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2019 General Election: From Brexit to One-Nation Conservatism
In the run-up to the 2019 General Election, amid parliamentary storms and tumultuous democratic dynamics in Britain, the Conservative Party, led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, held their course firmly, while attempting to govern with no majority in Parliament. The weak Tory government tethered to the overarching Brexit context was exposed to multidirectional political attacks, resulting in repeated parliamentary defeats, protests and legal challenges.
Jump forward to Friday 13th December, a date customarily “unlucky-for-some”, the Conservative Party emerged triumphant, winning a significant and unexpected “landslide” parliamentary majority in the 2019 general election.
Johnson, like his predecessor Theresa May, took a gamble by manoeuvring towards an election. However, unlike May who lost the Conservative's their majority, Johnson’s return to power was accompanied by a majority of approximately 80 seats, the likes of which the Tories had not achieved since the 1980s, under Margaret Thatcher. Across the United Kingdom, the 2019 electoral map displays a sea of interconnected Tory blue that includes seats from the Scottish borders, throughout all regions of England and across to Mid and North Wales.
2019 General Election Results
According to a House of Commons Library Briefing Paper (19 December 2019), the Conservatives won 365 (+48) seats with 43.6% of the U.K. The Labour Party won just 202 (-60) seats and 32.1% of UK vote; 48 seats (+13) and 45% of Scotland vote for the SNP; 11 (-1) seats and 11.5% of UK vote for the Lib Dems; 4 (no change) 9.9.% of the Wales vote for Plaid Cymru; 8 (-2) seats and 30.6 of the NI vote for the DUP; 7 (no change) seats and 22.8% of the NI vote for Sinn Féin; 2 (+2) seats and 14.9% of the NI vote for the SDLP; 1 (+1) seat and 16.8% of the NI vote for the Alliance Party; 1 (no change) seat and 2.7% for the Greens; 0 (no change) seats and 2% vote share for the Brexit Party; and 0 (no change) seats and 0.1% vote share for UKIP.
The traditional “Red Wall” of Labour dominance in Northern England fell to the Tories, with symbolic seats like Sedgefield, former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s old constituency, being won by the Conservatives. In Northern England, 28 seats, in most of which a majority voted to Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, switched from Labour to the Conservatives. It marks a seismic cultural shift in British voting behaviour that has been largely attributed to the frustration of the Brexit process in Parliament 2017-19. However, reports from Labour candidates while canvassing in the North of England suggest that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s popularity had taken a dramatic nosedive in traditional Labour seats, since 2017.
Although the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party dominated the 2019 European Parliament elections, the Lib Dems seemingly failed to inspire voters with their “Stop Brexit” mantra in the general election; and, the Conservatives’ competing “Get Brexit Done” slogan, and accompanying policies, seem to have cancelled the relevance of the Brexit Party and UKIP.
The SNP result perhaps creates the most fog. The party’s leader Nicola Sturgeon is attempting to capitalise on the SNP’s 13 seat increase in Scotland as absolute proof of a mandate for a second independence referendum. However, the SNP itself recognises that many who voted for them in 2019 did so because it was a vote against both Brexit and Corbyn - and not necessarily a vote in favour of “Indy Ref 2”. In fact, the 45% SNP 2019 vote share in Scotland matches the 2014 Scottish independence referendum result in which 44.7% of the Scottish electorate voted for independence.
Election Maps UK (14 December 2019) suggests that a 2019 General Election under Proportional Representation (PR) calculations would significantly reduce the number of seats won by the Conservatives and SNP, and not help Labour much, but give a healthy boost to the Lib Dems, Greens, Brexit Party and some NI parties. However, of course, campaign strategies and voter behaviour would be quite different under a PR voting system.
Many pollsters, the PSA expert panel survey, and inferences made from observations of Twitter discourse in the last days of the campaign all failed to predict the full extent of the Conservative win. The emphatic result of the recent election has calmed the stormy Brexit seas of the last hung parliament. Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have a clear mandate to “Get Brexit Done” coupled with a Labour opposition party in disarray, following the significant loss of many of its heartland seats.
The scale of the win was a shock result for many, particularly for the Labour Party, who proved to be the unlucky ones on Friday 13th December. However, for keen students of the Conservative Party, Tory electoral dominance is seen as more of a historical trend.
The Conservatives and Change
The last 300 years of British parliamentary activity repeatedly reminds us to not underestimate the Conservative Party. Scholarly literature has been consistent in highlighting how, even when the chips are down, for example, following the period of the Repeal of the Corn Laws in the nineteenth century, or, indeed, periods of Europhile-Eurosceptic splits, the party has demonstrated an ability to adapt and change in order to win elections and retain power.
In the expulsion of key Tory figures from the party, which subsequently resulted in the departure of many Conservative grandees from Parliament, Boris Johnson’s uncompromising leadership and commitment to strict party discipline was brutal in the run-up to the 2019 election. That said, it acted to successfully realign the party to become a solidly Brexit party; and, in doing so, provided a clear sense of post-2016 party unity, something Labour struggled to demonstrate.
The 2019 Tory win ultimately means that this contemporary period of continuous Conservative-led governance is likely to stretch across a timeline of, at least, 14 years, 2010-24. In doing so, it will exceed the 13 years of New Labour, 1997-2010; and the 13 years of Tory governments under Churchill, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Home, 1951-64. It even nips at the heels of the 18 years of continuous dominance of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, 1979-97.
Following the 2019 election, the Tories’ response to the broadly holistic result has been to claim it will repay voters with a One-Nation Conservatism approach to governing for all socio-economic groups. This is not a new Conservative concept. It dates back to Benjamin Disraeli, Conservative Prime Minister, 1868 and 1874-80, and, since 1975, has been mainly embodied within the Conservative affiliate group, the Tory Reform Group (TRG).
The TRG claims to be the home of One-Nation Conservatism - a moderate and socially conscious form of British conservatism. This group of Conservative Party individuals is generally considered to be on the left wing of the pre-2019 Conservative Party coalition and, largely, historically Europhile. Therefore, the Boris Johnson government’s interpretation of One-Nation Conservatism will make for interesting comparison over the coming five years.
Anthony Ridge-Newman is a senior lecturer at Liverpool Hope University and convenes the PSA Conservatism Studies Group. He has published three books on topics including the Conservative Party; and Brexit. He tweets at @RidgeNewman. Image credit: CC by UK Parliament/Flickr.