And into the general election

MPs here in Britain have just agreed a General Election on 12 December. I will be much more closely involved in this election than normal, as I am agent for the Liberal Democrats in Battersea, a seat that has become highly winnable for the party. Since I do not use this blog to spout party propaganda, it will be very hard for me to post much of interest on this blog in the meantime. So there will be a period of silence.

Is an election the right thing? The government does not have a majority and it is hard to see it getting significant legislation through. This is one way of trying to resolve that, though it may not. Each party has approached the election decision with their short term advantage primarily in mind (and all four main parties played a role). There are two main reasons not to, apart from the inconvenience of the time of year. On the government side many reckoned it was feasible to push through Brexit legislation, now that many Labour MPs are softening, and this would turn an election into a victory parade. On the opposition side there was a chance that this legislation might be changed to allow a further Brexit referendum, which many feel would be desirable before an election. Depending on which of these arguments you accept or reject, the election makes Brexit more or less likely to go through. I have no opinion on this.

All three main parties in England (Scottish politics is very different, and I am much less informed; Wales follows broadly similar trends to England) plan to put Brexit at the centre of their campaigns, alongside other arguments, depending on who they are talking to. The Conservatives will say “Get Brexit Done” to Brexit supporters and “Stop Corbyn” to others. Labour will say “Labour is the only Remain option” to Remain supporters, as our local Labour MP is telling us here in Battersea, and “reject Austerity” to others. The Lib Dems will also lay claim to Remain supporters, with its less equivocal stance, while presenting themselves as the only sensible party left now that Labour and the Conservatives have veered off to idealistic extremes.

How will it play out? Many voters are utterly disgusted with both Labour and Tory leaderships, and will be tempted vote Lib Dem. That is why the party is, astonishingly, in contention in places like Battersea, after generations in the desert. Will they be ground down by a relentless focus on “the two main parties” in the media, as happened at the last election, in 2017? The party starts in a much stronger position, in polling, money and organisational strength than in 2017, or 2015, come to that, so it should do better. But it seeks a radical lift-off in its performance. That is harder. There is evidence that Labour have been making some headway with their pro-Remain message since the party conferences, eating into Lib Dem support. That will come at a cost, though, as anti-Brexit parties eat into Labour support, for which there is also evidence.

The critical factor will be how the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and his team goes down with the public. His supporters point to a spectacular performance in 2017 once he hit the campaign trail. But that was in a very different situation. There are problems with Labour’s stance on Brexit if you start to press it, especially around their idea of renegotiating the exit deal, and then recommending its rejection in a referendum. But since the Lib Dems adopted their revoke without referendum policy (albeit only if they are in majority), Labour can present their policy as more moderate and democratic. I actually find Labour spokesmen a bit clearer on the details of their Brexit policy than Lib Dem ones.

But the main question about Labour is over the rest of their policy. Their manifesto is sure to be radical, though how many of the party’s preferred policies (like taking over private schools) make it there is uncertain. Personally I think current Labour policy is horrific, full of the worst ideas from the left. Their plans to nationalise railways and other industries, and roll back public sector outsourcing look like a sop to unions that will get bogged down very quickly. The idea of a “National Education Service” is doubtless meant to evince the warm glow that the National Health Service supposedly does, but in me it evokes the worst aspects of the NHS, politicisation, leaden management and useless user interfaces, for example, and not the good bits. And on top of that Labour’s leadership looks inexperienced on not up to executing such a radical platform successfully. If there were no Lib Dem option it I would sooner support the Conservatives, notwithstanding Brexit. But I am a creature of my class and age (I remember the 1970s); others could react very differently.

And what of the Conservatives’ non-Brexit stance? This mainly seems to be based on scaring people about Labour policies, but they are also trying to reassure people that they will provide more funding for popular public services, such as the police, the NHS and education. Clearly things have moved on from the period of uber-austerity from 2015 to 2018, but it is hard to trust them. That may not matter too much as the much of the public distrusts liberal public spending, unless it benefits them personally, which it mostly doesn’t. Arguments about Keynesian economic stimulus benefiting all tend not to cut ice, rightly or wrongly.

