Spending election week abroad, I woke on Friday morning and, looking at the results, was struck with a wave of nostalgia for it all seemed so much like the 1970s when I was a young political enthusiast with first the Communist then Labour parties. It all came back; two parties neck-and-neck swapping government and sharing 80-90% of the vote, slim majorities (in October, 1974, Labour got a majority of 3 with 39.2% of the vote), minority government (remember the Lib-Lab pact), ill-timed elections (Wilson went early in 1970), wrong opinion polls (they gave Labour a lead of over 12% in 1970 instead the Conservatives won by over 3%), EU referendums, election of a left-wing Labour leader (Michael Foot in 1980) and, perhaps best of all, vicious in-fighting inside Labour culminating in the electoral disaster of 1983. The last has perhaps the biggest resonance for today as it allowed Jeremy Corbyn to slip past two warring Social Democrats into what had been seen as a likely win the new Social Democrat Party. (I drove Jeremy around the constituency on that day).
There were actually two triumphs last Thursday. Obviously Labour's huge increase in its share of the vote, up 9.5% since 2015 but also, and much overlooked, a smaller but still significant Conservative triumph in increasing its share of the vote by 5.5%. Yes, I know this sounds the wrong note in this moment of triumph but read on. Of course, they suffered huge and humiliating losses in constituencies like Canterbury and Reading but this was almost but not quite compensated by big inroads into what had previously been Labour heartlands. Check out Bishop Auckland (Tory vote share up 14.4%, Labour majority 502), Dudley North (up 15.6%, Labour majority 22), Ashfield (up 19.3%, Labour majority 441) and Walsall where they won with a vote share up 15.9% and a majority of 2,601. Even, and don't mention this when Dennis Skinner is in the room, in the rock-solid seat of Bolsover, the Tory vote-share went up by 16.1%. Bolsover still isn't marginal, of course but Dennis might bump into some Tories when he shops in the local Poundland.
The result of this is twofold. First, politics in England and also in Scotland and Northern Ireland has been reduced to a tight two-horse race with a large number of marginal seats in all parts of the country. An article in the Guardian, (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/11/labour-can-win-majority-if-it-pushes-for-new-general-election-within-two-years), shows that Labour could become the largest party on a swing to it of just 1.6% by winning a further clutch of seats in southern England and Scotland whilst the Tories could gain 19 seats in all parts of the country on a swing of just 1%. These kind of electoral swings are almost impossible to predict with the result that the next election is going to be chancy for both parties.
The second outcome of the election is that smaller parties have been hammered, some almost to oblivion with both major parties benefitting. Ukip is almost certainly finished but the results for the Green Party are almost as disastrous and the Liberal Democrats have barely hung on.
So is it back to the '70s. Well, not really because in that decade the two-party clash was heavily class-based whereas now the class base of politics has become become distorted even inverted. Robert Ford writing in the Guardian (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/jun/11/new-electoral-map-for-britain-revenge-of-remainers-to-upending-class-politics) produced the best analysis I have seen. Part of it goes:
The 2017 surge in turnout, with particularly high engagement from the young, was something new. But other shifts in last week’s election reflect the continuation of well-established trends. One was the ever-growing education divide in politics. This grew sharply in 2015, when Labour under Ed Miliband did much better among graduates than school-leavers and was also very clear in the EU referendum. It looks likely to have grown again this year due to a shift at the other end of the scale, with May’s Conservatives gaining ground in areas where voters with few qualifications congregate, while falling completely flat in graduate-heavy seats. The education divide reflects major differences in identity, values and outlook between more socially conservative and nationalistic school-leavers and more liberal and cosmopolitan graduates. Similar deep divides were visible in recent elections in Austria, France, the Netherlands and the US. The clash between graduates and school-leavers looks set to be a central part of democratic political competition both here and elsewhere in the future.
While deepening education divides pull Labour-voting graduates and Conservative-voting school-leavers ever further apart, the traditional class divides that have structured politics in Britain for generations seem to have been inverted this year.
Labour, founded as the party of the working class, and focused on redistributing resources from the rich to the poor, gained the most ground in 2017 in seats with the largest concentrations of middle-class professionals and the rich. The Conservatives, long the party of capital and the middle class, made their largest gains in the poorest seats of England and Wales. Even more remarkably, after years of austerity, the Conservatives’ advance on 2015 was largest in the seats where average incomes fell most over the past five years, while the party gained no ground at all in the seats where average incomes rose most.
Britain’s class politics has been turned completely upside down in 2017. Wealthy professionals in leafy suburbs have swung behind a Labour leader who pledges to sharply increase their taxes, while it was struggling blue-collar workers in deprived and declining seats who were most attracted by the party of austerity cuts to public services and welfare.
The fact is that the election shows that England (I am not qualified to comment on other countries in the Union) is a deeply divided country and that we are entering the Brexit negotiations in a dangerously unstable social and political context. This is not something to celebrate.
Just a final note on my own party, the Greens. As noted above, we have been effectively almost wiped out in the election. It is no use trying to disguise this fact as Caroline Lucas attempts to do in trying to promote the success of progressive alliances. (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/10/progressive-alliances-future-of-british-politics) All that happened was that some local Green Party's did not stand candidates. That's it. Alliances involve some kind of mutual agreement and that did not happen. Not anywhere. And why should it have. In our target seat of Sheffield Central, our vote-share halved to 8% whilst Labour shot ahead with an increase of 15.9%, pretty much there largest in the north. (It is worth noting that in the Labour gain from the Lib Dxems in neighbouring Sheffield Hallam, the Labour vote-share hardly increased whilst the Conservative share shot up by over 10%) In the other target, Bristol West it was the same story. Our vote-share crashed by 14% to just 12.9% whilst Labour shot up by 30.3%. The fact is that throughout the country, the electoral constituency which should have contained our biggest source of support, the young, educated, environmentally aware Remainers, surged to the polls to vote Labour.
Lucas' view that progressive alliances are the future of British politics is startlingly naive. We have a national vote-share of 1.6% just below UKIP which all agree is effectively destroyed. Why should a party with a share of 40% have any interest in a deal? It is understandable that the Lib Dems, whose share dropped to just 7.4% despite winning some seats, might be interested in acquiring a few more. But Labour, whose leader has never shown the slightest interest in electoral reform? Pull the other one, I am afraid, Caroline.
So what should we do? First, we need to have a reality check. We have failed and failed badly. Second, we need to try and establish just what went wrong. Yes, that main mean focus groups and all the paraphernalia of modern political research. Third, and probably most controversial, we need to draw very firmly away from suggestions of alliances with anyone. In particular we need to draw away from Labour and establish a clear political identity and not one just based on environmental concerns. Certainly root-and-branch constitutional reform has to be part of this but we also have to agree a clear social platform together with taxation policies such as the land and wealth taxes which Labour so markedly steered away from.
It might work, it might not. But to return to my nostalgic vision of the '70s, we are in unstable and fast-moving times and what we need now is a clear head not one full of romantic nonsense. Perhaps I should end by quoting one last expert, the true prophet of the age and our very own Nobel Laureate:
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is
An the first one now
Will later be be last
For the times they are a-changin'.