Five things we have learned from the election

Guest writer

By Katie Ghose

The dust might not have completely settled on the election, but there are some early points we can take away from the results:

1. Unpredictable results and shock waves have become the norm

Although front-runners seem to lose with increasing frequency now, the ripples felt go way beyond the immediate result. Theresa May wanted a straight down-the- line vote on who should lead negotiations with the EU. Instead, Brexit added another complex layer of unpredictability to an already volatile electorate. And it energised many to take a keen interest where previously they were out of the electoral picture – including younger people, fired up by participation or angry that they were left out of the EU debate.

The dust might not have completely settled on the election, but there are some early points we can take away from the results:

1. Unpredictable results and shock waves have become the norm

Although front-runners seem to lose with increasing frequency now, the ripples felt go way beyond the immediate result. Theresa May wanted a straight down-the- line vote on who should lead negotiations with the EU. Instead, Brexit added another complex layer of unpredictability to an already volatile electorate. And it energised many to take a keen interest where previously they were out of the electoral picture – including younger people, fired up by participation or angry that they were left out of the EU debate.

2. Social attitudes are changing

We are a much less deferential society, more diverse and fluid in all kinds of ways. Jobs, partners, homes all change over our lifetime and voting habits do too. Major parties have struggled to cope with the huge social changes we’ve seen. For so long, they were used to a vote based mostly on who your grandparents voted for or your class. In that context, more diverse voting habits are treated as an aberration, rather than the new normal. For this reason, first-past- the-post voting has endured – despite numerous examples of the majority being ignored and governments ruling on relatively small shares of overall electorate.

This may be the election when the impact of profound social changes on our political choices is finally understood.

3. Anger, apathy, disillusionment, distrust – all are established and growing features of our politics but they don’t add up to a picture of withdrawal from political life

The signs were there for apathy: many were sympathetic to Brenda from Bristol who shot to fame with her response to the election (“oh no not another one”), while a snap election and early predictions of a Tory landslide militated against high turnout.

But in the end, turnout was a high 69% - somewhere between the EU referendum (72%) and general election turnout in 2015 (66%). In some areas of the country, young people turned out in droves, clearly energised by Labour’s campaign and other parties’ targeting of the youth vote.

4. The result doesn’t necessarily mean we are returning to two-party politics

Labour and the Conservatives have significantly increased their vote share while smaller parties have suffered losses, leading some to – prematurely – herald a return of two-party politics. But this masks another trend: snap elections squeeze smaller parties, who have less time and money for the campaign. More importantly though, as many as one in five voters planned to vote tactically in order to keep out a party they didn’t want. Fundamentally, the shifting patterns and sheer unpredictability of modern politics means that simple labels don’t work. Last time, parties other than Labour, Conservatives and Liberal Democrats won a record vote share, this time Labour and Conservatives have both profited, especially from UKIP voters ‘holding their nose’ or not having a candidate to opt for.

What will happen next time is anyone’s guess. A two-party system may be in place for now, but the apparent return to two-party politics is artificial – especially as one of those parties prepares to govern with a smaller party.

5. The aftermath of the election has shone a light on Northern Irish politics

The DUP is in discussions with the prime minister about a 'confidence and supply arrangement’, whilst Sinn Fein maintains its practice of abstaining from sending its seven MPs to Westminster. Suddenly, from a low base, we can begin to understand the starkly contrasting approaches of main parties of Northern Ireland towards Westminster. We are also witness to the precise implications of first past the post voting in NI.

Almost a third of electors (250,000 people) in Northern Ireland cast a vote for political parties that received no representation whatsoever at Westminster. This is just above the total number of votes cast for Sinn Féin (238,915) and just under the total votes for the DUP (292,316).

Northern Ireland has been shamefully neglected, both in its importance in the EU referendum and now in the general election campaign. This week we’ve seen frantic googling from people who should be better informed about who Northern Ireland’s parties are. Whatever unfolds at Westminster, a positive outcome of the general election will be to deepen understanding of the policies and personalities of political parties – and wider democratic landscape - in Northern Ireland.

Katie Ghose is chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society

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