Uncertain Terrain: Volatility, Fragmentation and the Progressive Bloc

The 2015 and 2017 general elections saw the highest levels of voter volatility in modern times[1]. With voters now much less loyal or partisan and much more influenced by specific events – for instance, the 2008 financial crash and, most importantly, Brexit – it would be unwise to predict, with any certainty, how voters will behave in what will be the first December general election in over 100 years. 

Notwithstanding this unpredictability, since the accession of Boris Johnson as PM, the Tories have established a significant lead in the polls – now at around 11-14 points. This has been largely at the expense of the Brexit Party which has seen its support more than halved since the European elections in May. Just as well for Johnson, as a Conservative majority partly depends on winning back those people who had previously voted for the Brexit party. With this in mind, it is therefore no surprise that Farage’s embryonic party has decided not to stand candidates in the 317 Conservative-held seats – fearing that if they did the Leave vote would split and give pro-Remain parties a mandate to thwart Brexit. 

The so-called ‘unilateral alliance’ promises to help somewhat, especially in those marginal Conservative seats which voted to Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, but far more useful, if you’re in favour of ‘getting Brexit done’, would have been the withdrawal of Brexit Party candidates from Labour-held seats (148 of which are estimated to have voted to Leave)[2]. Data published by Leonardo Carella and Ben Ansell suggest that under these circumstances, the chance of a Tory majority increases from 78 percent to 84 percent[3]

As the Tory/Brexit/regressive vote, to a certain extent, consolidates, progressive/remain support appears decidedly split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, as well as the SNP in Scotland, Plaid Cymru in Wales and the Green Party in some English constituencies. The blog will focus primarily on these progressive formations and will argue that the various forces and ideas that constitute it are unlikely to converge sufficiently to win and maintain a stable/governable majority in Parliament. 

Volatile Voters

As the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it, “we feel as if we had to repair a torn spiders web with our hands”. Such is the complexity of British politics at the moment, it’s difficult to see what will manifest as a result of the UK’s third election in under five years.

At the start of the campaign, taking an average of polls, the Conservatives are on 40 percent, Labour on 29 percent, Liberal Democrats on 16 percent, the Brexit party on 6 percent and Greens on 3 percent. If things stay as they are, which is unlikely, the Conservatives would be looking at – partly thanks to our disproportional voting system – a comfortable majority. 

But as was the case with the 2017 election, double-digit leads before all manifestos are published and battle buses are fully fuelled, do not always translate into election victories. 

Voters have – at least since the 1960s – never been more volatile. The much-cited survey by the British Electoral Study found that across three elections between 2010-2017, almost half of all voters (49 percent) did not vote for the same party throughout[4]. And this unprecedented trend seems set to continue: a recent poll by Populas found that 40 percent of people said that they would switch their vote from 2017. 

On top of this, our two-party system has given way to a four or, in some cases, five-party split, suggesting that the most marginal constituencies could be captured with as little as a quarter of the vote. 

Since 1918, seats have been won with an average of 53 percent of the vote and there have only been seven occasions where a seat has been won with less than 30 percent. But it’s been predicted that in the forthcoming election the median seat winner’s vote share will be 39 percent, with fifteen seats being won with less than 30 percent. 

The Absent Alliance – Labour and the Liberal Democrats

In response to this fragmentation – and united by an unequivocal ‘Stop Brexit’ message – the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru (polling at 12 percent in Wales) have agreed a pact, which will see them stand only one ‘Unite to Remain’ candidate in 60 seats (37 Conservative, 6 Liberal Democrat, 1 Green, 3 Plaid and 13 Labour) across England and Wales. Following on from the 2019 Brecon and Radnorshire by-election – where a similar pact helped the Liberal Democrats overturn a sizable Conservative majority – pro-Remain parties are understandably keen to cooperate further to improve their chances of representation in the next Parliament. 

Additionally, the alliance will be emboldened by the results of the 2019 European Parliament elections (which had a predictably low turnout of 36.7 percent in the UK) wherein, in addition to the collapse of the Labour vote, according to Chris Hanretty’s constituency level calculations/estimates, out of the 60 seats, an amalgamated Liberal Democrat, Green and Plaid vote would have won 40 contests. But the pact’s success, more to the point, will depend somewhat on voters not reverting back to conventional first-past-the-post behaviours – none of the contests in the 50 Conservative/Labour seats in question would have had a different result in the 2017 general election if Liberal Democrat, Green Party (who only stood in 35 of those seats) and Plaid Cymru votes had been added together. 

