There are 56 hours to go until the polls close in the UK general election (and of course, 44 hours to go until they open), but if custom is observed, the campaign will be all but concluded in the next 12 hours, by the end of Tuesday night (London time).
For all its thrusting modernisation over recent decades, there are still moments at which the Edwardian spirit of Britain breaks through, and everything is run like the village cricket match. Leaders tend to have their last rallies — insofar as they have rallies at all — on the Tuesday, do a little doorknocking with the candidate for Stribbidledebton, South Crapley or Much Felching, and then nothing at all occurs on Thursday, except voting.
On the evening, at each constituency, no matter how much the vote has humiliated them, most candidates turn up to some old bingo hall, to stand beside the surreally stetsoned and bemedalled candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party to hear that they have lost by two or 10,000 votes, while their opponent’s supporters applaud and then gurn and jeer (theirs have largely vanished). The only politico to skip this masochistic ordeal is serial leftist candidate George Galloway — when he loses. When he’s winning, he’s there in a fedora only marginally less ridiculous than the headgear of the Monster Raving Loonies.
Well, it all beats civil war I guess. But I hope that Jeremy Corbyn and Labour will buck this gentlemen’s agreement and campaign right up to the moment the last booth closes, run rallies tomorrow, and on the day, and once again keep the Tories hopping. Corbyn has been having ever bigger rallies up and down the country, with 10,000 turning out in Gateshead in the north on Monday night. The rally is a very unBritish strategy — or has been for the past few years, when none of the Notting Hill-Hampstead axis candidates had any confidence that they could draw a crowd. They rally the troops, who are going out to marginal seats, they affirm that Labour is basically there, and as one self-seconded Trot said “they make something so big tha bastard BBC have to put it on the news”. This time last election, Labour’s Ed Miliband was unveiling a five-metre monolith with Labour’s tepid promises chiselled into it. The “Ed Stone” it was dubbed, and so it proved to be.
Whatever the result of this election — and even if the broad polls prove correct, it will probably involve an increased majority for the Tories — the great good thing about it has been the campaign that Labour has run, the rewards it has gained from doing so, and the refutation of those who claimed that Labour couldn’t really build its vote. The Blairites will still crow, should Labour lose on seats of course. They will say that they always knew that more votes could be got – from those who had left the system — by going left. But these votes were in the wrong places, in inner cities where Labour already dominated. True, but the Blairites’ estimate of that gain was always on the low side, around 4-6%. If multiple polls are to be believed Labour’s aggregate vote is now 40%, 12% above where it was at the start of the campaign, and 10% above Ed Miliband’s effort two years ago — a campaign whose mild centre-leftism was itself characterised as some sort of Stalinism-on-the-Thames.
Should these new voters appear in the numbers promised, they may well remain grouped in safe Labour seats. But there is a real possibility that they aren’t, and this will be creating real headaches in the Conservative HQ. What Labour may have managed to mobilise, through its policies, and its army of campaigners on the ground, is a generational split, that is in fact a class split. If Labour has been able to connect with young voters in swinging and even borderline-safe Tory seats, and detach them from overall class-voting patterns, then the results on Thursday may be quite idiosyncratic.
Because, of course, the generational split is now a class split, absolutely, based around property, and opportunity. Didn’t have to be. Had the Conservatives, or the Blairites, put mechanisms in place — affordable housing, training and apprenticeship schemes, subsidised college places — and paid for it at the other end, by genuine taxation of corporations and the very rich, then the class aspect would disappear, and generational divisions would remain cultural ones. Twenty years of neglect have given the Left an opportunity to revive their program along an entirely new social axis.
We shall know pretty quickly on Thursday night (results will be tumbling in Friday morning from about 7am onwards, Sydney/Melbourne time). To have any chance of success, such a strategy will have to have ensured that Labour is not only holding its paltry 10 or so non-London, non-university-town southern seats (Luton South, Bristol, Portsmouth, etc), but to be competitive again in another 10 or 20. That’s not to win, good god. That’s just to stay in the hunt should the Tory seat-count fall below a majority in their own right. Realistically, the Tories have to lose about 25 seats to be in trouble, since they can always rely on the Northern Ireland unionists to buttress them under almost any circumstances.
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There is no likely-at-all scenario in which the Tories get other than the largest number of seats. But under 305 (they currently have 330), satisfying Her Majesty that they can offer a majority government is near impossible. Even if the Lib-Dem “leadership” were to agree to support them, there would be a split within their diminished ranks (they will have about 10-14 seats, a mixture of old lefty social liberals and free-market “orange bookers“; essentially the entire political spectrum in a, well, larger than a phone booth — a disabled toilet in Starbucks, the whole parliamentary party could literally meet in one of those). Could they persuade some Lib-Dems to defect, or serve as independents? They could. They could even persuade some Labour members, who were on their last tour — changing parties is far more common in the UK than in Australia. But were any Labour member to do that, one would literally fear for their physical safety (well, not “fear”, cos they’d deserve everything they got.)
