Election: I’m Slightly Confused

Yeeeeeeeeee! British politics again!

Prime Minister Theresa May has decided to call a snap election on the 8 June 2017. I’ll be honest and say that this surprised me: I wasn’t expecting it because she’s insisted pretty firmly she didn’t want to do it, and it caught me off guard because for reasons I’ll get into I don’t think it’s sensible, from the perspective of the Tory Party. There’s fifty days, which is longish by British standards.

The first thing I want to do is address the legality of calling an early election. I knew this was going to trip people up, and indeed it did.

This is not something I blame people for being confused by — the study of government is even more boring than of politics — but please Google it before you throw your unsolicited opinions out on to the Internet. I spent about five minutes writing something out and tweeted it a bunch, just to clear things up:

The Fixed-Term Parliament Act was a Liberal Democrat policy adopted as part of the coalition government. It necessitates a supermajority for the prime minister to ask the Queen to dissolve Parliament. Previously, it had been established since the days of Lloyd George that it was the prime minister’s prerogative to dissolve Parliament at his or her will. This was not thought democratically acceptable, as it essentially provided an opportunity for the premier to bully the legislature into passing legislation, threatening to resign and put all of their seats at risk.

The Act takes that power away, and requires a two-thirds supermajority to dissolve Parliament. Media outlets — particularly American ones — are reporting that this is going to pose a threat for her. I disagree. If she choses, she can also directly repeal the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, creating a new law or even just giving the power back to herself. It is not entrenched.

Calling a snap election now is harder than it has ever been before, but still relatively easy. Only a simple majority is needed in Parliament, and most of the Conservative Party is going to vote for it. We should also consider the possibility of Labour M.P.s voting for it; I have in mind Peter Mandelson, who wakes up every day “praying that a snap election had been called”. It will provide Labour a chance to finally ditch Jeremy Corbyn, who is of course hated by the Parliamentary Party.

I didn’t quite pour my soul into the prose, and accordingly some of the phrasing is a little clunky (“legislature” grates against “legislation”, and that Mandelson quote is actually just a paraphrase), but it gets the job done. The only part of my analysis I would change is my prediction May would try to repeal the F.T.P.A. When I wrote it I hadn’t yet read the statement she made announcing the vote, and commentators I’ve browsed since then have reminded me that seeking a two-thirds majority is just going to be easier and attract fewer cries of authoritarianism. Because commentators want clicks, they very rarely mention that it could just be repealed reiterating constantly it’ll need 434 votes, but it can; they are right, however, when they say doing so wouldn’t be very politically popular. Goodness knows if she’ll try to do it if this supermajority fails in Parliament, or if she’ll give in, but we’ll see.

Who’s likely to win? This should be an easy one. Here is the YouGov voting intention tracker so far for the year of 2017:

Screen Shot 2017-04-18 at 19.18.28

The latest result — 44% against 23%, creating a lead of 21% — represents “the lowest voting intention share for Labour since June 2009 when the party was in power and Gordon Brown was Prime Minister”. As to who would make the best prime minister: the situation is even more dire for Labour: 50% of polled voters are in favour of Theresa May, with Jeremy Corbyn coming twenty-two points behind “don’t know”. Nor is this just a YouGov aberration, as we see from observing the latest I.C.M. poll for the Guardian, which puts the Conservatives at 46% to Labour’s 25%. The pattern repeats everywhere you look. According to the B.B.C.: “Theresa May’s lead now is comparable with the one Margaret Thatcher enjoyed ahead of the 1983 landslide”.

Of course, voting intention isn’t everything. We should remember the mysterious ways of our electoral system, which crushed a 25% popular vote share by the S.D.P.-Liberal alliance down to only 3.5% of the seats in 1983. There are plenty of problems with polling in general, in fact, as has been rammed home by Brexit and Trump. The Fabian Society says in a study it conducted in January that the party “is also too strong to be displaced as the UK’s main party of opposition. When an election comes Labour may end up winning only 140 to 200 big city and ex-industrial constituencies, but it will have a platform from which to rebuild”. They explain the reason is that many Labour seats are safe:

If Labour’s vote plummets the party will win fewer than 150 MPs at the next election, but the electoral system will create a ‘firebreak’.

The UK’s odd electoral system is hurting Labour at the moment, but if the party’s vote falls further it will come to Labour’s rescue. If the party sinks to 20 per cent in the polls it could still see 140 to 150 MPs returned, because of the way that the main parties’ votes are likely to be distributed at constituency level.

It seems seats in British elections are increasingly becoming safe, and the safest ones tend to be Labour.

At the end of the day though, it’s a twenty-point lead. Even the Fabian Society admits “the Labour Party is too weak to win the next election — whether it takes place in 2017 or 2020”. The outcome here isn’t really any more in dispute than it was in 1997. We’ve got fifty days for the polls to move, but the party’s “mountain to climb” is apparently twice as steep as it was last time (I do at least skim the things I cite):

At the next election Labour will need a swing of 8.7 per cent to secure the ‘winning post’ constituency required for a majority of one (figure 7). By contrast at the 2015 election the party needed a swing of 4.6 per cent. In other words, Labour is around twice as far from victory as it was in the run up to 2015. As figure 7 shows, with fewer Labour seats to start with and fewer competitive marginals, the mountain Labour has to climb is both higher and steeper.

