The General Election gets weirder the more you look at it

by | 10 Jul 2024

The gap between the political narrative about what just happened and what the data actually says is vast. There is something very weird indeed about politics in Britain just now.

The further away from this General Election we get, the weirder and weirded I’m finding it. I don’t think this is being talked about anything like enough given its significance. So, while I’ve just finished recording a podcast for Craig on precisely this subject, let me give you a potted version here.

It simply will not do to decry the weirdnesses in this election as only about the distorting effect of Britain’s archaic voting system – all UK General Elections have been run under that system. So what is it about this election specifically that makes it look so strange? (The easiest way to check the data in this article is the various Wikipedia pages which have most of it and this YouGov poll.)

First, what is the strangeness? Let’s kick off with the fact that for five years the Labour Party has been engaged in only one mission; shed any remaining principle in pursuit of every possible vote no matter the cost. So how did that go? Not great. In fact, not well at all if you take that rationale at face value.

The only think Keir Starmer has really said with any conviction over the last half-decade is that Jeremy Corbyn is the embodiment of failure and the Labour Party must repudiate him with extreme prejudice so it can win back all the voters he lost the party. The outcome of that was Starmer losing over 600,000 more of them. Or, if we go back to peak Corbyn in 2017, more than two and a half million.

In doing this Labour increased its share of the vote by only 1.6 per cent, but that is a full six per cent behind the vote share Corbyn got in 2017. Yet it has a massive majority. Surely this is the definition of ‘failing upwards’. What is astounding is that if all the votes that went to Reform had stayed with the Tories, Labour wouldn’t have got a majority.

And I really mean astounding. After 2017 when the right of the Labour Party discovered its desperate attempts to undermine the Corbyn election had failed, one of its major attack lines was ‘but look at the circumstances – he should have won’. Well Boris Johnstone, Covid garden parties, Liz Truss, financial crisis, Sunak and all of that has come and gone since and… Labour couldn’t even engineer its own majority. It needed a Farage-shaped bail-out.

Why? That’s easy. About 67 per cent of those who voted Labour mainly did so to vote against the Tories, not because they liked Labour policy (four per cent), because Labour aligns with their views (two per cent) or because they think Labor cares about ordinary people (one per cent).

Starmer himself? Well, there are twice as many people who, when asked why they were going to vote Labour, said ‘I don’t know’ than said ‘because of Keir Starmer’s leadership’. By every measure other than ‘manipulating corrupt voting system while the opposition is split in an unprecedented way’, Starmerism seems to have failed.

Coming on for half the proportion of people who voted for the SNP say they mainly voted Labour to get rid of the SNP

So has the media. Issues which proved to be significant were all but ignored in the campaign. I can’t tell you how rare it is for independents to get elected in UK General Elections, and it is almost always because of very specific local circumstances. Four people voters had never heard of winning on a Gaza protest ticket? That’s unprecedented. The media barely raised Gaza as an issue in this election.

The Greens shouldn’t be winning four seats in a First Past the Post election in Britain, Reform shouldn’t be backed by one in seven voters, the turnout shouldn’t be falling to under 60 per cent. None of this should be happening by normal standards.

Scotland looks as strange in quite a lot of ways too. Let me give you one; right across the UK the SNP got 2.5 per cent of the vote, yet in that UK-wide ‘why am I going to vote Labour’ poll, one per cent said ‘to get rid of the SNP’. That shouldn’t even be showing up statistically on a UK level. Coming on for half the proportion of people who voted for the SNP say they mainly voted Labour to get rid of the SNP.

It is worth pausing and reading that again. It is genuinely surprising that there is enough anti-SNP vote going to Labour that it shows up in a UK poll. That tells you two things; Labour isn’t really winning people over with a lot of its vote being protest vote, and goodness me people want to punish the SNP a lot.

They did punish the SNP a lot. Then again, that’s mainly because of the electoral system – and the Scottish Greens. The Scottish Greens barely registered politically yet still managed to take out probably five high-profile SNP politicians (assuming their votes went SNP instead, which isn’t guaranteed at all).

Or let’s look at this another way; the Green Party of England and Wales got 7.3 per cent of the vote in England while Patrick Harvie’s (much most established and high-profile because they were actually in government) Scottish Greens got 3.8 per cent in Scotland. I wonder if the Scottish Greens will ever realise their biggest electoral barrier is, well, Harvieism. If they want to move forward they should move on from the Harvie era and start taking an interest in the environment and poverty instead.

Scotland is dominated by political parties determined to adhere to the narrow rules of centrist UK politics. There was only one populist party standing, the right-wing Reform. From nowhere they got seven per cent of the vote, basically double the Scottish Greens. That is a different kind of disillusionment and Scotland must start paying attention to why. As far as I can tell, young men disproportionately make up their voting base up here.

Labour has about three out of five UK seats despite only one in five eligible UK voters voting for them, yet the political elite thinks this is a path to long-term success and not the path to a deep democratic rupture

One final note, and for me this really is a bit of a surprise. In an election of protest where more people stayed home or made a protest vote than voted for any party (by quite a big margin), you’d imagine that Alba would have been a repository for a chunk of the disillusioned indy vote which wanted to protest against the SNP.

You’d be wrong. The Alba failure in this election is pretty startling. I think this is personified by the fact that the only politician who has taken a high-profile interest in saving the Grangemouth refinery (Kenny McAskill) got beaten in that seat by Eva Comrie, someone who resigned from Alba and stood as an independent.

It is now hard to see Alba having any future. I don’t know what the cause is – the public perception of Alex Salmond, the public perception of the party, the fact that it is now the leading climate change denial party in Scotland – but it doesn’t look to me like the party is dying, it looks to be electorally dead.

Can you see how counterintuitive or outright surprising much of the above is? Certainly I tend to take a lot of my UK news from the Guardian (so incredibly pro-Starmer he is virtually tattooed on its inside thigh) and you would barely know any of the above. Because what this election really says in England seems to me to be ‘these Tories need to go, but I’m sick to the back teeth with elite politics’.

In fact the Guardian is still full of commentary suggesting that this election shows the means to push back against the ‘populist surge’ in Europe. What? Get people so disillusioned they don’t vote and rely on a corrupt voting system that a single establishment party can game to take a massive majority?

By my calculation, the British Labour Party has about three out of five UK seats despite only one in five eligible UK voters voting for them. One in five. Yet the elite thinks this is a path to long-term success and not the path to a deep and potentially concerning democratic rupture? Britain’s political elite is pretty clearly miles out of step with the British people.

And in Scotland? It doesn’t matter how many times I look at this, it doesn’t matter how much feedback I’d had before the election that told me the same thing, still I am surprised at how strong and how big is the evidence for a real and heartfelt backlash against the SNP.

Yet not because there is any enthusiasm for Labour, and not because the Scottish Greens are moving forward (they got more votes – but by standing in more seats) and certainly not because there is a protest vote going to other indy parties.

Like I say, the further into the rearview mirror this election goes, the weirder it seems. I’m vaguely scared about the next one now, and I’m genuinely worried that the SNP leadership still thinks it can tough it out until 2026 and hope something comes along to save it.

Both in Scotland and in Britain, elite politics is in trouble. But because the same political elite allow the same media ownership pattern and the same dodgy electoral system to endure it can pretend that it isn’t in trouble at all. Let’s see how long that lasts…

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