Brexit, tactical voting, the unity of the United Kingdom… The 12 December election is like no other in many ways. Our colleagues from across UCL offer their thoughts on how to approach the first winter poll since 1923.
Read below our round-up of comments to prepare yourself for the upcoming vote.
Brexit, Parliament and Populism
Meg Russell, Constitution Unit
This election has been called on the slogan ‘get Brexit done’, and the Prime Minister’s rhetoric has been that he’s been reluctantly forced to go to the people, thanks to parliamentary obstructionism. These arguments are problematic, for various reasons. First, of course, Johnson took over from Theresa May who attempted multiple times to get the House of Commons to agree to a Brexit deal. Some of the key opponents of her deal were the Brexiteers in her own party, including Johnson and several members of his Cabinet – as summarised in a Constitution Unit blog post in October. Second, Johnson’s renegotiated deal was not actually blocked by the House of Commons, but passed its second reading. MPs simply rejected his proposal that they should rush the bill through in three days. He could have negotiated a longer timetable, but preferred to call an election – which he had been pressing on parliament since early September. In fact, the most worrying aspect of these developments is that Johnson seemed to want from the start a ‘parliament versus people’ election. As argued in a further post in early November, this is the language of dangerous and divisive populism – a deeply troubling rhetoric coming from Johnson and his ministers.
For the Constitution Unit’s recent post on the mechanics of a further referendum (given election promises), click here.
Professor Meg Russell is Director of the Constitution Unit, Department of Political Science.
In Praise of Another Hung Parliament
Albert Weale, UCL School of Public Policy
Many people will find it perverse to argue in favour of another hung parliament after the election. But there are good reasons of practical policy making as well as democratic principle for thinking that such an outcome is devoutly to be wished.
Firstly, such an outcome would recognise that Brexit is a complicated matter. There is more than one devil in its detail. Suppose that a Withdrawal Act were to be passed. The UK would then confront questions about its future relationship with the EU, including the rights of citizens, market access, security cooperation and migration. No one party has a monopoly of wisdom on these matters.
Secondly, a hung parliament would reflect the division of opinion in the country, which is at least a four-way split between revokers, proponents of a second referendum, leavers, who themselves divide into the reluctant and the positive, as well as no-dealers. Given that division of opinion, no group commands anywhere near majority support, and some compromise will have to be brokered. Parliament is the right place for that.
Thirdly, and most importantly, a hung parliament would respect the majority principle. You do not have to be fundamentalist about that principle. If a party were able to secure, say, over 45% of the popular vote, that might be near enough to a majority overall, given that some of the 55% would go along with the government. But anything less than 45%, and certainly anything less than 40%, and UK government is beginning to look like an elective dictatorship.
Will it happen? Who knows? An election outcome is the ultimate collective action problem. What is willed by each separately may not correspond to what all together can live with. Let us see if Friday 13th lives up to its unfortunate reputation.
Albert Weale is Emeritus Professor of Political Theory and Public Policy.
A Word on Tactical Voting
Christina Pagel, CORU
Despite most political commentators agreeing this is the most unpredictable election ever, there is in fact quite a lot that is certain: Labour have effectively zero chance of winning a majority and the Brexit party have effectively zero chance of winning a single seat. This leaves only two possible outcomes: the Conservatives win a majority or we have another hung parliament.
The unpredictability of this election lies in the wide range of seats the Conservatives might win and how little help the 2017 general election results are in determining that range. Thanks to the Brexit Party standing down in Conservative held seats, they are likely to hold on to the large majority of their existing seats without too much problem. But, crucially, not all of them. They are almost certain to lose seats in Scotland to the SNP and at least a few in the South of England to the Liberal Democrats. Given they can no longer rely on the DUP for support, this means they have to win at least 20 seats off Labour – most likely in Leave voting areas in the Midlands and the North. The Brexit party *are* standing in these seats and provide a less toxic home to fleeing Labour Leave voters than the Tories in regions where there is bone-deep antipathy to voting Conservative that has held for generations. In these Tory / Labour Leave marginals where the Liberal Democrats are historically weak, if Remain voters coalesce around the Labour candidates, this may well be enough to maintain Labour MPs in most, if not all, of these seats.
