Wednesday, 21 June 2017

The age of extremes?

Just to finish up on our General Election coverage, one thing that was very noticeable about the whole thing was the return of two-party politics. Two massive narratives collided, like two great space liners crunching up against one another in a science fiction film. Brexit and the asperity of self-restraint against big-spending and universal public services: that's quite the contrast of narratives, and one in fact that the public seemed to like, because 83 per cent of them voted Conservative or Labour. All the textbooks saying that we were headed for a multi-party system, an age of coalitions, perhaps proportional representation? Well, we weren't - or at least, not yet.

Let's take a look around the parties that were put in the shade by the Conservative Godzilla and the Labour Megalon. First, the Liberal Democrats. They had high hopes, going into this campaign, that they might make a good number of gains. All the talk at the start was that they were the main threat to the Conservatives' majority. Perhaps they'd steal back quite a few of those 27 losses they'd made to the Conservatives in 2015. Maybe being 'the party of Remain' would fire them up. It seemed for a moment like the famed #libdemfightback of online yore could be on. After all, even at a very conservative estimate, perhaps one-fifth or one-quarter of the public really don't like Brexit. But the Lib Dems didn't get very far at all. They put on just three seats, overall, on the nine that they had at the end of the last Parliament - and there was a very high turnover involved there, because they lost Richmond Park and Southport to the Conservatives, and Leeds North West and Sheffield Hallam to Labour.

The Lib Dems were in a bind. Remainers seemed to flock to Labour, fixing on just about the only national remedy they could find for a really hard and fast Brexit - even though Labour in this respect is not that much better than the Conservatives. On the other hand, they faced what the political scientist Matthew Goodwin called a 'blue wall' (£) in their old South West heartlands: defecting Ukippers meant that the Conservatives just had huge numbers of Eurosceptical voters to draw on, who objected to the Liberal Democrats open, liberal, cosmopolitan message. So although they had a good go at taking St Ives, elsewhere in Cornwall (for instance) it was Labour that surged, not the Liberal Democrats. Across the rest of their battlefield, they often went backwards in seats they used to hold: in Torbay, in Chippenham, and many others. Strange days indeed. So they've lost another leader as Tim Farron (above) departs the stage, they face a leadership election, and to be fair it's hard to see how they can return to being a national party any time soon. Take a look at their target seats. Four look well within range, but then after two more (the aforementioned Hallam, and upscale Cheltenham) their path gets really, really rocky. If they want to return to their halcyon days of 2010 (though that is, admittedly, a high bar) they would need to make 45 gains and take Woking on a swing of 18%. We're not saying that can't happen - these days, everything seems up for grabs - but the world of Lib Demmery is a lot drabber and colder today than it might have been.

Elsewhere, the Scottish National Party seems to be experiencing a recessional. It's hard to tell where and then this will stop, because they've never done this well before and there aren't many yardsticks by which to judge all this. The context wasn't great for them. The idea of a second independence referendum seems anathema to most Scots just at this moment, though holding another plebiscite somewhere down the line is by no means an unpopular idea. The 'Yes' vote, though generally holding up, also gives the impression of fading a little overall, though individual polls will bounce around. The 2017 General Election also saw the SNP rather crowded out of relevance as the battle between Mayery and Corbynism raged. So they suffered. They lost their ex-leader, their Westminster leader, and overall saw 21 of their seats fall to the Conservatives, Labour and even the Liberal Democrats. Now to some extent this was just reversion to the mean. The SNP still won the majority of Scottish seats, and they could hardly have been expected to replicate the extraordinary success of 2015, when they returned 56 MPs. But there are deeper problems here for the SNP. Support for independence just isn't growing. Indeed, it might be slipping a bit. The state of Scottish public services also seems to be rising up to the political agenda, and it might not matter all that much that the SNP government in Edinburgh are not entirely masters of their own budgetary fate: you're in government and people don't like what they're getting, they'll punish you.

The Conservatives' leader in Scotland, Ruth Davidson, is pretty popular and - like it or loathe it - encapsulates an alternative Conservative vision to the rather unpleasant and now uncertain government in Westminster. Labour seems to be recovering a little bit of self-confidence too, though these are very much baby steps given the party's fall from grace in recent years. Overall, indeed, the SNP were lucky this time. They could have lost a lot more seats. There are fifteen more within about two thousand votes or so of the other parties. Losing those would have meant the SNP held 'only' 20 of the 59 Scottish seats. The Conservatives, in particular, are now breathing down the SNP's collective neck across the Highlands and Islands (in Perth and North Perthshire, for instance). This one could go either way. There's no sense of anything inevitable or structural about the SNP's electoral decline. But their days of total dominance seem past - for now.

The Greens seem to have hollowed themselves out for the sake of the nation this time. They stood down in about 22 seats (including marginal Ilford North), helping Labour - but then saw lots of seats that they might have had a go at (including Bristol West and the Isle of Wight) get further away from them. They just got totally eviscerated by Corbynism's appeal to their idealistic and left-wing voters: their altruism in trying to restrict a Conservative landslide to a mere victory, as it seemed at the time, made them even less relevant when that victory gradually receded beyond the horizon. And the United Kingdom Independence Party, well... what to say about UKIP? Their leader was laughed at in debate - before resigning after the vote. Their vote collapsed. They lost the majority of their deposits, when they had only forfeited 80 in 2015. Their party organisation is reportedly falling apart as the whole apparatus collapses back into a now-natural Conservative home for many of its ideas. It is hard to see them continuing, in any way, shape or form, as a real force - unless a 'soft Brexit' deal revives their fortunes. Even then, their credibility and the whole point of them seems to have been erased. If nothing big changes, they're yesterday's party.

Orange, green, purple: they are all draining out of the landscape as the two big giants fight it out, while in Scotland the gold tide of the SNP has abated and fallen back. Two party politics appears back with a vengeance - but with one massive caveat. Both of these huge new coalitions are very fragile. If Prime Minister Theresa May falls, and a new leader makes a break for (effectively) associate EU membership, lots of the Conservatives' new blue-collar and working-class adherents may break away. Alternatively, if Labour votes for a hard Brexit package that makes no concessions whatsoever on the Customs Union or Single Market, lots of young Remainers are going to react with fury (recall their anger when Labour merely voted to trigger Article 50). Yes, right now it looks like we might be heading back to the 1950s. But politics is speeding up. Don't be surprised if the kaleidoscope shifts again.


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