Dissecting the General Election – the difference between narrative and reality

So I’m going to just come out and say it – I called it. In my last blog post I wrote that there was a realistic chance of hung parliament and Tories being the largest party. Realistic, but slight, compared to the wider polling predicting a Tory landslide, but still, I thought quite plausible. I gave it a 1 in 4 chance.

Now, consider, is that a convenient narrative on my blog post, or is the reality that I gave more chance to an outright Tory victory and I was just covering lots of bases? I’ll let you decide.

The point I’m making is about the difference between narrative and reality, and why both are important in politics.

First up, let’s consider what happened. Theresa May gambled and she lost, big time. Considering from where she started at the beginning of the campaign, her defeat is even more stark. Catastrophic for her and the Tories. For the 5th time in twenty years they’ve failed to get a majority in Parliament. It’s questionable as to whether she’ll be able to stick it out or not. The DUP might give her the votes she needs, but I know little about them, outside of their general conservatism. Who knows what kind of bedfellows they will make. 

Whichever way, it’s a big defeat for May and her reputation lies in pieces.

What else occurred? Well, I’ll get to Labour in a moment. How did everyone else fare? The SNP had a disastrous night, and I can’t see how independence is on the table now. What’s worse is that they lost seats to the Tories, undermining their own reputation as progressive alternative to Labour in Scotland. It’ll be a sore pill to swallow for them.

The Lib Dems surprised no one by doing poorly, although perhaps by low standards they did very well, finally returning to double figures once again.

The Greens lost votes to Labour, but kept their one seat. 

UKIP…well, they just died on the night. No doubt though such electoral disaster will go unremarked on news broadcasts and programs like Question Time, which they frequently dominate. 

So Labour. The big winners? Yes, in many respects, that is the narrative. They’re even talking about forming the next government such is their confidence after the election (Labour that is, not the abstract ‘they’). Of course, it’s not the reality. The truth is, Labour lost, with as few seats, give or take, as Gordon Brown in 2010. 

Most pundits and commentators, and of course Theresa May, were expecting a Tory landslide (or solid victory) and the pummelling of Labour. In that regard Labour won, so the loss is technical. To put it another way, it’s a bit like a non-league side getting to the FA Cup final but losing to a Premier League side. Technically they lost, but who do you think would be hailed as heroes and the ‘real winners’?

It says a lot about Labour’s situation that they could be painted in such terms – non-league. After terrible local election results just a few weeks ago, it looked likely everything was only going one way. Thanks to the social care debacle, as well as Theresa May’s quite frankly bizarre refusal to engage with voters, and lots and lots of young voters, Labour surprised everyone, even themselves. 

They set themselves a low bar – stop the Tories having an overwhelming majority – so to end up the way they did helps build the narrative.

So which matters more? Reality is important, because, well, it’s reality. You can’t force legislation if you don’t have the seats to do it. You can’t direct policy even you’re not in government. On the other hand, if you have the strength of narrative behind you, you can make it seem like you are stronger than you are really. It can force even confident governments to make concessions when now were required. Positive narrative helps motivate, and propel action. If you don’t get carried away and believe the hype, it can be a potent force.

So what should Labour do now? 

Firstly, I think they need to consider the future. It’s possible there might be another election in a few weeks, if all the coalition/agreements break down, or there might be one in Autumn. At the latest, there will be one in five years time. I look at the electoral map, and while Labour held up handsomely in the north, midlands and London, there was a notable gap in the south. Sure they picked up some great seats like Brighton Kemptown and in Portsmouth, but these are islands of red surrounded by Tory blue. Labour needs a southern strategy, because without more seats in the south it cannot hope to get a majority. That doesn’t mean sacrificing principles or watering down its message, it’s more about how to tailor that message to the right people, but it has to be done to achieve victory.

