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Aftermath

1. The Labour party is finished with Corbyn.

And if it’s sensible, with Corbynism. There is going to be an almighty battle for the soul of that party in the aftermath of the election. If the party decides that it wants to go with a Corbynite successor, then it will probably be smashed at the ballot box in the next election, and the outflow of MPs, donors, and activists will continue. Quite where they end up is hard to say; the Liberal Democrats have their own problems, and a fundamentally distinct value set.

2. The Liberal Democrats will need to do some soul-searching.

The Liberal Democrats are also facing some interesting decisions. For the past three years they have been the ‘party of Remain’, an identity which is no longer nearly so salient. Realistically, there will be little appetite for re-entering the EU for at least one election. They will need a new identity to hold together their electoral coalition of traditional voters and angry Remainers — if indeed one can be found. Their spectacular failure in this election — and the way in which they helped to bring it about — may turn off many voters.

In particular, the results in seats like Kensington — where Remain-backing MP Emma Dent Coad lost to the Conservatives by 150 votes in a race where the distant third place Liberal Democrats soaked up 9,000 votes — are likely to make hardcore Remain voters very angry.

Parachuting in Sam Gyimah as a candidate for an all-out campaign in a Remain marginal won by just 20 votes in 2017 was a horrendous strategic choice. The likely result was always to divide the Remain vote, and hand the seat back to the Conservatives. From the perspective of stopping Brexit, there was no need to compete for the seat. It was already held by a Remain-backing MP, and moreover a party which would be needed in any referendum/Remain coalition anyway.

This example is illustrative of the quality of decision making by the Liberal Democrat HQ throughout the campaign. The failings of the Labour party and Jeremy Corbyn are clear and obvious, and their unwillingness to cooperate clearly deserves opprobrium also. With that said, the behaviour of the Labour party was clear and obvious in advance. The Liberal Democrats had a choice between acting in ways which would maximise the chances of an outcome conducive to staying in the EU, or trying to maximise their electoral gains.

They opted for the latter, in a deeply unsuccessful way. The idea that a party seriously out for a second referendum or EU membership would compete full tilt for seats held by a party it already needed in coalition is silly. Remain voters may well feel that the Liberal Democrats let them down also.

Whether disaffected voters and MPs can come together to form a viable new force in British politics is a question for another day. Given the strictures of first past the post, I suspect not. The best option may be to try and reclaim the Labour party.

3. The Conservative realignment

The Conservative party will also have to lift its eyes above the short-term horizon of Brexit at some point. The coalition assembled for this election as the ‘get Brexit done’ party will need something to hold it together, unless Boris Johnson believes former Conservative voters who left over EU membership will return by the time the next election is held.

I can’t quite decide if the realignment of the Conservative party has already happened, or has just begun. The purge of the moderates and the tilt towards hard Brexit prior to this election suggests the first. The new electoral geography of the party — and the imminent expiration of its current monomaniacal Brexit focus — suggest the latter.

4. Brexit is happening, but not done.

Of course, Brexit won’t be finished on January 31st. We will have the ongoing delight of trade talks for some time. Johnson insists he will be done by the end of December. The only way I can reasonably see that happening is if he either signs on the dotted line of a deal written by the EU — sign over your fish, sign up to the level playing field, and we’ll give you the minimum.

What seems more likely to me given the leaks from his own government is that there will be a fudge. Getting the infrastructure in place to operate the Northern Irish protocol cleanly is likely to take longer than a year, and while a no-trade-deal Brexit is still on the table, a not-exactly-extension designed to gradually fall away as the UK transitions to whatever free trade deal is struck seems more likely.

One small positive from this election is that the role of the European Research Group in talks is likely to be significantly smaller. While their numbers may have grown, Johnson has a large enough majority that he can likely ignore them for the most part. This gives him room to manoeuvre towards either outcome.

