K. J. O’Meara
The 2019 General Election has now come to a close and the results appear to show that a number of voting trends have been broken. Before I begin to analyse the data at hand (Figures 1-6 in the Appendix below), I think it would be beneficial to briefly summarise the headlines of the election by focusing on the number of seats gained by some of the larger parties (Figure 1a).
After a long night of counting, the Conservative Party won the most seats – securing 365 constituencies (a gain of 48 from the 2017 election) and an unprecedented majority of 80 seats. The Labour Party also broke expectations, securing only 203 seats (a loss of 59) and therefore making it their worst performance since 1935 (in terms of seats won). The Scottish National Party (SNP) re-established their electoral dominance over Scotland, securing 48/59 Scottish Parliamentary seats – one of which was previously held by Jo Swinson, the (ex) Liberal Democrat (Lib-Dem) leader. The Lib-Dems decreased their total number of seats by one, to 11, an improvement on their abysmal 2015 performance, but this is by no means any reason to crack open the Moet & Chandon.
It is customary for pollsters and corporate analysts to reaffirm that these results were predictable and that they ‘knew this would be the outcome all along’. However, with the exception of a handful of academic psephologists, these results were unprecedented.1 Arguably the most trusted polling methodology of contemporary British politics (the final YouGov MRP Poll) predicted that: the Conservatives would achieve 311-367, Labour would achieve 206-256, Lib-Dems 11-22, and the SNP 24-552. Upon first glance, one might say that the results of the election fell within the predicted range for all but Labour.
The first point of importance is to state that the professional pollsters did not see Labour’s decline on this scale, with the lowest point of their predictive range three seats higher than the party’s final result. The second significant point is that the Lib-Dems met the same fate vis-à-vis a slight predictive overestimation. As for the SNP, Scotland only holds 59 seats, and therefore the professional pollsters predicted that the SNP would gain somewhere between 40-93% of the seats on offer. Forgive me, but these are the kind of predictive margins that made astrology infamous. To publish such broad predictive margins is hardly the scientific accuracy or validity that is expected from the UK’s psephological establishment, but rather the intention to cover all potential outcomes. Yet even with this in mind, YouGov still overestimated all but the Tories, of whom they underestimated. As far as seats are concerned, the outcome of this election was unprecedented by the British psephological establishment.
Equally, despite predictions that the electorate would either sharply grow or shrivel in size, turnout decreased to 67.3% – breaking the steady positive correlation between temporal distance from the 2001 election and continually increasing voter turnout (Figure 3). Indeed, as will be the purpose of this piece to flesh out, the 2019 General Election largely broke the electoral trends of past two or three general elections. From here, I shall take a deeper look at election data so to assess what the results of the 2019 General Election reveal. In order to do this effectively, this paper will divide its scope to focus on each party in turn. I will begin with The Conservative Party in order discuss what the effect of their overall victory may be. Of course, as the conservatives now hold a majority, we cannot be absolutely certain as to what their legislative agenda will include, but we can make a few guesses based upon their promises during the campaign, ultimately forming their mandate to govern. From here, I will discuss how the election result has and will effect the functioning and legislative agenda of: Labour, the Lib-Dems, the Green Party, the regional parties, and lastly, the National-Populists.
Blue Is the Colour, Johnson Is the Name – The New Conservative Government
The first notable change that smacks us square in the face is the number of seats the Conservatives have gained since 2017. The Tories managed to secure 48 more seats, pushing their presence in the lower chamber of our bicameral legislature to 365 seats out of 650. What does this mean prima facie?
As the Commons is comprised of 650 seats, a majority in the house would require 326 seats in order to comfortably form a majority government and pass legislation in the chamber with ease. The Conservatives blew the roof off this target, securing 39 seats above the 326 target. Although losing 13 seats in 2017 (Figure 1a), this election continued the trend that the conservatives have increased their vote share with every election (Figure 2b), from 36.8% in 2015, to 42.4% in 2017, and now to 43.6%. Therefore, the Conservatives will be operating in the Commons with a comfortable increased majority that is mirrored by an increase in popular support. This implies, in real terms, that this administration will begin its time in government with little to no resistance in the lower chamber, able to propose and pass legislation at its discretion.
This does mean that Johnson can secure a reading of the Withdrawal Agreement and The Divorce bill before the January 2020 deadline, implying that the first phase of Britain’s Exit from the European Union (EU) is secure. The only potential limit to this achievement is time, stacking up against Johnson with just a month and a half to secure his deal. This being said, with his majority it will likely be fast-tracked through parliamentary process. The question on everybody’s mind at this point is really what sort of Brexit Johnson will attempt to negotiate in the second phase.
Although to many it is a moot point, we must look at what the data tells us about popular support for Brexit and a second-referendum. By comparing the aggregated vote share of parties in this general election to the 2016 referendum result, we can investigate whether or not the electorate are as pro-Brexit as they were during the referendum – where 51.9% voted in favour of Brexit, and 48.1% against.3 Let us suggest for a moment that based on the 2019 party manifestos, a vote for Labour, the Lib-Dems, SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru (PC) or Sinn Fein (SF) was a vote for a second referendum, and that a vote for the Tories, Brexit Party, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) or the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) was a vote to commence with Brexit. By aggregating and grouping the data in the last row of Figure 2a, we can see that 51.3% of the electorate voted in favour of a second referendum, and 43.6% voted in favour of commencing with Brexit as it stands. Therefore, the electorate’s attitude towards imminently leaving the EU appears to have inverted. Of course, there are a number of methodological flaws with this assumption. The chief concern being that until a second referendum is undertaken, any general election data will not distinguish between: (a) the percentage of the electorate who have changed their voting intention, and (b) the percentage of the electorate whose vote did not reflect their stance on the Brexit issue. Nonetheless, the data suggests the electorate holds a slender preference for pro-second referendum parties, for whatever reason this may be, and this is an interesting statistical phenomenon in itself.
