Seismic electoral movement and political zealotry

Source: PSE Oct/Nov 2019 


Chris Painter, professor emeritus at Birmingham City University, appraises a momentous period in British politics from the May 2019 elections through to the precipice of a possible disorderly Brexit.

The 2019 local elections in England, immediately followed by the UK European elections, took place during an impasse over Brexit and dying embers of the May premiership. Boris Johnson then stepped over May’s stalled EU withdrawal agreement, playing a high-stakes game of bluff, risking not only a no-deal Brexit, but constitutional propriety by suspending Parliament shortly after the summer recess until mid-October. 

May 2019: Local and Euro Elections

The general election held two years earlier unexpectedly re-polarised voting patterns around the two mainstream political parties, with Conservative and Labour jointly carving out over an 80% vote share. In the early May 2019 local elections in England, previous fragmenting trends re-asserted themselves, those two parties struggling to muster 60% of the vote between them. The Conservatives suffered a heavy seat loss from a high point at the previous comparable point in the local elections cycle, Labour a much smaller loss from a lower electoral base. Percentage-wise, these two parties finished neck and neck.

These local results were interpreted as a warning shot to co-operate in resolving the Brexit mess. The curious feature, however, is that the pro-remain Liberal Democrat and Green parties benefitted most from electoral movements. Local elections always have their distinctive characteristics. Nonetheless, the disruptive domestic political effects of Brexit were evident from startling variations in voting from one locality to another, shredding the long-standing stock in trade of election analysts: the national uniform swing.

In the late May European election the newly-formed Brexit Party, primarily a personal vehicle for Nigel Farage and possessing few of the organisational traits of a conventional political party, finished in first place. It was 11% ahead of the field, attracting just under a third of the votes cast. Despite pre-election hype, in very favourable circumstances because of the deadlock over EU departure, it polled just 4% more than its then equivalent, the UK Independence Party, in the previous 2014 European election.

Therefore the principal losers were the Conservative and Labour parties, the former recording the lowest vote in any national election since the 1832 Reform Act and Labour the smallest since the early days of its inception at the beginning of the 20th century! Between them, remarkably, they attracted less than 25% of the vote.

It is important to emphasise the hazards in extrapolating too much from either of these elections because of low turnouts. But the evidence they afforded tended to substantiate national surveys suggesting that in any second referendum 2016’s slender victory for leaving the EU would become a small majority for remaining. The lingering impression, however, was of a country still deeply polarised. It also opened the possibility of future votes distributed across four parties in unpredictable proportions. Despite some subsequent impact on the electoral dynamic of a new Conservative Party leader, both Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party (in most polls) continued to attract double digit support, despite the latter falling back from its spring high point.  

June-July 2019: Transitioning Premierships

Shortly before the European election Theresa May had played her final throw of the dice. She recalibrated the EU withdrawal agreement bill, floating possible further concessions on customs arrangements and on a second public vote, following weeks of what ultimately became abortive discussions with the Labour opposition. In effect, it was to be a fourth attempt to secure a ‘meaningful’ vote in favour of her divorce deal with Brussels, following heavy defeats in January and March.

The gamble spectacularly misfired, attracting negative responses from virtually every quarter. May relented to overwhelming pressure from within her own party to stand down as Conservative leader and, following election of her successor, to resign as Prime Minister. The tragedy is that if she had adopted this more inclusive approach to Brexit earlier in her premiership she could well have assembled a majority in the House of Commons. In fact, a bloc not least of Labour MPs continued to press for a further opportunity to vote in support of a deal incorporating areas of agreement reached in the cross-party talks. 

Given the unrepresentative demographics and hardening ideological disposition of the ultimate Conservative member selectorate, combined with vulnerability to Faragist insurgency, temptations to further raise the stakes on Brexit in the Conservative leadership election proved irresistible. The eventual winner, Boris Johnson, insisted he would take the UK out of the EU by the extended deadline of 31st October 2019 irrespective of whether a renegotiated deal could be achieved. The inexorable logic of this commitment was to lead him into un-navigated legal, constitutional and political waters.

July-September 2019: Factional Government Takes Hold

Johnson’s premiership smacked more of factional than party government - albeit what by now had become the predominant faction within the Conservative Party. He essentially re-assembled the 2016 referendum Leave campaign team in Number Ten instead of creating a broad-based administration. It was in effect an administration of Brexiteers, creating a viable basis for compromise with Brussels.

Nor during the Conservative leadership campaign had there been any clear sense of prioritisation on seminal challenges of our time: climate emergency and sustainable development.

Instead there was a fiscal auction as political fire cover for a potentially cliff-edge Brexit. Johnson’s government followed through on his crowd pleasing spending pledges on criminal justice, education, health and infrastructure. But a hurriedly conducted September Spending Review covered only the next financial year, instead of the previously anticipated three-year period, highlighting tactical election positioning. Far from being empty-handed from this review, the short time span nonetheless compounded planning uncertainty for local authorities, with one of the areas of greatest concern - the yawning gap in social care budgets - still not assuaged pending renewed commitment to a repeatedly delayed major overhaul of the funding model, with the Conservative Party Conference providing one such opportunity. 

A judicially contested prorogation of Parliament, ostensibly to prepare the way for the Queen’s Speech, indeed fostered doubts about just how constructively Johnson approached Brexit re-negotiations. Therefore the Commons seized control of business to pass a bill imposing an obligation to seek a further extension should no agreement be reached with the EU by the time of its mid-October council summit. Despite more advanced mitigating plans than would have been possible with the original March 2019 deadline, a no-deal scenario was still of particular concern for local authorities in the front-line of likely disruption, such as Kent County and Portsmouth City Councils. Local government generally, in fact, regarded central funding for no-deal preparations as inadequate for the magnitude of the task involved.

In the face of this parliamentary opposition, Johnson’s inflexible 31st October pledge left him with little option other than to seek a general election yet unable, because of parliamentary arithmetic, to secure it before this deadline within the provisions of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. Moreover, irreconcilable differences within the Conservative Party, that these events exposed, demonstrated how Brexit was not only detaching many voters from traditional party allegiances but disrupting Westminster party loyalties too. 

Autumn 2019: Stepping into the Unknown

Another Brexit-related general election is merely a matter of time given Johnson’s loss of a Commons majority. It will take place during what is the gravest crisis of parliamentary democracy since the 1974 ‘who governs’ Heath contest. Many imponderables surround the outcome, complicated as it is by tactical voting, let alone any cross-party alliances/pacts, as Johnson shape-shifts between one-nation Conservatism and rightwing populism.

It is not inconceivable that the Brexit talks may yet prove productive, but Johnson’s alternatives to the Irish border backstop looked problematic. Should obstacles prove insurmountable the irony is that key elements of May’s withdrawal agreement will have to be re-visited to secure an EU trade deal - quite apart from the difficult issue of regulatory divergence - but in much less favourable circumstances than under an agreed transition. Meanwhile there would be the reality rather than rhetoric of life outside a customs union and single market with our nearest trading partners: the enormous logistical and bureaucratic impediments that entails.


“a no-deal scenario is still of particular concern for local authorities in the front-line of likely disruption”


E: opinion@publicsectorexecutive.com

Tw: @psenews


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