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UK Election: British voters’ stark choice over the kind of country they want

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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn (Image by Dan Jensen)

The coming British Election is showing up two radically different angles about how democracies should work.

Lee Duffield writes on the stand-off between the “reactionaries” and the “socialists”.

THE FIRST BRITISH POLLS for the 2019 Election suggested we prepare for a Tory victory, then Prime Minister Boris Johnson forcing through a quick secession from the European Union.

That does not mean it will actually happen. Polls tend to get volatile (especially this year), the electorate is stirred up and the election arithmetic, about how the constituencies are drawn, is complicated.

Usually when an election is called, if the polls immediately jump one way, it indicates that collective minds are being made up and a swing back is not that likely.

This time, the House of Commons voted on 29 October for a General Election on 12 December and polls did immediately move towards the Tories. Pollsters considered it might, or might not be just a limited extension of support that Johnson got when appointed Prime Ministership on 23 July — a new leader normally gets a lift. In fact, in short order, leading pollster YouGov reported a “bounce” back towards the Opposition. ‘Labour had gained six points between Wednesday and Friday,’ it said, against a lesser gain for the Conservatives — minor parties losing ground. 

BORIS JOHNSON’S WORLD

Polls or not, the Conservative – or Tory – Party has set out to crank up a Boris bandwagon, tying their fortunes closely to the bombastic leader.

Factors in that calculation:

  • He looks like a winner because he got through completion of a secession deal between the United Kingdom and European Union, an agreement stalled for three years.
  • His “laughable rogue” manner as school bully from Eton excites certain kinds of people in his potential constituency.
  • He is, like America’s President Donald Trump and others, out to be an “elected dictator”, ready to disregard other branches of government. He has already been taken to court for trying to rule without Parliament and got churlish obeying the court’s ruling, refusing to sign that mandated letter to Brussels. Once again, this autocratic drive might actually please many of his followers even while disturbing millions of others.
  • He can “clear the air”, “getting on with Brexit” as he says and can keep it simple by trumpeting on one point, that he wants to get the “Brexit” done.
  • By making “Brexit” the main issue, he dodges and defuses the Tories’ unpopularity over their savage internal divisions and shambolic record in government.
  • The Opposition will point out that his general policy is reactionary, as revealed by clauses limiting labour rights and protection of the environment, which he had written into the “Brexit” agreement with the Europeans. It would make the United Kingdom a fairly poor country run by and for some very rich people. Very low company taxes and an attack on wages would make it another China, renting out its workforce to all comers.
  • That might come up against the EU insisting on equal terms in any agreement on tariffs or trade, so the British can’t under-cut European businesses. Donald Trump has recognised that, saying the arrangement would lock him out, preventing a side deal with London. He’s intervened to support the even-more-reactionary Brexit Party that wants a no-deal EU separation — fortress England.
  • It's important to factor in: will general voters think, or know much about this policy area, no matter how important to their well-being?

WHAT THE POLLS SAY

Details of polling in the last three days of October as listed by the poll aggregator Mark Pack:

  • YouGov poll: Conservative 35% (no change), Labour 21% (-2%), Liberal Democrats 18% (NC), Greens 6% (NC), Brexit Party 13% (+1%), gap between Conservative and Labour 14-15%.
  • Survation: Conservative 34% (+2%), Labour 26% (+2%), Lib-Dem 19% (-2%), Greens 1% (-1%), Brexit 12% (-1%), gap 8%.
  • Ipsos-MORI: Conservative 41% (+8%), Labour 24% (nc), Lib- Dem 20% (-3%), Greens 3% (-1%), Brexit 7% (-3%), gap 17%.

These figures leave out regional parties including the anti-Brexit Scottish Nationalists, social democrats positioned to capture a few Conservative seats. They already have 35 of the 59 Scottish constituencies in the 650-member House of Commons.

This set of polling figures will count, as said because of a directional shift towards the Tories, even though very small. “Two-party”, the combined Tory plus Brexit Parties’ vote, went ahead to a 1-2% lead over Labour combined with the anti-Brexit Lib-Dems and Greens. Any further drift should give the Right wing several more seats under the first-past-the-post system of voting. In the YouGov poll last Friday, showing the 6% increase for Labour, the Conservatives half-matched it by taking 3% away from the Brexit Party. (Result of that poll: Conservative 39%, Labour 27%, Lib-Dem 16%, Brexit 7%.)