This geographical distribution of the Remain vote is key: historically Liberal Democrats and Labour are strong in very different regions so that although their national vote may be split, on a seat by seat basis it is not. Exactly how much Remain voters can concentrate their vote on just one candidate in each seat is the major unknown and will affect dozens of close Conservative contests across the country. The most volatile contests are the three-way contests in London (e.g. Westminster, Kensington and Finchley) where there have been huge swings to the Liberal Democrats and away from Conservatives and Labour, meaning that the 2017 GE results are almost entirely meaningless. For tactical voters out there, most seats in the country are pretty easy to assess – but if you are in one of these somewhat crazy London seats, it might be best to wait until just before the election and look for the latest constituency level polling or estimates.
The best advice in this most consequential of elections is just to make sure that you vote – and encourage everyone you know to vote too.
Christina Pagel is Professor of Operational Research and Director of CORU, Department of Mathematics.
Snappy Slogan, Empty Policy
Philippe Marlière, UCL SELCS
This general election is, in theory, about the economy and the future of public services after ten years of austerity policies. In truth, we know that a lot of it revolves around Brexit. When Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn met to debate on ITV earlier on this week, the former constantly hammered home his mantra: ‘Let’s get Brexit done’. Meanwhile the latter could still not say whether he was in favour of leaving the EU or not. Both positions are wrong as they do not help voters make an informed choice. ‘Get Brexit done’ is as meaningful as Donald Trump’s ‘Make America great again’. As a slogan, it sounds snappy; as policy, it is empty. Should Britain leave the EU after the general election, this would only be the beginning of a long and painstaking process of trade negotiations with, notably, the EU. Thus, to talk about a ‘clean break’, as Johnson pledges, is deceitful. The Labour leader should seize the opportunity to point out the prime minister’s shortcomings. But Corbyn will not do that as he sees no benefit for himself in a realistic debate about the UK’s European future. Corbyn’s ‘sitting-on-the-fence’ position might prove riskier than Johnson’s upbeat tempo of ‘Get Brexit done’. It may not be true, but Johnson’s slogan has the makings of a one-hit wonder to top the electoral charts shortly before Christmas.
Philippe Marlière is Professor of French and European Politics.
A Flawed Referendum
Myriam Hunter-Henin – UCL Laws
In 2016, Brexit won for a myriad of reasons that no binary referendum could have addressed properly. The UK is now heading towards a general election – when it should be heading for a referendum. Pressing issues over immigration, social inequalities, economic austerity, etc., which motivated Brexit in the first place, are today paradoxically shadowed by Brexit. Had the UK gone for a second referendum, a two-step vote between No-deal, Deal of the day or Remain could have settled the Brexit issue. Instead, the general election will restrict both the choices on Brexit and the opportunity to address other concerns.
The range of Brexit options may not be available in all constituencies, given the political alliances between parties, the tactical considerations forced upon voters by the first-past-the-post electoral system or other legitimate concerns, which might skew people’s choice. In 2016, the complexity of Brexit led to an unduly simplistic and open-ended referendum question. In 2019, the polarisation over Brexit is leading to an undue simplification of electoral choices.
Dr Myriam Hunter-Henin is Reader in Law & Religion and Comparative Law.
The “Brexit Election”
Filipa Figueira, UCL SSEES
Surprisingly for what was expected to become the “Brexit election”, both main parties are trying their utmost to move away from the issue of Brexit – and, to a considerable extent, being successful in moving media and public attention elsewhere. Labour has a clear reason for doing so, as its ambiguous stance on Brexit is seen by most observers as a liability, likely to put off both committed leavers and committed remainers.
More surprising, and more subtle, is the Conservatives’ desire to move away from the big issue of the day. While repeating simple catchphrases such as “let’s get Brexit done” and “oven-ready deal”, the Tories are in fact avoiding any detailed discussion on Johnson’s Brexit deal, by moving the focus into public spending and other policy initiatives. This is an attempt to keep the Brexit narrative still, at the moment when Johnson unexpectedly achieved a second deal with the EU, without letting it embark into the controversial details of that deal.
