Election 2019- The Devil and the Deep Red Sea

Election 2019- The Devil, and the Deep Red Sea

So the election that everyone and no-one wanted is here. Much like Thanos, it was inevitable. The similarities do not end there. It has caused chaos, intense conflict and has resulted in the near-total destruction of civilised society. In terms of the civic discourse, it is probably the worst election that has ever been fought in the United Kingdom, and we still have ten days to go. In that respect, after the last couple of years, though we may protest vociferously it may perhaps be the election we deserve, even if it is not the election that we want. In the interests of fairness I should lay some cards out on the table. Firstly, this is not going to result in me telling you which way you should be voting. Primarily because I don’t do that sort of thing, but also because I remain, foolishly, of the belief that in a representative democracy everyone should make their own decision on how to vote based on a reasoned consideration of the evidence in front of them. I know it’s a fantasy, but indulge me. I will be structuring this as a consideration of the state of the parties based on manifestos, leadership and record. That way you can easily flick to whichever party you want to hear bad things about. It’s going to be that sort of piece. Secondly, my own biases. I am an institutionally conservative, socially liberal remainer who chooses how to vote in any election based on considering the manifestos and general context, voting for whoever I think would be best for the country at the time. Thirdly I am a firm believer in evidence-based politics and policy and consider this the only proper way to run a democracy. Initial cards out, we can start thinking about the election.

Before we start with a substantive analysis of the state of the parties, we should deal with the elephant in the room. This is not a normal election. For the last two-and-a-half years Parliament and the Government have been entangled with trying to sort out Brexit, the impossible dream of the 52%. That they have not is perhaps the greatest inevitability of our time, and in the mind of many Brexiteers, the greatest failing. All along of course, there has been a simple way of solving that particular crisis, a method which was even advocated by prominent Brexiteers, before they won the original referendum. The solution is to put a deal before parliament, attach a confirmatory referendum and then put it back to the people to ensure that that was what they wanted. Different to the first referendum because this time people would not be voting for a vague idea, but for a specific thing, this would likely have passed through Parliament, gone back to the people and then concluded Brexit in one way or another. So why hasn’t this simple solution been used? That is equally simple. The original vote was so close, and the subsequent polling indicating a newly invigorated remain vote so consistent that were this solution to be implemented, there is a substantial chance that this time the people might vote remain and Brexit be stopped. And for the Governments after the referendum, both of whom have leaned into the hard brexit side of the argument, excluding softer alternatives, that would be intolerable. Ergo, there can be no referendum. So they have chosen the alternative solution to break the Parliamentary deadlock. Hold an election in the hope of winning a majority which can be used to push through whatever Brexit they want. Seems reasonable? No. Of course it doesn’t. By holding an election to act as enabling legislation for Brexit, the issues of Brexit get mixed up with broader national and economic issues, which will likely artificially inflate the vote of parties regardless of their Brexit positions. If a majority is gained by either side, this will result in that majority being used to justify whatever Brexit result they desire, despite the fact that they do not have a specific mandate for that position. I would argue this is more of a moral problem on the Conservative side, as the opposite side want a referendum which could still result in Brexit, unlike the Conservatives whose position is irreversible. But we shall come to that.

It is no hyperbole to say that in many ways this is the most important election of modern times. At stake is the economic fate of the country, our continued access to the wonder that is the European Union, the robustness of our response to the global climate emergency and the very fundamental underpinnings of our constitution and society. Over the course of the other pieces I have written in this series, I have explored the particular issues pertaining to each party, and their status going into the election. Fundamentally there are several potential plausible outcomes of the election. The first and most concerning is a Tory majority. A Tory majority would return to Parliament a group of MPs committed to uncritically delivering Boris’ brexit deal. The purge of the party undertaken by Johnson in the first months of his term as PM has ensured that the number of independent thinkers has been vastly reduced. There will be no realistic hope of independent thinkers rebelling against the whip to prevent egregious abuses of power, or damaging versions of Brexit. Each of Boris’ candidates has been specially selected for their willingness to nod along to the party line no matter what the consequences of that might be. A majority would allow him to push through whatever legislation he wants, with the people not being able to do a thing against it, no matter how much they might want to. As I have outlined in my piece on the Conservatives, the problems with the Tory legislative agenda go far beyond Brexit. At stake would be the fundamentals of the rule of law, the basis of the constitution and the personal health and safety of many millions of vulnerable individuals. At present, I would say that this is still the most likely outcome, although perhaps not by as much as might seem from the polls.