5. The next fight could be for the union.

Perhaps the most depressing part of last night’s results is the resurgence of the Scottish National Party, which took 48 out of 59 seats in Scotland. Labour was all but wiped out, while the Conservatives lost more than half of their seats. The picture is less bleak in terms of raw votes, with the pro-Union share crossing the 50% mark, but an 8 point increase for the SNP still paints a deeply worrying picture.

The problem for unionists is that for the next five years we are going to have a heavily Conservative government, with its mandate drawn almost entirely from England, implementing an incredibly unpopular Brexit policy against the explicit desire of the Scottish people.

The SNP may be poor governors but they are excellent at selling grievance, and there will be things for Scotland to be legitimately aggrieved about. With Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, the stage is set for the SNP to portray themselves as the authentic voice and desire of the Scottish people, with a mandate for another referendum.

In terms of vote shares, this is clearly untrue. But in the media — and particularly the BBC which tends to apportion time and attention by Westminster seats — will give it credence, and in doing so credibility.

It is crucial that the Conservative party is seen to be listening to the Scottish people in the Brexit process. Quite how this is done in a one-year dash for a final deal, with six Conservative MPs north of the border, and with the SNP representatives in Westminster largely out to avoid cooperation or engagement at all costs, seeking to twist any refusal of their demands into a sleight against Scotland, is another matter. The idea of Citizens Assemblies was floated before the election. As a policy-generating idea, it’s not ideal. As a cover for actions, it might just do. Alternatively, Johnson could give a highly public role to the Secretary of State for Scotland, who could pour resources and effort into ‘listening exercises’ in Scotland.

These are ideas on the morning after. They are not highly thought through proposals. But if the experience of the referendum has taught us anything, it’s that you cannot cede the ground on an issue to your opponents merely because you are not going to be formally fighting it in the near future.

Pro-Europeans let the Brexiters make the running on the European Union for forty years, failing to make the case for membership or against leaving, until the final six months before the referendum. Throughout that period, UKIP and its allies in the press were campaigning continuously. The last Scottish referendum should have been a wake-up call for David Cameron that this method does not work. That he went ahead and applied it in the European Union referendum speaks poorly of his strategic sense.

Whether Boris will repeat that mistake remains to be seen.

If we want to fight this and win, we are going to have to work across the Remain-Leave divide, and we are going to have to start fighting it now. We have the advantage that we will be able to at least dictate the timing, and with the size of the majority Johnson holds we will have no excuse for failing to take the actions we can to tilt the playing field in our favour — directing public investment and attention north of the border.

6. The culture of politics is going to change

Boris Johnson did not just secure a governing majority in this election. He has probably also secured a change in the way politics have been conducted.

Vote Leaveism1 works. We knew that before the results came out last night. We knew it before the 2017 election, when Theresa May stepped back from its worst excesses in favour of a refusal to answer awkward questions. We even knew it in 2016. Vote Leaveism works, and its expected failure was never the reason for refraining from it. The reason we don’t win elections by pouring poison into the veins of the body politic is that we have to live with what results. We choose not to use these tactics because we want a better politics.

The tragedy of this election is the triumph of a Conservative party which is no longer recognisably conservative. The rot in truth set in well before 2016, but in hindsight that was when it took the entity whole. The capture of the natural party of government by people who have realised there is very little punishment for breaking the norms around honesty, scrutiny, and accountability in politics, but not quite why we wanted those norms in the first place, could prove to be one of the longest lasting effects of the last three years.

Up until now the move for a ‘sensible’ fight against this dishonesty has largely held. Corbyn’s rhetoric on the NHS grew more frantic towards the end of the campaign, but the bulk of the party — and others such as the Liberal Democrats — never quite got behind it. Theresa May’s step back in 2017 helped in this.

Now that the Conservatives have won a thumping majority behind it, there is little reason to believe that other parties won’t follow suit. Queensbury rules are all well and good in a well-refereed ring, but following them on the street is inadvisable at best.

