Yes, the people have spoken. And once again, the message is incomprehensible.
Arguably, it’s impossible for any general election result in Britain to have a clear meaning whilst we have the current constitutional settlement in place. First past the post voting, in often weirdly artificial constituencies, all set to the mood music of the Press Barons, gives us parties that are uneasy coalitions, rather than negotiated coalitions between comprehensible parties.
That said, we’ve just had one hell of a weird election.
So what might it mean?
It means Brexit means absolutely nothing. That’s the big take away from this election. In their differing ways, both the Maybot Tories and the Liberal Democrats misread the message of the 2016 referendum, thereby running election campaigns that couldn’t gain real traction with the electorate.
May thought, and appears still to think, that the message of the referendum was that enough people really wanted a hard, sharp break with the European Union in which cutting immigration drastically was they key objective, even if it led to economic pain. And the Liberal Democrats really thought that enough people – 48% – were angry about Brexit, and would be receptive to a clear anti-Brexit message.
Both were wrong.
The Brexit vote was a loose coalition of forces, only a small portion of which were hard-line Eurosceptics. The wider xenophobia which the referendum campaign mobilised is always latent, and would remain so even if the EU ceased to exist, and if all immigration was halted. The majority which the Brexit vote mobilised crucially included people who felt excluded and patronised by politics as ‘done to them’ by professional political elites who all looked and sounded alike, even if, in reality, the politicians were motivated by very different ideologies. It was a vote for something different.
May initially appeared to grasp some of that. Her speech on assuming the leadership of her party, and her first (only?) speech as Leader at Tory Party Conference, spoke of people who led difficult lives, and were ‘just about managing’. But the rhetoric was never matched by action – and the election shone a cruel spotlight on her lack of substance. As some wit on Twitter had it, the Tory manifesto was “the vaguest suicide note in history”.
The Lib Dems also misread the anti-Brexit vote in similar terms – that it was about a deep regard for and emotion about EU membership. As with the Brexit vote, the anti-Brexit vote was a loose coalition of a small number of committed Europhiles, a larger number of people who vaguely thought the EU a normal part of life, and those who believed that it’s better the devil you know.
These misreadings put the EU (to be a member, or not to be a member) at the centre of political belief. But for most people, it isn’t.
Hence Labour’s extraordinary performance yesterday.
And it was extraordinary. It has been a long time since Labour got anywhere near 40% of the popular vote. But crucial to understanding how well Labour did in vote share, if not in seats, is to realise that they got this vote share without regaining dominance in Scotland. This is, for the first time in a very long time, a Labour Party whose strength lies in England. Specifically in urban England, and in the young.
Labour built its appeal on a mixture of style, and savvy retail policy offers. It was optimistic, irreverent, and defiantly not what the press barons ordered.
That said, Labour didn’t win.
And the Tories didn’t win. At the time of writing, May is about to depart for the Palace to seek formal agreement to try to form a government with the support of radical Ulster Unionists. May, true to form, is characteristically trying to pretend that all is under control. She lost an election, lost her party’s majority, the TV studios are full of her own MPs demanding her head, her senior Cabinet colleagues are scheming for her job, and the Maybot is striding around, strong and stable, declaring “I’m in charge!”
We may be about to have a Coalition of Chaos with the political wing of some Ulster paramilitaries, and the Thames Valley Tories, but it is no recipe for stable government at the best of times. And these aren’t the best of times. May triggered Article 50 in March, and the clock is ticking.
So where are we now?
Who knows? We could be somewhere else in a day, a week, a month. There will certainly be another election sooner rather than later.
So what the opposition does now is more important than ever. But that’s for another time. It is, after all, the morning after the vote before….