The other options revolve around a hung parliament. Here there will be two possible formulations, which we shall deal with in turn. First, to continue the Conservative doom-saying, or not as the case may be. If the election returns a hung Parliament with the Tories as the largest party, they will have very limited options. The only natural bedfellow of the Conservatives would be the Democratic Unionist Party, however it is entirely plausible that even with DUP support they would not be able to form a majority. The other question is whether the DUP would consider any form of agreement with the Tories, and I suspect that after they were thrown under the bus by Boris to secure his Brexit deal, the answer to that question would be ‘not a hope in hell’. They have already indicated that they are approaching a position where they consider no Brexit to be preferable to Boris’ deal. So the only option that would leave Boris with would be attempting to govern as a minority government. For him this would be especially difficult. With all other major parties set against the Tory agenda, and him being able to count only on, if he was lucky, occasional DUP support on the odd issue, his Government would be essentially a lame duck, unable to pursue any of its plans and open to humiliation at the will of the opposition parties. In these circumstances, I would fully expect there to be another election within the year.

If a hung parliament is returned with Labour being the largest party, things become more interesting, though I still wouldn’t bet against another election within the year. In a hung parliament there are three essential methods of governing. Firstly, as a minority government, such as that which the Tories would likely have to run. This is the weakest configuration. Though you may be the largest individual party, the other parties combined would outnumber you and could essentially prevent any progress of your agenda (see Boris Johnson’s administration between 3rd September 2019 and the dissolution of Parliament on 6th November 2019). Secondly, the midway point between the two, governance through a confidence and supply agreement. This was the sort of deal Theresa May concluded with the DUP after the 2017 election to give her a majority. In it, in return for certain promises, one or more minor parties promises to vote with the Government on issues of ‘confidence and supply’. Fundamentally this means issues that could topple the Government (‘confidence’) and issues regarding public finances and budgets (‘supply’). FInally, the peak of the hung parliament administrations, arguably the most secure and in this case the least likely. In a formal coalition, such as that between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives during the Cameron Years, the parties involved negotiate an agreement to govern together, with ministerial and cabinet positions being shared by members of both parties (unlike in a confidence and supply agreement). By its nature, the larger party will have the larger amount of control over the agenda, with concessions being made to the minor party on negotiated issues. So what might be the formulation of the Government in a hung parliament where Labour is either the largest individual party or in which the Conservatives have conceded they cannot form a government? Their obvious partners would be the SNPP or the LIb Dems, however there are issues with both of these that may preclude the formation of a formal coalition, or possibly even a confidence and supply agreement. Undoubtedly, were Labour to reach out to the SNP their primary condition for propping up a Labour government would be a second referendum on Scottish independence, something that Labour has said it wouldn’t countenance within the first two years of a Labour government. A refusal to concede on this matter would likely prove fatal for hopes of a Labour-SNP coalition. So what of the Lib Dems? Jo Swinson has said repeatedly that the Lib Dems will not prop up a Labour government lead by Jeremy Corbyn over concerns about anti-semitism, a perhaps understandable position given that the Lib Dems have on board three candidates who left the Labour Party over those same issues. In addition to this, the Lib Dems are still smarting from the fallout of their coalition with the Tory government, and I would likely be reluctant to go for a formal coalition anyhow. I would say then that a formal coalition is unlikely. For the usual reasons Labour would also be reluctant to run a minority government, so the best bet might be seeking some sort of confidence and supply agreement, specifically in order to keep out the Tories. Nicola Sturgeon has implied that she is not going to enable a Tory Government in any form, and it may be that if the only way to prevent one was to achieve some agreement with Labour she would do so. On the basis that the Labour Party is unlikely to change leader at the behest of the Liberal Democrats, and that to support a Labour Government under Corbyn would be something of a betrayal of principle on anti-semitism, I suspect that the Lib Dems would stay out of a formal confidence and supply agreement, instead voting on conscience on each issue. Whether this situation would change if their participation was the only way to keep the Tories out would be a difficult one, but in light of the SNP’s likely successes in Scotland, this will hopefully not arise as an issue. I suspect that a Labour-SNP confidence and supply agreement is the most likely outcome under these circumstances. Whether the SNP would concede to delay the independence referendum until Labour’s preferred date, or whether they would merely demand a bung for their participation will be an interesting one to watch. In the case of the latter, also interesting to watch will be the epic reverse ferrets that will have to be undertaken by those who heavily criticised the Tory £1bn payout to the DUP as the prices of an agreement. I have a feeling that could be absolutely hilarious.

