Some thoughts on the UK general election

December 11, 2019 16:32
The Brexit question has been the central campaign issue for Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the Conservative Party (left) and his main rival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. Photo: ITV Handout via Reuters

The Dec. 12 general election in the United Kingdom is definitely an election to watch. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the election at the end of October, after an elaborate and intricate series of back-and-forth exchanges with the European Union and repeated stalemates at Westminster on the Brexit deal.

In the country’s second election in the span of little more than two years, what awaits Johnson’s Conservative Party remains an exciting unknown. Will the Tories’ last-minute attempt at coopting a Love Actually segment in their campaign do much to stifle the seemingly turning tides?

The following are my thoughts and observations about past elections and the upcoming one (2015, 2017, and 2019):

A de facto second referendum?

In 2016, Britain voted "yes' to the Brexit question by the narrowest of margins. This surprising result signaled the beginning of a three-and-a-half-year process of the country seeking to “quit” the European Union.

Since then, however, this process has been plagued by a series of deadlocks and heated disputes – and repeatedly stalled, no less by the in-fighting and leadership turnover in the governing Conservative Party. 

From the looming question of the Irish Backstop, which threatens to undermine a hard-fought and uneasy truce in Ireland and Northern Ireland, to disputes over post-Brexit labor and capital flow, and finally to the politico-economic relations between the United Kingdom and Europe after the withdrawal – the fate of Brexit remains a discombobulating enigma for many, as the above issues prevent politicians from all sides from reaching a consensus over the country’s exit strategy from the EU. What is noticeably striking about the ongoing election is the centrality of Brexit (plausibly over all competing issues) to all parties’ political campaigns.

Indeed, Thursday’s election serves as a de facto referendum on Brexit. Johnson views the upcoming election as a gambit, one that would enable him to resoundingly silence and negate dissenting voices to his Brexit proposal, as well as consolidate his mandate among the masses.

His revisions to Theresa May’s much-maligned deal have absorbed some of the skeptical and radical agenda advanced by the single-issue Brexit Party, and have “bitten the bullet" on a wider range of issues by indirectly opening Britain up to the prospects of a “No Deal” exit.

While the Brexit Party’s core base very much views a “No Deal” Brexit as both welcome and conforming with their nationalistic ideals, many comparatively moderate supporters of Nigel Farage’s “UKIP Mk. II” have found more ironic comfort and assurance in the Tories’ well-packaged, “alternative” deal.

As for Jeremy Corbyn’s internally divided Labour Party, the battered opposition has finally found its match to the Liberal Democrats’ conspicuous pro-Remain stance by advancing that the British public ought to have a final say over the specific Brexit deal proposed by the government.

This tacit endorsement of a bona fide second referendum has sapped away much of the momentum and regained the faith of many swing voters who previously contemplated pivoting to the Liberal Democrats. On the other hand, Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats are unlikely to make much ground as the party faces battering from unsympathetic media and ridiculing from the two dominant “mainstream parties”.

The race to the bottom

Corbyn has been extensively panned by critics both within and outside his party for his poor handling of allegations of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. He has been touted by critics as both morally inconsistent and inept in resolving the valid concerns of many who find the Labour Party an increasingly unwelcome environment for Jews.

The Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis has recently spoken out over his concerns about the Labour Party’s ability to uphold the rights and interests of both its Jewish members and Jewish citizens in the UK. Notwithstanding such criticisms, many metropolitan, upper-middle-class liberals and grassroots Labour activists certainly find Corbyn a distinctly more appealing leader than his various predecessors – namely Blair, Brown, and Miliband.

On the other hand, Johnson’s Conservatives have a plausibly equally tarnished record when it comes to ethnic minority rights. Johnson has repeatedly made remarks open to distinctly Islamophobic interpretations and responses – best evidenced, perhaps, by his facetious analogy of Muslim women to “letter boxes”, and his declaration that fearing the rise of Islam is a “natural reaction” that is understandable.

Furthermore, the Tories’ consistently bigoted rebuking of foreign immigrants and those who do not conform with the WASP stereotype suggests that there equally remains much to be desired in how the Conservatives treat the downtrodden in society.

All this is not to suggest that there is any degree of full comparability or commensurability – or that there should be any attempt to “rank” or “compare” oppressions across different groups; it is merely to highlight that when it comes to subjugating minority rights, none of the two leading parties should come off clean or be let off the hook.

Could tactical voting be the nemesis of small parties?

The British electoral system is a “First Past the Post” system, which means that the winner of each constituency (single seat) is the candidate that receives the highest number of votes. Thus, there are plenty of parties that may perform relatively well in terms of aggregate votes (e.g., the Liberal Democrats or UKIP) yet would only win a handful of seats in a general election. The LibDems, for example, received over 7.4 percent of votes in 2017, yet only won 12 out of the 650 seats in Westminster.

