Britain goes to the polls in a week’s time, in an election that will determine the future of the Brexit project, and possibly much else. So let’s remind ourselves of where we are in terms of underlying public opinion.
The polls consistently show the broadly anti-Brexit parties (Labour, nationalists, Liberal Democrats and Greens) with a lead of about seven points over the pro-Brexit parties (Conservatives and Brexit), about 53% to 46%. That’s in line with the polling for a hypothetical second referendum, which has “remain” with a clear if narrow lead and has barely shifted since the middle of last year.
But as we’ve seen before, the electoral system gives short shrift to such things. If the current figures hold up – and they might not, both because things can change in a week and because British pollsters have been fairly unreliable in recent years – the anti-Brexit voters will not return MPs in proportion to their numbers.
At this stage, all the signs are that Boris Johnson will be returned with a Conservative majority, and will claim a mandate to implement a policy that most voters are opposed to.
And we know the reason for this. First-past-the-post voting in single-member districts means that a party with clear plurality support is disproportionately favored. And that party is the Conservatives, who with the collapse of the Brexit Party have a lead over Labour of close to ten points.
Labour has been unable to achieve a similar consolidation of the anti-Brexit vote. It’s possible that tactical voting will produce some of the same effect (there are some signs of it in the last week of polling), but there is clearly a great deal of resistance among many “remain” voters to the idea of making Jeremy Corbyn prime minister.
And I can’t in all honesty say that I blame them. Corbyn has shown himself deeply out of touch with the demands of his position, unwilling to campaign on the issue of Brexit, committed to nationalisation and central economic planning and preoccupied with a variety of obscure anti-western causes.
It’s tempting to label Corbyn a Marxist (one friend refers to him as a “Bolshevik garden gnome”), but there’s more to it than that. He’s actually a throwback to the traditions of Labor’s old left wing, with its romantic commitment to an isolationist English socialism, before the modernisations not just of Tony Blair but of Neil Kinnock.
In short, he’s a Bennite – but without Tony Benn’s keen intelligence and instinctive humanism, and without having learned any lessons from the intervening thirty years. While I am a diehard opponent of Brexit myself, I suspect that if I were asked to choose between giving complete power to either Johnson or Corbyn, I would with great reluctance opt for Johnson.
That, however, is not the choice that Britain faces. While the chance of a Conservative majority is all too real, the chance of a Labour majority is negligible. If Corbyn overcomes the odds and forms government, it will only be with the support of the nationalists and Lib Dems, who are guaranteed to keep him on a short leash.
It doesn’t look as if it will be enough. With the major parties having put up the unworthiest representatives of their respective political traditions that they could find, and the electoral system closing off other options, voters are left with nowhere to go.
Corbyn was able to surprise the pollsters in 2017, but his chance of doing it again seems slim. Then he had novelty value, and voter anger against the Brexiters was still raw. Two and a half years later, the Labour leader’s deficiencies have been laid bare, and many people are just desperate to draw a line under the Brexit saga and move on.
Yet that promise is based on a lie. Yes, if Johnson wins then Britain will officially leave the European Union within weeks. But the nature of its future relationship with Europe will remain to be settled, with protracted negotiations ahead in which Britain will start from a greatly weakened position.
The debate that has paralysed Britain for the last three years is only going to continue: putting the Tories back doesn’t actually solve anything. But with hostile media and a fractious coalition behind him, Corbyn seems unable to get that message across.