Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 27 April 2017

One vote to bring them all, and in the darkness bind them

Forgive me for once again adapting a line from Tolkien’s ring-verse, but it does so naturally follow on from the post where I first used it. Then (before Theresa May announced her election) I noted that by March 2017 many more people had accepted that they would be worse off because of Brexit than immediately after the vote. However the proportions of people who say we were wrong to leave the EU has stayed pretty stable. (In the latest poll yesterday, there was, for the first time, the smallest majority possible believing it was wrong to leave.)

I wrote
“Here is a possible reason for this paradox. Voters feel that once a democratic decision has been made, it should be respected, even if they personally now feel less comfortable with the reasons behind the decision. It is important to respect the ‘will of the people’ for its own sake, just as it is important to keep to a contract even though you may now regret signing it.”

That was why I called that post ‘one vote to bind them all’.

These thoughts were, as I said at the time, largely speculation, but the extraordinary poll bounce May has received since she announced another vote makes me think I was right. When announcing the election, she talked about the country uniting behind Brexit. She also said
“Every vote for the Conservatives will make it harder for opposition politicians who want to stop me from getting the job done.
Every vote for the Conservatives will make me stronger when I negotiate for Britain with the prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of the European Union.”

The second sentence is just nonsense, while the first is ominous for any democrat. But as both polls and focus groups suggest, the spin that she needs ‘a strong mandate to get the best Brexit for Britain’ chimes with many voters. It is a vote to 'bring them all' into the darkness of an endeavour the aims of which remain hidden by platitudes.  

In this rather odd sense, there are similarities with what the Falklands did for Thatcher. The negotiations have been portrayed in the UK media as a battle between the UK and the EU. It is only natural for this to inspire nationalism among many voters: May needs strong backing (a large vote) so she can get the best deal for Britain in her battle with the EU. (And, of course, anyone arguing for the EU is therefore a ‘saboteur’.) May’s election announcement bounce therefore has similarities to Thatcher’s Falklands poll bounce.

As ever, reality is very different. What happens in the negotiations is largely down to the EU, with the occasional choice for the UK. These choices should be made by democratic means, and not by one person who has the interests of her party to worry about. My impression is that as far as the media outside the UK is concerned they just cannot understand why we have embarked on this crazy path.

If May and her team realised this when they called an election they were clever. There are plenty of other reasons why she called an election: potential prosecutions associated with election expenses, as Bill Keegan’s notes the negative impact of brexit is about to become visible, and of course the unpopularity of JC. [1] The latter was, I’m afraid, inevitable from the moment he was re-elected, and the responsibility for that vote lies as much with the PLP as with Corbyn and Labour party members.

It is almost as if May’s line is ‘who do you want to lead us into battle, me or JC’? With the referendum still regarded as the most important issue in UK politics, it is a line that could make the UK into virtually a one party state. [2] Of course many die-hard Remainers (like me) will never vote for her, but they comprise at best only around half of the 48%. Labour’s core support will remain loyal. But even if you could form some kind of ‘progressive anti-May alliance’ (which will not happen), Chaminda Jayanetti is right that there just are not enough progressives around to defeat the Conservatives, particularly if the UKIP vote collapses.

So is a Conservative landslide which decimates Labour assured? Heroic talk of defeating May and trying to shift the debate on to something else besides Brexit will not work. This is not because the Tories are not vulnerable. Quite the opposite in fact: I have never known a government that has such a poor record on health, education (this, and grammar schools for pity’s sake) and even prisons. The ‘we now have a strong economy’ line is a lie just waiting to be busted. All that means the Conservatives will focus relentlessly on Brexit and leadership. In 2015 the broadcast media followed the press in focusing on the issues where the Conservatives were strong, and they will do so again with (unlike 2015) justification from the polls.

Perhaps predictably, the wisest words I’ve seen written on this have come from Tony Blair. He suggests the slogan ‘no blank cheque’. It concedes defeat, which is realistic and has the advantage of shifting attention away from JC’s leadership qualities. It encourages voters not to ask who would be best battling for Britain against the EU27, and instead to think about choices to be made which may not be in the country’s interests but instead are in Conservative party’s interests. I do not think the leadership will ever adopt this line, because it requires them to admit they are going to lose and I do not think they are brave enough to do that. But on the doorstep it might help.

[1] When I tweeted Bill’s column with this point about Corbyn, someone replied that I couldn’t help making a dig at Corbyn when the price was a Tory Brexit. This is the other side of those on the right who accuse me of being politically biased when I’m critical of the government. Both misunderstand what I do and don’t do. I don’t do propaganda as defined here.

[2] The culture war analogy that Chakrabortty uses is interesting, as is the comparison with Nixon. But in many ways it is the spin doctors, well versed in what happened in the US, who are calling the shots, and May just has to agree to what they advise.


  1. What happens when May, with her three figure majority in the Commons, fails to produce an acceptable accord with the EU?

    Remembering that voters in their eighteens to late forties were in a majority favouring Remain, and that Remain lost not even by one million votes, she may pull off a big majority in the 2017 election but it will be an alliance of grievances that cannot be sated by anything but a humiliating climbdown by the EU.

    The pressgang want out of the ECJ because they believe it wants to introduce a privacy law; that is the core of their hatred of the European project. It is about making the press more money rather than getting their readers richer through improved trade flows.

    The bigger the vote for May in 2017 the bigger the house of cards that will fall on top of her and her party.

  2. It's not true that there has been a poll bounce -- look at the aggregated polls at, e.g. UK Polling Report. The only reason May called the election in the first place was that polls at the time were indicating a 20-point lead for the Conservatives, and that lead has so far remained fairly stable since the election was called.