The smaller parties, conversely, have an obvious interest in discussing Brexit (on which they have unambiguous and clear positions) and in shining the light on Johnson’s deal, including the controversial new arrangements in Northern Ireland. How much they manage to do so could play a part in how well they are able to capitalize from what is quickly becoming the “Let’s not mention Brexit” election.
Dr Filipa Figueira is a Teaching Fellow and a researcher of the European Union and Political Economy.
The Inconclusive Election
Eric Gordy, UCL SSEES
This is an election called under extraordinary circumstances, under a government with contested legitimacy facing a divisive crisis. Given the weak faith in the governing party and the weak credibility of the opposition, the result is likely to be inconclusive but to point to future changes in the structure of electoral support. Both of the two largest parties are likely to face shrinkage in their support, to the degree that their dominance of the political system will no longer be secure.
However, this shrinkage is not likely to be offset by the emergence of a clear alternative party of government. This means that in December we may see the stage set for future major changes in the political system, but we are not likely to get a strong indication of the direction those changes will take. Similarly, the basic disagreements underlying the election, whether they are between left and right or between pro-European and ethnonationalist orientations, are also not likely to be resolved in a meaningful way. The situation will look familiar to people who have spent time studying those parts of Europe where democracies are not consolidated.
Eric Gordy is Professor of Political and Cultural Sociology.
A Unique Election
Nicola Brewer, UCL OVPI
I’d highlight two aspects of this General Election campaign that make it different from previous ones.
First, civil servants always have to prepare briefings for new Ministers, which means familiarising themselves with the relevant Party manifesto(s). This time there won’t just be one or two to read – the uncertainty of the outcome means that many combinations are possible and your new Minister could come from a wide rage of political persuasions.
Secondly, whatever the result of the election, there’s going to be a significant loss of parliamentary experience. With nearly 80 incumbent MPs not standing at this election, it’s been calculated that this adds up to around a 1000 years of diverse knowledge and, in some cases, wisdom lost. That’s before a single vote has been cast or counted. New Ministers used to have only Gerald Kaufman’s guide ‘How to be a Minister’, now we have the Institute for Government. But it could be a steep learning curve for many, and there’s still a lot of Brexit-related negotiation to be done quickly …
Dr Dame Nicola Brewer is UCL’s Vice-Provost International.
The Election in Scotland
Kirsty Hughes – European Institute Advisory Board
The election debate in Scotland focuses mainly on the two big issues of Brexit and independence. But other issues, more under the purview of the Scottish parliament, such as health and education have and will continue to intrude into the debate too.
Many of Scotland’s constituencies are marginal – indeed the UK’s most marginal constituency, North East Fife, is held by the SNP with just a two-vote majority (the LibDems as the runner up). And in the 13 Conservative seats, the SNP is second in all those seats and so the most likely challenger to reduce the number of Tory seats in Scotland. So far, it looks like the SNP will do better than in 2017 when it got its current 35 seats, the Tories 13, Labour 7 and the LibDems 4. But not as well as in 2015 when, with 56 out of 59 MPs, the SNP almost wiped all the other 3 main parties out of Scotland.
Nicola Sturgeon has put independence front and centre of the SNP campaign, but Brexit is there too. And while the Tories will argue for Brexit and against independence and the LibDems against both, Labour has a more fudged position. Labour has said that there could be another referendum on independence and there would be one on Brexit. But Labour’s fudges don’t look like they’re doing much good and it’s the Tories that punters will be focusing on to see how many of their 13 seats they hang on to – on current polls, they look set to lose some. In a tight election result, how well or badly the Tories do in Scotland could be vital.
Unless there’s an election shock and the SNP does worse than expected, the result will be used as a springboard both to demand another independence referendum and to campaign in the 2021 Holyrood elections for independence, if a referendum hasn’t been granted by then.