Moving this discussion back to the conservative’s legislative agenda, it is imperative we remember that the Withdrawal agreement is not an all-encompassing arrangement. By this I am stating that it does not include every issue that the UK government and the EU will need to negotiate within its remit. The Withdrawal agreement, as it stands, concerns the immediate financial arrangements of Britain’s exit, border arrangements and reciprocal citizen’s rights in the UK and the EU. Indeed, it does not concern or lay out the terms of any future relationship between the two entities, be it regarding trade, political cooperation, security and intelligence, economic relations and so on. For many, this second phase will be the nitty-gritty of the Brexit process, where the devil will be in the details. Yes, this means that we probably will leave the EU next year, but with what kind of relationship remains questionable. Although I find most analogies in international politics to fundamentally erode its nuance from other forms of politics: you may leave shared accommodation to find your previous housemates are now neighbours, and with this comes a completely new structural relationship concerning mutual behaviour. What this will be between the EU and the UK is yet to be disclosed.
This is not necessarily a criticism of the Conservative Party. In fact, with their new majority they will be able to decide what kind of relationship they wish to have without much input from other parties – specifically the DUP. This could mean that they will be able to mirror public opinion, so to not lose their newly found popular support. Broadly speaking, there are two general kinds of relationship Britain could have with the EU. As it stands, these two broad forms of relationship I shall refer to as ‘Frictionless’ and ‘Disharmonious’.
A ‘Disharmonious’ relationship would potentially mirror that desired by the European Research Group (ERG). The ERG were a thorn in Theresa May’s side, pulling the Conservative Party to an increasingly Euro-sceptic stance. Made of some suspected 50+ Conservative MPs, the ERG includes figures such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, James Cleverly and Mark Francois. This relationship would potentially include a sense of common interest between the two entities, but an interest short of ‘common venture’. Such a relationship would treat the EU as any other entity of international relations, reforming the politics of the European political continent into a thinner ‘international society’ than in the past, minimising the UK’s share in the workings of common institutions.4 This is not to say that we would be breaking away from the European international society. We share far too much common history, interest, and too many values for that to be even theoretically possible. Additionally, if this second stage of Brexit is smooth, this could lead to Euro-sceptic nations limiting the jurisdiction or power of the EU, or indeed following the route of the UK all together, thinning the European international society even further. Here, I am thinking of Hungary, Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic, or even Italy. I refer to this as ‘Disharmonious’ not as an inference to its resulting in economic, political or social discord, but because this mode of relationship implies a lack of harmony between the diverging projects of the UK and the EU.
The second form of relationship we could see emerge is one that is often referred to as ‘Frictionless’. This implies still a thinning of European international society, as the Brexit phenomenon cannot avoid this in its very essence, but it is to a lesser extent than a ‘disharmonious’ relationship. A frictionless relationship between the EU and the UK seems to imply that both parties would engage in mutual reciprocity as common venture. This would ensure that: trade is conducted with ease and without disruption to import/export supply chains or protectionist tariffs, privileged access is granted for the purposes of travel, intelligence agreements are upheld with Britain continuing to benefit from and contributing to the EU Intelligence Analysis Centre (EU INTCEN), migration is not limited to an isolationist degree, common economic values are upheld, and so on. ‘Frictionless’ really is the correct term as although Britain will recede from the union, the projects of the EU and UK would overlap in this case, removing any outstanding incongruity that would arise in their relationship.
The notion of a ‘Frictionless’ relationship with the EU could be a contradiction in terms. As a single economic and political union, relations with the EU tacitly imply one’s membership (in some roundabout manner) to absolutely reap the benefits of a trading relationship without much restriction. To many, a frictionless relationship would have to entail far too many formal connections and concessions to the institutional nexus we are exiting, irrespective of its pragmatism. This being said, a frictionless agreement may be pragmatic, but it has not necessarily been part of the line that Johnson has peddled in the past, implying at times the necessity of keeping the lack of any formal relationship an option on the table. Needless to say, the EU are a key actor with agency – even though many seem to forget this simple fact. The EU is comprised of 27 other nation-states, all of whom must concede to a frictionless agreement and make lax their previously rather insular, homogenous approach to common venture in order to make this option a possibility.
Indeed, some may ask, ‘well why would Johnson want a frictionless agreement?’, and the answer rests with his new majority. Although Johnson has a rather scattered ideological past (not dissimilar to Churchill, his personal idol), in order to deliver his election promises he will have to adjust the ideational projection of the party. To be a ‘One-Nation’ Conservative (a tradition of thought which is not usually associated with tax breaks for high earners, harsher sentencing, failing public services, or severely reduced state-interference) Johnson will have to move the party back to the centre, and with his new majority he can afford to do just this. Unlike under May, the influence of the ERG will be less potent. Although Johnson will still have members of the ERG in his inner Cabinet, appealing to their factional basis so to secure the passage of legislation with absolute certainty, he can afford a handful of rebels. Despite this, a move back to the centre could even pick up votes from the few remaining ‘New Labour’ MPs seeking to rebrand the Labour Party, as centrist, in the lobbies.