A more honest politics will not magically reappear. It will have to be something we actively work towards. And unfortunately, so long as the government is determined to win by any means necessary, meeting the standards we wish to install will likely leave us out in the cold. Things may have to get far worse before they can begin to get better.

7. As could our style of government

For the first time we may will be experiencing Vote Leaveism in government, with a solid majority, and no real internal dissent to hold back its worst excesses. Holding this government to account is likely to be a deeply unrewarding task, particularly in the absence of a functioning or viable opposition.

We will be relying on our other institutions — particularly the press — as never before. Their track record throughout the referendum period — and the ease with which they have allowed themselves to be cowed by successive Conservative governments and the initial Leave campaign — does not inspire confidence.

Whether Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings can continue to portray themselves as the outsiders and underdogs fighting on behalf of the people when they hold a vast majority remains to be seen.

8. Unless we see a return to reputations

The last three years of British politics took place under almost unique conditions. The EU referendum and its aftermath can be seen as a brief ‘winner-takes all’ period, giving the victor the right to set in stone — or at least an international treaty — the rules under which the country will operate for at least a generation.

EU membership in some senses resembled a forced compromise, under which the extremes at both ends of the economic spectrum were agreed to be ‘off-limits’; no mass-subsidisation or nationalisation for the socialists, no American-style deregulation for the hardline free-marketeers.

Leaving the EU puts all options back on the table, but only for the initial period afterwards. The first government to take power after departure can pour resources into fixing the state of play into one amenable to their politics and inimical to those of their opponents. This does not just include the path dependency of investments and policies, but the blunt fact that the deals we strike with the EU and the USA will tie up certain commitments in international law – making resiling impractical.

At the same time, the sheer size of the prize on offer may have been what caused the breakdown in our politics over the last three years. While it is possible to sustain ‘cooperation’ on desired play in repeated games — for instance, honesty in politics — adding a large single prize may result in the breakdown of the same. When this period is resolved, it is possible that the parties may revert to cooperation over the longer run.

How optimistic you feel about this is entirely up to you. This argument was stronger for the initial Vote Leave and Stronger In campaigns, which had no institutional reputation to care about, and were never going to stick around beyond the initial referendum. Now that the Conservative party has elected to become Vote-Leave-in-government, and repeated the tactics under its own name, we will be relying on the end of the Brexit process to end this period of play. The reputational costs were either too low, or non-existent.

Vote Leave’s most lasting contribution to UK politics might well turn out to be the realisation that if you trash norms to win a one-off event, you can’t always rebuild them afterwards.

9. Electoral reform is not on the table, but should be. 

I suspect I will be thinking about this for a long time. The raw number of votes in favour of a second referendum or outright Remain exceeded those in favour of Brexit by a comfortable margin – just a little over 52% to 48%, as it happens. But the division of the Remain vote between multiple parties — and its unhelpful geographic distribution — meant that the Parliament that resulted was overwhelmingly in favour of Brexit.

What is particularly hard to swallow is the massive failure of tactical voting in seats like Kensington, where the division of the Remain vote handed seats to the Conservatives. Under an alternative electoral system — for instance, one where candidates are ranked — the result of this election would have looked very different.

Perhaps the most egregious failing of the electoral system was its success in locking voters into what was often in essence a binary Labour/Conservative vote. In fairness, that is the stated aim of the system; producing strong majorities that can govern well. The problem is that the unstated assumption underlying this was that the parties themselves would stay sane, or at least that no more than one major party would be captured by its extremes at a time. The failure of this assumption in the aftermath of the 2015 election is arguably what led to the victory of the Brexit campaign in 2016, and everything that followed.

The problem going forward seems to be that once again the left-wing vote is going to be fragmented between parties in such a way as to remove a functional opposition. In Scotland, read the same argument for the anti-independence vote.

