17 lessons from the 2019 general election

Did the general election result surprise you? Here are some of the conclusions I’ve drawn from observing the campaign as a whole and analysing some of the data behind the headline numbers.

Now, I’m a social media manager by trade and reasonably well informed about politics – but I wouldn’t claim to be an expert in the latter. But these are my opinions based on a little knowledge and a lot of analysis and observation. Here are the 17 lessons I’ve taken away from the past 24 hours.

1. The end of the road for Corbyn and Swinson

Here’s the potted summary.

Boris Johnson started the day in vague danger of losing his seat. However, his final majority was actually bigger. And, as Prime Minister, he now has a commanding overall majority in the House of Commons.

Jeremy Corbyn led Labour to their worst result since the dinosaurs and his political future is just as extinct. He is yet to stand down but has confirmed he will not lead Labour into another election.

Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP made major gains at Labour’s expense, setting up a renewed push for a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Liberal Democrat Jo Swinson lost her seat. Her party actually made gains in terms of their share of the public vote, but this didn’t translate into seats.

Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party gained no seats. He’s still claiming credit for everything, though. (No change there, then.)

2. Exit poll

The writing was on the wall the moment the exit poll predicted a Conservative majority of 86 at 10pm.

Some people with long memories clung to hopes of a repeat of 1992, when the exit poll was significantly wrong. But the methodology has greatly improved since then. In the last three elections, the poll had not been out by more than 15 seats.

In reality, the big question instantly shifted from “can the Tories win a majority?” to “how big will it be?”

3. Brexit fatigue

Based on all but one of the 650 seats having declared, the overall turnout was 67.3% of registered voters, down 1.5% from 2017. Despite the importance of this election, fewer people voted in this third election in four years. It was a clear sign of an electorate for whom Brexit/political fatigue had set in.

I’ve been saying since the outset of the campaign how insidious ‘Get Brexit Done’ was as a slogan. But it was also genius. By making a vague promise of an immediate (but unrealistic) resolution, it pandered to people’s desire to move on after over three years of stalemate.

4. Labour lost their popular appeal

Now let’s look at shifts in the parties’ overall share of vote. Yes, tactical voting in a small number of marginal constituencies skews this slightly. But the overall pattern still holds true. Labour lost 8% of their voter share compared to 2017. Ouch.

The Tories weren’t the biggest gainers (+1.2%) – but they did make an overall gain. The Lib Dems moved from 7% to nearly 12%, for all the good it did them – they are one seat down on 2017 and have lost their leader, Swinson.

5. Targeted gains

The Tories’ crushing victory was fuelled by where they made those gains. Many were in targeted Labour seats which had voted Leave in 2016.

In Blyth Valley, which voted 60:40 Leave, they turned an 8,000 Labour majority into a 712-vote win.

6. Nice try, but not enough

There were swings away from the Conservatives too, but not enough decisive ones. By and large the Tories weathered the storm. Johnson’s vote held up. Dominic Raab’s 23,000 majority from 2017 withered but he held on by nearly 3,000.

Michael Gove held. Iain Duncan-Smith saw his 2,400 majority halved, but he remains too. Tactical voting had an impact, but it was neutered somewhat by resistant voters and the refusal of third-place parties to give way and back the best anti-Tory hope.

8. Inertia is difficult to overcome

A side note here. Don’t underestimate the power of inertia in voting.

On social media, I saw lots of people saying “I’ve always voted X, so I’ll vote X this time”. For everyone who said this publicly, you can be sure there were hundreds of more who did the same. People are stubborn creatures of habit. Even faced with overwhelming, compelling reasons to change, sometimes we just won’t.

9. A worrying precedent

Essentially, we can say the Tories ran a better overall campaign than Labour. Or, at least, a more effective one.

Yes, it was peppered with lies and clouded by Johnson’s tiresome avoidance of scrutiny – ahem, Fridge-gate – but the reality is it worked.

This sets a worrying precedent for future campaigns. If voters will forgive mendacity and cowardice, why should any political leader worry about truth and public scrutiny?

9. Social media is not the same as the real world

Last night, I saw many people expressing surprise as the results unfolded. This didn’t represent what they were seeing on their social media feeds, or conversations they were having with friends and neighbours. Should we have been surprised? No. We saw something similar in the 2016 referendum, when the Leave win surprised many.

Three points here. Firstly, social media tends to be slanted towards younger users, while Tory voters are skewed towards older users. So social media conversation is never fully representative when it comes to politics.

Secondly, the anti-Tory sentiment has been so overwhelming and loud that many Tory voters simply kept quiet to avoid being ganged up on, bullied or being tarred with the same brush as the more vocal far-right voices often found on Twitter or Facebook.

Finally, the phenomenon of ‘echo chambers’. We tend to follow or interact with people with similar views, creating an unbalanced view of the world. Facebook’s algorithm amplifies this by pushing the people we interact with most – typically those we agree with – higher up our feeds.

The end result? It looks like everyone agrees with us. And then we’re surprised that they don’t.

I’ve written at length about the impact of social media in this election campaign and how the Tories have won this battle hands down. You can read my analysis here.

10. The power of paid search ads

Beyond social media, let me also add a bit more about the role of Google – and in particular paid ads.

If you typed ‘tactical voting’ or ‘how should I vote’ into Google in the past week or so, you would have found a Conservative-sponsored link at the top of your results. How? Because they are paid-for ads.

Most people will click on the first result in a Google search – very few look beyond the top three results. So imagine how powerful and influential it is to pay your way to the number one spot.

As an undecided voter, you think you’re getting the ‘best’ recommendation, but you’re not always. The links are labelled as ‘ad’, but it’s not always immediately obvious. To the untrained eye, they can look just like an ordinary organic search result.

