The hard way. Gaining votes is not enough

February 13th, 2018

In some ways, the 2017 election went as expected for the Conservative party. When the election was called on 18 April, the seven polls that had been published so far that month had averaged 43.3%. When the election was held on 8 June, the Conservatives tallied 42.4%. Any soothsayer would have been happy with that degree of accuracy. This represented a net increase of 5.5% of the vote share on the 2015 result. Clearly the Conservative message gathered new recruits.

Yet the Conservatives lost seats, lost their majority and came perilously close to losing their grip on government. This was not part of the plan.

What went wrong? It’s important to note that the problem for the Conservatives was not on the vote-gathering side. For all the criticisms of Theresa May’s election campaign, the Conservatives gained votes and, as noted above, polled pretty much what you would have expected them to at the start of the campaign.

No, the problem for the Conservatives was that Labour, completely unexpectedly, got their act together. Labour’s average in those same seven polls in early April 2017 was 25.4%. On 8 June they tallied 40%, increasing their vote share by 9.6%. In the meantime, both the Lib Dems and UKIP collapsed. In early April, those two parties looked set to get more than a fifth of the vote between them. In the end, UKIP and the Lib Dems together didn’t get into double digits.

The Conservatives will reflect that winning additional support is a Pyrrhic victory if the price for doing so is to see their opponents make greater gains. One more such victory and they will indeed be lost.

What we have seen is a re-emergence of the two party system. 82.4% of the electorate voted for one or other of Labour and the Conservatives. Their combined vote share last exceeded their 2017 tally in 1970 (who knows, perhaps EU membership caused party fragmentation). This is a truly remarkable shift, given that Labour and the Conservatives last exceeded 70% combined in 2001.

It appears that Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn have between them converted most of the None Of The Above into One Of The Above, whether for positive or negative reasons. Labour have co-opted aggrieved Remain supporters and those enthused by Jeremy Corbyn and his policies. The Conservatives have brought excited Leave supporters and those horrified by Jeremy Corbyn into the fold. (Aggrieved Remain supporters who were also horrified by Jeremy Corbyn and excited Leave supporters who were enthused by Jeremy Corbyn appear to have broken mainly for Labour in each case.)

The net effect has left Labour and the Conservatives at something close to parity. Neither on reflection should be particularly happy about this state of affairs. The scope for squeezing other parties further looks limited outside Scotland. There is always the possibility of converting non-voters into voters, but 2017 non-voters are going to need to be given a reason that they did not then possess for getting out to the polling booth. The nature of such a reason is not immediately obvious.

So for either to be able to gain a solid overall majority, in all likelihood it is going to need to see the other main party’s 2017 coalition disintegrate or at least flake away. And this needs to happen while they hold their own coalition together. That is quite a balancing act.

There has been a lot of commentary on the static nature of the polls at present. Why is this surprising? The two drivers of votes last year, Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn, remain much as they were. Britain has not yet left the EU, the terms on which it will do so have not yet been agreed and so few have changed their minds about the merits of Brexit. Meanwhile Jeremy Corbyn remains in situ.

By the time of the next election, the date of Brexit will in all probability be a historical event. Britain, however, will probably still be in the throes of negotiating its longterm deal with the EU. That process hasn’t actually started yet, though you’d be forgiven for thinking otherwise. If you’re sick of hearing about Brexit now, I suggest you stock up on antiemetics for the next decade.

Will the public have decisively changed its mind about Brexit? Candidly, I doubt it. The two sides have become ever more entrenched and the government has done nothing to heal divisions. I can easily imagine Brexit being as strong a driver of votes, especially on the Remain side. One B-Day has passed, Leavers might, however, move onto other subjects of concern which might not be so naturally addressed by the Conservatives. This looks distinctly awkward for the Conservatives.

What of the other vote driver, Jeremy Corbyn? He will by 72 by the time the next election is due. Will he really stand for a five year term as Prime Minister in 2022? It can’t be ruled out but my guess is that he would prefer if he could to pass the baton onto a reliable member of the next generation.

If I’m right, both the pro-Corbyn part of Labour’s coalition and the anti-Corbyn part of the Conservatives’ coalition will be far shakier than before. That would probably be riskier for Labour than the Conservatives, given Jeremy Corbyn’s seven nation army appeal to younger voters. If I’m wrong, Britain will see stasis on the other vote-driver from 2017 as well.

To sum up, after a period of volatility Britain might be about to see a period of trench warfare, with neither side making substantial advances and both struggling to consolidate their recent gains. If so, we can expect to see both sides going over the top regularly and a constant feeling of senseless waste.

Alastair Meeks