How important, if at all, is tactical voting as a contributory factor towards the continued dominance of the Labour and Conservative parties? Most psephologists are skeptical – they posit that tactical voting is not a commonly adopted heuristic or practice across most of the electorate, but also that party agenda often are sufficiently distinct such that strategization of voting should not entail or nudge the individual towards voting for a distinct, alternative party. Yet psephologists may find themselves proven wrong in the upcoming election, which is haunted by the specter of Brexit.

It is likely that supporters of smaller or minor parties – e.g., the Liberal Democrats – would seek to optimize the marginal value of their vote by opting for candidates from the Labour or Conservative Party (or, in Scotland, Wales, or Northern Ireland, candidates of the respective national parties) that best approximate their stance on Brexit.

For many Liberal Democrats, this may entail voting for the Labour candidates in Labour-Conservative marginal seats. On the other hand, Farage’s ambivalent stance (indubitably contradicted by many from his most loyal followers) has meant that it remains unclear as to how many of the Brexit Party’s supporter base would opt for the Conservative Party.

With that said, the Brexit Party is unlikely to be electorally viable anyway, given the re-absorption of most Eurosceptic “moderates” into the Tory Party – under the resurgence of the Right within the party propelled by Johnson and his cronies.

Is voting rational? To vote or not to vote, that is the question

From a Rational Choice Theory (RCT) framework’s perspective, there remains a highly controversial question – is voting rational? Suppose a country contains 1 million eligible voters and adopts a simple Proportional Representation (PR) system, such that for the 100 seats in the parliament, 10,000 individuals (assuming full turnout) are needed for one seat to be allocated to a particular party. If the country features two hegemonic parties, it is unlikely that one’s vote for Party A over Party B would become the decisive or casting vote that determines whether A or B receives the extra seat.

Thus theorists William Riker and Peter Ordeshook argue, in their seminal 1968 article, A Theory of the Calculus of Voting, that an individual would be mistaken to assume that voting is rational simply because they could influence or sway the outcomes of elections. The irrationality lies in the fact that the costs involved in voting (e.g., cognitive, temporal opportunity) often are likely to outweigh the marginal benefits derived from casting an extra ballot for a particular candidate.

Yet the two authors do not view voting itself as an irrational act. They argue that it is fully within the boundaries of RCT, given that voting carries with it many non-result-dependent benefits – e.g. the sense of pride, civic participation, and the construction of imagined communities through the shared act of voting.

Adopting a symbolic interactionist paradigm of analysis, one could even argue that voting is crucial in the maintenance of the fiction of civic responsibility, and of the broader perception of the symbolic mandate and legitimacy of the democratic state. Thus, voting very much is rational.

What of the polls?

In the 2015 general election, many pre-election polls yielded the conclusion that the Tories were unlikely to win over half of the seats, such that the parliament would emerge “hung” from the elections. Hence, the Tories’ slim majority came as a massive surprise to many political hacks and pollsters. Some have attributed the jarring results and widely off polling data to the phenomenon of “Shy Tories”, or Tory voters who are unwilling to admit their authentic political preferences but nevertheless cast their votes for the Conservative Party.

Yet this hypothesis has not received much theoretical or empirical backing. Instead, increasing evidence has surfaced suggesting that the issue rests with a methodological error, which has rendered sample sizes unreflective and distorted.

The polling results for the upcoming election have been rather volatile over the past weeks. The Tories’ initial lead over the Labour Party has narrowed substantially in recent days. As to whether such polling data are conclusively informative of the eventual results, only time will tell. For my two cents’ worth of predictions, I’d bet on a hung parliament with a Tory plurality, which would compel the Tories to seek coalition partners or allies to form Confidence and Supply agreements with. Whether this prediction holds, we’ll find out on Friday evening (Hong Kong time).

Liberal Democrats as a party for progressive change

I close my piece with some personal thoughts as to why I believe the Liberal Democrats are the party to vote for in the election – should one have a vote (I do not!). The Liberal Democrats are the only party that offers a resounding and resolutely certain answer on the Brexit question, by carrying out a certainly divisive but necessary second referendum.

It is also the only party that does not feature leaders with harrowing or uninspiring records with respect to minority rights. Finally, Liberal Democrats stand for a progressive Britain where civil liberties and economic rights are preserved for the largest number of individuals. There are obviously issues with its economic agenda that many on the progressive Left may take issue with. But it is high time that the UK population supported a party that genuinely stands for a more open and global Britain, as opposed to one whose political judgments are clouded by xenophobic, reactionary nativism.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review