The excellent journalist Carole Cadwallader published several examples showing exactly how this works yesterday. Here’s one example.

11. Right-wing media bias

Let’s return to the role of the mainstream media. There have been lots of complaints about bias from the right-wing press. This is a fair criticism, but equally it’s not a new phenomenon.

Here’s a front page from the Daily Express in the run-up to the 1945 general election.

Clement Attlee nonetheless defeated Winston Churchill, ushering in the Labour government that would go on to create the NHS. So right-wing media bias is not new.

12. Media manipulation & misinformation

This election has taken manipulation of the media to a new level. Feeding influential journalists with deliberate misinformation. ‘Misremembered’ numbers, such as Sajid Javid’s accidental mix-up when he claimed homelessness had fallen under the Tories when it fact it had risen. Deliberate, spurious distraction tactics – frequently untruths – to deflect from candidates’ gaffes and smear opponents. We’ve seen it all, haven’t we? Fridge-gate. Punch-gate. Kid-on-the-floor-gate.

Then there’s the use of sock puppet accounts, as covered in my previous post. Not to mention the fact that 88% of Tory social media ads were shown by an independent fact-checker to be misleading – versus 0% for Labour.

There is nothing accidental about this. It is systematic, unethical – in some cases illegal – and unquestionably effective. Welcome to our post-truth world, people.

Labour, while not 100% innocent, generally played by the rules. This is to their credit – but also, ultimately, their detriment. Sadly, we appear to not care about lies, misinformation and downright stupidity any more.

13. We have become desensitised to scandal

Remember Sally-Ann Hart? She was the Tory candidate in Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd’s former seat) who surged to prominence when she claimed that people with disabilities should be paid less because they don’t understand money.

Remember the resultant furore? Well, yesterday, Hart not only held on to the seat for the Tories – she did so with a slightly increased majority.

In past campaigns, a scandal such as this would have scuppered a candidate. Today, lies and outrageous statements are so normalised – and we have become so desensitised to them – they barely cause a dent. In fact, arguably dog-whistling tactics like this can benefit candidates, strengthening the support of key demographics while scaring off relatively few.

14. Don’t forget moderates

Let’s talk about the political middle ground now: a significant number of voters who sit between extreme left and extreme right.

In a few cases the Liberal Democrats provided a viable alternative. But in most seats it came down to a choice between red and blue.

Both major parties have shifted away from the central political ground. With the Tories, it’s genuine. With Labour, their left-leaning positioning has been amplified by sections of the media painting Corbyn as Son of Stalin.

That’s as may be, but it’s also my belief the Tories were better at appealing to moderates, while Labout scared many away.

Now my own political views sit somewhere in that middle ground. Like many moderates, I felt disenfranchised in this campaign. But while the Tories actively targeted moderates to try to sway them, Labour didn’t. Quite the opposite. I think they alienated many of us. Flip-flopping on Brexit. The anti-Semitism issue. Even the storm in a teacup about the Queen’s Christmas message. All of these could have been killed with decisive messaging. However, Corbyn and Labour repeatedly stumbled and the Tories hammered them for it ruthlessly.

Instead they offered moderate voters a bitter pill to swallow and told us to take it because it was good for us and for thecountry. The Tories took the same pill and coated it in saccharine – fake but so much more attractive – and enough undecided voters happily swallowed it as a result.

15. Labour are stuck playing an old-school game

Is the election loss Corbyn’s fault? Partly but by no means wholly.

Like it or not, we live in a world of ‘personality politics’. Labour played an old-school PR game and were trounced by the Tories, who behaved abhorrently but managed their media campaign far better.

The challenge for Labour going forward is to find a more compelling leader – Keir Starmer or Jess Phillips, perhaps? – who appeals to both the left and moderates, can solidify their gains from last night and reverse the temporary Brexit-fuelled swings to the Tories next time around. I don’t think Labour needs to change their ideology necessarily – they just need to make it more palatable to moderates. Pass the sugar, please.

16. Maybe a big majority isn’t a bad thing?

So, what now? Johnson has a large enough majority that he can essentially ignore the hard-line demands of the DUP and the ERG, and even backtrack on some of his promises. Is this bad? Not necessarily.

We may see a softening of the hard Brexit stance he previously had to maintain to keep his allies onside. Will this lead to a slower, softer Brexit than what we were facing before? Maybe. Maybe not. Wiser political minds than I will have a better idea.

We’re approaching the Brexit endgame but I don’t think the final shape of Brexit is set in stone by any means. Let’s see how it all plays out in the coming weeks and months. I think the one thing we can say with certainty is that the odds of a second referendum, while not yet impossible, are now vanishingly thin.

17. How to win a referendum without a majority of voters

Crudely speaking, Johnson won his mandate for Brexit with just 46% of the vote (adding the Tory share of vote to the Brexit party). He has his mandate without ever risking a second referendum that would have required a straight majority.

However, these numbers sound a word of warning to those who believe Remain would have definitely won a second referendum. 54:46 based on the general election numbers is close enough to put in doubt the outcome of a theoretical referendum.

Johnson absolutely did not want to risk it, though. A general election was his best chance to earn the mandate he desperately needed. Nonetheless, the figures are close enough to suggest that in a straight Leave versus Remain battle, he might still have won.

Where do we go from here?

What’s done is done. Like it or not, we can question the tactics and legality all we want, but the public has had its say and made its decision. Today we are a deeply divided country of tribal winners and losers. It’s like the day after a heated football derby in which one team has beaten their local rival 4-0.

But now we need to move forward and heal the wounds. We need our political leaders to soften their tone – I don’t have great hopes of this based on the highly antagonistic words of Sajid Javid and Michael Gove in the immediate aftermath today – but ultimately it’s up to us. We are supposed to be the United Kingdom. It’s about time we started acting like it.


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