Polling place, Edinburgh North and Leith. Image: Adam Ramsay
If the first rule of politics is that you should take everyone seriously, then the second is that it moves from the edges. And so, let’s start there and work in. In 2010, the ‘to the right of UKIP’ parties stood 464 candidates, not counting the various hard-right ‘Christian’ parties. This year, that number is 17.
Partly, Joe Mulhall of HOPE not Hate tells me, this is because these groups abandoned electoral politics after their failure to make a breakthrough that year. They no longer believe in the democratic road to power. But it’s also because their base all went to UKIP. Will it now go to the Tories? We’ll see – it seems likely, he thinks, that while Paul Nuttall will see support for his party collapse in general, it will hold up in old BNP strongholds like Dagenham. It’s worth looking out for the result there to see what the more hoary hard right voters are up to.
In the game of musical chairs, each right-wing party has shifted one seat to the right: the traditional fascists abandoning democracy entirely, UKIP taking up the BNP's former position as the voice of the red-faced racist in the street, and the Tories sitting in UKIP’s seat as the party of imperial yearning.
On the left, we’ve seen a similar dynamic with slightly different timelines. In 2015, there were 182 candidates from the various parties who you could describe as ‘maybe to the left of the Greens’. This year, there are, by my count, 13.
Of course, what’s happened here is more obvious. Progressives have lined up behind Corbyn, and against May. And among a particular community, which includes many of my friends, it’s been an extraordinary process. Huge numbers of people who have always been broadly political before but have never campaigned in an election have been out knocking on doors. They have been phone canvassing. They have been travelling to their nearest marginal seat to convince people to vote for the first Labour party programme that they have ever been excited about.
This group of people, which amounts to many thousands across the country, have been key but ignored agents in British politics over the last ten years. It’s the same networks as those which grabbed the independence referendum by the scruff of the neck, and turned it into a debate about what kind of country Scotland could become. It’s the groups of people who put tax avoidance on the agenda in 2010. It’s a generation which was radicalised by the Iraq war and then, those after them, who saw the Tories treble tuition fees. They are the sorts of people who know how to organise things themselves but have never before turned those skills to an election.
It’s worth pausing for a moment to consider the impact of this on the Greens, who recruited many of these people to party politics in 2015, only to find them rushing to Labour to support Corbyn. I know more than one person voting Green in safe city-centre Labour seats, but spending their evenings campaigning for Corbyn in suburban marginals. But the likely result is that, whether or not the Greens pick up a second MP in Bristol West (and my guess is that the election came too early for that), the party’s national vote will fall dramatically. As one senior party official texted me yesterday, “we’re going to get fucked for the greater good”.
On the other hand, whatever the result, this election will see a record number of votes for a manifesto which, just about, plausibly, could be described as Green. Because, though there are still clear differences between Greens and Labour on things like radical democracy, workerism and nuclear questions, Corbyn’s proposals read more like Natalie Bennet’s than Ed Miliband’s. The result is that 2017 Labour is running as the 2015 Greens, while the 2017 Tories are running as 2015 UKIP. It’s worth asking whether Green proposals this time round – like a basic income and a four day week – will make it into the mainstream so quickly too.
In the middle sit the Liberal Democrats, who appear to be suffering the fate of many of their sister parties across the world, with their poll numbers refusing to rise. There’s the Australian Democrats, who lost support so disastrously that they were dissolved in 2015. There’s Irish Progressive Democrats, who regularly served in governments between 1989 and 2009. But by the end of 2009, they too had disbanded. Germany’s liberal party, the FDP, was frequently in government from 1949 – 2013. But in the 2013 election, it was wiped out of the Bundestag for the first time in its history.
Of course, there are exceptions to this narrative: there's Justin Trudeau, who ran on a strongly anti-austerity and clearly centre-left platform, and took his party from third place to first in Canada’s 2015 election. Emmanuel Macron managed to form a new centrist party in France, which isn’t tarnished by association with the ancient regime. You could argue that the Democratic party in Italy – currently in government after forming from a merger between a number of other groups in 2007 – sits on a similar bit of terrain. You could easily argue that the SNP basically represent the same politics too.
