Canvassing in Battersea, which Labour failed to win. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why did Labour lose so badly?

The fundamentals - the Tories' advantage on leadership and the economy - reasserted themselves.

Plenty in Labour were braced for a mediocre election result. With the party expected to lose almost all of its 40 Scottish seats (a forecast which proved terrifyingly accurate) it would struggle to advance far from the 258 it won in 2010. But few anticipated the calamity that befell them last night.

The Tories are now projected to win a majority (with 329 seats), a remarkable result after a term of austerity. David Cameron is on course to become the first incumbent prime minister since 1955 to increase his party's vote share. Labour, meanwhile, is expected to have just 233, 25 fewer than it won in the assumed nadir of 2010. Among the casualties, remarkably, is Ed Balls, a huge loss to his party and the Commons. As in 1992, when the "shy Tories" fooled the pollsters, the Conservatives have benefited from those only prepared to profess their loyalty in the privacy of the voting booth.

The great surprise of the night was not Labour's performance in Scotland (which was merely as terrible as forecast) but its performance in England and Wales. It not only failed to make sufficient gains from the Tories, it lost seats it won under Gordon Brown.  Southampton Itchen, held by the party since 1992, went blue, as did Balls's Morley and Outwood, Bolton West, Telford, Derby North and the Vale of Clwyd. What explains failure on this scale? The Tories' SNP scare campaign, the hostility of the press to Labour and the Conservatives' funding advantage will all be widely cited. But the most plausible explanation is that, as the Tories long expected, "the fundamentals" simply reasserted themselves. For years, the Conservatives had enjoyed a commanding advantage on leadership and economic management. No opposition party has ever won while trailing on these. Labour's painfully large deficit on both made defeat inevitable.

This interpretation points to the need for Labour to restore its economic reputation and to elect a leader with far wider appeal than Ed Miliband (whose personal ratings evolved from terrible to merely bad during the campaign). But a fierce debate will now take place within the party over whether it lost because it drifted too far from New Labour or rather did not drift far enough. Those from the party's right will point to Miliband's refusal to state that the last government spent too much (failing to "concede and move on" in Philip Gould's phrase) and to act earlier to reassert Labour's fiscal probity (spending years opposing every cut in sight). But those on the left will criticise his decision to promise to moderate austerity, rather than to end it. In the absence of a clearer dividing line between the Tories and Labour, voters hungry for an alternative to the coalition were drawn to the SNP, Ukip and the Greens.

It is this argument that will now define the Labour leadership contest to come, with Chuka Umunna expected to represent the former position and Andy Burnham the latter. But with the party near-extinct in Scotland (holding one of the country's 59 seats), even more marginalised in the south and threatened by the Conservative boundary changes to come, the existential question will simply be "how can we win from here?" Labour is losing votes in all regions and to all parties for different reasons - to Scottish nationalists, to anti-immigration Ukippers, to southern conservatives, to anti-austerity Greens. There is no obvious strategy to address them all.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.