In an election framed by predictions, polls and populism—the emphasis of this campaign should be about communicating with the people.
So Halloween—Calan Gaeaf—came and went without us exiting the European Union. It seems nobody died in a ditch to get Brexit done after all.
Instead, we’re now a week into the 2019 UK General Election and there are already more questions than answers, most fundamentally—what’s this election for?
Sure, Boris Johnson got the election he was itching for. Jeremy Corbyn eventually calculated that it’s better to gamble on his chances than let the parliamentary stalemate continue. This means back to the polling stations we go, six months after the European elections and just 30 months since the last general election.
A Christmas election at a time for giving and of goodwill to all women and men. Yet this feels more like an unwanted, shoddily-wrapped festive gift, predictable in a socks kind of way.
Now, normally, I’d be counting down the days until the election, excited about chewing the political fat and discussing the issues and possible outcome with colleagues, friends and the media. So why, then, does this election feel different?
We don’t have to look far for answers. Most important is the 2016 EU referendum and the overwhelmingly destructive schisms it drove through our society and our politics. Then there’s the ensuing Brexit impasse which has frustrated Leavers and Remainers alike.
Isn’t it simultaneously fascinating and frightening that “getting it done” has been transformed into the overwhelming imperative, whatever the costs?
It’s a clever slogan, albeit disingenuous given how long “getting it done” will actually take, even once a withdrawal deal is agreed. It has an understandable appeal among a weary public, but with potentially cataclysmic consequences.
It’s not just Brexit either. Some of the negativity around this general election rests with what politics has become. We are living through a new and very different era of political leadership, characterised by command and control rather than consensus and coalition. And it’s hard to see a way back.
Respected, experienced and challenging voices are ridiculed and repressed—good, principled MPs kicked out of their parties. All this set against a toxic (has an adjective been used more often to describe our current politics than this one?) climate of bullying, harassment, intimidation and worse.
Much has been said about the number of MPs standing down at this election, big names like Amber Rudd, Patrick McLoughlin, Nicky Morgan, Margot James, Justine Greening, Louise Ellman. At first glance, the number looks bang average (normally between 80–90 stand down). So no story, move on. But dig a little deeper—first, it’s a significantly shorter parliamentary term, then look at their sex and age, time spent as a MP, their position on Brexit, their personal letters to their constituency parties. Then we shine light on our new and unpleasant politics.
I can’t think of a time when politics belonged less to us, the people. We’ve seen its effective appropriation so that it’s increasingly owned by politicians (and to a lesser degree, commentators and academics) who’ve elbowed a space and set a narrative with limited resonance to the majority of people. That’s why populism (both left and right) is dominating our politics and will frame this election too.
Opportunistic political slogans and the repetition of simplistic phraseology are deemed sufficient to appeal to the masses, from Johnson’s “great Brexit deal” to Mr Corbyn’s “for the many, not the few”, to Farage’s “change politics for good ”—even the Lib Dems’ “bollocks to Brexit” slogan showed that populist simplicity is not the preserve of Leavers (although under new leader Jo Swinson, the B-word has been dropped).
Is there anyone out there who can’t see the supreme irony of three white, older, male members of the establishment claiming to speak for the “people”, versus the elites, the establishment, the Remainers, Parliament (delete as appropriate)?
This is classic, cynical populist tactics, designed to undermine trust in our democratic institutions. Never mind the contested view as to who are the “people”, it’s a tactic that’s worked well elsewhere from politicians who find scrutiny and challenge tiresome and it’s being played out right here under our noses.
Whatever’s said, this general election won’t settle Brexit—for the simple reason that it isn’t designed to do so. Referendums have plenty of flaws, of course, especially in our system of democracy.
The reason the 2016 EU referendum didn’t “work” (in terms of leading to a quick, clean break with the EU) compared to the devolution referendums of 1997 lies in the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU. The fundamentals could only be decided post-referendum, which has created the necessity for complex negotiations for a long time after the public had apparently given their verdict.
It’s no wonder Leave voters feel frustrated and undermined. What they voted for—what Wales voted for, whether we like it or not—hasn’t happened. But, short of negotiating an exit deal before the 2016 referendum, there was no other way.
