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.