How will The Brexit Party do? TBP was rampant in the European elections in May, and present a tempting proposition to angry Brexiteers, of whom there are many. The usual view is that they will spit the anti-Brexit vote and impede the Conservatives. But the new Tory leadership under Boris Johnson, has done much to contain that threat. The fact that Mr Johnson has not kept his promise to implement Brexit on 31 October “do or die” may not help TBP as much as many thought. I expect few people believed him in the first place, and there are ready scapegoats. TBP might prove just as much a problem for Labour, and their very public leaning towards opposing Brexit.

And the Greens? They may benefit from an electoral pact with the Lib Dems and Plaid Cymru, but it is hard to see them having a major impact. Labour has pretty much shot their fox. Environmental issues certainly have more traction than they used to, but politicians from all parties have noticed. Labour in particular are trying hard to scoop up the angry young environmentalists.

It is all very hard to predict. If Labour start to do well, Tory scare tactics will gain traction and the Lib Dems will suffer. If Labour get stuck, the reverse could happen. Most people think that the SNP will do well in Scotland at the expense of both Conservatives and Labour, though the Lib Dems could make some limited progress there. It will be interesting to see how well the Democratic Unionist Party will do in Northern Ireland, after their very prominent role in this parliament. The betting markets show a Conservative victory and a hung parliament as nearly equally probable at about 45%, with the former having an edge. I don’t disagree.

11 thoughts on “And into the general election”

  1. Whatever happens we won’t have heard the last of Brexit ! The divide will continue to cause strife in the community for the foreseeable future. There will, fundamentally, be two possible outcomes to this election. The Tories will either achieve a working majority and push through their version of Brexit, or they won’t, and we’ll end up remaining. Just how well the Labour and Lib Dem parties do, relative to one another, isn’t that important. The Brexit party may play a roll but they’ll likely reduce BJ’s chances of obtaining a majority if they do well themselves.

    The alternative to a Tory majority is a Lab/Lib Dem/SNP coalition or pact which will call a referendum to decide on some hurried deal that the Labour has cobbled together with the EU which they’ll claim is better, but which the majority of the Leave side will say is worse, than either BJ’s or TM’s WA. They aren’t going to vote for Corbyn’s deal but the alternative will be to vote Remain.

    That’s when the situation will turn ugly. It may sound alarmist, but we’ll then be not too far from a civil war situation.

    1. Thanks Peter. I struggle to see how an NOC result will play. The Lib Dems will struggle to support a government of Labour/SNP even if it takes the country away from Brexit. Dislike of Labour motivates most of the party’s supporters in England, and it has firmly nailed its colours to the unionist mast in Scotland (where Labour seems prepared to compromise on a further Scottish referendum). A further election is quite likely: the question is whether a temporary government of some sort can be cobbled together to run a referendum. As to a near civil war if Brexit is reversed – many of my friends dismiss this as Brexit supporters’ own “Project Fear” – but not those who live in very Brexity areas. The country has got itself into a terrible mess.

  2. I agree that it will be difficult for Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP and others to form even a temporary alternative govt. But I’d say they might just about manage it if there is really no other alternative.

    Just to clarify on the “near civil war” scenario. I don’t think it would come to that if there is a genuine choice in a new referendum. But, in the unlikely situation, the Lib Dems are able to revoke Art50 or , more likely, if the Labour Party just offer the choice of their “terrible deal” against Remain there could well be big trouble. That would unite the Brexit and Tory Parties in opposition to the referendum.

    1. That’s a good point. I am uncomfortable with the revoke policy of the Lib Dems, though a Lib Dem majority would be such an earthquake that it would have real shock value. I think Labour should sponsor a referendum on Johnson’s deal, rather than change it fundamentally (or they should have lined up with May’s deal). The important point for referendum supporters is to fix the “Leave” option on something most Leave voters support. I thought the move to amend the deal towards a customs union was misguided for that reason. That may make sense if you don’t support a referendum, but not otherwise.

  3. I must say I’m surprised at just how vitriolic have been the Lib Dem attacks on Labour and Jeremy Corbyn in the opening days of the campaign. The only realistic chance of avoiding 5 more years of the Tories and Boris Johnson is to encourage as much tactical voting as possible. Especially, as if now looks likely, the BXP vote largely swings back to the Tories.

    If Lexiteers like myself can put aside our misgivings about the EU/Brexit and vote Labour, as usual, then I can’t see why Lib Dems are so determined to hand victory to the Tories. Just whose side is Jo Swinson on?