Is Corbyn secure in his position? Almost certainly. Many of his critics were quick to lavish praise after the election, and at this point his position seems untouchable. Perhaps he’ll grow into the role more. The narrative is about his leadership, turning about a result that once destined to go awry. The reality is that his opponent slipped up more than once. However, I always think you make your own luck, and we saw a different Corbyn in the election campaign. Being behind in seats is maybe a boon, because it will make him continue to campaign, keep up the momentum. That doesn’t correct all his deficiencies. I don’t buy this zen leadership thing; I genuinely think he struggles to make a decision and still doesn’t convince. He needs time to grow into the role perhaps.

It’s a precarious position Labour are in, how to play the minority game. They could do with a determined message of intent. Stating a desire to form government is good enough I suppose, and the narrative supports it today. Tomorrow though, I think reality sinks in  and most realise it won’t happen. So what then beyond that? Labour still needs clarity over Brexit – lacking in the campaign I have to say – and needs to think about what kind of economy they will have in 2-5 years. 

Right now the narrative favours Corbyn, but as May returns from Buckingham Palace, the reality is she’ll still be at the top. Being Prime Minister is still being Prime Minister. Even if Theresa May’s forced to go, her successor will occupy the same spot, and maybe bring their own narrative – a breath of fresh air perhaps? Corbyn, and Labour, need to find a way to give people a viable, realistic alternative for the UK, otherwise the reality is that people will keep with the Tories, however unpalatable it may seem. Labour can be happy today, but without setting a determined course they risk falling into the trap of fighting old battles not new ones. That’s the difference between realities and narratives; the latter is the same over and over and becomes staid. The former helps bring clarity for the future; it hurts, but it’s the truth.

Polling Day UK: My prediction is it won’t be pretty for anyone

I hadn’t expected to be watching a UK election so soon. Not because I took Theresa May at her word that there wouldn’t be one, but more because I thought the time had come and gone. October might have been a better time, as an earlier night would suppress turnout (bad for Labour) and she had the benefit of being new and fresh in power. It made little difference though, I watched the election appear and thought, well, that’s it. Tory landslide.

After watching the election campaign, I can’t deny that the narrative for Corbyn is compelling, but nothing I’ve seen has convinced me sufficiently that it will be anything other than a Tory landslide. Here’s why.

Firstly, the polls. Sure, some have narrowed, but I haven’t seen a single one placing Labour in front. Even the most hopeful reading shows Labour a few points adrift. Most are showing wider gaps. In the last few decades, polls have overstated Labour support (see 1992 and 2010), and underplayed Tory support. Polls are still the best gauge of how an election is going, and based on the evidence the Tories are going to win.

Secondly, I don’t believe the narrative about Corbyn. I remember the narrative for Brexit (or, rather, Remain) and Clinton. Both Remain and HRC entered the polls with a strong narrative of being in the lead. Sure, Clinton had most polls onside, but her campaign was shakey and, frankly, shallow. She had too little room for error, placing all her eggs in the industrial states, and promptly losing all of them (well, the ones that mattered). Remain’s was worse, because the polls were narrow and so it should have been clear that there was a good chance they would lose. A very similar situation occurred in 1992, as the polls showed a Labour lead (but not in the right places – something I get to in a moment). They should have ignored the propaganda – the narrative – and focused on what was happening. 

The problem with Corbyn’s narrative is that he has done little to motivate it. Yes, in some measure he’s upped his game, even to my surprise. He’s got more poise than I’ve ever seen before. In many respects this is frustrating, because it shows how he could have been. Maybe he feels more comfortable campaigning – I won’t deny it helps focus the mind a great deal. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this before in the far left. They exist in a perpetual state of campaigning, mainly because they have had so little success so they don’t have much choice. It also explains why they struggle with power on the rare times they get it – they forget that leading and campaigning are not the same thing. I don’t find Corbyn’s rise too surprising in that respect. 

Labour have delivered a good manifesto; it was a genuine statement of intent. No one could deny where it was placing Labour. That wouldn’t necessarily draw people to it of course, but it was distinct and finally produced the narrative Labour had been bereft of since, well, probably since Tony Blair stepped down. Compared to the Tories, and indeed all the minor parties, it provided energy and dynamism. My difficulty with this is that it may not be sufficient. The manifesto is likely to be the type of thing that only motivates people that already agree with Labour, not necessarily those that Labour needs for victory. There are many independent voters, and some Tories-willing-to-vote-Labour-from-time-to-time that wil not have been encouraged by it. 

