CROYDON COMMENTARY: Recriminations over Thursday’s elections, in particular Labour’s loss of the Hartlepool parliamentary seat, will continue for some days yet as other results, including the London Assembly and council by-elections, trickle in. Here, former Tory MP GAVIN BARWELL, pictured, says that the British voting system could see the Conservatives in power at Westminster for years to come
Many Labour MPs put all the blame for their 2019 defeat on Jeremy Corbyn. He was certainly a big factor but this narrative obscures the huge underlying challenges Labour faces. It is in a tougher situation today than the mid-1980s.
On paper that might sound excessive: Labour got 32.1 per cent of the vote in 2019 compared with 27.6 per cent in 1983, and in the latter the Liberal/SDP Alliance came close to overtaking it for second place in terms of vote share.
But that potential alignment fizzled out because under our first-past-the-post system the Alliance couldn’t convert vote share into seats.
In the last few years, two seismic realignments of British politics have taken place.
First the SNP takeover in Scotland. There is no sign of Labour winning back all those formerly rock-solid Labour seats it lost to the SNP. Without them, it has to do very well in England and Wales in order to win an overall majority.
More important is the realignment in England and Wales. This has been building for a long time and is not just about Brexit. In many parts of the world, politics is becoming less about economics and more about culture, allowing the centre-right to win more working-class support.
The Conservatives have embraced this realignment; it is very hard for Labour to do so. First, Labour is increasingly the party of the young, the university-educated, the city dweller, but it still thinks of itself as the party of the working-class.
Second, it’s an electoral trap. The Conservative vote is becoming increasingly aligned with Leave, the Labour vote with Remain. But although the referendum result was close, the Remain vote was heavily concentrated in London, Scotland and [Northern Ireland].
This means that in constituency terms, Leave has a big advantage. And the Conservatives have a virtual monopoly on the Leave vote whereas the Remain vote is split between Labour, the [LibDems], the Greens and nationalists in Scotland and Wales.
These huge challenges are compounded by the fact that as [Guardian columnist Rafael Behr] recently argued, Labour doesn’t understand its opponent.
It still thinks it’s fighting the same old Tories, but the Conservatives are changing in front of their eyes to appeal to their new voter coalition.
Today’s Conservative Party believes in relatively high spending and relatively high taxes. That makes it a much harder opponent for Labour, just as New Labour was a much harder opponent for the Conservatives.
There’s one other consequence of this change in the Conservatives. They’ve been in office for 11 years so “time for a change” should be an increasingly powerful message, but it isn’t because we have had four very different governments over those 11 years.
If that all sounds daunting for Labourites and others who don’t want a Conservative government: in his 2019 triumph Boris Johnson only got just over 300,000 more votes than Theresa May in 2017. So why the huge difference in the outcome (hung Parliament vs big majority)?
Because in our first-past-the-post system, what matters is the margin between the parties.
In 2017, Corbyn got most of the anti-Tory vote; by 2019, when voters knew him better, he didn’t.
While the centre-left is divided, it has no chance of beating a united centre-right.
- “Lord” Gavin Barwell was Conservative MP for Croydon Central from 2010 until 2017. He was Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief of staff for two years until 2019. He now sits in the House of Lords. On May 7, he published a lengthy thread on Twitter, which is reproduced here with only minor edits for style and clarity
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