The election is legal, and, while turnout and the exact composition of the Commons is something I am reluctant to predict, the Conservatives look set to comfortably win. I’m going to guess turnout will be very low, and a Liberal Democrat surge will happen but not profit them as much as they think; Corbyn will be ditched. And that’s the end of my thousand-word preamble.

I want to talk about why this has confused me. I just don’t understand why the election was called. It seems to be something fairly obvious to everyone talking about it, and the majority polled back it — especially Conservatives — but I’m really not convinced.

Lets start with the “I need more seats to go through with Brexit!” argument. The simple truth is that she doesn’t. The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 was passed and became law ultimately completely unamended. Both of the Lords’s amendments were overturned the second time the bill passed through the Commons, as I predicted. There was much hubuff after the two defeats, and after the Supreme court case, but it didn’t come to anything. The government was forced to put the legislation to a vote, which it didn’t want to, and it was rejected twice in the House of Lords, which it didn’t want to be, and it still triumphed totally. I see no reason why Theresa May should be fearful of losing her position in Parliament when negotiating Brexit. Granted, John Major was tied down for several years by Eurosceptic rebels, and the Institute for Government expects a gigantic amount of legislation will be required to be passed in a relatively short time, but this strikes me much more as being a question of hard work than difficult debate. Most of it should be hammered through.

Now on to the “we can destroy Labour!” argument. Can you? The Fabian Society at least disagrees. In fact, by historical experience, I would say the sooner an election is called the sooner Labour will reform and come back. Corbyn will be ditched after the loss, I think. He’ll go then. And then the party will either dig in deeper or come back from the brink, and I think it’s more likely to reform. If in the 1980s the party had gone straight from Callaghan to Kinnock, or better still from Callaghan to Smith — who hopefully wouldn’t die — the eighteen years of Conservative domination might not have been quite so secure. Why not just let it drag along until 2020, knock it back then, and govern comfortably for another five years after that? For as long as Corbyn is in charge it won’t matter how many mistakes Theresa May makes during the Brexit negotiations; once again, we saw this with Thatcher.

Jonathan Freedland explains why he thinks waiting until 2020 would be dangerous. I found most of the piece unpersuasive, and noted how he never actually does explain it, but he does bring up May’s mandate:

At home, too, this helps. All prime ministers yearn for their own mandate: it weakened Gordon Brown not to have one. Now May will have hers. If she wins a serious majority, she will reduce the leverage her backbench ultras currently hold over her (that too will give her more leeway in the Brexit talks).

And she’ll be free of the 2015 manifesto of David Cameron and George Osborne. Increasingly, May and her ministers were treating that document as if it were a historical artefact, one that no longer applied. But it was awkward – as the chancellor, Philip Hammond, found when he had to drop his proposed change to national insurance on the self-employed because he had broken a promise in a manifesto he manifestly no longer believed in.

This is largely true. It certainly undermined Gordon Brown not to have his own electoral mandate, as well as John Major, who felt much more comfortable with his teeny majority after 1992 because he had “earned” it, by contrast to the one he had inherited from the Iron Lady. On the other hand, neither Winston Churchill nor Lloyd George were elected. What is it that’s special about them? They were leaders of a country in crisis, grappling with overwhelming and overriding problems. Brexit springs to mind, and Theresa May’s approval ratings are currently positive precisely because of how she is dealing with it. She also has a doctor’s mandate, since no plans were put in place by David Cameron before he resigned, to tackle the problem however she wishes — or at least however she is constrained by other things, like campaign promises, which an election would not make go away. With regards to her domestic agenda, why is she thinking about it? Brexit is and should be treated as if it is prime and dominant. I’d rather not help facilitate a change of focus away from the single most important foreign policy crisis since Suez, thanks.

in conclusion, I really don’t approve of this election. I can’t wrap my head around it from a strategic point of view. If she’s expecting a large turnout, she’s in for a nasty shock. She’s also backtracked significantly on a promise that she made and over and over again; maybe she should ask the elder Bush how that worked out for him, or our own Nick Clegg.

I’m slightly confused.


P.S. I wouldn’t normally say anything nice at all about Yvette Cooper, but she made a lot of my points in Prime Minister’s Questions today (April 19):

Good work, Cooper. May’s response was distinctly unconvincing.

This House, and this Parliament, voted to trigger Article 50; but the Labour Party made it clear that they were thinking of voting against the final deal, the Scottish Nationalists have said that they will vote against the legislation necessary to leave the European Union, the Liberal Democrats say they’re going to grind government to a standstill and the House of Lords have threatened to stop us every inch of the way.

She’s living in a fantasy world if she thinks Labour would drag Britain out of the E.U. with no deal at all, and frankly the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists don’t matter.


P.P.S. The election has come and gone, and my goodness was it a shocker. I count myself humbled.

THE END

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