Britain, one week out

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.


9 thoughts on “Britain, one week out

  1. Above you write:

    While I am a diehard opponent of Brexit myself, I suspect that if were asked to choose between giving complete power to either Johnson or Corbyn, I would with great reluctance opt for Johnson.

    In 2017, you were similarly unenthusiastic, but fell down on the other side:

    I’m not convinced, however, that the Conservatives will be “much better” than Labour. In fact, while I would hate to have to choose between them, at the moment I would be leaning towards Corbyn.

    Out of interest, what’s changed?


    1. Thanks David – good question. There are two answers, a simple one and a complex one.

      The simple answer is that the two statements aren’t inconsistent; that the 2017 judgement was being made in a context (which also applies now, in fact more so) where a Labour majority government wasn’t a realistic possibility, so it was a choice between a majority Conservative government and a Labour government hamstrung to some extent by nationalists and/or Lib Dems. On that basis I leant towards Labour, and still do – if I was in a Labour vs Conservative marginal this time, I would vote Labour.

      The complex answer is that despite all that I am less sympathetic to Corbyn than I was last time, and I can’t give a clear account of exactly why. I think it’s a combination of things: his woeful performance in relation to Brexit, which has fallen below my already low expectations; the increasingly dangerous state of the world in general, which he seems woefully unsuited to dealing with; the resurgence in many quarters of the traditional quasi-Marxist socialism that he embraces, which I regard with great distaste, not least because it seems a colossal distraction from the real dangers the world faces.


  2. December 13 seems very late for an election. Wasn’t one of the reasons why Sir John Kerr absolutely positively had to sack Gough Whitlam no later than 11 November, that an election could not be held after 2 December because so many school teachers (who filled in as polling-booth staff) would be away on holidays? or is this another example where Britain do things much quicker than Australia because they do them crudely (eg counting first preferences only so “the removalists arrive at Downing Street the next morning”)?


    1. December 13 would be very late for an election, and it makes no significant difference that this election is actually being held on December 12, not December 13. It’s not the latest date ever, though: for example, the 1918 election was held on December 14. Still, there has been comment on how unusual this election date is.

      John Kerr didn’t absolutely positively have to sack Gough Whitlam, but it’s true that the problems with holding elections in school holiday periods were cited as one of the reasons for the timing of his action. Holding elections in school holiday periods is considered awkward and undesirable in Australia, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the same were true in the UK, but awkward and undesirable is not the same thing as impossible.

      In the UK, schools are administered by local authorities, so the exact dates of school holidays are also determined locally, but typically there’s only a fortnight or so for Christmas holidays — remember, it’s their winter, not their summer — so they won’t have begun (in most cases, at least) by December 12.

      In the UK, elections are usually held on Thursdays, as this one will be, so if school’s still in on election day — as I imagine it usually is, although I’m not sure how to check — schoolteachers are at work and therefore not available to work as polling booth staff. In the UK, elections are managed by local authorities, so I wouldn’t be surprised to find out (although I don’t actually know this) that the polling booth staff are simply ordinary council employees, assigned to that task for that day instead of their regular ones, as it would be just another ordinary working day for them — although I guess there must be a little more to it than that, given that the polls are open from 7am to 10pm.


  3. While I am a diehard opponent of Brexit myself, I suspect that if were asked to choose between giving complete power to either Johnson or Corbyn, I would with great reluctance opt for Johnson.

    But it’s not complete power that’s at stake in a UK election. Wihtin the UK system the Prime Ministership confers a lot of power, but not as much as (for example) the Presidency within the US system, and still less does it approach the level of power conferred by (for example) the Presidency within the Russian system. In a UK Cabinet, the Prime Minister is a good deal more than what they used to call primus inter pares, but other Cabinet ministers still count for something: they contribute more to setting the direction of the government than members of (to repeat the former examples) US or Russian Cabinets. It’s not simply a choice between Johnson and Corbyn, but a choice between Johnson leading the Cabinet he would be likely to have and Corbyn leading the Cabinet he would be likely to have. (That will be important even in the less likely event of a majority Labour government; it will be all the more important in the event of a coalition or minority Corbyn-led government.)


    1. That’s very true, but in the context of majority government in the UK at present, I don’t think the difference matters very much; each leader has his party pretty firmly under control, and I don’t think either would have much trouble getting what he wants. (In other times and places it might matter a great deal.) For minority or coalition government, yes, big difference: that’s why I said in reply to David above that I would vote Labour if I was in a Conservative vs Labour marginal.


      1. There have been a significant number of prominent Labour MPs who have been opposed to Jeremy Corbyn, or at the very least have been clear about their serious reservations about his leadership. Some of them are no longer on the frontbench, and some no longer in Parliament, but there are still some in the Shadow Cabinet (admittedly not in the most senior positions, but still) and some who may yet have some influence from the backbench. As far as I can tell, conversely, what with one thing and another, particularly the withdrawal of the Whip from some MPs in September, Boris Johnson has made pretty nearly a clean sweep of significant intra-party opposition.


      2. It’s a bit hard to tell, but I think you’re probably right that to the extent that there’s a difference, Corbyn’s control over his party or his front bench would be less than Johnson’s.


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