Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 5 November 2019

LibDem fantasies about the December election

There is one fact that too many people are currently in denial about. If Labour stay roughly where they are in the opinion polls then Johnson will lead a majority Conservative government from 2020 until 2025. We will either get his hard Brexit deal, or something worse. No ifs or buts, no caveats. It is just impossible for him not to win.

Could a realistic LibDem surge at the expense of the Tories prevent that? The short answer is no. There are just not enough seats that they can win. A realistic objective is for them to get another 20 seats, with a few more if they do really well. That is just not enough to offset the much bigger losses that Labour would make to the Conservatives if Labour continued with its current polling.

This would be just a repeat of the failure of the SDP in 1983. At that general election, the SDP–Liberal Alliance won more than 25% of the national vote, close behind Labour's 28%, and well behind the 44% secured by the Conservatives. The Alliance was rewarded with only 23 MPs. There are just too many very safe Conservative and Labour seats.

Could the Brexit party make it a four party election? I very much doubt it. With a Brexit deal already having been agreed with the EU and given a second reading by the old parliament, Johnson is now in a much stronger position. How many Brexit voters are going to put Brexit at risk by voting for Farage? In truth what we have at the moment approximates what Johnson always wanted, which is an election where the Remain vote is split by far more than the Leave vote

In addition the LibDems are already some way behind Labour in the polls. Here are the polls for the Sunday papers reported by @BritainElects.

You Gov:                  Lab 27% LD 16%
ComRes:                 Lab 28% LD 17%
DeltaPoll:                 Lab 28% LD 14%
ORB:                       Lab 28% LD 14%
OpiniumResearch   Lab 26% LD 16%

The numbers speak for themselves. The gap between the LibDems and Labour is only likely to increase as the media coverage of the General Election focuses on the two main parties.

Remainers last hope is for Labour’s poll position to improve. Without that improvement, Brexit is inevitable. All the effort and the marches and petitions will have been for nothing. This is the tragedy that Labour’s stubbornness on Brexit over the summer has created. The truth that too many Remainers refuse to acknowledge is this. If they are to have any hope of avoiding Brexit, many of those who switched from Labour to the Liberal Democrats or Greens at the European elections will have to switch back again, at least until after the General Election.

There is nothing new about this. It has always been the case that Remain could not succeed without Labour. There are some who say Labour’s plan for a People’s Vote (PV) on a softer Brexit versus Remain will fail to satisfy those that want a harder Brexit, and so will not stop Brexit re-emerging. But nothing will satisfy those wanting a hard Brexit, who also think a PV is illegitimate. They will only take part in a referendum that they are sure to win. The brutal reality for Remain centrists is that the Tories have become the party of Brexit and are not going to give that up until they realise it has become political suicide. A Labour government would be the first step on the road to making Brexit toxic, by pacifying moderate Brexiters with a PV and then after an inevitable Remain victory having four years of government when Brexit wasn’t mentioned.

Over the last year there have been crucial battles that have involved pushing the Labour party further towards a Remain position, and crucially getting them to commit to a PV. People tell me that they voted Labour in 2017 and had their vote counted as supporting Leave, and they will not be fooled again. But that is all about those battles to shift Labour. Labour’s position, guaranteeing a PV on a softer Brexit vs Remain, ensures Brexit will not happen, because no one in today’s Conservative party will support a soft Brexit. The battles with the Labour leadership over the summer were won, and it is now time to regroup for the final battle of this war. If people keep obsessing with these battles of the past they will inevitably lose the war.

It is a final battle that can be won. One of the things that surprised me when I looked at the numbers was that there were at least as many close marginals from 2017 that the Conservatives could lose to Labour as there were close marginals for Labour to lose to the Tories. If Labour can slightly improve on their 2017 performance, by more tactical voting or better targetting or whatever, they can flip just under 40 seats from the Conservatives to Labour. That does not give them an overall majority but it does make them the largest party and gives them the ability to govern as a minority government reasonably effectively.

Just as a small Labour improvement on 2017 can get a minority Labour government, equally there are 30 odd seats that Labour could lose if their performance slightly undershoots 2017. At best that might be offset by LibDem gains from Tories and results in Scotland, leaving the overall position largely unchanged from today. With the Tory rebels gone Johnson could get his Brexit deal through parliament. Nothing would have been gained but Brexit will have been lost. If we are lucky he will not quite get a majority for that, but a Tory government will do anything to stop a People’s Vote on Johnson’s deal unless he is certain he can win. So the best result we can hope for if Labour fails to achieve its 2017 vote is stalemate with another election soon to follow.

The reality of this election, which too many people refuse to accept, is that the only way of stopping Brexit is a minority Labour government. It requires many Remainers to switch their position from support for the LibDems to support for Labour in Labour marginals. The role of the LibDems in this election is essentially to capture as many Tory seats as they can, which will help the formulation of a minority Labour government. If instead they spend their time attacking Labour rather than the Tories, they will have played a key role in enabling Brexit. The idea that in this election the LibDems can win 200 seats or even form the next government is a dangerous fantasy worthy of any Brexiter.

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