U.K. election ripples could soon be waves

The takeaways from an unexpected result: campaigns matter; two-party politics may be on the way back; unionism is reborn; and Brexit has become more complicated

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boom bust oilTORONTO, Ont. /Troy Media/ – Shortly before the polls closed in the United Kingdom election, there was an intriguing tweet from the guy running the exit poll. There would, he said, be “fascinating” results to discuss.

And indeed the results of the June 8 vote were fascinating, so much so that significant numbers of Britons stayed up through the night to watch the drama unfold.

Here are my takeaways:

Campaigns matter

From an initial lead of 20-plus points, Theresa May’s Conservatives watched their position progressively dwindle to a paltry two points on June 8. In scope, if not in denouement, it was a meltdown greater than U.S. presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s.

May and Clinton had several things in common.

Both entered their campaigns from positions of overwhelming strength against ostensibly weak opponents. And both squandered their advantages.

In the process, neither demonstrated any flair for 2stt-century retail politics. Rather than authenticity, they projected scripted personalities.

Nor was there much ability to adapt to events. Despite – or perhaps because of – abundant access to expensive advisers, both campaigns opted to live in a bubble.

Two-party politics may be on the way back

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One of the distinguishing characteristics of British politics over the past half-century has been the decline of major party dominance. Whereas the combination of the Conservatives and Labour sucked up virtually all of the oxygen in the immediate post-Second World War years, the political landscape began to splinter badly in the 1970s.

The combined Conservative-Labour vote share in 1955 was 96.1 per cent. And in 1959, it was 93.2 per cent.

But by the 21st century, this had shrivelled dramatically. In 2015, the two parties only pulled in 67.3 per cent between them.

In contrast, this year’s two-party share – 82.4 per cent – represents a spectacular break with recent experience. It is, in fact, the highest since 1970.

What this portends for the future is anyone’s guess. However, if the smaller parties get pushed further towards the levels of the 1950s and ’60s, it’ll certainly change the electoral calculus.

Meanwhile, May can take rueful consolation from the fact that her share of the two-party vote was virtually identical to that won by her Tory predecessor Anthony Eden in 1955. Eden’s tally, though, was enough to translate into a very comfortable seat majority. The vagaries of electoral geography will sometimes do that.

Unionism is making a comeback

After a period of playing defence, unionism – defined as the desire to preserve the U.K. in its current form – is fighting back.

The results in Scotland provided the most vivid example.

The independence-minded Scottish Nationalists lost 21 seats and 13 points in vote share, while the unionist Conservatives doubled their vote and picked up 12 seats. It was the strongest Tory performance in Scotland since 1983.

Something roughly similar, albeit less dramatic, happened in Northern Ireland.

There, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) saw its vote share jump by more than 11 points, and the combined vote of the two main unionist parties exceeded that of the two nationalist ones by over five points. In addition to being a margin improvement over the previous election, this represented a reversal of the anti-unionist trend that surfaced as recently as March’s local assembly vote.

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And that’s not all.

With the DUP’s 10 seats being enough to get May’s Conservatives over the majority line, a mutually beneficial support arrangement can be struck. Northern Ireland’s unionists could be more influential than they’ve been for quite a while.

Brexit has become more complicated

Contrary to some of what you might read or hear, the election can’t be reasonably interpreted as a second-thoughts rejection of Brexit.

The anti-Brexit parties – such as the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists – lost vote share. And an exit poll found 49 per cent of voters enthusiastic about Brexit, with a further 22 per cent accepting it and only 28 per cent rejecting it.

Still, May’s inability to win a majority weakens her prior negotiating strategy, part of which was the proposition that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

All negotiations have a substantial psychological dimension, revolving around perceptions of desperation for a deal. If you allow, or even encourage, the idea that there’s no circumstance under which you’ll walk away from the table, you’ve put yourself at a significant disadvantage. In effect, you’re inviting the other side to walk all over you.

It’s going to be fascinating, indeed.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. 

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