In the natural world, earthquakes function to dissipate the pressure building up between opposing tectonic plates. In the political world, however, it seems that every earthquake only serves to increase political pressure and entrench divides. Rather than settling the debate, the political shock generated by the result of the EU Referendum exposed new, or previously underplayed, fault lines dissecting the British electorate (on education, age, geography and social attitudes), and it plunged political parties, particularly Labour and UKIP, into turmoil.
This latest political earthquake has, clearly, placed intense pressure on Theresa May and the Conservative Party, and, initial polling suggests, solidified the generational divide. What’s more, a hung parliament leaves the UK Government in an even more sclerotic state than during the thin Tory majority of 2015, and the preceding Coalition Government. First-past-the-post, for all its faults, was assumed to favour healthy majorities and decisive Government – for the past seven years it certainly hasn’t achieved this.
However, although this may seem counterintuitive following a chaotic few days, the new political landscape arguably looks more conducive to bridging the societal divides that have turned politics upside down in recent years. There are three chief reasons for this:
- The return of two-party politics
One of the many assumptions upended over the past few weeks was that social fragmentation was also leading to political fragmentation, with the gradual demise of two-party dominance. However, the snap election put this trend into reverse, with the Conservatives and Labour winning over 80 per cent of the vote – the highest combined vote share since 1970.
Whether by intention or circumstance, both parties have built a far broader coalition of voters than many deemed possible. Both Conservatives and Labour have regained seats in Scotland, while there have been swings towards the Conservatives in some Labour heartlands, and swings towards Labour across the South. For the Conservatives, in particular, some of their largest increases in vote share between 2015 and 2017 (see graph below) came in constituencies where their share of the vote was previously small (particularly in Scotland, the North East, and Yorkshire and The Humber), while they failed to add many votes in traditional Tory strongholds in the South East.
Conservative increase in vote share between 2015 and 2017 by constituencyStrong performance in London, meant that in terms of vote share at least, Labour did less well at spreading its vote more evenly across the country. However, Labour was successful at picking up votes from a wider spectrum of other political parties. While the majority of voters moving to the Conservatives came from UKIP, Labour managed to gain roughly even shares from UKIP, the Lib Dems, and the Greens. Most notably, the fact that some 18 per cent of UKIP voters from 2015 moved back to the Labour Party in 2017 helped shore up key Northern constituencies.
The result of these electoral shifts mean that both parties need to appeal to a broad range of outlooks, attitudes and personal circumstances not just to win voters, but also to hold onto the ones they already have. In 2015, Ed Miliband pursued the so-called ‘35 per cent strategy’, looking to make it over the line with a coalition of ‘core’ Labour voters, and some disgruntled Lim Dems. Taking such a narrow approach is no longer an option for both parties, and that’s almost certainly a good thing for the country. Both parties need to offer something to elderly Brexiteers and young Remainers alike, and to voters north and south of the Scottish border.
- Brexit and Scottish independence
In an odd way this snap election has to some extent helped resolve two of the most divisive issues in contemporary British politics – and in a far more convincing way than the referendums which were meant to have the final word. The SNP collapse in Scotland has pushed any second independence referendum far down the road. Ruth Davidson has argued that her party’s success (the Scottish Conservatives winning 12 seats) means that “Indyref2 is dead” and, in the wake of the election, even the SNP have scrapped their online fundraising campaign for a second vote.[i]
The impact of the election on the future of Brexit remains a contentious issue, with people from across the Leave/Remain spectrum all seeming to believe that the result provides them with vindication. However, what is beyond dispute is that over 80 per cent of people voted for parties that are committed to Brexit. The Lib Dems miscalculated that “the 48%” constituted a new political force, committed to a second referendum, when in reality many opted for Labour’s softer version of Brexit and an opportunity to hit back at Theresa May. If Indyref2 is dead then so too is a second EU vote.
What’s more the political context on Brexit seems in some ways more open to compromise. Both Labour and Conservative voters are split roughly 2/1 in terms of their vote in the EU Referendum (2/1 Leave for the Conservatives; 2/1 Remain for Labour). This means that both parties face electoral defeat if they abandon either side of this divide. Furthermore, Theresa May’s weak position means that she will have to reach out to ‘soft Brexiters’ in her own party, and some within the Conservative Party are calling for a renewed cross-party approach to negotiations.
- The representativeness of Parliament
Demos’ recent report into fear and populism across Europe, uncovered a crisis in political trust, with citizens feeling that politicians operated in a completely different world to ordinary people. In this report we argued that, ‘making parliaments more reflective of the wider population in gender, ethnicity and socioeconomic background is… central to reducing the remoteness of politics from people’s lives’.
The outcome of this election has helped the UK Parliament to make significant strides in this area, with the media trumpeting this as the most diverse parliament in British history.[ii] While parliament does remain significantly more ‘male, pale, and stale’ than the wider population, there are more women, ethnic minority, LGBT, and state-school educated MPs entering parliament in 2017 than 2015. A parliament more reflective of wider society is, therefore, one of the few unequivocally positive outcomes of the 2017 vote.
So does this all mean that our fractious political climate is on its way out? Well this certainly seems unlikely in the near term. What politics gives with one hand, it takes away with the other, threatening to destabilise the most sensitive part of our Union (Northern Ireland), and limiting the scope for cross-party collaboration on EU negotiations (with Labour wanting the Conservatives to “own” Brexit).
However, amid all the excitement and hysteria, as the aftershocks of the election still ripple through the Commons and the Press, parliament now has both the motivation and the means to reach across societal divides far more effectively than it did just a few weeks ago.