But what all of these parties have in common is that they have been able to generate either a claim on newness, or a plausible anti-austerity energy. The problem for the Lib Dems is that, after the disastrous coalition years, they are too tarnished with the ‘neo’ wing of liberalism to present themselves as something new.
What all of this means for the actual result is still unclear. As openDemocracy revealed last year, the Lib Dems got their 2015 targeting completely wrong, throwing tens of thousands of pounds at seats which turned out to be no-hopers and de-funding constituencies which ended up being close. It’s entirely possible that this time, their national vote share will fall, but they will at the same time, pick up a number of constituencies, including potentially some prominent figures, like Vince Cable. Though, they could also lose a few – I wouldn’t be surprised if Tory tactical voters in Sheffield Hallam abandon Nick Clegg this time, for example, and it’s worth remembering that two of their 2015 MPs represent seats which voted Leave. More on that below.
For many progressives, it’s easy to celebrate the end of the Lib Dems. But the main beneficiaries of this are Conservatives in the South West of England. And if Labour is to have any chance of governing from tomorrow, they will probably need Farron’s party to win a few seats off May today.
Mural of Pat Finucane, whose son is standing in Belfast North. Image, Zubro, Wikimedia
None of this is very relevant to Northern Ireland, whose only function in this election has been the exhumation of its past. Other, of course, than for the 1.9 million people who live there. For them, it’s an actual real place, where actual real things happen, and where Brexit means disaster. It's not just a prop for the Tories to pull out of the cupboard and shout “Corbyn loves the IRA”, before they get on with thoughtlessly kicking the back of its seat in their excitement at Brexit.
The dynamics of politics in Northern Ireland are complex, and I’ve written about them elsewhere. But perhaps the simplest explanation of the dramatic Assembly election in March is that the long term demographic trend of a growing Catholic population powerfully asserted itself as Brexit shook thousands out to vote.
The hard-right Loyalists in the DUP, on the other hand, put many of their supporters off with their endless whiffs of corruption, and the Ulster Unionists lost the centrist unionist vote to the actually centrists in Alliance, who aren’t tarred with the Tory brush.
The question will be whether those trends continue. If they do, we could see Sinn Fein picking up another seat or two – perhaps the Western-most constituency in the UK, Fermanagh and South Tyrone, which they lost to the UUP in 2015 having won it by 4 votes in 2010; and Belfast North, where the Sinn Fein candidate is John Finucane, son of the legendary murdered human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane. We may also see Alliance leader Naomi Long win back Belfast East after losing it to the DUP in 2015 and one of her colleagues could pick up Belfast South, which the SDLP won with a record low of less than 25% last time, and which is a three way toss up between the incumbent, Alliance and the DUP.
If Sinn Fein and Alliance do make such gains, it would likely mean that Northern Ireland has more Nationalist than Unionist MPs for the first time in its history, and Sinn Fein would become the largest party: again, an historic shift. On the other hand, the rise of Sinn Fein confirms the DUP's only remaining argument to their base: that the nationalists might overtake them. And so perhaps this election will go down as a backlash to that in March, as Unionists are frightened into showing up. Which way it goes in those key seats will tell us a lot.
Menai Bridge, Anglesey. Image: Visit Wales
Across Wales, too, the dynamics are different. Plaid Cymru’s Ieuan Wyn Jones, former deputy first minister, looks to take Ynys Môn – one of the five constituencies in the UK which isn’t on either the island of Great Britain nor Ireland – from Labour. This would mean Plaid winning four seats, matching their best ever performance. Wales' national party is also working hard in the Welsh Valleys, hoping to repeat the astounding swings Leanne Wood pulled off in the Rhondda seat in the Assembly elections last year (which she won), and also Blaenau Gwent (which they nearly won). I wouldn't put money you can't afford to lose on Plaid taking either, but it's not impossible and, if they do, it'll be a significant reach beyond their Welsh speaking heartlands, and a major success for Wood's strategy of shifting left, and beyond the language issue.
Gower on the other hand, the most marginal seat in the UK in 2015, could well go from Tory to Labour. And Cardiff North may just go the same way – particularly with a potential sympathy vote after the death of the former Labour first minister Rhodri Morgan.
