NEWS

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Nick Cater writes in The Australian:

You have to hand it to the folk at The New York Times; they sure know how to misread an election.

It was the Times, you may recall, that published a grudging apology last year for its one-sided coverage of the presidential campaign when Donald Trump failed to keep to the script. And it was the Times that last Friday revelled in Theresa May’s “humiliating defeat” in a story headlined “Jeremy Corbyn lost UK election, but is still its biggest winner”.

Details, selectively unreported by the Times and almost everyone else, present a less definitive picture. May’s campaign ended with the biggest swing to the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher swept to power in 1979. The party won 2.3 million more votes than it did under David Cameron in 2015.

The Conservative share of the popular vote equalled that achieved in Thatcher’s Falklands election in 1983. The Tories gained seven seats in England and 13 in Scotland, the party’s best result north of the border for more than 30 years.

That is not underplay a remarkable night for Corbyn, the Labour Party leader who “the people in the know” claimed was unelectable a month ago.

They were right, but only just. The most humiliating performance was not by May but the ­bubbleheads who succumbed to their metropolitan bias and misjudged the mood of the British electorate for the second time in less than a year.

On Thursday, London’s post-industrial upper middle class voted much as Manhattan’s post-industrial upper class voted in the US presidential election — that is to say, in a post-industrial upper-class manner somewhat differently from the rest.

Across 72 constituencies in Greater London there was a two-party swing of 13 per cent to Labour against the Conservatives, more than double that in rest of the country. The closer to centre, the more fervent the anti-May feeling was held. In suburban Ruislip at the far end of the Central Line, the two-party swing to Labour was less than 10 per cent; in Chelsea and Fulham it was 20 per cent; in Kensington 21 per cent; and in Westminster North 22 per cent. How could a London-based commentator in the middle of such seismic change gauge the mood in Middlesborough South and East Cleveland, an industrial constituency 350km away that the Conservatives took from Labour with a swing of 12.6 per cent?

The two sides of the cultural fault line became apparent when the results were called in Mansfield, an industrial town in the East Midlands, and Canterbury, a university city in East Kent. The Conservatives took Mansfield for the first time since the seat was created in 1885 with a decisive swing of 18.4 per cent. Canterbury, on the other hand, held by the Conservatives since 1918, swung to Labour by 20.5 per cent.

Why the difference? Higher education. Canterbury has three university campuses with more than 30,000 students; Mansfield has a technical college where you can learn to drive a forklift.

Once judged by a popular TV show as the ninth worst place to live in Britain, Mansfield was once part of Labour heartland. It was at the vortex of some of the bitterest clashes during the miners’ strike in 1984. The gentrified Labour Party under Corbyn — MP for Islington North — barely speaks their language.

The shadow of the Brexit vote looms large. An exit survey by Lord Ashcroft Polls found that 68 per cent of leavers voted Conservative. Seven in 10 Conservative voters said they wanted Brexit to happen as soon as possible; only a third of Labour voters wanted the same.

Many of the those who boosted the Conservative vote were UK Independence Party voters returning home. Others were former Labour voters for whom UKIP was a gateway drug to the Tories. Working-class Brits who could not abide Cameron, an Eton-educated Europhile, found the state-school- educated May more to their liking.

With the exception of Wales, the further removed from London’s orbit, the stronger the Conservative vote.

There were two notable exceptions to that pattern: Labour did well in seats with large Muslim populations in the Midlands and the north, consolidating gains made in 2015. It also performed strongly in university towns such as Plymouth.

As with Brexit, higher education was an important indicator. It points to a structural challenge for the Conservatives, not dissimilar to that which confronts the Australian Liberal Party. Support from voters under 35, particularly women, is in rapid decline, particularly among those with degrees.

The Conservatives narrowly lost the female vote 39 per cent to 41 per cent, even with a leader called Theresa. If the Ashcroft poll is anywhere near the mark, the Conservatives are decidedly uncool. Fewer than one in five 18 to 24-year-olds ticked Conservative; two-thirds voted Labour. May didn’t do much better in the 25-34 group, which backed Labour by 57 per cent to 22 per cent.

It matches the trend in Australia, where just one in four women under 34 voted for the Coalition in last year’s election, continuing the defections that began at the end of the Howard years.

Even before counting has finished, speculation about a challenge to May had begun. Yet if sanity prevails — as it does from time to time, even in politics — May’s position is secure. The fact May performed so much better than Cameron in the popular vote should seal it, providing her colleagues hold their jitters.

After all, in governing with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, May is in no worse a position that Cameron was seven years ago when he struck a deal with the Liberal Democrats. The difference is that May leads with 42.4 per cent of the electorate behind her, six points higher than Cameron in 2010, and the strongest mandate of any British prime minister since Tony Blair in 1997.

In her attempt to win back disaffected voters outside the M25 motorway, May has alienated cosmopolitan voters. Compounded by its tiny share of the immigrant vote, the Conservatives will need to rethink the game next time around.

Clearly, however, the future is not a return to Cameronism. Both Labour and the Conservatives increased their votes by asserting their differences and rejecting the elusive idea of a centre. The last thing the Conservatives need is a return to the apprehensive approach that takes few risks, is frightened to offend and leaves the electorate guessing for what, if anything, they stand.

 

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2019 by Menzies Research Centre