But Corbyn may well be safe until 2020
The British electorate rarely fail to surprise. It shouldn’t be possible to produce elections where all are losers and most are simultaneously winners and yet that’s precisely what happened. Taking the British results party by party (I’m excluding Northern Ireland, which is a different game and for which counting is still ongoing).
Sadiq won. That was the minimum requirement and was comfortably met. Labour now has the politician with the biggest direct mandate in British politics (in fact, the biggest in British history, eclipsing Boris’ 2008 total). Labour also performed unexpectedly strongly across England, limiting their losses to low double figures. The baseline was appallingly low given that the main opposition party nearly always gains seats but it was surpassed all the same. In Wales, Labour withstood a sizable drop in vote share to finish only one seat short of their 2011 total, albeit that the one seat leaves them in a minority. In Sheffield and Ogmore, Labour also retained the two parliamentary by-elections without difficulty.
But that victory and damage limitation is offset by one disaster and one serious concern. The disaster was Scotland, where Labour finished behind the Conservatives for the first time since the 1950s and finished third for the first time since before WWI. Labour remains in freefall there and has yet to discover a purpose since having been replaced by the SNP as both the natural party of the left and the natural party of government there, and as by the Conservatives as the primary unionist party and the most capable challengers to the SNP. The serious concern is whether voters are reliving 2010-15: willing to back Labour at elections where the government of the country is not at stake but intent on withholding that mandate when it really matters. The suspicion has to be that they did well despite Corbyn.
All the same, passing enough electoral tests will make it much harder for Corbyn’s opponents to move against him and will confirm his allies’ support and his own self-confidence. Expect rebuttals to bad- news stories as ‘hype not reflected in ballot box judgements’. Four years is a long time (five times longer than Corbyn’s current service as leader) but this week’s results have gone a long way to sustaining him in place through to 2020.
These ought to have been good results. For a party currently pulling itself apart over a subject that has consistently turned off large parts of the electorate, to limit losses to three dozen or so seats in England is a decent return, notwithstanding that the seats were last fought at the low point of the last parliament. The loss of the London mayoralty will be disappointing but Boris had punched above the Tories’ weight for a while and Zac’s defeat was mostly a reassertion of electoral gravity.
Even better – indeed, beyond most Tory activists’ wildest dreams – were the 31 MSPs returned to Holyrood: those ‘Tory Surge’ klaxons weren’t picking up false readings, after all.
However, underlying that good news is the suspicion that the ground on which it’s built is far from stable. Scotland is a special case and south of the border the Conservatives NEV significantly underperformed recent Westminster polling, perhaps indicating the Corbyn effect. The results suggest to me that there is no great enthusiasm at the moment for Cameron and that it’s only the lack of alternatives which is inflating the Westminster VI.
One more false dawn and perhaps one poisoned chalice. UKIP can be proud of two major achievements this week. Their seven AMs in Wales surely confirms their major party status. They’ve polled well for several years now without meaningful return other than at their natural home of the European elections. A parliamentary delegation within a handful of second place in Wales places them in a whole new position, particularly given that Labour no longer has a majority.
However, with that prominence may come problems. UKIP’s representatives haven’t always had the happiest of times in both Brussels and on local councils. Fortunately, the UK media tend not to cover either in any great detail. The novelty of a meaningful group in a British devolved parliament could be a different matter. With two carpet-bagging ex-Tory English MPs – Neil Hamilton and Mark Reckless – the spotlight is likely to be harsh.
The flipside of the elections was UKIP’s poor showing in England. A national equivalent vote in the mid-teens is a very good score but sixty or so seats a hugely inefficient return. On a similar note, UKIP consolidated second place in both by-elections without causing Labour any scares. Overall, not just an opportunity missed but the wrong opportunities grasped.
Has the SNP phenomenon finally peaked? Before the poll, the SNP were heavily odds-on to record a second overall majority but in the event they fell two seats short. That may make no great difference to running Scotland’s services but it significantly reduces the chances of a second referendum even with the Greens picking up six MSPs.
More seriously for Team Sturgeon, after last year’s near-yellowwash, the map this time looks distinctly less monochrome. To be sure, 59 constituencies is more than any party’s ever achieved before but the extraordinary post-referendum boost might at last be wearing off, albeit from stratospheric levels.
The challenge in Welsh politics has for some time been who can take the fight to Labour? In that battle, Plaid emerged triumphant, with twelve AMs to the Tories’ eleven, led by party leader Leanne Wood recording a striking victory in Rhonnda. Yet the contrast with either the SNP or Welsh Labour is stark: Plaid remains an acquired taste.
What of the once-mighty Lib Dems? Considering the current Westminster VI as against that of 2012, they did well to record net gains at all. In that, Farron can be happy – but only really in that. The return of just one AM in the land of Lloyd George is proof that the Yellow’s recovery remains patchy and the party still at a very weak ebb. Scotland’s election was more a case of gaining on the constituency swings only to lose on the top-up list roundabouts, though with the Greens’ gains, the Scottish Lib Dems fall to the fifth party in the parliament.
The biggest problem for the Lib Dems remains one of relevance: where is their place and what are they for? And given so many stronger voices in the debate, how do they get heard even once they have a clear message?
No party emerged as unambiguous winners. With so much disillusionment among the public, that’s perhaps not too surprising. The election instead pointed more to previously anticipated events becoming much less likely: primarily, a leadership challenge to Corbyn and a second Scottish referendum this decade. As such, the Conservatives are on course for a third term in government if Remain wins and if they can pick a sensible successor to Cameron. Those, however, are two extremely big ‘if’s.