So the policy is there, and the narrative (putting context to Corbyn’s policies) is also beginning to form. Unfortunately, much of the rest is actually the result of the vacuum left by the Tories. Theresa May has wisely retreated from public scrutiny – she’s actually been revealed as a very poor campaigner and performer. In terms of leadership she’s leaving plenty of room for Corbyn to seem like he can fill the gap. Unfortunately I think it’s just an illusion, a shallow cover over a void that May and the Tories don’t need to fill. I see too little evidence of a major shift in opinion. Even the social care debacle quietened the moment the Tories reversed it; embarrassing yes, but it didn’t destroy their campaign. Labour might have been hoping to carry that all the way to polling day, but the Tories made the only sensible judgement call they could, and Labour is left there with nothing.

The third issue is that I don’t think that the polling experience is showing sufficient leverage for Labour to be gaining where they need to. They’ve extended their lead a little in London – no surprise – and showed some resilience in Wales and even Scotland, but the long and short of it is that I don’t see sufficient energies by the Tories in defending their weakest seats. Rather, they seem to be trying to gaining Labour ones. It suggests that they feel they are performing better than the narrative suggests. Labour might be getting more support in places like London, Manchester and Liverpool, but I have yet to see the type of movement they need in the south.

That comes to the fourth problem, which is minor compared to the others, but I think indicative of Labour’s underlying trend. Corbyn is getting big crowds for sure, but these are people that already agree with him. Yes, it is rare for UK politicians to amass crowds like this, but that doesn’t mean it’s indicative of wide ranging support. Consider, if people were openly supporting Corbyn and Labour then why is this not measured in the polls? Why is the anecdotal evidence still reporting poor trending for Corbyn on the doorstep? More importantly, for my mind, these large crowds aren’t turning into major operations on the ground (i.e. Door knocking, leafleting etc.). It’s passive campaigning, and not likely to garner more support, although it does help build the narrative for Corbyn being on the rise. I just think it’s deceptive.

So, if I was to summarise, I think there’s a 70% chance of Tories getting a 50+ majority. I think 25% of a hung parliament with the Tories the largest party. 5% for hung Parliament with Labour the largest party. I don’t see a realistic avenue for Labour to win a majority – sad but that’s how I see it. It’ll be devastating for Labour supporters that got their hopes up, and it will lead to further internal turmoil if Corbyn refuses to leave immediately.  For the Tories, their reputation will be shot. It’s been a poor campaign by any measure (which says a lot about Labour’s weaknesses that they haven’t been able to acquire sufficient gain). I’m not sure how Theresa May’s reputation will survive this. In fact, I can see Boris Johnson already setting up to ‘rescue’ Brexit and stage a challenge within the next twelve months. 

Who will lose the most? The UK, already suffering the repercussions of its self-harming episode last year with Brexit, will be the biggest loser. Nothing I have see – nothing – has led me to believe that there is anything in the political classes in British politics that can safely navigate its ways through Brexit. Tim Farron’s attempt to gain the Remain crowd as a platform has failed miserably, mainly because the British stubbornness extends even to catastrophic decision making. It’s like jumping off a cliff, only then realising you’re going to die, but thinking “but I might survive” and rejecting pessimism in the process. People talk about the death of the NHS, decline in education, business, standards, human rights,  but the truth is all that was lost when Brexit appeared on the scene. I’m looking at a distance and I think it’s fading away into death. For me, it’s a car crash of it’s own making, and I’m glad to have my little piece of solace out here in Australia. I could be wrong – the polls could be completely off the mark and Labour romps to biggest surprise victory – but I doubt it. I can’t muster the energy to even think about voting, much less worry about the outcome. Really wish I could, but I can’t. Polling day will be ugly, there’ll be no winners, and it’ll leave a mark for generations.