I may be a conservative, but I am first and foremost British. And that means that I want a strong and functioning opposition, although ideally one just weak enough to be beaten by the right’s best. If the electoral system isn’t going to provide us with that, then it isn’t fit for purpose.

10. The left needs to learn to pick its fights.

Again, I should preface this by noting that I am a conservative. While I have been largely working alongside the left for the last three years, I don’t think I can counted among your number.

With that said, the ability of Britain’s left wing parties to find new ways to self-sabotage has left me genuinely taken aback at points. The infighting in the name of ideological purity that has divided your parties and votes would be truly impressive if it wasn’t so catastrophically mistimed. There is a time and a place for everything.

The Liberal Democrats, for instance, needed to accept that they were going to have to be the bigger party and take unilateral steps to avoid competing in Labour marginals if they wanted the country to remain in the EU.

The SNP and Liberal Democrats should also have avoided backing an election in the first place. A vote was inevitable at some point, and possibly before any pro-referendum majority could be assembled. Calling it in the way they did was even without the benefit of hindsight extremely risky. Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings had been effectively in full-tilt campaign mode for months before, pitching a ‘Parliament vs the People’ narrative that was clearly breaking through. The antics around the prorogation and extension need to be seen in that light, as did the ruthless purge of dissidents from the parliamentary party. This comes back to the point I raised in the context, but bears repeating; if you must fight, don’t let your opponents set the battlefield.

Criticising the Labour party is trickier, as I am directing my comments implicitly towards the ‘moderates’ who were trapped in a party taken over by Momentum and Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour party manifesto was a disaster, the refusal to cooperate with other parties predictable and predictably self-sabotaging, the leadership utterly toxic with the electorate.

In terms of what Jeremy Corbyn could have done differently, the list is endless. Restricting attention to the things he might have plausibly done differently given who he is, I would have suggested not using the prospect of Boris and Brexit as a licence to try and get everything he wanted, rather than attempting to build a coalition.

This has been an issue with the left more generally, including our cousins in America. The temptation to react to an opponent further to the right by shifting to the left has often proved irresistable, as the Democrats are currently demonstrating. The issue with this is that if the party just held their ground, they would often be in a position to win. Moving slightly to the right would nail it on. Moving to the left, on the other hand, forces voters to choose between two equal extremes. While your chance of getting your ‘best’ outcome goes up, your chance of winning at all decreases.

Finally, perhaps the key takeaway from the last three years is that you don’t put ludicrous candidates on the ballot to widen the fucking debate.

Header image courtesy of Matt Brown, used under a creative commons license.

  1. Vote Leaveism is in essence a refusal to respect the rules of engagement. This stretches far beyond bare-faced lying, although that is an integral part of the operation. The ideal Vote Leave campaign consists of asserting a state of the world that may bear little resemblance to the one that exists, swamping the media with distractions, and deflecting any remaining criticism as an attempt to thwart the will of the people.

    This means, for instance, that you should never apologise or acknowledge that you have been caught lying. Instead, maintain your line as though nothing has happened. It means that if you are likely to be effectively scrutinised, you should do everything in your power to avoid it; duck out of the Andrew Neil interview, or the Select Committee appearance.

    If this fails, then throw a dead cat on the table. And if you can do so in a way that repeats one of your lies, trashes another institution, or drowns out your opponents message, all the better. Anonymous briefings to journalists, infantile Twitter stunts, repeating a debunked lie or faking an assault.

    And, of course, never be afraid to appeal to people’s worst instincts to make your case.

    Perhaps the most toxic part of Vote Leavism is its scorched earth approach to institutions. Trashing the Supreme Court, Parliament, the Electoral Commission, the BBC, the media — and threatening to ‘reform’ them in government — is par for the course. The idea is to intimidate the target, and delegitimise it in the eyes of the public. That these institutions may be integral to the well-running of our country is entirely immaterial; if they get in the way, direct fire upon them until they back down.