The pollster put in some qualifiers as the Election was announced:

There is a consistent Conservative lead across the board as we start the campaign. That Tory lead is largely down to a split opposition. Even in the MORI poll, the Conservatives have lost support since the Election. This is not a popular government, it’s just that the main opposition has lost even more support.

Together with first-past-the-post, the British have a second factor working against predictability: no compulsory voting. You cannot tell how many or who will vote, whether they talk to poll-takers or not. So polling, much of the time, is considered good for little more than a quick headline, like the 31 October London Evening Standard, forecasting a great Tory victory on a lone survey. The Times, commissioners of the YouGov survey, came close to doing the same — calling it the other way.

One of many triumphs of reality over the polls came with the British elections two years ago. Jeremy Corbyn, a man scorned by the likes of the Evening Standard, was being damned to oblivion, sneered at by conservative commentators. Labour had been trailing badly and though some picked up a reversal his way, most declared his leadership days over — while in the final vote he dislodged the Tory majority. The best available explanation is that Corbyn has a strong following built up over decades, a fact concealed from general view by the concerted efforts of conservative editors and journalists who could not imagine it being true. On the day, under voluntary voting, his not-so-small army of voters turned out while armies of others stayed away.

A third factor against predictability is that Britain does not have preferential voting, which would allow the non-Tory vote to consolidate across many seats. Political parties, unlike their Australian counterparts, cannot swap preferences and two-party outcomes can hardly be guessed at. Much will depend on the margins of individual seats and uneven strengths of the parties in different regions — a major job to figure out.

With all such irregularities, unless the Conservatives continue to gain, getting up to 40% overall, they cannot really anticipate a landslide or even a majority. While the scenario is complicated by defections, for a majority, they would need to win about 30 more seats, or 20 if again supported by the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionists. Watch the direction of opinion in the coming few weeks. 

JEREMY CORBYN’S WORLD

The Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn, on all these figures, has a chance:

  • He has the track record from 2017 when the Conservatives got taken by surprise and lost their outright majority.  
  • He has moved to change the subject from “Brexit” to the economy, coming up with a slogan, to govern ‘for the many, not the few’.
  • It would mean funding to relieve hard-pressed education services, outlawing any attempts by U.S. corporations to buy the National Health Service, raising revenue through higher taxes at the top end and the return to public ownership of privatised enterprises — like the water supply, trains and the Royal Mail.
  • He might get a hearing on that (over the din of enemy media) in a climate where neoliberalism and monetarist financial controls are crashing. Economic inequality, cuts in services caused by the Tories’ “small government” austerity, high prices because of privatisation and realities of deregulation (not least the tragic Grenfell highrise fire), are feeding into distress and disaffection among the public.
  • However, the last two attempts by British Labour to win with a “traditional” democratic socialist program, in 1983 and 1992, were defeated. Corbyn’s chance is that public disinterest in the socialist project has reversed itself as conditions in the country go bad.
  • Labour has had a “structural” problem since losing its long-held domination in Scotland to the Scottish Nationalists, weakening its chances of winning its own absolute majority in Parliament.
  • Against that, Corbyn has very strong support among young voters. In the 18 to 29s, Labour gets 38% support in polls, Conservatives get 16-18%, with many youths rushing to get on the electoral roll.
  • As for leaving the European Union, Corbyn says now that an exit agreement has been made with Brussels, he will put that to a new referendum. It will “give the people the final say” now that the terms are agreed.
  • Without saying it so much, he would also try to alter that agreement — to wind back the reactionary clauses slipped into it by Johnson, against workers rights and conservation of the environment. Corbyn’s second referendum proposal might, or might not, be enough to defuse the issue and get some electoral and parliamentary co-operation from the parties hostile to “Brexit” — still harder to “sell” than Johnson’s call to just “get it done”.

We have a few indications that Boris Johnson might get an extension of his “new Prime Minister” honeymoon with the public. He might win through declaring himself the man to get “Brexit” done and get on with strong government, side-stepping his vulnerability as the head of a tired and unpopular regime. But on the indications available, from rather unreliable polls, voting will be very close. If Jeremy Corbyn again pulls off a surprise and stops Boris Johnson, it will depend on how much Britons are feeling that life has gone wrong and have noticed his message about using radical remedies.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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