the post system presents a simplified picture of a complicated country. My hope would be that given a comfortable majority and no longer hostage to the more extreme edges of the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson may recognise this. The country is crying out for a leader who will listen to all sides rather than blindly bulldoze their way though. Unfortunately, I fear that will not be the case.
The risks of where an emboldened Boris Johnson cabinet will lead us are clear. We are headed for a bumpy Brexit and the uncharted territory of making trade deals as the junior partner accepting rather than dictating terms. Aided and abetted by millionaire backers, unconstrained by any rules in the ‘wild west’ of social media and now authorised by voters, this government has effectively a carte blanche to do as they please. This is a bleak assessment but there is also room for some optimism. The paralysis of the last three years is close to ending. The Conservative Party, who wanted this Brexit for so long, now have full responsibility for its delivery. If it all goes as well as promised, then great. The doomsayers will be proven wrong. If it goes badly then they only have themselves to blame. Time will tell.
Tom Sharkey: “There is only ever us”
Look after each other. Today many people woke up sad, angry and disappointed by the results of the election. Not just Labour voters and supporters of Jo Swinson, but Conservatives who lost in our constituency; voters in Northern Ireland who are unsure about the future of their country; Scottish Unionists, or anyone else feeling anxious and unsure about the future. bell hooks implores us to work within an ‘ethic of love’. This is not a trite plea for peace, but a rallying cry for compassion and political action, and a call not to fall into the value system of patriarchal, white supremacy creating ‘us and them’. There is only ever an us.
From the perspective of radical politics little has changed. A rally will be held on Friday after the election calling on the people to stand up and take the power back for themselves. This event was organised before the election, regardless of result and illustrates the disavowal of traditional forms of politics. Our job is to make the changes we feel our communities need, regardless of how we feel and who we are. Compassion can be exhausting and we must remember that there aren’t ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people, but the fault line runs through all of us.
Whether we like it or not, we are inescapably linked to each other. In the words of Murray Bookchin: ‘If we do not do the impossible, we shall be faced with the unthinkable’.
Demetris Tillyris: “The battle over Britain has just started”
As the bricks which comprised the ‘red wall’ started to crumble – as traditional Labour heartlands, working-class and mining communities stretching from North Wales to Grimsby and further to the North swung to the Conservatives – it was becoming increasingly apparent that the results of the exit poll which, quite dramatically perhaps, pointed towards a Conservative landslide and, correspondingly, towards a devastating defeat for the Labour party would, indeed, materialise.
Though astonishing, the result of the General Election is remarkably clear: Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has gained 66 seats, securing its biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher’s 1987 victory, whereas the Labour party suffered its biggest defeat, in terms of seats gained, since the 1930s. So too, are some of the reasons for such an outcome: the simplicity of the Conservative message – the endeavour to ‘get Brexit done’ – combined with lacklustre leadership from, and the public’s deep-seated distrust of Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s ambiguous stance on Brexit and its rather convoluted policies, led to a seismic shift in the political landscape of England.
What is, nonetheless, less than clear is what might follow from all this. To be sure, the collapse of the red wall, juxtaposed with the Labour Party’s performance in London, will (and should) prompt considerable soul-searching in the party. Yet, the question which will lurk in the background of the ensuing Labour recriminations, is in which direction the next leader of the party should steer the wheel. A similarly momentous challenge also confronts Boris Johnson and the Conservative Party. In his victory speech Johnson suggested that the outcome of the election provides the Conservative Party with an ‘irrefutable, unarguable’ mandate to ‘Get Brexit Done’, to ‘unite the country and to take it forward’. One might well excuse Johnson for failing to note that his lofty mandate has been provided by less than 45 percent of the voters. But, the trouble with his assertion lies primarily elsewhere: the rather familiar idea of a democratic mandate is an innocent fairy-tale. As A. Lawrence put it:
‘The devotee of democracy is much in the same position as the Greeks with their oracles. All agreed that the voice of an oracle was the voice of god, but everybody allowed that when he spoke he was not as intelligible as might be desired’.
The slogan ‘Get Brexit Done’ has been (and is) intentionally ambiguous. It is neither clear what that slogan entails, nor should we expect agreement on what it might entail. Indeed, ‘Get Brexit Done’ seems to enjoy the support of proponents of two radically different and incompatible visions of Britain’s future each of which is espoused by a rather specific sect of Conservative party voters: an in-ward looking vision which entails a rejection of globalisation, and of the neoliberal policies which have displaced and corroded local communities, economies, and traditional values on the one hand, and a more out-ward looking vision which entails the very aspirations and principles which the in-ward looking vision rails against on the other. The challenge for Johnson, then, would be to reconcile that which is irreconcilable, without disappointing the aspirations of the supporters of the two aforementioned visions, whilst, at the same time, fending off pressure from the bolstered SNP to call for a second independence referendum. The battle over Britain’s future is not over. It has just begun.