Failing that, the opportunity then passes to Labour. Jeremy Corbyn has claimed that Labour would seek no coalitions. Should he stick to that, then the situation gets very murky indeed, “constitutionally” speaking. Suddenly, the Queen has real power to determine whether Corbyn should be given the chance to form a government in the Commons. What would count as something more than support from the other parties, less than a coalition? A written agreement? A verbal agreement, with enumerated parts? An interview with Nicola Sturgeon on Newsnight? There’s no guide, and if all Corbyn can offer is a supported minority government, then it goes back to the Tories to have first call on getting that.
This would all presumably take at least five days. The British establishment would use the notion of “strong government” to scream that anarchy was here, and to implicitly pressure Buckingham Palace to appoint the Tories as a minority government, ahead of a detailed set of policy agreements with the Unionists, Lib-Dems and others.
But, of course, should this have occurred, the Tory party will be rent afresh with internal division, as well. Theresa May — right-centrist, pro-EU, who went right to unify the party post-Brexit — will be loathed by the right for losing the election and committing them to all sorts of lefty centrist social democracy stuff. The Tory centre, pro-EU, will no longer have to tolerate her Brexit-at-all-costs line. As always with such conflicts, from an objective viewpoint, there will be nothing to be gained from it. As always, that will mean zip, as to how headbanging it gets. There’ll be a certain amount of unquantifiable angst mixed in, if the Tory party has lost its majority to Jeremy Corbyn, and his commie flying circus (Seamus Milne, ex Communist Party of GB, head of communications; Andrew Murray, Trotskyist, who then joined the Communist Party, campaign director; Paul Mason, backwoods sniper), and that would fuel any autodestructive impulse.
What does Corbyn have to offer the Lib-Dems to get their support? Not much. Their base remains perpetually to the left of their leadership, and so their MPs would buck Corbyn’s pretty mild social democratic program at their peril. And they would wholly support him on foreign policy as regards wars, etc. There would probably be stuff about relations to Russia, Cuba, etc, a restoration of trade union legal rights they would cavil at. But it would be mild, and not now. Would the Scottish National Party push for another referendum on independence? Brexit gives them a solid pretext; they would be sceptical about the longevity of a Corbyn government. Surely they would have to take the chance, timing it for sometime close to the UK’s actual departure from the EU. The Greens would have specific proposals, easily accommodated. They might even become — with one, at most three, MPS — a small part of the government. What would Plaid Cymru want? Lemonade and a bag of crisps.
All very lovely to imagine, but the numbers suggest a raised Tory majority, heading north of 360, to 380. What happens then? May’s survival as PM will depend on the exact numbers. Below 350, and she is in great difficulty, having won a deeply disappointing increase against a “far”-left opponent, and run a terrible campaign, personally and collectively. Should she survive, then the internal party majority she hoped for — 325+ government-loyal Tories — is gone (unless the polls are wholly absolutely wrong, but — unusually for our era — favour the establishment by being so), and the Brexit process will become a nightmare, and one she won’t survive. The Tory pro-EU faction will gain strategic support from Labour for a “conditional” Brexit, and the battle will be unable to be contained. The Tory party may have fearsome discipline in keeping power, and subordinating ideas to facts, but there’s a limit. Many of the pro-EU Tories believe that Brexit would be a once-in-several-centuries disaster for the UK, and if they can see a chance to frustrate it they would, out of a genuine commitment to their ideas, and their country.
Should May get a majority much above 370, that won’t be a factor — the pro-EU faction just won’t have the numbers. But with a larger majority, something else interesting happens. If indeed Corbyn Labour has managed to break to near 40% in the vote, and yet has still lost on the seat count, the legitimacy of the UK’s archaic parliamentary system will have been thrown into sharp relief. She would have majority, but lack legitimacy for a unilateral program. Yet from her right there would be enormous pressure to institute a neo-Thatcherism, economically and politically.
That possibility points to the enormous stakes, potentially, at this election. Should May get a large majority, she can reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600 (abolishing the principle that constituencies should follow traditional community boundaries), and remove Labour’s 2% advantage from underpopulated inner-city seats. With Scotland gone, that makes Labour’s task all the harder.
However should Labour get in on a minority, there would be the possibility of changing the voting system to a proportional one (preferential was offered in a referendum, and soundly rejected). Labour has previously rejected that. But with the political set-up now being everyone (save unionists) to the left of Toryism, then it would be tempting. Effectively, everyone except the Tories see the nation-state in the same way: as a complex intersection of state, economy and society, to be managed towards shared and varying ends, using a variety of policy settings. The Tories remain the last “mythical” political party, believing in some deep buried form of right, in which property and inherited political authority legitimise each other. It’s their belief in this underlying right that anchors their ability to sell out particular policies and commitments, such as is required to retain power. Were a proportional system to be established, they would be in for a difficult few years, maybe quite a few. But then, quite a large section of Labour’s left opposes proportionalism too, preferring the first-past-the-post de facto seizure of power.
Gah, it’ll probably be an enormous fizzer. May and the Tories will get 360, keeping them and her in power, and Labour will be consumed by in-fighting. But, hell, it feels a lot better to be going into a vote with the possibility that a 40% poll is illusory, than with the likelihood that a 28% one isn’t. Eyes down for a full house.