TONY JOHNSON: Democracy going digital – a reflection on the general election 2019

This week’s commentary takes a mixed look at the General Election, the campaigns, results and reasons – particularly in the light of the ‘surprise result’.

Working out the reasons was completed with advice from parliamentary candidates, agents and campaigners – balanced across Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties – along with a couple of Independents as a sense check.

For Conservatives – a Result!

Back in the ’80s and ’90s, If you were a fan of Bob “Can I have a P please” Holness, and his Blockbusters quiz show, then you’ll remember that the object of the game was to answer questions to complete a path across or down the game board of hexagons.

And if you take a look at the cartogram map of the UK’s 2019 general election results – you’ll see that Conservatives have finally managed to get a clear path of hexagons right across the North of England.

With a majority of 81, a path is also clear for Boris Johnson’s Conservative party to be ‘getting Brexit done’ in the run-up January 31 when the UK leaves the EU and enters the implementation period which concludes on December 31, 2020.

And while it’s the third-best Conservative result since the end of the Second World War, (only Margaret Thatcher did better in her second and third terms), this result relied on some unusual factors before it could happen.

Loves: Labour’s Lost

Nationally, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party lost its deputy leader right at the beginning of the election campaign. Then it steadily lost the main arguments, lost the plot, and finally lost the election.

While researching the range of possible reasons for the election result, I met with one of ‘our new friends from the north’, currently helping to add a fourth lane on the M4.

Coming from three generations of staunch Labour supporters, his account of life after the shipyards closed, then the mines, the steelworks, finally the chemical plant, all painted a truly grim picture.

A casualty of post-industrial Britain, he told of a region where jobs had vanished, marriages failed and families split up, leaving communities to rot and decay without help or regeneration.

Delivered with passion, and dead set against southern attitudes, he didn’t mince his words describing the Labour party and his local MP. Yosser Hughes had it easy.

It made one realise just why ‘We need to talk about South Shields‘ is still important. This insightful article was published after the 2013 bye-election there – triggered by David Miliband‘s announcement that he was leaving politics to join International Rescue. It’s a key lesson: not just for Labour; but for all parties; all politicians; all places; and all levels.

The Comedies of Errors

With the two biggest UK parties put in their place, what of the others?

The Liberal Democrat campaign foundered within 48 hours, shipwrecked on the rock of hubris that Jo Swinson’s claims to be the next PM had revealed. Ultimately, this led to the only politically honest moment of the whole election, when Nicola Sturgeon learned of Jo Swinson’s defeat – live on camera.

In a subsequent frenzy of faux-sincerity, the Sturgeon’s barnet had clearly self-ignited with the prospect of getting set for Independence again.

One suspects that the Scots will put her on formula when they find out how poor they’re going to be when Barnett Formula contributions cease from the d-UK.

Sturgeon’s SNP polled 1.2 million votes and won 48 seats, compared with Lib Dems polling 3.6 million votes for 11 seats.

The 472 Green candidates up and down the country made huge token efforts and polled well over 800,000 votes for their one candidate to return to Westminster.

I haven’t the heart to tell them that their emergency is with the political climate, not the environmental one.

Meanwhile, Brexit Party plans were self-scuppered when Nifel Garage (anag.) parked 317 of his own candidates in a lay-by after doing a deal with Bogovitz.

He discovered the magnitude of his parking blunder when Tories didn’t stand back the following day to give his remaining team a chance to park their bums on green seats in Westminster.

Those left polled 0.6 million votes – an average of just 2,336 votes each – about a third of the Heavy Woollen party’s candidate in Batley (W. Yorks.). And no – he didn’t win a seat either.

More worryingly, the DUP over in Northern Ireland lost two seats and Unionists are now on par with Nationalists.

With software contractors salivating over the prospects of building a ‘floating customs border’ in the Irish Sea, Bogovitz now has his work cut out to prevent the EU forcing ‘Dis’ even further into the UK.

Totting up the votes shows that Westminster’s 650 MPs were elected by just under 17.5 million voters in all, with the remaining 14.3 million voters supporting the other candidates.

When one realises that the electorate in the UK is around 47.5 million, any claim that the UK is a representative democracy would appear to be somewhat of a fiction.

There are more than 30 million people with little or no say in proceedings.

Reasons to be Fearful

One

I conducted a survey of reasons that were or weren’t a factor in the outcome of the national campaigns. While there were variations on the exact level of importance, there was clear agreement that the most important factor was ‘Corbyn as a Tory campaign asset’.

Two

Amongst those who’d taken part in the campaigns personally, there was unanimous agreement that the second most important factor in the outcome was ‘areas of the country having been abandoned by the Labour Party and by successive Governments’.

Three

Third through to sixth places were trickier to work out as there were a couple of distinctly partisan differences of opinion on these factors.

Conservatives felt that ‘vote Liberal Democrat – get Corbyn’ was a much more important factor than ‘Out and out lying to the electorate … and nobody seeming to care’ while Labour had these two the other way round and Lib Dems putting them close together.

