The Conservatives and Labour are not finding life easy in the world of two-party politics

First, an apology. For the last two weeks I have been on holiday, and taking a break from blogging. So an incredible two weeks, featuring not just the election, but a terrorist attack in a place that I frequent, and the Grenfell Tower disaster, has passed without comment. Never mind the continued ascent of Emmanuel Macron in France and the scarcely believable goings on in America. I like my blog to be reflective rather than provide an instant reaction, but this has been taking it a bit far! I must start the catch-up by taking a first look at that British election.

The Conservative campaign was constructed, initially anyway, by their adviser Lynton Crosby, who achieved hero status after the unexpected success of his campaign in 2015. It was a plan based heavily on what has happened in previous elections, and, doubtless, informed about current voter feelings through focus groups and opinion polls. In the usual modern language, this was very “evidence-based”. People expected it to do very well based on two bits of received wisdom. First was that most people have already made up their minds at the start of a campaign, so the Tory lead of over 20% in the opinion polls would not change that much. Second was that perceptions of party leaders heavily influence election outcomes: and Theresa May showed an apparently unassailable leader over Jeremy Corbyn. What could possibly go wrong? It looked a perfectly sound decision to me.

Both of those bits of wisdom, for all the evidence backing them up, proved wrong. And so Mr Crosby’s reputation  has probably been trashed. The more reflective will point out that this is jumping to conclusions. The Tory campaign secured a huge Conservative vote – 42% on an increased turnout, a figure that barely moved as the campaign progressed. The problem was that they failed to contain Labour. And that was not all Mr Crosby’s fault.

How did Labour do so well? They increased their share of the vote by about 15% as the campaign progressed to reach an astonishing 40%. This increase seems to have had three sources, of roughly equal importance. First was from Lib Dem and Green voters, who took a strong dislike to the Conservative campaign, and saw voting Labour as the best way of stopping them. Second was Ukip voters; Ukip collapsed by about 11% since 2015. The early evidence, from local elections in May in particular, was that this was overwhelmingly in favour of the Tories. That may have been the case initially, but as the campaign progressed, Labour seems to have picked up a sizable chunk of that vote too (perhaps 5% of the 11% in the end). And the third factor was that Labour brought out a sizeable number of new, younger voters. All three of these factors was unexpected at the start of the campaign – not least by me.

Labour were rewarded for breaking with conventional wisdom, and putting together a genuinely innovative campaign. They were helped by two Tory miscalculations. One was at the heart of Mr Crosby’s strategy, which was to give Labour all the rope it needed to hang itself. They did not want to demean the Conservative brand, and Mrs May’s personal one, by tangling too closely with Labour. In particular they stood back from the leadership debates. They wanted to contrast the “strong and stable” government with the “coalition of chaos” opposing them. This seemed to be working when Labour Home Affairs lead, Diane Abbott, showed a complete lack of grip on her portfolio early in the campaign. But Labour were able to shake themselves free of that and move the campaign onto the issues they wanted to talk about – which was anything except Brexit.

The second miscalculation was the Conservative manifesto; this one cannot be put down to Mr Crosby, but to Mrs May herself, and her close cabal of advisers. They made the fatal mistake of believing their own propaganda, as published faithfully by supportive newspapers like the Daily Mail. The manifesto was a challenging one, designed to let Mrs May exploit her expected majority to maximum effect, to put her stamp permanently on British society. Notoriously this included rowing back on automatic increases to the state pension (the “triple lock”), including homes in the wealth assessments for personal care costs (referred to by opponents as “dementia tax”), and means-testing winter fuel payment to the elderly. There were minor concessions on schools funding, but there were a series of other ideas, hateful to liberals, such as the return of academic selection for state schools, and undoing advances in electoral reform (that one particularly annoyed me). And behind this was talking up the prospects of Brexit, with the bizarre slogan that “no deal would be better than a bad deal”. Remain voters are slowly coming round to Brexit, but rubbing their noses in the humiliation of it all is not sensible politics. I suspect that this manifesto was so tough because its authors felt that Tony Blair, the previous prime minister who was blessed with landslide victories, did not ask for enough, and that this hobbled his programme of public service reform. But the result was a small, but probably decisive, loss of support from older voters. This may have helped to push Ukip voters to Labour, for example; other potential Conservative voters may have stayed at home. And, of course, it helped rally opponents to back the one party that seemed capable of warding off the awful prospect of a big Conservative majority.

There is more I want to say about Labour’s successful campaign, which has really changed things. But for now I want to reflect on the remarkable return of two-party politics. In 2010 Labour and the Conservatives managed 65% of the vote between them; the share was similar in 2015, as though the Lib Dem vote collapsed, Ukip, SNP and the Greens rose. But this time the two big parties took over 82% between them. Many politicians from the main parties, and many others too in the media and in the establishment generally, have lamented the rise of third parties, complicating the choices presented to people. And yet Labour and the Conservatives are finding that it makes life no easier. In 2015 Labour’s big idea was to destroy the Lib Dems and win a majority with just 35% of the vote. But as they succeeded with the first part of this aim, other Lib Dem voters flocked to the Tories in horror. Something like that seems to have happened to Ukip voters this time. Pushing out the third parties just raises the bar to parliamentary success higher, making it yet harder to put together a winning coalition of voters.

Not so long ago the idea of two-party politics looked fragile. Both the Conservatives and Labour looked about to fall apart. Those tensions will surely re-emerge. But right now it does not look as if either the Lib Dems will revive soon, nor that a new political force will arise, as it has in France. That will probably take a national disaster. But it is easy enough to predict what that national disaster might be: Brexit. But that’s another story.

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