Johnson promised much throughout his campaign. Was it funding for six new hospitals, or forty? Where will 50 million more doctors appointments appear from? Will he re-introduce the police officers his party’s austerity policies removed in the first instance? How will Net Zero emissions be reached by 2050? Moreover, all of the above without raising any rate of taxation? Where will the excess revenue come from? Figures on the side of busses and projected revenue post-EU aside, an inkling suggests that Johnson will issue more sovereign bonds. Nevertheless, even with the election results fresh in mind, many in the City will be considering the undecided future relationship with the EU and the UK’s rather underwhelming AA2 rating when undertaking their risk assessment.
But, then again, what is stopping Johnson from not delivering on his ‘One-Nation’ Conservatism at all? The answer is – nothing. The lower chamber is blue for the foreseeable, and this means that Johnson can control the agenda and flow of legislation. By framing this election as ‘The Brexit Election’ all the new government needs to do is end the first stage of Brexit before the January deadline and the rhetoric could shift from ‘Get Brexit Done’ to ‘Mandate fulfilled’. As I suggested above, ideologically Johnson is not principled to the point of rigidity. If he wishes to present himself as a ‘One Nation’ Tory, and yet introduce ‘Traditional’ conservative legislation, he is perfectly able to do so – the mandate given to him by parts of the (ex-) labour heartland gifts him this ability.
Has Momentum Had Its Moment? – The Labour Party
This was a night of two major tales. The first was of Conservative gains. The second was of Labour losses. Without a shadow of a doubt, Labour were the night’s biggest losers. Let us look at these losses a little closer. The first thing to note is the size of the loss. As Figure 1a presents, Labour haemorrhaged 59 seats from their 2017 total, finishing the night with 203 constituencies – their worst result since 1935, at least in terms of seats. Before even daylight had broken, Jeremy Corbyn announced he would be stepping down as leader after a ‘period of reflection’.
Corbyn has been leader of the party since 2015, and many claim that his faction of the party (‘Momentum’) is responsible for the loss, moving the party back to its pre-Blairite values in terms of the relationship between ‘the state’ and the economy. Over the last four years, Momentum have been labelled as ‘Corbynistas’, ‘terrorist sympathisers’, ‘Leninists’, ‘Marxists’, ‘Communists’, alongside any other connection one can make to the legacy of the failed 20th century project of state socialism. Arguably most damning were the numerous evidence-based claims of systemic Anti-Semitism within the party; claims handled poorly by the leadership. Alongside this, Labour’s Brexit policy became ambiguous, targeting voters in remain constituencies and yet simultaneously those who voted to leave in the Labour heartland – the ‘Red Wall’ as many like(ed) to refer to it. As we know very well from elections across time and space, a manifesto that is supposed to mean all things to all people rarely achieves electoral success. Only rhetoric is broadly interpretable within various demographics of the electorate and can achieve success through ambiguity; ‘Get Brexit Done’ springs to mind.
All of these factors contributed to Labour’s loss. However, what is interesting is where Labour lost seats to the Tories. We can see this by looking at the 2017 and 2019 election results in map form (Figure 5). Labour’s support remains unchanged in some geographical areas. Indeed, South Wales remained red, as did the coastal areas of the Northeast surrounding Newcastle/Sunderland, the vicinity of the Mersey, and city centres across the country. This being said, although winning these seats, the pattern of the night confirmed that Labour MPs generally won with lower internal majorities than in 2017, with the Tories’ share increasing. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore that there were huge parts of the Labour heartland that went to sleep red but awoke blue, and this is fundamental to grasping why Labour lost so many seats. Parliamentary constituencies such as Workington (A Labour held seat for 97 of the past 100 years), Blyth Valley, Bury South, Sedgefield, and Durham North West, fell to the Tories after decades of Labour control; all coincidentally constituencies which voted to leave the EU in 2016.
In order to re-capture its heartland Labour must seriously consider its leadership and overall direction, especially on the issue of Brexit if it wishes to appeal once again to the average voter of the now crumbling ‘Red Wall’. This being said, one rather interesting comparison is the Labour vote share in 2015 with that of 2019 (Figure 2b). As we can see from the data, in 2015 Labour won 30.4% of the vote share. Prior to Corbyn, Ed Milliband and Ed Balls’ ‘Blue Labour’ held the reins of the party and their performance in the 2015 election sparked the leadership contest that Corbyn won, handing those reigns to Momentum. Although experiencing a 7.9% decrease in vote share from the 2017 election (Figure 2a), in 2019 Labour won 32.1% of the popular vote, a 1.7% increase since 2015. Needless to say, there are a number of variables that this data does not take into consideration when assessing popular support for the Labour Party, such as: population growth, migration to labour safe seats, average constituency age, and so on. With this data alone, we can see that Corbyn has increased Labour’s overall share of the popular vote since becoming leader in 2015, no matter how small a difference.
Nonetheless, votes do not correlate to seats and as Figure 1a exhibits, Corbyn’s premiership has overseen an overall loss of 29 seats since 2015 (232-203) despite the party’s 2017 spike. Speaking of the translation of votes to seats, 203 seats equates to roughly 31% (31.23% to be exact) of the total 650 on offer in the Commons; compare this to their vote share – 32.1%. This is the first time since the 1959 election that Labour has gained a fewer percentage of seats than of votes (32.1% of 650 seats being 208). Labour were unable to cash in on their sixty-year benefit from the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system this time round. No matter how we look at the data, however, Labour’s capacity to effectively limit the government’s legislative power has significantly shrunk with their share of seats. With such a large Tory majority the question those in the Labour party will need to ask themselves if they want to reverse their bad fortune is: ‘If we truly wish to lead an effective opposition against this majority government, who is the right person to spearhead such a feat?”. As Labour will begin their leadership race soon enough, more than likely with an emphasis on gaining their first female leader, other parties emerged from the 2019 election without their leader. This brings me to the Lib-Dems.