Plus, as things stand, this election might not even produce a winner. The UK has a political system designed to produce majority governments, a system which no longer produces them, if you get my drift. The variables are a new multi-party landscape and the unknown effect of the Brexit Party on the Conservative vote, as well as the impact of the “Remain Ultras”, the Liberal Democrats, on Mr Corbyn’s chances of gaining ground.
The Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP will also play a key role, taking or leaking votes to Labour depending on tactical voting and how the campaign unfolds. An eventual government—majority, minority or coalition—will claim to have a mandate on Brexit, but that could mean anything from implementing Johnson’s deal, holding a referendum on the terms of departure or stopping it altogether.
And beyond that, it gets even more important. The next UK Government will be charged with negotiating our crucial future trade relationship with the EU. Those are the talks, probably leading to a treaty, that will really impact our daily lives. Think of the UK’s international relations, public services, the economy, travel and the university sector where I work. All these things, from your job to whether you can take your pet abroad on holiday, depend on that future relationship.
General elections are normally where bread-and-butter policy issues are debated. Brexit has led to a drowning-out of issues like poverty and austerity (the big one for Wales, surely), climate change and future challenges like automation, social care and inequality. Both Mr Johnson and Mr Corbyn understand this and will be trying to start a discussion about those ostensibly “non-Brexit” issues.
I’ve no doubt that voters yearn to hear about things other than Brexit. But there’s an essential contradiction between being asked to vote on public spending, tax and the economy, while at the same time being herded towards voting solely on Remain or Leave identities. Who knows what will emerge from this heady cocktail, but that underlines why this general election won’t fix our damaged politics.
As ever, we’ll have to strain to put Wales at the centre of the debate, despite it being a real battleground. Suggesting Wales has no say in the UK rings less true when one considers how close some votes have been in the recently dissolved Parliament. Because of the unusually tight numbers, Welsh Labour MPs have played a high-profile role in the debate within their party over its Brexit stance. And Plaid Cymru’s four MPs have helped decide several important votes.
This election poses some really interesting questions about the future of Welsh politics. Early polling suggests that the Conservatives and Labour are vying for top-dog status in Wales. Like it or not, that makes Wales far more similar to our next-door neighbours in England than it does to our Celtic siblings in Scotland.
But will the Conservative vote stack up in the right place, especially after this week’s hugely inauspicious start to the campaign? The Brexit Party “won” 19 of Wales’ 22 local authority areas spanning the Valleys, rural Wales and even our cities.
That’s why, in this context, it’s wrong to simply present Farage’s Brexiteers as a more extreme Leave option than the Tories (despite their enthusiasm for “no deal”).
With little historical and cultural baggage, the Brexit Party is likely to be a more palatable choice than the Conservatives for many Labour Leave voters, especially in post-industrial Wales. This could be important in the Labour-Tory battlegrounds in north-east Wales and seats like Newport West, Gower and Bridgend.
Also, whatever political order does eventually emerge, it’s bound to impact the Senedd elections 16 months later, where we can expect the make-up of the UK Government to have a heavy influence on devolved voting patterns.
The early narrative has been all about how this is an unpredictable election, perhaps the most unpredictable in memory. Deals, voter volatility, coalitions, defections have been pored over, but maybe someone should point out that, if we had a decent electoral system that valued foremost the people casting their votes, not a dysfunctional one that works to the benefit of the two biggest parties, we might not need such things.
In an election framed by predictions, polls and populism, where the voices of the people are readily appropriated, but infrequently heard—never mind listened to—the emphasis of this campaign should be about communicating with the people.
We—academics, journalists, commentators, even the party candidates and workers—are bit-part players in a political drama with hugely significant consequences. We’d do well to remember that, otherwise we could risk re-running the EU referendum—and look where that got us.
This article was originally published by WalesOnline on 9 November 2019.
Professor Laura McAllister is Professor of Public Policy in the School of Law and Politics and the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University.
This post represents the views of the author and neither those of the Politics & Governance blog nor Cardiff University.