A Johnson majority, with Brexit going ahead, will surely boost support for independence. But even a minority Labour government and another EU referendum allowing a chance for the UK to remain in the EU is unlikely to stop the current push for independence. And the election will surely underline, again, Scotland’s support for remaining in the EU.
Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of Scottish Centre on European Relations and Convenor of our Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence Strand on Scotland and the EU.
The EU and Irish Perspectives
Ronan McCrea, UCL Laws
As the UK election campaign gathers pace, we can see how some of the possible longer term effects begin to become visible. For the EU, the desire to move on from Brexit is seen in the fact that the UK election campaign is not a primary focus and discussion has moved on to the pressing issues of the budget, the Von der Leyen Commission, the rule of law and the Eurozone. Emmanuel Macron’s eye-catching interventions underline how French influence has been enhanced by the UK’s departure.
In Northern Ireland we see the degree to which Brexit has, but also has not, upset long established patterns. Pro-remain alliances are forming at constituency level indicating that it may displace the long dominant question of national identity in Northern Irish politics. However, the possibility that this will display the long entrenched sectarian divide, is undermined by the fact that views on Brexit correlate very significantly with religious and national identity within Northern Ireland. For the Irish government, the reaching of an agreement between the EU and UK government has meant that it has somewhat withdrawn from Brexit discussions. While the Dublin government had much sympathy with remainers in the UK, now that it has achieved most of its objectives in the agreement, it is no longer opposed to Conservative party policy and so has resumed a neutral position.
Ronan McCrea is Professor of Constitutional and European Law.
The US and UK Challenges Compared
Brian Klaas, UCL SELCS
The UK, like the US, is facing unprecedented challenges to its democracy. Norms are being violated, accusations of treason flung around with wild abandon by irresponsible people in politics and in the press. But perhaps surprisingly, British democracy is proving somewhat more resilient than its American counterpart. If you had asked political scientists in 2015 which system was better equipped to withstand emerging threats to democratic institutions, most would have pointed to the United States because of its legally enshrined checks and balances and its written Constitution. In practice, however, the opposite has been true. Because of the prevalence of laws in the US, Republicans have tended to shred the norms while using only the law as a guardrail for their conduct (though some, given all the jail sentences around President Trump have ignored those, too). Conversely, in the UK, there are fewer legal restraints on political action, but politicians are doing a better job at respecting norms — or standing up for them when someone doesn’t respect them. That is a key reason why this general election is being held: when Boris Johnson attempted to prorogue parliament in violation of the norms of British democracy, his attempt was defeated by members of his own party. Multiple attempts to pass legislation were defeated by members of his own party. Whether that democratic resilience will continue into the next parliament remains to be seen, but voters would be wise to vote for MPs who respect democracy and will uphold norms even if it is not politically expedient.
Dr Brian Klaas is Assistant Professor in Global Politics and columnist at the Washington Post.
The Democratic Act
Mart Kuldkepp, UCL SELCS/CMII
The upcoming general election is already the third one since 2015, all of them having been called by incumbent Conservative governments. While the previous two elections were also ‘won’ by the Conservatives, the experience of 2017 shows that their hold on power is far from secure. Not least this time around, it is undoubtedly a hard sell to make people go to the polls so close to Christmas – and perhaps even harder to get them to vote for a party that has been in the government for the last nine years.
Aside from turnout, the two main variables are, firstly, the possible energising effects of Boris Johnson’s promise to ‘get Brexit done’ and, secondly, Jeremy Corbyn’s personal unpopularity, which makes it difficult to present Labour as a credible alternative. Both leaders therefore face an uphill battle, but Johnson’s path is arguably steeper, as he needs to secure outright parliamentary majority.
Asking the people to vote is, of course, an essentially democratic act. But the need to resort to frequent elections also shows that the First Past the Post electoral system and the UK political class are failing to effectively deal with the current political crisis – perhaps exactly because it is one of their own making. Throwing “more democracy” at this predicament is unlikely to make it go away.
Dr Mart Kuldkepp is Associate Professor of Scandinavian History and Politics.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.