So what would non-minority hung Parliament governments by both sides look like? Well, were the Tories to somehow inexplicably secure the participation of the DUP, the first thing to go would be Boris’ Brexit deal. It is intolerable to the DUP, thanks to the creation of effective borders between both Ireland and Northern Ireland and down the Irish sea. In all honesty this scenario is so unlikely that it is barely worth considering , but as a courtesy, here we go. It would likely enable the Conservatives to pursue their social programme with DUP support. On Brexit, we may see a resurrection of Theresa May’s deal, however I would not be surprised in those circumstances that confirmatory referendum would be attached as an amendment. More than that it is difficult to say, partially because of the unlikeliness of the whole scenario and partially because it is by no means certain that the EU would accept a reversion to an older version of the deal that is objectively worse for them. A Labour hung parliament Government would be equally interesting. Labour’s dubious and unlikely pledge to renegotiate the Brexit deal in six months would potentially go through Parliament with a second referendum attached, though the exact question would be subject to intense wrangling. I suspect it would end up being a two-way ‘Remain v the Deal’ referendum, which Labour have pledged to make legally binding so there would be none of the arguments about how binding this one would be. As to the rest of their manifesto pledges, I would say they would likely have to drop the majority of their nationalisation plans, and their public spending pledges would have to be somewhat scaled back. A likely condition of SNP support would be the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Scotland which could prove interesting, both because of a lack of other prepared sites, and also because of job losses north of the border. The other thing to consider is that even if the Scottish nationalists demanded a second independence referendum, a successful confirmatory referendum on Brexit resulting in Remain could heavily undermine the already tenuous support for independence. Whatever happens, we’re in for big political change.

The result of the election will likely result in big political change anyway. If Labour does not win a majority, and especially if it does poorly enough to not even deny the Tories the opportunity to govern, then Jeremy Corbyn will likely have to step down, though I suspect he will try to cling on- indeed he has implied that he will not necessarily step down already. After losing two general elections in a row though and presiding over a sustained serious of electoral failures for Labour I would say it would be very difficult for him to stay on. His stepping down will lead to much soul-searching about the future of the party. On the one hand there will be those driven by Momentum keen to retain the leftwards direction of the party. This could result in people like Laura Pidcock or Rebecca Long-Bailey as the next leader, both of whom are pretty much Corbyn’s chosen successors. There will also be those who want to return to the centre-left politics that they see as more generally electable, in which case we may see more moderate figures rising. With the departure of Tom Watson as Deputy Leader and MP, the potential candidates on this wing are less clear, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see people like Jess Phillips being named, alongside people like Keir Starmer who have done much to burnish their reputations over the recent political period. On the Conservative side, Boris could see his leadership ambitions cut short if the Tories do not win a majority. There are already reports of dissatisfaction with his performance amongst senior Tories, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could be deposed if the Tory vote doesn’t go as well as they had hoped. Similar to the Labour Party, the fall of Johnson would likely trigger a bit of soul-searching within the Tory Party as to whether they should continue their rightward journey to the old stomping grounds of UKIP, or whether they should return to the more Cameron-era centre-right ground. It is even possible we might see the returns of some of the figures who left the party over its direction of travel such as Rory Stewart or Amber Rudd to try and return them to the straight and narrow. Although the Lib Dem campaign has faltered somewhat over the course of the election, I think it’s unlikely that Jo Swinson will step down as leader, unless she loses her own seat in East Dunbartonshire, an unlikely, but not impossible contingency. Her position would be significantly bolstered by any major Lib Dem gains, or if they could topple any of the big figures that some polls suggest they might be in reach of (Dominic Raab, Iain Duncan Smith etc.)

Whatever happens, one of the two men, Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson will be Prime Minister by the end of the year. The choice is not an enviable one. On the one hand you have a party lead by a habitual liar who has used racist, homophobic and misogynstic language over a 30 year jornalistic career. He leads a party that is riddled with islamophobia; has, through its austerity policies, caused great damage to many millions at the poorer end of society; has very little to show for its 9 years in office and has in recent times taken actions that fundamentally undermine democracy and the rule of law. On the other, you have a man who has a thirty year political history of associating with racists, anti-semites and terrorists, expressed views counter to the national security interests of the UK and has all the leadership qualities of a brick. His party is under investigation for its institutional antisemitism; has a seeming inability to make a decision on the most important issue of our time; lies, or is otherwise ignorant, about the amount of people who will be hit by tax rises to fund their increased public spending and is pursuing a radical and largely evidence free programme of nationalisation, the likes of which hasn’t been seen for decades for very little apparent cause. The choice is bleak.