Ceredigion is looking like it might slip once more through Plaid Cymru’s hands after, once again, the Lib Dems have run another filthy campaign, this time including blatant lies about Plaid’s position on the EU. Mark Williams is a familiar face on the low road to Westminster, though if he loses, it'll probably be because of Tory leavers who used to tactically vote Lib Dem going home to the Conservatives. Beyond that, though, if any of the parties loses any of its Welsh seats, then it’s probably in some trouble more generally.
Miriam Brett, SNP candidate in Orkney and Shetland. Image, YouTube, fair use.
In Scotland, the only way for the SNP to go is down. The 2015 election hit a resonant frequency, with Tory anti-Scottish scaremongering in England driving voters to Sturgeon in Scotland; the energy of the independence referendum was yet to dissipate, and a burning anger with Labour over their behaviour in the run up to the independence vote was still aflame. This energy has largely cooled, and the question now is how many seats each of the other parties can gain, with the Tories, flush with campaign cash, likely to pick up the most. In this context, there are (at least) two dynamics at work.
First, there is the process we have seen repeatedly in Scotland whereby voters seem to focus on the previous election until around a fortnight before the next one. This is what allowed polls in the run up to the 2011 Holyrood vote to report people saying that they’d back Labour – as they had in the 2010 UK election – up until not long before an election in which they gave the SNP an extraordinary absolute majority.
Similarly, this time, it looks like voters have finally switched their attention from Holyrood to Westminster. As Unionists have realised that they are being asked to choose not between Ruth Davidon and Kezia Dugdale, but Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, that there is more at stake in this election than whether or not they want a chance to democratically resolve Scotland’s constitutional conundrum, the Labour vote seems to have grown.
Which bring us to the second dynamic. The Scottish Tories are, as Peter Geoghegan and I revealed earlier this week, flush with cash. And they have used it to try and turn this election into a referendum on whether or not Scotland ought to have another referendum. This, essentially, is the same trick that the Conservatives have used for years: create a crisis, and then use their power in the media and piles of campaign resources to insist that the election is about that crisis, rather than about what they are doing to people’s lives and to public services across the country.
Perversely, Scottish Labour are so monumentally inept that rather than have their own clear strategy or message, rather than try to make this election about the problems in people’s lives, they have played directly into the Conservative’s strategy. Their meagre campaign resources have been spent on telling everyone that, yes, this election is a referendum on another referendum. Not surprisingly, this campaign tactic drove voters over the first few weeks towards the party most trusted on that issue: the Tories, irrespective of whether those voters actually like the Tories at all.
What’s happened in the last two weeks is that people have started to remember that this is a UK election, and to look at UK politics. Upon considering that more is at stake than the question of another referendum or not, many seem to have concluded that they can’t vote for May. What we don’t know is how Labour might have done if Kezia Dugdale and colleagues had been encouraging this realisation from the outset.
For the SNP – who depend on the Unionist vote being split, a Labour rise is probably good news (though some of those they won over in 2015 have been swept up by the Corbyn surge). But whether the former phenomenon is enough to save them seats, we shall see. Constituencies to keep an eye on are, perversely, those that the SNP has held the longest, including Angus Robertson’s Moray, and Pete Wishart’s Perth and North Perthshire (where I grew up, as it happens).
Then there are the Lib Dems, who have four Scottish targets – Edinburgh West and North East Fife, where the question is whether they can corral Tory tactical voters as they did for Holyrood last year; East Dumbartonshire, which may see Jo Swinson’s potential return (a future Lib Dem leader)? And, of course, there’s the one seat they held in 2015, Orkney and Shetland (another of our five island constituencies). In the Northern Isles, the SNP have replaced an older man who didn’t go down too well last time with Miriam Brett, a young Shetlander who worked as economics adviser to the SNP MPs, and who will be another young female left wing SNP MP, if she manages to shift Carmichael’s 4% majority on the back of his debacle in the last election. The first time I met Miriam, she said “oh, you’re a Gramscian! Me too!”, and, if she wins, I suspect she’ll wow the left as much as Mhairi Black did on her arrival: not least because her islands have only rejected the Liberals twice – 1830 and 1930.
