What the elections of the past tell us about the future

Yesterday's freak results are tomorrow's realignments. 

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One of the things I try to do after each general election is look for “unusual” results. I don’t mean unusual outcomes – a lot of the time these results aren’t actually all that unusual, all things considered. While the Conservatives’ loss of Kensington was emotionally resonant because the old Kensington and Chelsea constituency – represented in parliament by such big names as Michael Portillo, Alan Clark and Malcolm Rifkind – it wasn’t actually that unusual. The Kensington constituency more accurately resembles the old marginal Kensington seat, has a decent-sized chunk of Labour MP Karen Buck’s original constituency in it, and would likely have been Labour from 1997 to 2010 on its current boundaries.

The circumstances of the gain were themselves somewhat freakish (on which, more below), but the headline result was essentially what we’d have expected when the exit poll came out and by the time that Kensington actually declared it wasn’t surprising at all.

But looking at results that are genuinely freakish can give us an idea of what to look out for in elections to come, although some results are just weird: Labour’s solitary gain from the Conservatives in 2001 didn’t augur any particular shift of electoral behaviour in Dorset South, for instance. But on other occasions, today’s odd shift in votes is tomorrow’s freak gain. Fulham is a good example of this. It was a safe Labour seat for most of the early postwar period, but by 1966, while Labour still polled well over 50 per cent of the vote there, they were treading water while Harold Wilson was leading the party to a landslide majority nationally. That was the only outward expression of the demographic change that would see the party lose the seat in 1979, a far worse result than you’d have expected given Margaret Thatcher’s comfortable but small parliamentary majority. Now the successor seat is one that Labour can only win in landslide years.

In more recent years, Canterbury constituency has provided another good example on the opposite end of the spectrum. In 2015, Labour lost all but one of its Scottish seats, its shadow chancellor, its shadow foreign secretary and did badly outside England’s great cities. Across Kent’s constituencies, it trod water, made very small gains in vote share or actively went backwards: with the exception of Canterbury, where Labour’s vote went up by more than eight points with no national campaign funding to speak of and with most of its activists despatched to “winnable” marginal seats elsewhere. And, of course, in 2017, Labour gained Canterbury – a far more surprising result than its victory in Kensington.

What is interesting and may be similarly predictive is how Labour gained Kensington. Labour’s Emma Dent Coad did a very good job of turning out the core Labour vote of, as one local activist put it to me, “the estates and the trendies”, but that only amounted to a little over 16,000 votes. That ought to have been enough to give Victoria Borwick a fright but not a P45. The reason why Borwick lost is that her majority went off in every possible direction – she lost votes to the two anti-Brexit independents, but most significantly of all to the Liberal Democrats, whose vote doubled in Kensington, and it is essentially universally agreed by everyone with sight of the numbers that the Liberal Democrats’ growth was almost exclusively on the backs of the Conservatives. “Labour have beaten us but it’s the Lib Dems who have fucked us,” was the despairing text one activist sent me the evening of 8 June, when the result was finally declared.

But the Liberal Democrat vote ought not to have doubled. The Liberal Democrats did worse as far as actual votes cast in 2017 than even in their horror year of 2015. Tactical voting to shut out the SNP masked that because it meant they ended up with more seats, but the reality is that they had a bad campaign, and a bad result. The big bet that Tim Farron made by turning his party into an avowedly anti-Brexit one appeared to have ruined the party. 

The Liberal Democrats did especially badly anywhere that the Labour party was well-run and organised locally – that is to say, they really ought to have been squeezed further in London. Yet in the capital’s more affluent, pro-Remain and Conservative-voting constituencies the Liberal Democrat vote went up pretty consistently. It went up in Putney, Battersea, Wimbledon, Cities of London and Westminster, and Chelsea and Fulham. In Battersea it may have helped tip the constituency to Labour though it is not as clear-cut as the pattern in Kensington.

Now the Liberal Democrats have moved Chuka Umunna to the Cities constituency and have tapped up Nicola Horlick, a fund manager and philanthropist, as their candidate in Chelsea and Fulham. Both look on the surface to be distant bets, though the party did very well in both constituencies in the European elections.

But I just wonder: it might be that we look back at those larger-than-expected increases in the Liberal Democrat vote in 2017 as the beginnings of a genuine realignment in London politics.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.