The British General Election: what just happened?

First, some basic facts:

  • This was the first December election since 1923. In most parts of the UK, the weather was wet and windy and the nights were long and dark. But turnout was 67.3%, only slightly below the 2017 election held in June.
  • The Conservatives won 365 seats (with 43.6% of the vote) – a gain of 47 seats and the party’s best result since 1987. This gives the party an overall majority of 80.
  • Labour won 203 seats (with 32.2% of the votes) – a loss of 43 seats and the party’s worst result since 1935.
  • The Liberal Democrats won 11 seats (with 11.5% of the votes) – one seat down on 2017 and with the loss of the seat of its leader Jo Swinson.
  • The Scottish National Party won 48 seats (with 3.9% of the vote) – a gain of 13 seats out of a total contested of 59.
  • There were no ‘Portillo moments’ with Conservative ‘big beasts’ losing their seats. Instead the stand-out results of the night were major breaches in Labour’s so-called ‘Red Wall’ of Northern strongholds with the Tories taking seats such as Sedgefield (which Tony Blair used to represent), Bolsover (where Dennis Skinner was the veteran MP), and my namesake of Darlington.
  • The number of women MPs continues to rise – if far too slowly – and went up by 12 in this election to a total of 220. A majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs are female for the first time in history.
  • The new parliament will be the most diverse in our history with 65 MPs from black and ethnic minority backgrounds. The majority of them – 41 – are Labour MPs.

Now a few observations:

At the beginning of the General Election, I was asked for a forecast and suggested an overall Conservative majority of between 15-25. Up until 10 pm on Thursday night, I was sticking to that forecast – but I substantially underestimated the scale of the Tory victory. I suspect it even came as a surprise to Boris Johnson himself.

This was a triumph for the Conservatives and specifically for Johnson. Although he avoided the toughest interviews, made a number of gaffs, and repeatedly was spare with the truth, his “Get Brexit Done” mantra clearly won through, not just to traditional Conservative voters but to many traditional Labour voters in constituencies which voted leave in the EU referendum,

Clearly, Brexit is now going to happen in the sense that the Johnson deal will be approved by Parliament before 31 January 2020. But is is not certain that he will be able to negotiate with the EU a mutually acceptable trade deal by 31 December 2020 and, even if does, it will take years to negotiate trade deals with non-EU nations. Outside of the Brexit issue, we have to see whether Johnson’s declaration that he will rule as a ‘One Nation Conservative’ is true or just a catchphrase.

This was a disaster for Labour and especially Jeremy Corbyn. Although the Corbyn faction of the party is already blaming the result on Brexit, Corbyn was responsible for the party’s opaque position on Brexit and on the doorsteps Corbyn was clearly very unpopular, even with many of those who normally vote Labour. According to a BBC analysis, in strong Leave areas, Labour lost 10.4% vote share while, in strong Remain areas, they dropped 6.4% vote share.

So Brexit was only part of Labour’s problem and presumably will not be the same issue at the next General Election – although the experience of Brexit, especially if economically damaging, could work to Labour’s advantage next time. But the leadership issue – and the overreaching of the party’s manifesto – will be fiercely debated in the days, weeks and months to come. As a Labour Party member of 50 years, I did not vote for Corbyn in either of the leadership elections and I believe that he was a major factor in our defeat.

The United Kingdom is still a very divided country with a triple split. London remains a Labour bastion and, in my constituency of Bermonsey & Old Southwark, Labour’s vote share actually rose 1% (the sitting Labour MP Neil Coyle has been pro-Remain and anti-Corbyn). Scotland is more of an SNP stronghold than ever and the Nationalists will demand a second referendum on independence. The rest of Great Britain is now very much Conservative territory.

I have excluded Northern Ireland from this triple division because it has its own political parties, but it is notable that Sinn Fein’s share of the NI vote exceeded that of the Democratic Unionist Party: 47% vs 43%.

Boris Johnson may not last five years as Prime Minister – he has a lot of skeletons in the cupboard and is notoriously gaffe-prone. But, almost certainly, the Conservatives will be in office for another decade – no Opposition has ever recovered from this scale of defeat in one election cycle. So, depending on my mortality, I may never see a Labour Government again (at least I worked for the Wilson/Callaghan Government and my son worked for the Blair/Brown one).