‘Remaining’ Much The Same – The Liberal Democrats
Rather oddly, the outcome of this election for the Lib-Dems was somewhat bitter-sweet (with a mild emphasis on the bitter). Of course as Figure 1a depicts, the Lib-Dems lost a single seat, reducing their already slim percentage of the seats in the Commons even further. Alongside this, The Lib-Dem’s leader Jo Swinson was not re-elected in her constituency of Dunbartonshire East, losing it to the SNP. This being said, as the first female leader of the party, Swinson’s concession speech held an important and somewhat moving message about female empowerment, and whether or not you agree with the policies of the party, we should all agree that encouraging more women to enter politics after centuries of exclusion could only be a positive phenomenon. For now the party is in the hands of Ed Davey, waiting to decide upon the next leader of the party. If this is the bitter, and it really is bitter, than where was the sweet?
Figure 2C depicts the vote share of the smaller parties in 2015, 2017 and 2019. What the data tells us, as far as the Lib-Dems are concerned, is that they have managed to drastically increase their vote share, from 7.9% in 2015 to 11.5% in 2019. Although this fact will be dampened by the nature of how these votes translated into seats, this slight increase in vote share will be greatly welcomed by the Lib-Dems. It feels almost otherworldly to think that at the beginning of this decade the Lib-Dems would have been disappointed if they had won fewer than fifty seats. Now, at the close of the same decade, a bad night would be getting fewer than 8 seats (their 2015 result), and an excellent night in winning more than 15. Indeed, perhaps it is time that we recognise the crystallisation of our two-party system after three consecutive elections have confirmed the de facto loss of the agent that made it a two-and-a-half-party system.
With this being the ‘Brexit Election’, and with the Lib-Dems coming under heavy scrutiny for their will to reconsider the referendum result of 2016, it is surprising to see where the Lib-Dems picked up votes. We know that the Lib-Dems vote share increased by 4.2%, but new data published by the BBC shows something rather surprising.5 According to the BBC’s analysis, the Lib-Dem vote share increased in remain constituencies by 4.7%. This is unsurprising, given that the Lib-Dems held a clear and unshakable ‘Remain’ stance during their campaign. What is fascinating though is that the Lib-Dems increased their vote share in Leave constituencies by an average of 2.6%. This is surprising considering that the Brexit Party’s total vote share in leave constituencies’ amounted to just 3.8% – their key demographic. For example, although it has flirted between the SNP and the Lib-Dems in years of late, Caithness, Sutherland & Easter Ross remained Lib-Dem with the party’s vote share increasing by 1.4%, despite the constituency’s overall decision to vote in favour of leaving the EU in 2016. What this tells us is that either: (a) the Lib-Dems are convincing more citizens who voted ‘remain’ in the referendum to vote for them in leave constituencies, (b) the Lib-Dems are convincing more citizens who voted ‘leave’ in the referendum to vote for them in leave constituencies, or, (c) The Lib-Dems are convincing more citizens to vote for them in leave constituencies with issues other than Brexit at the forefront of concern.
If the Lib-Dems’ gamble during the 2019 election was to take a greater share of the remain demographic, than this has worked. Due to their stance on Brexit, their strategy alienated a number of voters on the one hand, and perhaps did not go far enough for others in opposing Brexit. Thus, this explains why the increase in the Lib-Dem vote share was geographically dependent. In areas such as Twickenham or Richmond Park (stolen from the last Tory candidate for London Mayor – Zac Goldsmith), a high percentage of voters were in favour of ‘remain’, yes, but, more importantly, these remain voters were localised, granting the Lib-Dems their constituency wins. If we look at the other side of the equation, although their vote share increased in ‘Leave’ constituencies, these voters were geographically spread across a greater area. In this manner, if the Lib-Dems wish to make a comeback in British politics, they must appeal to a demographic of voter who is greater in number and constitutes a grander share of population density in every constituency.
Is The Grass on This Side of The Election Greener? – The Green Party
Before I begin to discuss how the 2019 election has seemingly adapted the political make-up of the devolved regions, it is only fair to discuss the performance of the Green Party. 2019 has been described by many commentators as the year where concern for climate change made concrete its place as a canonical political issue. Throughout the course of 2019, we have witnessed: two rather major sets of extended demonstrations by extinction rebellion up and down the country, school children striking from their classes in protest, public information campaigns by the media in order to explain the climate activists’ concerns, numerous international events to discuss the effects of the Anthropocene, and the declaration of a ‘Climate Emergency’ by Parliament, to name but a few examples. Without any doubt, Ecologism has made its transition from the periphery of our socio-political narrative to the centre. Nonetheless, the question remains: is the widespread support for the ‘ecological turn’ in our political narrative mirrored by electoral support for the party whose edifice is defined by a commitment to ecology?
Before we attempt to briefly answer this question, let us get the obvious out of the way first. As Figure 1a divulges, the Green party have consistently held only a single seat in the Commons, that of Brighton Pavilion (since 2010). If we were to analyse the performance of the Green Party by seats alone, we would see that the Greens are not blessed with electoral success by any measure. But this would be a shallow analysis that ignores the success that the Greens do in fact achieve.
