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Brexit: a multifactorial election

2019-12-14 07:39:26

Now that the full results are in, we have the key statistics for the election. The Conservatives gained 47 seats to finish with 365, on 43.6 percent of the vote. Labour trailed with 32.1 percent, losing 59 seats to end up with 203.

The Lib-Dems fared miserably, taking 11.5 percent of the vote, losing one seat to end up with 11. Yet the SNP, on a mere 3.9 percent, managed 48 seats, gaining 13. The Greens polled 2.7 percent and kept the one and only seat they already had. Farage's party took a two percent share of the national vote, predictably gaining no seats at all.

The national turnout was 67.3 percent, down 1.5 percent on the 2017 figure. That means that the proportion of electorate who actually ticked the box for the Conservatives was a mere 29.3 percent less than a third of the people entitled to vote. Under this system, that is all it takes to get someone into No 10.

Considering that many people held their noses and voted, just to "get Brexit done", while others quite deliberately abstained, this is not an overwhelming endorsement of the party now in government. Even if we take the straight vote, 43.6 percent does not constitute a majority.

In terms of movement, compared with the 2017 election, the swing to the Tories was a mere 1.2 percent, as against a swing away from Labour of 7.9 percent. By any account, the Tories did not win this election. Labour lost it.

From the overnight narrative during the count, it is clear that Corbyn featured heavily in the reason why Labour lost. And not least of that was his equivocal stance on Brexit. Thus, the received wisdom is that the party's heartland supporters lost confidence in Labour and voted to "get Brexit done".

There is undoubtedly a good deal of truth in this assessment, and it was certainly the case in Wakefield. The incumbent, Mary Creagh, was a notorious remainer, favouring a second referendum in a constituency which voted strongly "leave". That much seems to be confirmed by local voters.

However, the Datapraxis pollsters report that Labour lost 2,585,564 votes between 2017 and 2019. Less than half of the lost votes were Labour leavers. At least as many were remain voters - some of them in "leave" seats.

This is but one complication, and there are others. A deeper look at the circumstances of each seat suggests that, in many constituencies, there were additional factors at play. A good example of this is Sedgefield, Blair's former seat which has gone blue, for the first time since 1931. The Conservative's Paul Howell got 19,608 votes while Labour's Phil Wilson only managed 15,096 votes.

Swings, respectively, were 8.4 percent in favour of the Tories but there was a 17.1 percent swing against Labour. Once more, Labour lost more than the Tories gained, on a turnout that was marginally down, -0.5 percent from 2017, coming in at 64.6 percent.

Here, the performance of Farage's commercial enterprise is interesting. The Brexit Party got 3,518 votes. And if we go along with Farage's unprovable assertion that these votes were taken from the Labour camp, then one can attribute the victory partly to his intervention, even if the Tory majority over Labour was greater than the Brexit Party vote.

To get a true perspective, though, one has to go back a few years to the days of Tony Blair. In his last term as Sedgefield's MP, in 2007, he lost six percent of the vote share. His less well-known successor, in the 2007 by-election, lost 14.1 percent and in the 2010 general election stabilised slightly with a loss of 13.9 percent. But the heady days of Blair majorities were over. From 1997, when Blair polled 33,526 votes, Wilson peaked at a mere 22,202 in 2017, with a swing of 6.2 percent.

All the time, though, Tory candidates were gradually piling on votes, from 4,082 in 2007 to 16,143 ten years later in 2017. This set a trend of gradual conversion to a Tory seat, reflecting changes elsewhere in the region. With the mines closed and the heavy industry gone, the working class heritage has dissipated and a middle-class core has emerged.

This has been bolstered by substantial new-build private sector housing (of which this is but one example) and the transition to a service economy. Johnson, therefore, is benefiting from the gradual gentrification of the area, a process which has been going on for well over a decade. It is set to continue, combined with a record swing against Labour of 17.1 percent, which surely must reflect the antipathy towards Corbyn.

But what the Southern nose-bleeders don't fully realise is that what goes on in Sedgefield isn't necessarily reflected elsewhere. They may have visions of a mystical land north of the Wash, populated by woad-painted barbarians, horny-handed sons of the soil, and wheezing ex-miners stricken by black lung and years of smoking Capstan full-strength.

There are enormous variations in the make-up of this strange, mist-shrouded land which starts once the intrepid adventurers traverse the feared barrier of the Watford Gap. The Northeast, for instance, is not Yorkshire.

No more is this varied make-up apparent when one comes to the former mill town of Dewsbury, notorious in the recent past for its monolithic bloc of Kashmiri Moslems and Islamic suicide bombers who have colonised the central, Savile Town area of the constituency.

Voting Labour as a block, as the Kashmiris tend to do, they had until 2010 been able to maintain Shahid Malik one of their own as their MP, until "significant boundary changes" brought enough whites back into the constituency to oust him. This is an area which had in 2005 one of the highest BNP votes in the country, after the Tories had made the mistake of fielding a Pakistani candidate.

In the 2010 general election, however, Simon Reevell won the seat for the Tories with a narrow majority of 1,526. But it was not to last. The Tories lost it to Labour in 2015 when they fielded Paula Sherriff, a white candidate. Sherriff managed a similarly narrow majority of 1,451 after the Ukip candidate took 6,649 votes.

Now established, she managed to increase her lead in 2017 to 3,321 but the writing was on the wall. The Kashmiris, for once, were victims of their own self-segregation. While they maintained an unassailable lead in their Savile town ghetto, the surrounding wards were increasing their white populations.

Over recent years, the region has been seeing substantial, high quality residential development in the pleasant Yorkshire hinterland, in easy commuting distance of Leeds. This will soon include this, providing 4,000 new homes. Like Sedgefield, therefore, Dewsbury is ripe for turning once more, hence its reversion to Tory control in this election.

One is fully aware that the nice, genteel nose-bleeders and especially those in the domain of the BBC - don't really like talking about the politics of race, hence the soft-focus analysis from the Guardian. Thus, the impact of the Moslem communities on the political process is quietly glossed over. But, if you want an explanation as to why Dewsbury has turned Tory this time round, it has very little to do with a sudden rush of enthusiasm for Johnson.

In neighbouring Colne Valley, though, the dynamics are different again. When I first came up to Yorkshire, some forty years ago, I was based in Elland the wrong side of Halifax.

At the time, I thought this was the end of the world, but I hadn't yet been to Slaithwaite (pronounced locally as Sloughwait as in Slough), part of the Colne Valley constituency. If Elland was the end of the world, this old mill town, lying across the River Colne and the Huddersfield Narrow Canal, was the land time forgot, even if it was staggeringly beautiful - from a distance. And elsewhere in the constituency, we have Holmfirth, of Last of the Summer Wine fame.

Traditionally, this has been a Labour/Liberal marginal but it went Conservative in 1987 after the locals had discovered that the Tory Party existed. It succumbed to Blair in 1997, went Tory again in 2010 and slipped back to Labour in 2017. This time round, it was the Tory turn, reverting back on a 2.2 percent swing against a swing against Labour of 7.7 percent. In the next election, it may well go Labour again.

The picture, therefore, is more than a little mixed. To an extent, we're seeing something akin to the classic "perfect storm" where a number of different factors have come together to give Johnson his extended tenancy in No 10. Moreover, it seems as if some of those factors were set in train by Theresa May, of which Johnson is now the beneficiary.

Tomorrow, I'll look at some more constituencies, amongst them Bolsover and Hartlepool, to see how well this thesis stands up.