The truth is, and savour this, because it is not something you would hear me say except under the most dire of circumstances, that tactical voting in this election is important. Now I hate the idea of tactical voting. It undermines the very purpose of representative democracy, which is supposed to be about choosing the candidate who you think would best represent your interests in Parliament. Unfortunately, the first-past-the-post system means that tragically people mostly vote on the basis of the party leadership, as whoever wins becomes Prime Minister. I will make no bones about it that I do not think that any of the plausible outcomes in this election are desirable. I think both the men who could plausibly end up in Number 10 are entirely unfit for office, incompetent and in no way the sort of person you would want running the country. But in the inevitable absence of a unicorn party, perfect in all ways, we must concede that we must hope for the best possible outcome, even if it is entirely terrible. I am in no doubt that the optimum outcome of this election is a hung Parliament leading to a Labour led administration with heavy involvement of both the Lib Dems and the SNP to moderate the more radical tendencies of the new government. This would lead to a confirmatory referendum on whatever deal was achieved and a path opening up to us remaining in the European Union. The fundamental weakness of this government would mean that the Labour Party would be unable to push through its dramatic increases in public spending and would have to take a more moderate and conciliatory approach to things. Working in cooperation with the Lib Dems and the SNP, the administration could start to work to rectify some of the sins of the previous Tory governments, and to start to put salve on the societal wounds. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn would lead this administration, I believe he is and would be sufficiently weak to allow more competent individuals to guide his leadership until he stepped down. This state of affairs would no doubt lead to another election before we are due one by the terms of the Fixed Term Parliament Act, after which we could hope, a degree of normalcy might be possible. I do not see Corbyn leading Labour into this election. Achieving this imperfect outcome will require tactical voting on a scale we have never seen before. Although the polls still heavily favour the Tories, data-crunchers are pointing out that we still have a record number of voters declaring themselves as undecided at this late stage. There is significant evidence that there are still 80–90 constituencies still well in play- a potentially important number that could vastly change the outcome. If you wish to deny the Tories a majority then the only way to do so will be to vote tactically for the person most likely to beat their candidate. You may think that one vote can’t make the difference, but far from it. In the last election ten constituencies were decided by fewer than thirty votes, with North East Fife returning an MP with the joint third smallest majority in history, only 2 votes. So tactical voting is important if you want to stop the Tories.

However it forms, one of the key issues in the next legislature is that it will be a Parliament of mediocrities, of none of the talents. Many of the distinguished elder statesmen and women who have guided and led Parliament through difficult times have now retired or resigned. Those that are standing may not win their seats. We will I think be getting one of the biggest intakes of brand-new MPs in history, and with that experience comes problems. Whilst I have no doubt that many of them will grow in their own time to become the statesmen and women of the future, they are coming into Parliament at a most parlous time, a time when experience is valuable. Many of them II suspect will not end up serving more than a couple of terms. For leadership, we are going to have to look to other places. Labour possibly has the advantage here in elder statesmen as it retains prominent backbench figures such as Hilary Benn, Harriet Harman, Margaret Hodge and Yvette Cooper. The Tories, post-purge, are regrettably short on such statesmen, with prominent figures such as Ken Clarke having retired. Most of the senior experienced politicians left in the Conservative party are what one might charitably describe as ‘utter nutjobs’ such as Iain Duncan Smith (assuming he wins his seat, which isn’t a given), Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash. If they are the best the Conservative Party has to offer then we’re all in trouble. The same applies to both front benches. I’m afraid they both suffer from a distinct lack of talent. Both of them are filled with individuals chosen more for their ideological leanings than any recognisable talents. We may despair at the state of our politics now, but I have a feeling that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

For me, I am intensely grateful that I live in a non-marginal seat with a large Tory majority, where no other candidate stands a chance. A strange thing to be grateful for you might think, but I am, because it means that I do not have to make the choice between voting tactically for Labour to try and rid us of a Tory MP, or voting with my conscience in this election. In all honesty, even if I did live in a marginal seat where those circumstances applied, I don’t think I could bring myself to vote Labour, even tactically, under the current leadership. To do so I think sends a message to a minority community, the minority community that throughout history has possibly suffered most at the hands of the Other, that for the sake of immediate political prudence I am willing to throw them under the bus. I will not be passing judgment on anyone who does however. As in every election there are hundreds of different assessments the conscientious voter will make, and balances they will choose to decide how they vote. If someone makes a different assessment of the practicalities and morality of the situation, then that is their prerogative, and I have no right to judge them. So what do I think is going to happen at this election? I have a nasty feeling that the Tories will secure themselves a thin majority, though I still have doubts as to where they will pull the extra seats from to offset potential losses both in Scotland to the SNP and in the shires to the Lib Dems. Then again, predicting elections is a mugs game. I certainly hope I am wrong. Whatever happens though, I suspect we will wake on Friday 13th to an appropriate nightmare. It is inevitable.

Stephen Hill

The Assayer

Twitter: @StephenJAHill

8th December 2019

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