Paul Anderson: “Territorial Déjà vu?”
Another election, another remarkable victory for the SNP. Outperforming expectations (including among the party faithful) the Scottish Nationalists secured their second-best result in the history of British general elections. Having secured 47 seats (some are saying 48, but Neale Haney who won in the Labour strong hold Kirkaldy and Cowdenbeath is currently suspended by the party), chatter of a second independence referendum is on the lips of many. For independence supporters, the case for independence has never been stronger, but the path to independent statehood has never been trickier. The demand for Indyref2 was a central feature of the SNP’s election campaign, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson and colleagues have been resolute in their opposition to a second vote. Given the centrality of Indyref2 in the SNP’s campaign and securing 45% of the vote, it is hard to deny the SNP have won the much-coveted mandate for a second referendum. Indeed, if Boris Johnson now has a mandate to ‘get Brexit done’ on 44% of the vote, the SNP on 45% certainly do too.
Wales has seen nothing short of a Conservative revolution. The party gained six seats (all from Labour), taking its overall total to 14. Labour still came first (22 seats), but this is the worst ever general election result for the party since 1983 and seriously calls into question whether Labour will be able to defend its position as the dominant force in the Welsh Assembly election in May 2021. As has been the case in Scotland for the last few years, the traditional Labour vote can no longer be taken for granted.
In a first for UK general elections, Northern Ireland returned more nationalist than unionist MPs. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds was the biggest casualty of the night, as well as the party itself, no longer the kingmaker in Westminster. The cross-community Alliance Party won its first seat in the House of Commons, while Sinn Féin took 7 seats and the SDLP 2. It has now been over 1000 days since Northern Ireland had a functioning government at Stormont, and while parties like the DUP may not relish the opportunity to go to the polls again, agreement is urgently needed for the restoration of the power-sharing system.
The 2019 election once again illuminates the political disjuncture taken root in our Disunited Kingdom. Unionism is no longer the majority force representing Northern Ireland at Westminster and the Scottish and British governments are on an inevitable course for constitutional collision. Once again, the tectonic plates of British politics have shifted and the UK’s once strong constitutional edifice is beginning to crumble.
Sarah Lieberman: “Don’t give up politics”
In our local Canterbury and Whitstable constituency, the Labour Party returned the incumbent MP Rosie Duffield to Parliament. After the result was declared, she was interviewed and said that she felt excited, and that she felt she had so much to carry on with, having really only just started.
However, at 10pm when the exit polls were released, this did not look like a foregone conclusion – indeed it was suggested that there was an 88% chance that the Conservatives would take the seat.
So what won it for Rosie? In my opinion, she has proved herself to be a fantastic local MP – she visited my 8 year old daughter’s junior school to shake her hand when she won a Remembrance Day art competition. She has also proved herself in Westminster, discussing her experience of domestic violence from the benches in a professional capacity but with a personal touch that drew many to tears, hit front pages, and reinforced her position as a valued Member of the Commons.
It is 4.30am at the time of writing, and I have watched the results come in since 10pm. Conservative gains are now coming thick and fast and it does look as though the exit polls may on the national level be correct, or at least close. This means that Canterbury is an anomaly, Rosie Duffield’s success has certainly not been replicated around Kent, and the Labour party have seen considerable losses around the country.
While in 2017 the success of the Labour party was attributed to the large student population, this time around in 2019 this is not so much the case. Turnout in this constituency was impressive, 75.36% of the electorate turned out to vote – this is not unusual in a previously marginal seat – but it goes to show that it was not only the students who voted this time around. Students, working mums, retired couples, young men, all turned out to campaign and vote. Anna Firth, the Conservative candidate, also returned a large number of votes, and although Duffield increased her majority to almost 2000, we cannot discount the Conservative vote.
The winner in Canterbury and Whitstable is the democratic process. People are again interested in politics, in party politics, in local candidates and in the issues that concern us all. Let us hope this continues, and those who have moved themselves to be involved in the election campaigns are moved to continue their work now that the election is over. The general election might be over, but we have a lot of work to do to fix a lot of local, national and international issues. Don’t give up hope, don’t give up campaigning, don’t give up on politics.