Unfortunately, an alliance like this seems unlikely to have a nationwide impact without Labour cooperation – which now looks almost impossible, if it wasn’t already, not least because a Unite to Remain candidate will be standing in 13 Labour seats, most of which are represented by pro-Remain MPs. 

A far more effective strategy, which would have improved the chances of a Remain majority significantly, would have been for the Liberal Democrats to stand aside in Labour-held seats and vice versa[5]

Last week, Tim Walker, the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate for Canterbury did just that by announcing that he would not contest the Labour-held marginal seat. The response from Liberal Democrat HQ was to insist that another candidate will stand to contest the seat instead – which in turn prompted the replacement of Guy Kiddey as candidate for High Peak, after he also threatened to stand aside in the marginal Derbyshire seat held by Labour. It is unclear whether these decisions will split the Remain vote and hand these seats to the Tories, but it certainly reveals, if this wasn’t already apparent, that Jo Swinson’s party think any associations with Jeremy Corbyn will damage their prospects of winning pro-Remain Conservative seats[6]

Meanwhile, the Labour Party is set to go it alone, undeterred by a double-digit deficit in the polls. Corbyn’s success in turning what looked like a Tory landslide in 2017 into a near draw in the popular vote will no doubt strengthen Labour’s resolve. But this hardly reassures, as it isn’t necessarily more votes Labour needs, but more seats.  

Labour’s evolving Brexit policy – from ‘constructive ambiguity’ to the more nuanced position of a renegotiated deal followed by a confirmatory referendum – is, it seems, slowly winning back the support of those who had previously decamped to the Liberal Democrats. But not to the extent that it needs to – the Remain vote is still much more divided than the Leave vote: 47 percent of Remainers intend to vote for Labour (up from 36 percent), 25 percent for the Liberal Democrats (down from 33 percent), 17 percent for the Conservatives (unchanged) and 6 percent for the Greens (unchanged). Of the Leave voters, 71 percent are backing the Conservatives (up from 59 percent), 10 percent back Labour (unchanged) and 8 percent support the Brexit party (down from 22 percent)[7]

Although, whilst leaving (or not leaving) the EU continues to poll as the most important issue that faces the country, this could very well change. In the final weeks of the campaign, voters could start to refocus on traditional issues – health, the economy, social care etc – enabling Labour to highlight many of its popular policies on nationalisation, taxation and a ‘Green Industrial Revolution’. 

With the deadline for candidates to withdraw from the election race now passed, another hope will be that tactical campaigning and voting may help to stop an outright Tory majority, much like it did in 2017. The most important advantage that Labour has over the Conservatives, if this were to happen, the argument goes, is that having alienated the DUP, the Tories would have no viable partners to form a coalition, whereas Labour could turn to the pro-Remain parties, the SNP in particular, to create a new administration. But as with organising pacts/alliances, the politics of forming and negotiating a government – or even a supply and demand arrangement – are far from simple[8]

[1] Source: https://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-resources/press-release-most-volatile-british-electorate-in-modern-times/#.XdAhhy2cZn1

[2] For a more suspicious analysis, see here, Tom Clark’s ‘The lesson of history? If the forces of Remain don’t get their act together, they could be wiped out’ in Prospect Magazine, 12 November 2019

[3] Source: https://ukandeu.ac.uk/what-impact-would-electoral-alliances-have-on-the-election-result/

[4] Source: https://www.britishelectionstudy.com/bes-resources/press-release-most-volatile-british-electorate-in-modern-times/#.XdAhhy2cZn1

[5] See here again, Leonardo Carella and Ben Ansell’s ‘What impact would electoral alliances have on the election result?’ in The UK in a Changing Europe, 15 November 2019

[6] See here, Stephen Bush’s ‘The Liberal Democrats want to be the party of David Gauke, not the party of Tim Walker’ in New Statesman, 13 November 2019.

[7] Polls compared: 3/11/2019 – 12/11/2019

[8] See here, Nick Pearce’s ‘Can Corbyn piece together a multi-party government?’ in Open Democracy, 11 November 2019

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