Friday 6 December 2019

Decision time

As the election campaign enters its final days my warning at the outset that, despite this being an election defined by Brexit, there would be no substantive discussion of Brexit has come true.

Labour have failed to fill out what their ‘sensible Brexit’ would look like, especially as regards the single market. But at least they are being clear in offering voters the choice, if and when the time comes, of whether they want this Brexit or not - even if they are not engaging seriously with the timetable for such a referendum. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have said little beyond their ‘get Brexit done’ slogan, apart from Johnson’s usual blustering non sequiturs.

Difficult choices deferred

Even so, within that bluster can be seen the outlines of some of the real and difficult choices which, if he is elected, Johnson would immediately face over Brexit. The most obvious and widely discussed example is the insistence that no extension will be sought to the transition period. Beyond that, a piece by Denis Staunton, the London Editor of The Irish Times, argues that statements made by Johnson in relation to a possible future US trade deal, to the abandonment of EU state aid and public procurement rules, and to post-Brexit UK-EU arbitration mechanisms could all significantly affect the options open to him if he wins the election.

In particular, Staunton argues, Johnson is setting up a scenario in which the UK is too distantly aligned with the EU to achieve decent terms of trade with them, whilst – partly because of the promises he has made about the NHS, and agriculture and food standards –being too closely aligned to the EU to achieve a meaningful, or any, trade deal with the US.

Underlying causes

This observation grows from one of the central contradictions of Brexit. Sold to voters by a largely nationalist and protectionist campaign, it was immediately re-described after the Referendum as an endorsement of globalism and trade liberalization. Hence the shift from a referendum campaign dominated by immigration policy to a post-referendum debate dominated by trade policy, which had been only peripheral before. Unsurprisingly, for the purposes of this election campaign in which he hopes to rebuild the leave alliance and, in particular, woo Labour leave voters, Johnson has reprised the nationalist and protectionist message, including anti-immigration sentiment.

Beyond these immediate political issues lies the strategic incoherence of the entire Brexit project. In a world characterised by two, or arguably three, regulatory super blocs (US, EU and, arguably, China) there is no space for a country viably to ‘go it alone’, be it the fifth or the fiftieth largest economy. A similar lesson was in evidence in this week’s NATO summit: increasingly defence – and even more clearly diplomatic and foreign policy – entail a choice between alignment with the US or the EU.

With that comes a political reality of having to obey rules and follow policies made outside of national parliaments - either by multilateral engagement or simply by force majeure in consequence of isolation - rendering the entire ‘regaining sovereignty’ or ‘taking back control’ argument redundant. By leaving the EU, Britain will have less rather than more control over its regulation and policy choices, and will be poorer and less influential into the bargain. It’s a definitional lose-lose made inevitable by a world characterised not so much by globalization as by economic and political regionalization.

These complex strategic realities and trade-offs that Brexit entails are precisely what should have been discussed by its advocates (and critics) as the central theme of this election. Instead, as Matt Ross explained in detail in an excellent analysis on Global Governance Forum this week, Johnson is set to reprise all of the problems and mistakes that have dogged the Brexit process to date (many of which will be familiar to regular readers of this blog).

The post-truth election

Of course, it’s very likely that Johnson did not fully understand the implications of the things he said. And, even if he did, it’s hardly inconceivable that he will backtrack on them if he wins the election, dumping promises made about protecting British industries and public services. For the most depressing thing about this campaign is the extent to which we have seen the full (though perhaps still not yet final) flowering of the post-truth politics that characterised the Referendum.

That is very different from the traditional, and rather lazy, refrain that ‘all politicians lie’. Rather, it is a politics in which the truth does not matter, or even – and perhaps more accurately - that there is no truth to be told and no way of telling what the truth is anyway. In a punchy assessment in the New York Times, Peter Geoghegan and Mary Fitzgerald itemise some of the ways that has characterised the campaign. For example, after the Conservatives were found to have created a supposed ‘fact checker’ Twitter account, the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, opined that voters “don’t give a toss” about what happens online.

More insidiously, when asked about the fake fact-checker in a Channel 4 News interview, Michael Gove attacked the interviewer for asking ideologically loaded questions and, even, refused to look at the evidence of its existence on the reporter’s laptop on the grounds that it might have been doctored. So ‘fake news’ is defended on the basis that the accusation is itself fake news, creating a dizzying spiral in which no one knows what to believe and, perhaps, concludes that they might as well believe whatever they want to believe. And who’s to say that your belief is better than my belief – except an elitist?

Depressing and despicable as these and many similar incidents have been, they do contain at least a glimmer of hope. For, of course, many voters do ‘give a toss’ about what is said on line. If they did not, then why bother with on line political campaigning at all? And they do care about facts and some attempt at objectivity. If they did not, then why pretend to be an objective fact-checker? And they do see ideological loaded-ness in reporting as problematic. If they did not, then why use the accusation (unfounded as it was) as an attack line against reporters?

That’s not to say that politics could ever be simply about ‘the facts’, absent of interpretation and judgement. Indeed, where facts are not disputed they do not generally form part of normal politics, whilst much of what normal politics consists of is a contestation over securing widespread acceptance of facts and designing policy accordingly. But that only works if there is some shared commitment to evidence, logic, and rules of argument. It’s this which is under attack in post-truth politics.

Voting matters

Even in this world, democracy can still be a powerful force. Whatever manipulations may occur, people still have agency, and have the capacity to make their own choices based on evidence, logic and argument. Voting still matters, and the right to vote should not be cynically dismissed – as those denied it, such as EU nationals in UK elections, can attest. Despite – perhaps because of – the squalid and dishonest campaign for this election, people have a responsibility to use that vote. Not voting, however attractive some find it, does not evade that responsibility since it also has an impact on the outcome.