What’s most remarkable, though, is what will stay the same in Scotland. In 2013, I planned (but was too disorganised) to put £100 on the SNP winning more than 35 seats at the next election. At the time, they only had six. Had I done so, I’d have won £10,000 – the odds then were 100/1. But now, only four years later, it’ll be astounding if they get fewer than 35 seats. They are almost certain to get more Scottish MPs than every other party combined, and to win MPs from Na h-Eileanan an Iar (island seat number three) to Edinburgh East.
A ruined Cornish tin mine. Image, Wikimedia commons.
Then there’s Cornwall, Britain’s smallest, poorest, and least recognised nation. Cameron visited on the sleeper twice during the 2015 election, typifying the Tory strategy of crushing the Lib Dems in their traditional strongholds. What’s interesting about Cornwall is that it’s perhaps the most impoverished part of the UK, whose meagre wealth was built on tin mining, but it has never elected more than one Labour MP from its five (now six) seats.
The long-term failure of labourism to understand that places like Cornwall are working class too, despite their lack of factories or coal mines, has been the party’s strategic weakness for a very long time (incidentally, the weird belief in Labour circles that 'rural' intrinsically means 'Tory', despite many of the UK’s most radical MPs coming from rural areas, seems to have its roots in this sort of distorted-Leninist industrial labourism. If you want to understand why Labour can’t get its head around the SNP or Plaid Cymru to this day, then this is an important place to start).
Mebyon Kernow, Cornwall’s version of Plaid Cymru, aren’t running this time due to lack of resource (snap elections are hard for small parties), and the one seat which might change hands is surely St Ives. The constituency at the tip of Britain sees the former Lib Dem MP, Andrew George, the most rebellious of the coalition years, running to retake his former job.
Independent candidate Claire Wright, campaign website, fair use.
Over the river Tamar in Devon, the one to look out for is the independent Claire Wright, who is running in East Devon, and has successfully crowdfunded more than £12,000. I’m normally sceptical of independents, but she came second in 2015 and seems to have a little wind in her sails, boosted by the crowdfunding site Crowdpac.
Looking along the south coast, there are a few interesting seats too. Portsmouth South (our fourth island constituency – Portsmouth sits on the island of Portsea) – is a rare example of a constituency in which, last time, five candidates kept their deposit (that is, got more than 5%). Strangely, the incumbent MP didn’t, when the scandal dogged Mike Hancock re-stood as an independent after being ditched by the Lib Dems. The Tories managed to win there with less than 35%, and a slight rearrangement of the anti-Tory vote could easily get them out. It’ll be a useful test-bed for whether people are willing to vote tactically to sack Theresa May.
Along the South Coast are a string of working class seaside towns and cities with significant Brexit votes. My distinct impression before the referendum was that many of these Leavers didn’t specifically care about the EU itself. They voted the way they did because they wanted to kick the establishment, after a decade of wage stagnation and a faltering economy. At the start of this election, many assumed that these groups would obviously vote for May, but this was probably always a mistake: it's hard to run as an incumbent Tory prime minister and also the anti-establishement candidate. Has Corbyn now captured that energy?
Talking to one friend from Bournemouth, they told me that a number of their old school friends, who had never been out campaigning before, were canvassing regularly for Labour now. If there is a hung parliament, it will surely be because Corbyn has managed to tap into the anger which drove the Brexit votes in areas like these, and turn it against the establishment once more. That is, of course, ‘if’… And perhaps the more interesting question is whether this is an energy which can be built upon. But that’s for next week.
Perhaps the most distinct of these areas is our final island seat though, the Isle of Wight. And here, the challenger to the Conservatives, interestingly, comes not from Labour, but from the Greens, who came third last time with 13.4%, behind the Tories and UKIP. With a large population of young service industry workers on the island, there seems significant potential for that vote to grow over the years. While I’ll be amazed if Vix Lowthion picks up the island this time, a strong second could lay the groundwork for a gain next time round, so keep an eye out for that.
And, before turning our gaze north, there is of course, Brighton, where we can expect to see Caroline Lucas keep her seat with, I am told, an increased majority, and where Labour have a good chance of dislodging the Tories in Kemptown.
