UK-based New Zealand journalist Nicola Kean on Boris Johnson’s big victory, and the conundrum of voting under a FPP system.
Politics is a brutal business. My clearest memory in the sleep-deprived aftermath of New Zealand’s 2017 campaign was Te Ururoa Flavell weeping in the Mediaworks carpark after stepping down as Māori Party leader live on television. Beaten in their electorates and failing to make the 5% threshold, the party had just been turfed out of parliament. As I watched the UK election results come in, I imagined similar scenes playing out all over the country in the early hours of Friday morning.
At 10pm on Thursday the polling stations closed and the exit poll went live. That poll surveys voters at 144 locations around the country and is considered very accurate – it’s such a big deal it is projected on the outside of the BBC’s Old Broadcasting House in central London. Back in 2017 the former prime minister Theresa May reportedly cried when it came in, projecting that she’d lose her majority. But if any tears were shed at Conservative HQ on Thursday night they would have been ones of joy. Boris Johnson was going big, not going home.
If the scale of the Conservatives’ win was immediately clear, the extent of Labour’s loss would take a few more hours. The first constituency to declare was Blyth Valley, a former mining area. It has literally never had a Conservative MP. It does now. Likewise Bolsover, represented by Labour’s notorious bruiser Dennis Skinner for 49 years, turned blue. Laura Pidcock, tipped as a future party leader, gone.
The most brutal fate of all awaited the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson. Only elected to the leadership in July, at one point during the campaign she insisted she was a viable candidate for prime minister. It was pure hubris. By dawn the day after the election she was out of parliament. Like Flavell, she immediately stepped down.
But unlike Flavell, Swinson had actually managed to increase the party’s vote share – by more than 4%. The UK’s first past the post system is an unforgiving one, and particularly so for the smaller parties. In contrast, the Conservatives increased their vote share by 1.2% and gained 66 new seats. The Electoral Reform Society tweeted that across Britain, it took 38,300 votes to elect a Conservative MP. For the Liberal Democrats it took 334,122.
It’s been a hot topic of discussion in my nerdy corner of the antipodean diaspora. For many of us it was the first time we’ve ever voted in an FPP election. Forget voting for a party that doesn’t run a candidate in your constituency. And no vote splitting, please, we’re British. For some antiquated reason that nobody seems to remember, elections take place on Thursdays and the count goes on all night, rendering anyone vaguely interested in politics an absolute wreck at work on Friday. And where, the Australians demand to know, are the democracy sausage sizzles?
A less recent member of the antipodean diaspora is the former New Zealand MP Darren Hughes, who now runs Britain’s Electoral Reform Society. He’s been doing his level best, churning out opinion pieces, but the idea of electoral reform seems quite far down the list of constitutional issues the UK is currently working through. There was a once-in-a-generation chance with a referendum in 2011, in the wake of a hung parliament and an MP expenses scandal. The question for whether to introduce the alternative vote – not even a proportional system, but a less blunt tool than FPP. The result was a resounding no. Or at least resounding by more recent standards.
The conundrum of voting under a FPP system was painfully clear in the east London constituency where I live. One of the safest Labour seats in the country, there wasn’t even the vaguest of hope for the Lib Dems, Greens or Conservatives. This year the long-serving MP stepped down and was replaced by a candidate from Momentum, the Jeremy Corbyn affiliated group in Labour. She had previously shared anti-Semitic content on social media – and when pressed for an apology offered more obfuscation than contrition. She was also at the centre of a council housing scandal which had featured in the red top press. After facing questions on these issues from concerned voters, she just stopped turning up to the public hustings. Friends of mine in the area were genuinely anguished – they wanted a change of government but couldn’t bear to vote for her. She won anyway, but I couldn’t help but wonder how she might have fared in a parallel proportional universe.
Tactical voting was definitely on the minds of the 3.5 million people who logged on to the Best for Britain website on election day. The remain-backing campaign group was providing advice on how to find the strongest non-Conservative candidate in each constituency. But figuring out how to vote tactically proved to be a minefield for voters – competing websites, some accused of being aligned with particular parties, were giving contradictory advice. The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru had already agreed to withdraw candidates in certain seats to give anti-Brexit parties a better chance overall. None of it was enough to save Chuka Umunna and the others who defected from both Labour and the Conservatives over the summer. In the end, it may have been the decision by the Brexit Party to not run in Conservative-held seats that proved more decisive.
Boris Johnson – derided on social media on Wednesday for apparently hiding from reporters in a fridge – was soon making a play for the great unifier role. He promised the Labour voters he won over that’ll he’ll work hard to keep them. Meanwhile the ruling faction of Labour, having lost its traditional heartland in the north of England, doesn’t seem to be reflecting all that deeply on why it happened. Brexit was blamed almost immediately. But the swing in both strong remain and strong leave seats was only going one way – against them.
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