But in many constituencies the British first-past-the-post electoral system makes it hard to make your vote count. This election is likely to see tactical voting and party-switching on an unprecedented scale, not least because of the way that Brexit cuts across party allegiances. And because of the anticipated closeness of the outcome, these decisions will matter. However, the very volatility of opinion polls and the complex local variations make it difficult for individual voters to make tactical voting decisions (£).

In my previous post I highlighted Jon Worth’s tactical voting information site. Since then, he has refined it to create a short video for every single seat in which tactical voting can make a difference to the outcome of Brexit. For those who want to keep open the possibility of preventing Brexit, it provides a well-informed steer as to how to vote. Another useful site is VoteSmart2019. These sites cannot entirely solve all of the indeterminacies caused by voter volatility but are certainly a helpful guide, especially if used in conjunction with new polling data as it emerges and local conversations with other voters.

Dilemmas for tactical voters

Whatever the difficulties of assessing how to vote tactically, for voters who want to prevent Brexit there is no excuse for refusing to do so because ‘the LibDems supported Austerity’ or because ‘Labour supported the Iraq War’. If you want to stop Brexit, then, to be brutal, those things, important as they are in their own right, are not relevant to doing so. Even intense concern about and opposition to anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, which is understandably creating anguish for some potential tactical voters, can arguably, as suggested by Jonathan Lis, be combined with voting Labour.

Whilst that is a genuinely agonizing dilemma, those remain voters – perhaps especially habitual Tory and LibDem voters – whose fear is that a Corbyn administration would be too economically extreme face a less difficult choice. For they should recognize that the only realistic alternative to a Johnson majority government is a Corbyn minority government. There is no realistic prospect of Labour having a majority. So Corbyn would be highly constrained in what he could do. Yes, some increased public services spending – which will also happen under a Tory government – and taxation but nothing very radical.

That may or may not be a good thing but, as always on this blog, I am only concerned with the implications for Brexit. And with LibDem and SNP support what a minority Labour government would be both able and obliged to deliver is another referendum and, with it, the chance – only the chance, but the only chance – of remaining in the EU. No other realistic combination of events does this.

The other side of that coin is that whereas a minority Labour government would be highly constrained, a majority Tory government would be a very different beast from any that we have seen in the past. Every Tory MP elected will have pledged to an immediate Brexit and to no extension of the transition period, even if there is no trade deal in place. Compared with the last parliament, the more liberally and independently minded will have gone, whether those who left by choice or those who lost the party whip. They include, don’t forget, the deeply Eurosceptic Philip Hammond, and not just the veteran Europhile Ken Clarke.

So the next Tory benches are going to be far more extreme than, even, those of the Thatcher years, and not just in relation to Brexit. Voters who may for decades have been unhesitatingly Tory should note that Michael Heseltine now advocates voting LibDem. Neither he nor Ken Clarke (who, despite his latter-day cuddly image, was also a central figure in Thatcher’s governments, and the architect of the NHS internal market) are really ‘centrists’, but the rapid shift of the Tory Party has made them strangers to it.

If it is no longer even the party of Thatcher, still less is it that of Macmillan, Heath or Major. It is certainly very different to any previous Tory Party in its unsympathetic, even disdainful, attitude to business (£). So whilst voting tactically will only mean a constrained minority Labour administration, the alternative is an unconstrained Tory majority government in the grip of its own extremism.

A test for remainers’ commitment

Throughout these election period blogs, I’ve been using a formulation along the lines of ‘those voters for whom remain is their primary or sole objective’. Ultimately, the question of tactical voting by remainers and, therefore, very possibly the election outcome will come down to the extent to which they do indeed prioritise remain in that way. If they do, it will cut through party loyalties and habits and all other misgivings and concerns.

That will be testing for those whose commitment to remain is relatively weak, or weaker than it has been, compared with other concerns. It will actually be even more testing for the most passionate and committed remainers. For some, perhaps many, of them, there is a strong temptation to ‘purity’ which could lead them to voting, probably, LibDem in seats where a tactical vote for Labour would be more likely to defeat the Conservative candidate.

Such voters may consider Labour not to be a ‘true remain’ party, may recall the dithering and ambiguity of Labour over Brexit, and may consider that Corbyn, himself, is ideologically pro-Brexit. All of which may be fair comment and may provide a rationalisation for the comfort of staying true to a party which is unequivocally anti-Brexit. That will be their choice, but it will be a choice with an undeniable consequence. That consequence will be to make the slim chance of avoiding Brexit slimmer still.

A decisive moment

This time next week I will be writing my next blog post. If it is discussing the fact that Brexit is now a certainty the responsibility for that will lie in part with remain voters who valued something else – remainer purity, party loyalty or simply another political consideration – more than they did the possibility of avoiding Brexit.

Of course if that is the outcome there will be many who are responsible for it, well beyond remain (non-)tactical voters. Most obviously it will have been caused by those who genuinely want Brexit, or a Tory government, or both – which is perfectly reasonable, though they will be surprised at the Brexit they get – including any tactical voting decisions made by Brexit Party supporters. But there is another group of voters who out of boredom or ignorance are apparently simply content to accept the lies they have been told and to ignore the lack of proper discussion of what Brexit will entail, petulantly insisting that they ‘just want it done’.

Perhaps if, as happened with the Referendum, enough people of such a mind-set vote in this election to endorse Brexit then they will get what is due to them. For, as H.L. Mencken – a deeply anti-Semitic and generally rather vile character, by the way – in his oft-used quotation had it, “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard”.

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