Look north from these coastal areas, and it’s hard to see beyond the deep-blue ocean of Tory England, other than a few potential specks of red in places like Reading and Oxford East. Other, of course, than Bristol to the West, which is likely to glow red (and where there is an outside chance of a second Green MP). And London.
A few years ago, a friend working at a polling agency told me that the main difference in the UK now wasn’t class or generation, but “London” or “outside London”. And while this isn’t quite true, there is something to it.
In the centre of the capital, Corbyn seems to have enthused voters in a way they haven’t been excited for a very long time, and we can expect to see stonking great turnouts and Labour victories. Keep your eye, though, on the suburbs. Perhaps a good marker will be Illford North (where, as it happens, I once spent the night in a police cell, but that’s another story). There, former NUS president Wes Streeting managed to buck the trend last time and win the seat off the Tories. If he doesn’t hold on this time, it’s surely all over for Labour.
In the East of England, there are probably three main questions. If it’s a disastrous night for Labour as some polls project, then a big question will be whether Clive Lewis keeps his seat in Norwich South, who much of the left see as a future leader. And if Labour do as well as other polls indicate, then it’s worth noting that the party was shipping new Corbyn-enthused activists from central London to Waveney in North Suffolk over the last few weeks. If you want to know whether Corbynistas can reach beyond their bubble and remake the country, this is a key seat to watch. On the other hand, in North Norfolk, you find Lib Dem Norman Lamb, standing on a Remainers’ manifesto in a Leave voting area. But is that what people care about?
But it’s perhaps the Midlands and the North that are most interesting. Last time, the East Midlands, home to Britain’s power belt, only saw one change, with Derby North going Tory. The Conservatives won it with a majority of just 0.09%, and this time, the Greens have withdrawn and backed Labour. If you want to see whether the Progressive Alliance has had an impact, it’s worth keeping an eye out for this result.
But it was the West Midlands which symbolically marked the demise of Milibandism. When the Labour vote fell in Nuneaton early in the night in 2015, it was clear that he wasn’t going to make it to number ten. In 2016, the voters of Nuneaton overwhelmingly backed Brexit, and the vote here this time could well give an indication of what this sort of part of the increasingly dynamic organism that is the British electorate is up to. It's also worth looking to three key seats in Birmingham, which the Tories are hoping to pick up: Erdington, Edgbaston and Northfield. The biggest English city (London thinks of itself as London first, and British second) voted Leave, and if Corbyn can hold back a Tory rise here, he's doing well.
Finally, there are is the North of England. And I won’t run through all of it here. But I will just say this: Labour held every parliamentary constituency in Tyne and Wear with a majority of at least 8,000 last time round. In six of the twelve, UKIP were in second place. If tradition is anything to go by, then Sunderland will be the first place do declare tonight. And while normally all the seats there are safely Labour, the results could give us the first indication of where the working class Leave/UKIP vote has gone. And that will probably give us the best indication we can expect of how the rest of the evening will unfold.
Labour got 50.2% in Sunderland Central last time. The Tories got 23.4%. How those numbers move could be the first indication of what Britain will look like for the next five years.
This has been an absurd election. The contrast between the campaigns could not have been greater, with hermetically sealed Theresa May campaigning from behind a glass window taking on Corybn and his extraordinary open rallies. Half of the UK population is now on Facebook, which provides the ability on the one hand for parties to buy and target adverts that none of the rest of us can see and, on the other, for voters to circumvent the increasingly oligarch-controlled media (and don’t miss the Enders Analysis of how that’s played out). Brexit has persuaded millions that voting can change things, and a massively centralised economy means that the differences between different parts of the country are greater than anywhere else in Europe, and getting greater.
The last time a prime minister called an unnecessary election in the UK was Stanely Baldwin in 1923, who was looking for an endorsement for his trade tariff reforms. The result, in the context of a progressive alliance between the Liberals and Labour was a bit of a shock to everyone: the first Labour government. Is that relevant today? Probably not. Anyone who tells you for sure that they know what will happen is wrong. But what we do know is that Britain is in flux and, when the dust finally settles, we will live on a very different archipelago.