Meanwhile the case for a proportional representation electoral system is more powerful than ever. But I can’t see how this can happen unless it is part of some new constitutional settlement which I don’t expect.


  • Chris Clarke

    Agree with most of that, but you underplayed the powerful gains of the SNP. Banning nuclear weapons with any necessary protests would be a major issue for the PM.
    If the remainers are right,the PM is set to fail and open the way for all the necessary reforms under a more electable Labour Party. Crafting the last is now the challenge.
    Scandal no longer seems to unseat politicians in the UK, US, France, Italy and many other places.

  • Nadine Wiseman

    Thanks for the summary Roger. (What can one say in these situations? We are sorry for your plight? We are indeed sorry.)

    Being from a country with compulsory voting I find turnout figures fascinating. How different would the result be if everyone had to vote?

  • Marc Dunn

    I’ve been a visitor to your website now for a few years. Your guides to the political systems of various individual countries have been very interesting and taught me a lot, I also like to read your personal opinion on the political landscape we find ourselves in.

    I personally think (and I’m by no means an expert on politics) that the EU referendum will, or maybe already has, gone down as one of the biggest political events in this countries entire history. Not only has it created such a division throughout the UK, it has caused two general elections, the second of which we saw people seeming to choose their political party based on whatever side of the Brexit divide they stood. That’s why we have seen some constituencies change hands for the first time in over 70 years.

    Brexit has also emboldened people with some incredibly abhorrent views to crawl out from the rock they usually hide under. I once read that “Not all Brexiteers are racists but all racists are Brexiteers” and in my personal experience that seems to have played out. I find it quite depressing to think that, with the result of the referendum being as close as it was, the future of our country could have been steered by those ignorant people among us.

    One other thing I noticed was that nationalist parties have won the most seats in Northern Ireland and Scotland. The SNP, Sinn Fein and Plaid Cyrmu all seem to advocate independence from the UK and EU membership for their respective countries.

    With that being said, how likely is this scenario to play out…

    – The United Kingdom leaves the European Union

    – Scotland leaves the United Kingdom and rejoins the EU

    – Northern Ireland leaves the United Kingdom, creating an united Ireland and rejoins the EU

    – Plaid Cymru gain more seats in a future election, secures Welsh independence and rejoins the EU, thus leaving England alone?

    I’d like to end this rather long comment by saying that you run a fantastic website and long may it continue.

  • Roger Darlington

    Thanks, Marc, for your kind comments on my website.

    Anything is possible, but but I think that some parts of your four-part scenario are more likely and/or undesirable than others. Let’s see what how it all unfolds – but the implications will take many years to work out. You are right to see Brexit as a seminal stage of British history.

  • Andy R

    An interesting read. Thanks, Roger. But there’s one set of figures you left out: How many seats the parties would have gained under a system of Proportional Representation where seats match votes.

    Con 301, Lab 222, LibDem 79, SNP 27, Green 21

    What a difference that would make!

  • Roger Darlington

    Thanks for adding those figures, Andy.

  • Hassan Hanif

    Mr. Roger, a profound analysis. Considering that the Conservatives have a better mandate,do you think that the Brexit deal will sail smoothly in the Parliament or Brexit quagmire is going to continue? Moreover, will Brexit have any repercussions for the unity of the state?

  • albert

    Personally I see an opportunity for a New SDP.

    The current Tory and Labour leaders have vacated the middle ground.

    A centre right party on economics and centre left party on social welfare could well emerge.

    Many years ago I coined the slogan “Socialists with sense and Conservatives with a conscience should vote Social Democrat.

  • Roger Darlington

    Hassan, I am sure that the Brexit deal will now be approved by Parliament, but the trade negotiations with the EU will be complex and protracted.

  • Roger Darlington

    Albert, our FPTP electoral system makes it very difficult for a new party to be established and actually win seats (look at UKIP and Brexit Party). In any event, we already have a centre party: the Liberals.


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