The British electoral system stinks. Millions of voters in constituencies that are “safe” for one of the major parties are effectively denied a vote. Despite this, millions prefer to cast a “lesser of two evils” vote rather than abstain; while a plucky few continue to cast their votes for minor parties that have no chance of winning. Unlike more proportional systems, this makes it far more likely that extremists will form a government. It is no accident that the two least proportional systems – the USA and the UK – have allowed nationalist populists to take power; while most proportional European systems have allowed centrist coalitions to block the hard right.
The reason why the UK and USA electoral systems are this way dates back to the early years of the industrial revolution, when growing towns and cities threatened to overshadow the power, wishes and needs of the countryside. In the contemporary USA, this translates into preventing smaller states being overpowered by far more populous coastal states like California and New York. Ironically, the establishment of devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland by the Blair government was an acknowledgement that the large English electorate prevented the needs of minority nations within the UK from being heard; in the same way that a purely popular vote in the USA would allow Californians to drown out swathes of the Midwest.
And so while the knee-jerk response at election times is to decry the way in which the major parties have perverted the electoral system to serve their needs to the exclusion of others; reforming the system may prove more difficult than it would first appear. For example, calls for proportional representation in the UK are often met with calls to establish an English (or several regional English) parliaments to mirror those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; with a UK government dealing solely with matters like defence and foreign affairs.
In any case, before reforms can be made, those desiring reform must first gain power. In an article for The Week, Damon Linker explains the harsh realities of this for the US Democrat Party:
“The Democratic Party is responding in a nonsensical way to political reality… Democrats confront numerous disadvantages in our electoral system. House districts can be gerrymandered by Republican-controlled state legislatures to give conservatives an advantage in their efforts to win and hold a majority. The Senate favors low-population-density states at a time when progressives increasingly cluster in urban areas. The Electoral College likewise inflates the representation of low-population states, giving a substantial edge to Republican presidential candidates. And the Supreme Court oversees it all, with its lifetime appointees nominated and confirmed by the GOP-advantaged president and Senate.
“Put it all together and Democrats face what increasingly looks like a system rigged to thwart or at least seriously dilute their political power.
“The question is how to respond — and that’s where the Democrats are going off the rails.”
Left-leaning parties in the UK face a similar problem. As things stand – and despite Brexit and the recent imposition of Boris Johnson – the British electoral system makes a majority Labour government impossible. The increasing support for Scottish independence; the economic success of the Scottish National Party (SNP) government; and memories of Blair’s ill-treatment of the Scots means that the best Labour can hope for is to form a coalition with the SNP (and perhaps the Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru).
While the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 provided ordinary British people with a potential left-wing populism to challenge the populist right; and while Corbyn’s surprise success in 2017 prevented a majority Tory government; we must still remember that the majority of voters chose to leave the European Union in 2016, and the Tories had a higher share of the vote (42.4% v 40.0%) in 2017. Even this is flattering, since it is clear that large numbers of voters who would ordinarily have voted for minor parties chose one or other of the major parties based on their perceived position on Brexit. UKIP collapsed as its voters switched to the Tories; while Liberal Democrat, Green and Plaid Cymru voters held their noses and voted Labour (as the only route to a second referendum).
The danger for the British left is that they have treated the 2017 result as a victory; and that they have assumed – with scant evidence – that the majority of voters now want a change of government and an opportunity to reverse the Brexit result. On the back of this, there has been a tendency to assume that the next election is already in the bag.
This is understandable to some extent given the complete Brexit meltdown in the Tory Party under Theresa May. This, however, owes much to May’s attempt to achieve two mutually exclusive outcomes: to maintain Tory Party unity while securing an accommodation with the EU that doesn’t involve crashing the UK economy. Since the deal she finally secured was a compromise with wings of the Tory Party that did not want to compromise; the result was the biggest parliamentary defeat since 1649.
None of this, though, says anything about the attitudes of the British people. Opinion polls show a slight lead for remaining in the European Union; but no more that Remain was supposedly ahead in the week prior to the referendum in 2016. Similarly, some recent polls show a small Labour lead; but nothing like what would be required to produce a majority Labour government. And although the recent European election was proportional, the share of the votes in each of the counties of the UK suggests that it is the pro-Brexit right that is in the ascendancy; with the Liberal Democrats splitting the anti-Brexit vote:
The electoral constituency map is a little different because of the higher population in London and the cities of the Midlands and the Northwest. However, the way in which the votes split in the European election is a warning to the Labour Party that a general election victory is far from certain. While shifting to a more pro-remain position has increased Labour support among left-leaning voters in the affluent southeast and the archipelago of top-tier university towns; this has come at the cost of losing working class voters in ex-industrial areas. Only in Scotland do we find a radically different position. And even this is problematic, since Item One on any SNP list of coalition demands will be an independence referendum that Labour may not be able to concede.