Labour felt that the ‘anonymous / unsourced messages on social media’ was a much more important factor than ‘Cost of Corbyn analysis being published before the Labour manifesto’ while Conservatives had these two the other way round.

Overall

Summarising the leading factors is tricky – but here’s the first pass and it covers the top ten or so factors.

’Deep divisions in our body politic’ – Brexit and the N/S divide – were both strong factors in the outcome of the 2019 General Election.

Coupled with the demonisation of Corbyn via manipulative messaging that pleased Tories and irked Labour and Lib Dem alike, the use of the sound byte – as a substitute or replacement for manifestos and costings; debate and context, led to people ‘voting against what they didn’t want rather than voting for what they did want’.

As one participant said about the country’s election campaign(s) – “direction and priorities are too big for ten word answers”. Said well – in exactly ten words.

Local Matters

Within our Borough of Wokingham there are four parliamentary constituencies – Maidenhead in the north east, Bracknell in the south east, Wokingham in the centre and south west, Reading East in the mid-west of the Borough.

Local Matters – Wokingham

In the Wokingham constituency, there were five candidates.

Conservatives treated the constituency as a safe seat and ran a lacklustre campaign. Liberal Democrats approached it as a marginal and bombarded everyone with leaflets supported with lots of doorstep canvassing.

Labour was somewhere between the two.

Greens were never seen and the other candidate delivered one rather unpleasant anti-Conservative leaflet but otherwise seems to have stayed away.

Although at one point the Lib Dem campaign seemed to be drawing level, Conservatives ended up with easily sufficient support to re-elect Sir John Redwood, albeit with the lowest ever percentage majority since the seat was first created in 1885.

Sir John is an experienced MP who first joined parliament in back in 1987 along with Labour’s Diane Abbott, and he’s currently ranked 12th to become the father of the house as the member with the longest continuous service.

The Wokingham result was achieved with a certain amount of tactical voting going on as voters are known to have switched allegiance to prevent an electoral outcome they didn’t want. In part this may have been due to the Conservatives’ ‘vote Liberal Democrat – get Corbyn’ messaging.

There was a common opinion among those surveyed that some of the leaflet deliveries ended up being counterproductive as they made voters realise that every single vote counts, including theirs, and that if they were to stay at home on a cold and very wet December day, the outcome could very easily go the wrong way.

Local Matters – Reading East

Over in Reading East, the seat has gone between Conservative and Labour a couple of times since it was first created in 1983.

A well run Labour campaign in this Remain oriented area managed to increase the final tally to nine votes above the result in 2017. This was in stark contrast to almost all other Labour-held seats on the night.

As an example, over in nearby Oxford East Labour’s Anneliese Dodds‘ votes dropped by almost 7,000 compared with 2017’s.

The Conservative campaign was also strong, with a number of high-profile Conservative politicians visiting the constituency to support their local candidate.

Sajid Javid had an opportunity, to talk about the way Conservatives could support Reading East to the long-lasting benefit of all the voters in the area, but he ducked it.

Likewise, when Health Secretary Matt Hancock visited and talked about replacing the non-existent “Nissen huts” at Royal Berkshire Hospital in a £200 million proposal to provide a new hospital on the site, it was clear that his ideas about cost and content were a bob or two shy of reality.

In the end, the poor showing by high-profile visitors, coupled with a very short campaign, weren’t sufficient to lift Conservative numbers.

With Lib Dems focusing on Wokingham, their campaign here was almost non-existent.

So incumbent Matt Rodda was re-elected thanks to Labour’s highest vote tally ever in this constituency (27,102).

Local Matters – Bracknell

Over in Bracknell, there was post-election talk of tactical voting having taken place.

However the seat was already leaning towards Leave and the night ended up with the new Conservative candidate being elected with the second-highest percentage majority in the seat since it was first created in 1997.

Local Matters – Maidenhead

In one of the safer Conservative seats in the country over in Maidenhead, hard-working constituency MP Theresa May’s majority was down to ‘only’ 19,000 as she comfortably took back her seat, despite a strong challenge from the new Lib Dem candidate who’d more than doubled their support.

The Last Word

I’m indebted to the dozen or so political figures who took part in the election factors survey – thank you to one and all.

As US Senator William Marcy said in 1832 to defend Martin van Buren’s appointment as Ambassador to the UK “To the victor go the spoils”. But in this case, the spoils might not be quite what you’d expect.

Because if the PM misses either of the Brexit dates, or delivering on the promises to those in the north who’ve lent him their votes for five years, he won’t be so much “getting Brexit done” as getting Brexit dung.

And with an ambitious Republic of Ireland, a Nationalist-minded Scotland, along with a peeved European Union (‘cos we’re leaving, and well before the end of this parliament) “The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland” could soon be scaled back to the Kingdom of Great Britain and even to the Kingdom of England (which includes Wales, and they’re none too happy either).

There’s a lot more than blue passports at stake.

caveat.lector@icloud.com

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Tony Johnson
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