One of the worst attributes of being a regular social media user is it gives you an over-inflated sense of being right about things through reinforcing preconceived ideas. I, for one, felt pretty confident I could sense the pulse of the nation through scrutinising the threads of politicians and I believed a divided nation was unlikely to produce an unambiguous election result. I was betting on a hung Parliament or possibly a slim Conservative majority. We all know what happened next with the Conservatives decisively winning the election with a big 80 majority not seen since the 1980ies. It has left me feeling slightly shell-shocked and concluding a number of points. I have a few thoughts from a personal, national and agricultural perspective. I still remain in a partial state of gob-smackery!
I was pleased to note the election voting process itself has been beyond reproach and all above board. Whatever you think of the result the voting process itself was efficient and accepted by the electorate. No one is crying foul even though the outcome is dramatic. A December election was fraught with risks of bad weather but counting was unimpeded. This Election did show me my own political sixth sense is askew. I had naively assumed that genuine concerns about social inequality and environmental issues would have shifted political allegiances to the political Left. I had concluded a period of left wing governance was becoming inevitable. I also thought three years of political paralysis would have pushed sympathies towards a majority wishing to remain in the EU. On both counts I appear to have been completely off-track; the national political heart is evidently right of centre and the Brexit saga has shifted EU sentiments more towards Leave, maybe out of frustration and wounded national pride. The clues for this were visible in the results of the European elections when the Brexit Party came out of nowhere to become the joint largest party in the EU. The poor performance of the Liberal Democrats, with even their leader losing her seat, is further evidence of these two assertions as they bet all their cards on remain and even lost their leader.
Politically it was a simple but messy election campaign playing on fear and Brexit weariness. I have not considered before now there are clearly two aspects to successful electioneering campaigning; you not only have to promote yourself and your own ideas to bag votes but at the same time an equally important tactic is to simultaneously discredit those leaders and policies of your principal opposition thereby potentially robbing them of a key vote to an alternative party . The Conservatives won not by massively increasing their own share but by collapsing the Labour vote through discrediting Jeremy Corbyn as a realistic leader.
One observation of the campaign was the similarities in tactics between Theresa May (in 2017) and Boris Johnson in 2019 by rigidly sticking to short sound-bites (‘strong and stable’ versus ‘get Brexit done’) and a cautiousness around interviews and yet one succeeded where the other failed. Perhaps Boris’ increased attack on his opposition was more effective this time and public attitudes had changed in two years or maybe it was simply the right tactic at the right time.
The political hard-left is now wondering in the wilderness for a long five years. The Labour party will be convulsed by infighting on whether to double down on hard-left policies or make an about-turn back to New Labour style policies. Parliament works best with a strong government and a strong opposition so I hope Labour can get their act together quickly to fulfil this important role. I don’t want a Conservative autocracy!
I have no doubt the country as a whole was acutely ashamed by the events of the last few years with our national image diminished and ridiculed. I suspect much of the 2019 election outcome was an unconscious attempt to draw a line and regain some National pride and attempt to turn a page on the Brexit purgatory period.
The biggest threat going forwards now nationally is that of the break-up of the Union. Scotland, with a landslide SNP vote, now has a clear mandate for a second Independence Referendum. On this issue alone the Brexit vote may leave a terrible wound on our national character if the Union is broken and starts off a domino effect. Boris may have an 80 majority but issues like this could well blow up in his face. He will also be judged on whether he can achieve an EU trade deal or whether we will be pulled into WTO default status through no-deal on trade. We may be leaving the EU but discussions on our relationship will continue for all of this five year term. I won’t go there on the promises written on the side of a bus!
Five Years ago I would have been delighted with a stonking Conservative majority in a General Election. Not surprising really given my demographic; a farmer living in a very rural constituency. For this 2019 election I feel much less enthused about such an outcome mainly because this election represented a final opportunity to redirect the Brexit pathway towards staying in the EU which is something I still hoped might be possible.
The reality is now that any resistance to enacting Brexit is now completely futile; I’ve got to finally ‘suck it up’ and accept on this subject I’m on the losing side of this argument. I think some of my sense of melancholy at this result perhaps stems from a silly wish to see things go pear-shaped so I could go all pointy fingered and say “told you so” to Brexit-voting friends and colleagues! I had anticipated a ‘vote Brexit, get Corbyn’ outcome was inevitable but how wrong I was! Perhaps I need a good kick in the pants to see some obvious positives. Firstly a degree of certainly and stability will bring an economic dividend. I have no doubt a Conservative administration will be much more competent than a Labour one would have been. A strong majority means the next General Election will most probably not be until late 2024 which is a good chunk of my remaining career farming years left. The fact that I am sitting down and writing again at all is actually a sign my own disillusionment and negativity is beginning to lift.
And what did I vote this time? Well, Green actually, but there’s a whole new blog to chew over another day and I’m not going there now.
Implications for British agriculture
Clearly Brexit paralysis has left many farm businesses in strategic limbo; unable to make investment decisions with any confidence and struggling to move forward. At least now with a strong majority government in charge the political logjam will clear, answers will be forthcoming on support payments and an agriculture bill will be ratified. I am sure that an overwhelming majority of farmers will also prefer to be operating under a Conservative government rather than a Labour one and it is a relief to, in all likelihood, not have to worry about another General Election for a cool five years. Hopefully an emerging sense of positivity will charge a period of reinvestment and renewal. The Conservative party are generally considered to be sympathetic to Agriculture and to be rural-centric. They will not want to undermine their rural base. At the same time they have strong ideologies of free market economics and liberal trade which has implications for Agriculture. They do not like subsidies and protectionist policies and yet these have been essential to underpin agricultural incomes. Issues of fairness around trade and a level playing field for production standards will be critical for agricultural fortunes. We mustn’t be sacrificed on a cheap food altar thereby exporting our agricultural footprint.
In the background will the declared climate emergency dominate farming policy in this political term or will the Conservatives ‘Trumpize’ the issue and for the short-term sweep it under the muck heap? If we really do boldly go where no nation’s farmers have gone before with Net Zero ambitions the changes needed are going to be breathtaking. The Brexit fog may be lifting but farmers may well not like what they then see!