The first point I wish to highlight is the ratio of vote disparagement the Greens are constantly subject to as a result of FPTP. Yes, the greens only achieved a single seat. No, they have not gained more than a single seat in a decade. However, let us compare their vote share to that of the SNP and evaluate this discrepancy in relation to the conversion of votes into seats (Figures 1 and 2). In 2015, the difference between the two parties was but 0.9% of the vote share. In 2017 this gap widened to 1.5%, where both parties saw a drop in popular electoral support. Moreover, in 2019 the gap between the parties was reduced to 1.2%. This is significant as in 2015 the SNP gained 55 more seats than the Greens, in 2017 this difference reduced to 34, and now the gap between them has widened once again, where the SNP now hold 47 more seats than the Greens, despite their 1.2% difference in vote share. This leads us to expect a continued push by the Greens towards electoral reform. Whether or not our individual political perspectives agree or radically disagree with Green party policies, one cannot help but wonder whether or not this structurally embedded inhibition against the greens undermines the equality of opportunity for parties to represent not only their constituents but the thousands of voters whose favour they indirectly hold.
There are two areas I would like to discuss when evaluating the success of the Greens, following the results of the election. The first is of course Brighton Pavilion. The ex-leader of the Greens, Caroline Lucas, has held the seat in Brighton Pavilion now since 2010, increasing her constituency’s vote share in the last two elections to an overall majority above 50% of the popular vote. In fact, in this election Lucas secured 33,151 votes (57.2%), an increase of 4.9% in vote share.6 We can safely say that with a small overall majority, Brighton wills to be represented by the Green Party. Where else in the country will the Greens be honing their focus?
We have known for a decade that there is widespread support for the Greens in Brighton, but if the party wish to increase their share of seats in parliament where would they attempt to mobilise the electorate in their favour? The answer is Bristol. Bristol is comprised of four constituencies (North West, West, South, and East). If we take an average of the Green’s vote share differential from 2017, we can see that although Labour held the wider Bristol region, the Greens increased their vote share by 4.5% on average across all four constituencies.7 If the Greens were to focus on but a single one of these seats it would be Bristol West, where on the 12th of December their candidate came in second ,behind labour, with 18,809 votes (24.9%) and an increase of 12% of the vote share.8 Even so the Labour candidate secured 47,028 votes (62.3%). Subsequently, it is safe to say that the Greens still have a way to go if they wish to play FPTP at its own game, and remember, this is one of their top performing constituencies.9
This being said, however, since 2015, electoral support for the Greens has decreased. Indeed, the ‘ecological turn’ in our narrative coincides with an increase in the Greens share of the popular vote by 1.1%. Consequently, it would be fair to stipulate that more members of the electorate support an ecological party now than in 2017, a more surprising occurrence if we take into account the overall drop in turnout since this election (Figure 3) – ignoring the methodological problems with this presumption and focussing on just the trends within this dataset alone. For all the ecological concerns penetrating our traditional political discourse, the Greens were unable to recapture the support they received in 2015 – 3.8% of the overall popular vote. Despite 2019 being the year of climate crisis, and that UK turnout was 5.1% higher than in 2015 (Figure 4a), the Greens have lost 1.1% of the vote share over the course of the last four years, unable to break the million vote mark since.
In this vein, to answer the question posed above: the widespread support for the ‘ecological turn’ in our political narrative is mirrored by electoral support for the Greens, but only in the areas where they have already obtained a significant part of the vote share. This sentiment is not reflected across the entirety of the country however, illustrating why the increase in the Greens’ electoral support was localised to specific geographical pockets, unable to reproduce or break their peak vote share from 2015. Although Labour lost 10 deposits, four of them in England, the Green party stole the title for most lost, surrendering a total of £232,500 in non-refunded deposits across 465 constituencies. This illustrates clearly their lack of electoral support outside of the areas they already experience popularity.10 Thus, during this parliamentary session, we should expect the Greens to concentrate their efforts in those constituencies where they already have a certain level of esteem in an effort to crystallise support and increase concentrated popularity.
The Scotch, Welsh and Northern-Irish Walk into a Polling Station – The Regional Parties
The Scottish National Party
Two parties claimed a victory out of this election. The first was of course the Conservatives, discussed above. The second was the SNP. The SNP regained a number of the seats they had lost in 2017 to Ruth Davidson’s Scottish Conservatives. The SNP won 48 seats overall, an increase of 13 seats from their 2017 performance (Figure 1a). The increase in the number of seats the SNP won mirrored their amplified share of the popular vote, by 0.8% nationally (to 3.9%) and 8.1% in Scotland (to 45%).11 The success of the SNP during this election is best illustrated by two cases. The first was of course their dethroning of the Lib-Dims, stealing Jo Swinson’s seat in Dunbartonshire East. Unmistakably, as Nicola Sturgeon’s reaction to this event shows, Dunbartonshire East was the prize the SNP claimed from this election.12 The second was the only loss for the SNP, where in Fife North East the Lib-Dems took the marginal seat, which up until this election held an SNP majority of just two votes. In this case, Stephen Gethins, a rather prominent figure in the SNP, lost his seat and yet the media have entirely overlooked this loss. Hence, as the loss of a senior member of the SNP has been wholly ignored, this in itself displays the overall perception of the SNP’s victory in Scotland.