    The Observer misleadingly reported a "poll bounce" last Sunday because the week before the election was called it had run an outlier poll from Opinium showing only a 9-point lead for the Conservatives, but the other polls that weekend showed a 21-point lead, in line with the general trend over the preceding weeks.

    1. Its not calling the election that created the bounce, but the start of negotiations.

  3. JC has as good a chance as Trump, if he plays the same game (disruption). How many pollsters backed a Trump victory?

    Only time will tell us whether we have a strong economy now. Historians are much better at judging this than economists. Historians might even be better at predicting the strength of the economy in the future.

  4. «The negotiations have been portrayed in the UK media as a battle between the UK and the EU.»

    But there is quite a bit of statistical evidence that both leaders and the press have a relatively small impact on general election votes. As Tony Blair once said “people judge us on their instincts about what they believe our instincts to be”.

    For many "Leave" voters the press and leaders don't matter: what matters is their "instinct" that EU membership is a national humiliation, a quisling surrender of England's great and global empire to be just a member of small and insignificant regional group, and it is quite impossible to reason with an "instinct" that gives a feeling of national humiliation, especially one rooted in England's defeat in WW2 and its aftermath.

    «just cannot understand why we have embarked on this crazy path.»

    I was for "Remain" too and now for soft-exit (EFTA/EEA would be the best option as J Corbyn has been arguing), of the J Corbyn "75%" variety, and I think that being in or out does not make that much of an economic difference, surely not to the level of "crazy".

    Our blogger quoted several times in the past quite plausible estimates of 8% of loss of GDP growth over 5-15 years as the consequence of exit, and while that is quite significant, like the aftermath of a hard recession, it is not "crazy", just dumb.

    1. I'd like to know more about 'quite a bit of statistical evidence'.

    2. Web search gives me for example:
      «But the effect of leader evaluations on the chances of voting for a party are much weaker when we control for prior partisanship than when we do not. For instance, when we control for prior partisanship, whether or not people like David Cameron goes from explaining 65% of whether they will consider voting Conservative to just 15%. The fall in the capacity of feelings about Ed Miliband to explain how likely people are to vote Labour is similar – down from 54% to 14%.»
      «David Cameron has a smaller positive impact for the Conservatives, and Ed Miliband is a modest liability for Labour.»
      «the academic literature is much more divided. Some suggest that leaders play an important role in the vote calculus, while others argue that in comparison to other factors, perceptions of leaders have only a minimal impact.»

      IIRC C Dillow in his book has more references. On his blog he argues against a large effect of the press here:

      My impression as an armchair reader of various books etc. is that there is an effect but it is in general fairly modest. Anecdotes abound: relatively uninspiring or unknown "leaders" have often "won" UK elections, from Attlee to Major and Blair to Cameron.

      As to Blair, that New Labour managed to win 3 elections despite his toxicity losing the party 4 million votes can only be ascribed to the even greater unpopularity of house-price-crashing Conservatives, look at the very different vote profiles for Thatcher and Blair:

      1974: Labour 11.45m, Conservatives 10.46m, Liberals 5.34m
      1979: Labour 11.53m, Conservatives 13.70m, Liberals 4.31m
      1983: Labour 8.46m, Conservatives 13.01m, Liberals 7.78m
      1987: Labour 10.03m, Conservatives 13.74m, Liberals 7.34m
      1992: Labour 11.56m, Conservatives 14.09, Liberals 6.00m
      1997: Labour 13.52m Conservatives 9.60m, Liberals 5.24m
      2001: Labour 10.72m Conservatives 8.34m, Liberals 4.81m
      2005: Labour 9.55m, Conservatives 8.78m, Liberals 5.99m
      2010: Labour 8.61m, Conservatives 10.70m, Liberals 6.84m
      2015: Labour 9.35m, Conservatives 11.30m, Other 6.00m

  5. A big majority just gives May more room to say "it's not my fault, I did my best to get the deal that you all asked me to get" when she fails.

  6. Why aren't die-hard Remainers like SWL strongly advocating the electorate vote Lib Dem?

    The Lib Dems are clearly the most pro-EU party and offer the best chance of halting Brexit. Most election commentary I've seen suggests their stance will garner them more votes, but probably only a few extra seats - they need a boost. Saying 'they wouldn't win' seems like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They offer a chance of stopping Brexit; others don't.

    A side anecdote: I heard an old-school Labour supporter on the radio recently, saying she'd put party politics aside for the good of the country and vote Conservative for the first time - Theresa May's cynical move looks set to work for her.

    1. For die-hard Remainers its best to vote tactically. There would be no point voting LibDem if that allowed a Leave Tory to defeat a Remain Labour politician.

    2. «For die-hard Remainers its best to vote tactically.»

      And that includes voting for soft-Brexiters in Labour as that is the next best option to "Remain", and a switch to "Remain" is regrettably rather unlikely.

  7. From the US, the situation looks a lot like our Obamacare debacle where a awkward and complex compromise with apparent flaws (Obamacare and EU membership) comes up against a claimed perfect future that both conservative parties have been hawking. Previously, the anti-Brexers and the US Democratic party had a difficult task of attacking the invisible target of future consequences. Now both real futures are in the process of becoming true - more promptly in the US where the Obamacare replacements are moving from fantasy to ugly reality with striking consequences for the Republicans. Despite this, they continue being unable to either go backwards or create a real solution. Will the UK go the same way? The one big difference is that May can try to rouse nationalism to blame the Europeans when Brits lose things they care about.


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