Labour’s problems run deeper, however. The recent – largely fabricated – anti-Semitism debacle has the grubby hands of the Blairites all over it; and is merely the latest attempt to eject Corbyn and replace him with a “moderate” (i.e., a discredited neoliberal corporatist). The stupidity of this ought not to need spelling out. Nevertheless: the neoliberal experiment is over. It died back in 2008 when it was exposed as a giant, globalised, debt-based Ponzi scheme. The parties of neoliberalism also died when, in the aftermath of 2008, they chose to inflict austerity on the people in order to bail out their friends and donors in the banking and finance sector. The choice today is not between right-wing populism and a return to the neoliberal “moderation” of the late 1990s; but between right and left versions of a post-neoliberal populism. Impose a Blairite as Labour leader and Johnson/Farage will do to Labour in the 2020s what Thatcher did to them in the 1980s.
In the USA this is already happening. Despite the wails of angst from the activist left; and in the face of a mainstream media that – with the exception of Fox – is entirely pro-Democrat; Trump looks certain to win a second term in 2020. The reason for this should send a chill down the spines of British Labour supporters – the Democrat Party keeps raising issues that are of zero interest to the voters they need to win back in the states that they have to win. As Umair Haque explains in a Eudaimonia & Co article contrasting today’s left with the decadent German left in the 1930s:
“The left in my societies tells me that I have to use words like ‘cis’ and ‘trans.’ That I have to always respect people’s personal pronouns, and say ‘them’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘her.’ They thunder that I must support gender free bathrooms and sexual freedom for teenagers and everybody choosing their own gender identity, no matter how strange. And that’s alright. I suppose I do support those things — although not entirely without reservation. But the left in my societies tells me these are the only things that really matter very much, or at least that they are the things that matter first and most…
“A regressive right is offering people what a decadent, degenerate left will not. Even on the rare occasions the left does care about urgent material issues, not sociocultural ones — austerity, inequality, stagnation — they come last, after the ones about sex and pleasure and the right pronouns and whatnot. But the average person in the US or UK could care less about pleasure, gender, sexuality, ‘queer theory’s’ increasingly bizarre terminology and demands — even though many of them support them anyways, because they’re most good people. The reason these things don’t mobilize, inspire, galvanize, electrify people is simple: they aren’t affected by them.
“Average people, by definition, don’t want to be the increasingly outlandish things a decadent left is fighting for. Pansexual aromantics, subverters of gender, libertines of extreme sexual pleasure, outliers without any boundaries in human relationship or sexuality, unwilling academic specialists in queer theory made to speak a grad-school seminar level of discourse just to say hi. Sorry if that makes you hate me, but it’s true. There’s nothing wrong with being any of those things. Many of them are interesting and challenging things. But average people are just boring old straight people. Two cars, kids, a mortgage. The average person is just that…average…
“But if a left won’t fight their political battles…for higher incomes, savings, wages, better jobs…who do you think they’ll turn to?”
I’m not sure about that “two car” thing – the average US worker these days struggles to keep an antiquated bone shaker on the road. But that aside, the answer of course is that ordinary people, abandoned by the parties of the left, have turned to the populist nationalist right – “making America great again” and “taking back control” may have been outrageous lies, but they were also a damned sight better than the left’s message that “this is as good as it gets.” Indeed, even the climate change-Green New Deal message – which apparently enjoys overwhelming public support – turns out to be an electoral millstone around the neck of any party that proposes anything more concrete than warm words.
Things are not quite so bad in the UK, where shadow chancellor McDonnell has been setting out a programme of government that addresses at least some of the core concerns of the growing mass of impoverished people in Britain’s rust-belt. This, however, is all too often obscured by an activist base that seems to believe that the recent appointment of two female millionaires to the Bank of England’s monetary policy committee is more important than the fact that millions of children are going without food during the school holidays; or that women presenters’ pay at the BBC is a more urgent matter than tens of thousands of homeless and disabled people dying as a deliberate consequence of Tory welfare policy.
Just as millions of ordinary American voters turned to Trump as a supposed outsider who might just shake things up in their favour, rather than a corporatist, warmongering Democrat who definitely wouldn’t; so a similar demographic in the UK turned to right-wing populists like Johnson and Farage in 2016 as the last chance of changing conditions that had become intolerable. It is a dangerous mistake to believe that these people – who the left have spent the last three years demonising as a basket of racist, sexist and fascist “deplorables” – are in any way chastened. The left might tell them that things have got worse under Trump and that Brexit will be a disaster. But there is little evidence that they have changed their minds.