This being said, perhaps we should examine the data a little closely before we give credence to the perception of victory. Although gaining both seats and share of the popular vote the SNP were unable to match their 2015 victory of 56/59 seats and a 4.7% vote share, as figure 2c exhibits. Since 2015, the SNP has decreased their share of votes by 0.8% nationally, and 5% regionally. To many, this may just be an inference of statistical interpretation. However, such a slight drop in electoral popularity may have an effect on support for independence, the central mission objective of the SNP. Although the SNP will now claim that they have a mandate for a second referendum on independence (indyref2), we should expect the counter-argument to be guided by this ‘inference of statistical interpretation’.
Those wishing to undermine the SNP’s claim to a mandate for indyref2 will argue that because the SNP have reduced their electoral popularity since the election closest to indyref1 then the outcome of another referendum will more than likely be similar, if not an expected increase in favour of unionism. Nonetheless, this would be a preconception of the highest order, as there may have been many who voted for independence in 2014 who did not vote for the SNP in this election. The temporally adapting vote share of the SNP is not necessarily an indication of popular support for independence, and in equal measure, electoral support for other parties is by no means a pledge against independence. Even so, it is worth contemplating in order to ascertain a pre-understanding of the arguments, were indyref2 to become a reality. The SNP will lobby for this reality more so now than in the past, with Brexit on the horizon and a short-term increase in popularity on their side.
The last interesting point I would like to draw the reader’s attention to on the matter of Scotland concerns its turnout. If we take a quick glance at Figures 4a and 4b, we can see that England, Wales and Northern Ireland all follow an analogous trend to the overall pattern of the UK – between 2010 and 2017 turnout steadily increases, before reducing ever so slightly in 2019. Scottish turnout alone does not conform to such a pattern – increasing from 2010 to 2015, falling in 2017, and marginally rising again in 2019. There are many reasons as to why this could be the case and, if we are being honest, looking at the past decade of Scottish voting trends, Scotland has not mirrored the electoral preferences of the UK as a whole; a high number consistently supporting civic-nationalists and broadly voting in favour of remaining in the EU being but the two most obvious illustrations of this fact.
It is significant to discuss Scottish turnout because there is a positive correlation between regional turnout during general elections and support for the SNP. Let us compare Figure 2c and 4a. Although the data is not present in Figure 2, in 2010 the SNP won 6 seats with 1.7% of the popular vote nationally, and 9.9% of the vote share in Scotland alone. By focusing on either national vote share (Figure 2) or regional vote share, we can observe that support for the SNP generally follows the same trend as regional turnout from 2010 onwards – increasing dramatically in 2015, dropping in 2017, and rising slightly in 2019. Of course, it would be overstretching to suggest that an increase in vote share for the SNP causes an increase in turnout. There is no reason to suggest that the vote share for the SNP is a dependent variable in relation to Scottish electoral turnout.
However, what the data does tell us is that turnout and support for civic nationalism are correlative in Scotland, i.e. when turnout increases, so too does the support for the SNP and therefore, by default, electoral support for Scottish Nationalism. To describe this in a different way – when democratic participation increases in Scotland, opposition to the Westminster model does so too. Accordingly, if the issue of indyref2 has not run its course by the time we have held another general election, the unionist parties may take this correlation into mind when forging electoral strategy, potentially attempting to limit an increase in Scottish turnout so to limit electoral support for the SNP. In the mean time, expect the SNP to focus on increasing their percentage of seats in Hollyrood, where they currently operate a minority government in the Scottish Assembly, and advancing their claim to a mandate for indyref2 on the national level. For now, I will shift the subject of our analysis to Wales and Plaid Cymru.
Plaid Cymru (PC) are an interesting party to study. Like most regionally focused political parties, PC holds a higher percentage of support in the devolved assembly than on the national stage. As of the 2016 Welsh Elections, PC hold one-sixth (10/60) of the seats in the welsh assembly, 20.5% of the constituency vote share, and 20.8% of the regional vote share (both the Scottish and Welsh assemblies use the Additional Member System, a mode of proportional representation, as opposed to FPTP). Nevertheless, in this general election, PC managed to hold onto its four seats, without adapting their national vote share of 0.5%. PC’s national vote share during general elections is considerably low as it only fields candidates in the Welsh constituencies (40 in total). Therefore, if we look at the national data, we can see that this election was a continuation of the status-quo for PC: they gained nothing, and they lost nothing. On the other hand, lets analyse the data a little closer.
In 2015, PC gained the height of their regional vote share with 12.1%, much like the SNP. Since 2015, the regional vote share of PC has dropped in Wales to 10.4% in 2017 and now 9.9% in 2019. As PC does not stand candidates outside of Wales, regional turnout data is our best bet of grasping the Welsh attitude to PC. This data suggests that since 2015, although their national vote share has remained relatively stable at 0.6 or 0.5% (Figure 2a), their regional vote share in Wales has continued to decrease – by 2.2% since 2015. Therefore, in the region as a whole, PC need to focus on connecting with the Welsh electorate to a greater extent, not just to gain more seats, but to hold those they already control so not to lose more support if the trend continues in this manner. However, the election data reveals that three of the four constituencies that PC held saw their vote share increase, and in Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, the one seat where it decreased, their share of the vote only fell by 0.4%. This informs us that where PC does hold seats they are not haemorrhaging votes, but only that their regional popularity is fading in terms of electoral support at general elections as time drifts further from 2015.