    1. Hi Peter. I’m surprised you are surprised. There is, and always has been, a strong anti-Labour side to the Lib Dems, and many of the party’s voters would prefer the Tories to Labour if push comes to shove. That is truer now than it has ever been for two reasons. One is that Remain supporting Tories are looking for a new home (the Matthew Parris effect). The other is that a lot of voters are genuinely spooked by the programme that the current Labour leadership is proposing – and I’m among them (though perhaps for slightly different reasons than most). They are actually taking Jeremy Corbyn at his word: that this election is about transforming British society. While many welcome elements of the Labour programme (which I suspect will have a no-lobbyist-left-behind aspect to it), others are scared by elements of it, or maybe just the extravagent promises of more spending on everything. This worry could easily trump views on Brexit (again, it does with me).

      If the Lib Dems are to pick up the votes of of these Corbyn sceptics they have to show that they are robustly anti. 2010-2015 showed the dangers and limits of forming coalitions in the hope of moderating a party you don’t like, so the line that the party might do a deal with Corbyn after the election won’t wash. Meanwhile the often vicious attacks on Lib Dems as “yellow Tories” doesn’t help. Also some Labour claims as to who is in the best position to stop Tories (for example here in Battersea) are specious because they are based on 2017 result and not on more recent evidence; the Lib Dems are much better placed to pick up sceptical Tories.

      There has always been this asymmetry about tactical voting. Third parties find it much easier to pick up support from both sides.

  4. @ Matthew,

    I wouldn’t be surprised under normal circumstances. But I did think that it might be different this time. The Lib Dems have put Remaining in the EU first, second and third on a list of priorities. The average voter would be hard pressed to name any other Lib Dem policies for this election.

    The only possible route to avoiding Brexit is via Labour’s proposed second referendum. It’s just delusional to think that there is going to be a Liberal government come the 13th December. As a leaver, I’m just about OK with that even though I don’t believe it will be politically possible to offer the choice of Remain vs 99% Remain. BS’s deal will have to be on offer too.

    It’s more than a little sad that the Lib Dems are prepared to actively work against this outcome by putting so much effort in opposing Labour. We see this nationally with uncompromising comments about JC and, locally, where even Labour candidates with very similar views to Lib Dems are actively opposed in the Labour /Tory marginals.

    All that will do, as everyone well knows, is let the Tories in on a split anti-Tory vote.

    1. Well I think this discussion shows that this election is about more than Brexit. You are prepared to put your views on Brexit to support Labour. Fair enough. What I don’t think you have picked up from me is that I so dislike the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn that I am prepared to risk a Tory government and Brexit as a lesser evil. And there are lots of Tory Remainers who think the same thing. According to Political Betting a recent poll shows 69% of Tory Remainers sticking with the Tories; 30% going for the Lib Dems and just 1% Labour. Corbyn is very, very unpopular with large swathes of the electorate. If the Lib Dems soften on Labour, some of that 30% goes back to the Tories, and none of it to Labour. But if the Lib Dems get more traction, we might get some of that 69%. That makes a Tory government less likely, not more.

        1. @ Matthew,

          “What I don’t think you have picked up from me is that I so dislike the modern Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn that I am prepared to risk a Tory government and Brexit as a lesser evil.”

          That’s quite an admission.

          I’ve always thought of Lib Dems as being part of a general anti Tory alliance but maybe I shouldn’t! My first experience of politics was in Bolton West when, as young child in the late 50s, I asked why there was no Tory candidate. They had a pact going then. My father said that the Tories were called Liberals in Bolton!

          I should have listened to him!

          1. I’ve always thought of Lib Dems as being part of a general anti Tory alliance but maybe I shouldn’t! My first experience of politics was in Bolton West when, as young child in the late 50s, I asked why there was no Tory candidate. They had a pact going then. My father said that the Tories were called Liberals in Bolton!

            Yes back in the 1950s there was a bit of an anti-Labour pact going on. That changed with Jo Grimond who wanted to align the party with the left. Jeremy Thorpe refused to help out Ted Heath in 1974, but David Steel did help the subsequent Labour government under Callaghan. There was then an informal pact between Tony Blair and Paddy Ashdown, which helped the landslide of 1997. But things have changed a lot in the Labour Party since Blair, and the more hostile stance of the Lib Dems follows from that. We’ve attracted a lot of ex-Tories since.

            So the relationship changes with the times.

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