For what it is worth, I share leftists’ concern that a no-deal Brexit will have a host of negative economic consequences (although I also think it will be better for the environment). But for most Britons, Brexit hasn’t happened yet; and predictions of economic doom are just more “project fear.” Other than a slight fall in the value of the pound, life in Britain in 2019 is no different to 2016 (except that the government has been too embroiled in Brexit to inflict any more harm on the British people; which, I guess, is a victory of sorts). Believing that a second referendum – which itself depends upon electing a Labour-led government – has already been won is precisely the kind of bubble-thinking that cost the left so dearly in 2016.
The reality is that both securing a change of government and securing a second referendum depend upon winning back those working class voters who opted to leave the EU in 2016 and who turned out to vote for the Faragists in May 2019. And that, in turn, will require mending a lot of burned bridges. As the Guardian’s John Harris warned on the eve of the referendum in 2016:
“Hardly anybody talks about the official campaigns, and the most a mention of the respective figureheads of each camp tends to elicit is a dismissive tut – but just about everyone agrees that this is a fantastically important moment, and a litmus test of the national mood…
“To be sure, there are many nuances and complications among leave voters. In the inner-city Birmingham neighbourhood of Handsworth, I met Sikh shopkeepers who claimed that the country is full, with just as much oomph as anyone white; in Leominster, Herefordshire, there are plenty of Tory voters gleefully defying Cameron’s instructions, and fixating on questions of sovereignty and democracy.
“But make no mistake: in an almost comical reflection of the sacred lefty belief that any worthwhile political movement will necessarily be built around the workers, the foundation of the Brexit coalition is what used to be called the proletariat, large swaths of which are as united as in any lefty fantasy, even if some of their loudest complaints are triggering no end of anxiety among bien-pensant types, and causing Labour a great deal of apprehension.
“In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into cliches, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. ‘I’m scared about the future’ … ‘No one listens to us’ … ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares’.”
Until and unless the now life-threatening needs of this growing “precariat” population are addressed by the left, then right-wing populism is going to continue to win; and will ultimately create a new, post-neoliberal nationalist populist consensus. And don’t go thinking that the obnoxious antics and personality of a Johnson or a Trump will be enough to deter people from voting for them. As Linker points out:
“There’s something undeniably satisfying about naming names, about affixing bold, morally evaluative and condemnatory labels to heinous words and deeds… Trumpism is undeniably fascistic, racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic.
“I’m not just deploying rhetoric, setting up the part of this column where I’ll confidently answer the question, telling my readers what should follow the act of labeling the president’s appalling words and behavior. I’m asking because I genuinely don’t know.”
Linker goes on:
“I love those ‘Any Functioning Adult 2020’ bumper stickers as much as any upper-middle-class suburban white liberal. But if I’m honest, it isn’t really true. I will never vote for Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean I’ll cast a ballot for any Democrat with a pulse. I would vote for no one rather than contribute to the victory of a candidate who fails to show minimal competence and capacity for responsible leadership.
“Judged by that standard, the Democratic field isn’t looking very good right now. Yes, it’s early. There’s plenty of time to mollify my concerns. But at the moment, none of the leading candidates seem like serious contenders.”
To the majority of people on both sides of the Atlantic, the political leaders of the left have faults of their own too. Jeremy Corbyn may be a decent guy, and should be applauded for sticking to his principles and for never once claiming unnecessary expenses. But Corbyn lacks the focus and ruthlessness required of a national leader (although the Corbyn-McDonnell-Starmer triumvirate that emerged during the Brexit negotiations appeared highly competent and very electable). And Corbyn is far better than any of the candidates likely to emerge as the Democrat nominee for 2020. But to win the next first-past-the-post UK election, Corbyn is going to need to garner the support of an electoral coalition that is far broader than the activist left, and that simply must include the deplorables.
The hard truth is that you are going to have to have to listen to their concerns; and you are going to have to formulate policies that address at least the most urgent of their needs. And then you are going to have to persuade them that, unlike every time before, this time you will deliver. Put simply, if you want your Green New Deal, you’re first going to have to scrap Universal Credit. If you want your student loans forgiven, you’re first going to have to build affordable housing. And if you want gender equality in the boardroom, you’re first going to have to create an economy in which millions are not left barely eking out a living doing several part-time, zero-hours and gig economy jobs in the absence of real employment.
As you made it to the end…
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