The DUP, Sinn Fein, The SDLP and Alliance
Although I do not wish to offend anybody by lumping all the Northern Irish parties into a single section, there is not much that I wish to analyse out of the results in Northern Ireland, at least as far as this data is concerned. Northern Ireland saw SF maintaining their seven seats and the DUP losing two, which places them with but eight seats in the commons. There are two other parties in the mix however. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) gained two seats out of this election, and North Down elected the first Alliance Party of Northern Ireland candidate (Stephen Farry) to have won a seat outside of Belfast East. Where my interest in the outcome of this election for the DUP and SF rests is with the gains of these other parties. The first thing to take note of is that the SDLP are the Irish-nationalist alternative to SF. When combining both the seats of the SDLP and SF, we can see that exactly half of the seats are controlled by nationalist MPs in Northern Ireland, and as the Alliance Party are centrist and non-sectarian, the DUP and the Unionists broadly no longer have an electoral hold on Northern Ireland – the first time in history this has occurred. Equally, the nationalists will be delighted that they now control three of the four seats in Belfast, gaining two of them from the DUP and the scalp their ex-Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, in the process.
This phenomenon has caused many to ponder whether or not the SDLP and SF combined will attempt to lobby for a referendum in Northern Ireland – on whether to accept Johnson’s withdrawal agreement and the potential division of the UK this may cause, or not. The truth of the matter is that: (a) the full extent of the future trading arrangement with the EU is yet to be made concrete; (b) the biggest supporters of the DUP are historically the conservatives, who control the legislative agenda with their new majority now, and the capability to permit a referendum if they wish – which they wont out of the potential it may have to democratically undermine Johnson’s agreement; (c) meaning that the DUP should not expect any ‘confidence and supply arrangement’ from now on, (d) all parties are more than likely rather preoccupied with the fact that Stormont has not sat for over 1060 days, since January 2017, and lastly (e) SF are an abstentionist party in the first place – they do not take up their seats as this requires MPs to swear an oath of loyalty to the UK and the Monarchy. Thus, in all but the phenomenon’s symbolism aside, somehow the question of the effect of nationalist control over Northern Ireland is limited by these factors.
All parties find themselves checked in someway by another: The DUP as they no longer hold a majority of seats over the Irish Nationalists; SF as in order to properly influence policy they would have to break their long-standing policy of abstentionism; the SDLP as they only hold two seats and are dependent on SF’s commitment to cooperate – a commitment which will more than likely continue electorally to uphold the symbolic dividend of Nationalist control, but this commitment will not be transported to the legislative arena due to the abstentionism of SF. The only real winner in Northern Ireland is the Alliance Party, who with their 16.8% of the regional vote share and single seat gain has stopped either the nationalists or unionist achieving an overall majority in terms of seats or vote share in the region.13 Even though this is a small gain for a minor party, this is perhaps one of the greatest victories for electoral non-sectarianism we have ever seen in Northern Ireland. For Northern Ireland therefore, the significance of this election will be in its symbolism. With any luck this may just be the catalyst needed to resuscitate government in Stormont, but alas, only time will tell.
Last Orders, Time to ‘leave’ – The Brexit Party
The final party that I wish to examine is The Brexit Party. For many years we have become familiar with Nigel Farage as the outspoken party leader who, although never winning a seat in the commons, is continually re-elected to the European Parliament as an MEP. Indeed, the media portrayal of the candid party leader at last orders with a pint of ale in one hand and a cigarette in the other seems to have struck a chord with some of the electorate. Farage’s latest political venture after leaving UKIP in 2018 has been to form and lead The Brexit Party. The party promoted their advocacy for a ‘clean break Brexit’, appealing to Eurosceptic conservatives on the right, and those who had previously supported other National-Populist groups.14
For all the discussion prior to the election about the effect the Brexit party may hypothetically have on legislation, they did not win a single seat and gained only 2% of the popular vote (Figures 1 and 2). The closest the party came to winning a seat was in Hartlepool, where party chairman Richard Tice obtained 10,603 votes, 25.8% of the constituency’s vote share. Indeed, if the aim of the party was to gain seats, they failed. The aim of the Brexit party turned out not to be gaining seats, nor gaining votes countrywide, but rather eating into the Labour majorities of the ‘Red-Wall’ constituencies, permitting a greater possibility for a Tory majority in the commons to pass the Withdrawal agreement. If this was indeed the objective of the Brexit Party, then they succeeded. This we can see from the Brexit Party’s national vote share in Figure 6, where the most concentrated pockets of Brexit Party support rest in the Labour heartlands, paying dividends for the conservatives in the ‘Red Wall’ and the north-east, evidently eating into Labour’s vote share.
Nonetheless, it still remains that the Brexit party gained minimal support, much less than expected by pollsters in the weeks leading up to the election; beginning the campaign with an estimated 12% of the popular vote by some polls.15 In many ways, The Brexit party were the only group to continue an electoral trend – where National-Populist parties have decreased significantly in popularity since 2015. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) gained a single seat in 2015, held by Douglas Carswell, with 12.6% of the national vote share. In 2019, UKIP holds no seats and 0.1% of votes. Now, as the moderate wing of UKIP on the other side of its post-Farage metamorphoses, The Brexit Party has already begun its decline of vote share. We must not forget that The Brexit Party is a new party, and its first election fought was the European Parliamentary Elections in mid-2019 where they secured a whopping 30.79% of the popular vote.16 Although these two elections are really rather different, in terms of issues campaigned, turnout and the factors determining who votes for whom, and this should not be forgotten lightly, the Brexit party have managed to lose 28.79% of the popular vote in but a handful of months. This, more than likely, has occurred due to increasing fractures within the party and Nigel Farage’s decision to stand-down candidates in constituencies that the conservatives won in the 2017 election so not to ‘split the leave vote’.
As I said above, the aim of the Brexit party was to bolster Johnson’s majority in the House of Commons. Indeed, perhaps their assistance has led to their own downfall, presenting Johnson with the wiggle room to push for an increasingly ‘frictionless’ relationship with the EU if his administration chose to do so – hardly the ‘clean break brexit’ the party advocated. Perhaps this was a stroke of strategic brilliance, ensuring that any Brexit could not be filibusted further. However, in doing so, The Brexit Party may have ensured that their Brexit is less likely to be a possibility. Where they will go from here is still in doubt. Will they reform post-brexit? Will they disband? In all likelihood, the party will rebrand, but this should not be an issue – rebranding seems to be Farage’s speciality, at least, if he wishes to put others in to power and not himself.
In conclusion, the 2019 General Election was one that broke trends. In summary: the conservatives now have the highest majority they have held in the contemporary era; the Labour party has lost its heartland and a huge number of seats; the Lib-Dems have lost a leader, a seat, and yet risen in popularity across ‘leave’ voting constituencies; the Greens are losing overall support despite the political narrative moving on to their ground; the SNP have increased both vote share and seats, stealing back those constituencies lost to the Tories and now holding a mandate for indyref2, riding the coat-tails of a turnout to the tune of their own support; Plaid Cymru are losing votes outside of the constituencies they already hold and did not change their share of the seats; The DUP have lost a significant amount of influence in both vote share and number of seats, handing majority control of Northern Irish seats to Sinn Fein and the SDLP; and lastly, the Brexit Party, who gained few seats and lost popularity in relation to their last electoral performance, and yet eroded the foundation of Labour’s base.
Now the votes have been counted and the politics about to restart, the question is: ‘what is the legacy of the 2019 election?’. Of course, the legislative result we are yet to experience, but as far as the electoral data is concerned, 2019 should be remembered as the unorthodox election with even more unorthodox results.
Figure 1a: UK General Election Results of All Parties by Seat (2015-2019)
Figure 1b: UK General Election Results of Three Largest Parties in Parliament by Seats (2015-2019)
Figure 1C: UK General Election Results of All Parties by Seats (2015-2019)
Figure 2a: UK General Election Results For All Parties By Vote Share (%) (2015-2019)
Figure 2b: UK General Elections Results of The Two Largest Parties in Parliament by Vote Share (%) (2015-2019)
Figure 2c: UK General Election Results of All Parties by Vote Share (%) (2015-2019)
Figure 3: UK General Election Turnout (%) (1979-2019)
Figure 4a: UK General Election Turnout by Region (1) (%) (2010 – 2019)
Figure 4b: UK General Election Turnout by Region (2) (%) (2010-2019)
Figure 5: 2019 UK General Election Results in Comparison to 2017 Results by Constituency on Map
Figure 6: Brexit Party 2019 Election Results by Vote Share (%) on Constituency Map
1 In terms of exceptions, I am, of course, thinking of Professors John Curtice and Michael Thrasher, whose respective analyses in the days leading up to the election correctly predicted the broad electoral changes we witnessed.
4 For more information on the functioning of ‘International Society’ and its relationship to the EU, see: Hedley Bull (2012) The Anarchical Society, fourth edition, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 3-21; Martin Wight (1977) Systems of States, Leicester: Leicester University Press; Martin Wight (2004) Power Politics, New York: Continuum; Yannis A. Sitvachtis (2008), ‘Civilization and International Society: The Case of European Union Expansion’, Contemporary Politics, 14(1), pp. 71-89.
6 BBC News, ‘Election 2019: Brighton Pavilion Parliamentary Constituency’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/constituencies/E14000598 (accessed 15th December 2019).
7 A mean was calculated by combining the Greens’ increase in vote share (%) in all four Bristol constituencies – 1.9%, 2.3%, 12%, and 1.2%. This data was sourced from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news /election/2019/results (accessed 16th December 2019).
8 BBC News, ‘Election 2019: Bristol West Parliamentary Constituency’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/constituencies/E14000602, (accessed 15th December 2019).
12 Tania Snuggs, 13th December 2019, ‘Nicola Sturgeon: “I got overexcited’ in reaction to Jo Swinson loss”’, Sky News, https://news.sky.com/story/nicola-sturgeon-i-got-overe xcited-in-reaction-to-jo -swinson-loss-118855 72 (accessed 16th December 2019).
13 BBC News, ‘Election 2019: Northern Ireland Results’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results/northern_ireland (accessed 15th December 2019).
14 For a greater understanding of the contemporary global National-Populist phenomenon, see: Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin (2018) National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, London: Pelican Books; Matthew Goodwin (2012) Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe, London: Royal Institute of International Affairs.
15 YouGov Final 2019 General Election MRP Model, “Voting Intention & Seat Estimates”, YouGov, https://yougov.co.uk/uk-general-election-2019/ (accessed 13th December 2019); The Guardian, ‘General Election 2019: Election Opinion Polls Tracker’, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2019/de c/11/election-opinion-polls-uk-2019-latest-poll-tracker-tories-labour (accessed 15th December 2019)
16 European Parliament, ‘2019 European Election Results: The United Kingdom’, The European Parliament, https://europarl.europa.eu/election-results-2019/en/national-results/united-kingdom/2019-2024/ (accessed 17th December 2019).
17All data taken from: ‘Election 2019: Results’, BBC News, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/ election/2019/results (Accessed 17th December 2019).