“As reliably as the announcement of the first cuckoo in spring, letters appeared in the liberal press after the Tory triumph in the British general election on 12 December 2019 complaining that the electoral system in the UK was dysfunctional and unfair. I think we can assume that the writers of these letters were not supporters of the winning side; they were also unlikely to be supporters of Labour, the principal loser, since that party has shown in the past that it can win big under the present “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system.”
A Footnote to the British Election of 2019
There are some in this country who fear that going into
Europe we shall in some way sacrifice independence and sovereignty,
These fears, I need hardly say, are completely unjustified.
UK Prime Minister Edward Heath in January 1973
Tories like me, and I think we used to be in the majority,
see good governance as an effort to live with democracy
rather than to an effort to live by democracy…
We see the popular will as a sometimes dangerous thing,
to be handled, guided, and on key occasions (and subtly) thwarted.
Matthew Parris in The Spectator, 15 December 2018
It is the folly of too many to mistake the echo of
a London coffeehouse for the voice of a Kingdom.
As reliably as the announcement of the first cuckoo in spring, letters appeared in the liberal press after the Tory triumph in the British general election on 12 December 2019 complaining that the electoral system in the UK was dysfunctional and unfair. I think we can assume that the writers of these letters were not supporters of the winning side; they were also unlikely to be supporters of Labour, the principal loser, since that party has shown in the past that it can win big under the present “First Past the Post” (FPTP) system. Such complaints come typically from Liberal Democrats, fringe parties and assorted academics. In this December election the LibDems actually increased their overall vote by more than 4 per cent, but showed a net loss of 2 seats, while the Tories only increased their vote by 1.2 per cent from 2017, but gained 49 seats. In 2017, they had increased their share of the vote by 5.5 per cent, but lost 13 seats.
The complaints are not totally without merit, since electoral systems that produce winners from a minority of votes cast nationally (as can happen in the USA or Britain) arguably incorporate a degree of democratic deficit. The system may not be ideal, but then no system is. More questionable was the furious complaint of Professor A. C. Grayling in The Guardian, namely that “candidates for remain-supporting parties received 16.5 million votes, while candidates for leave-supporting parties received 14.8 million. The 14.8 million gave the leave supporters a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons. We may infer two facts from these numbers. Our electoral system is grossly undemocratic, and there is no majority in the UK for leaving the EU. The first fact has made the second irrelevant.”1 Of course we may “infer” no such thing, since the good Professor’s disingenuous statistic can only be arrived at by counting all the 10 million plus Labour votes as Remain. This is not correct because the party was ambiguous on Brexit and suffered as a result in its traditional heartlands, many of which were fiercely for Leave. Even where Labour MPs were returned, the majorities could be severely trimmed, partly because of disgust felt by both Remainers and Leavers at Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit ambivalence. The Leader of the Labour Party was widely believed to be privately in favour of Leave and the Shadow Home Secretary had recently said (to the dismay of her BBC interviewer) that she thought a second Referendum should not be held “because if we held one now, Leave would win” (sic). Grayling’s anger is an indication of the refusal of hard core Remainers to accept the referendum result; but it is also a demonstration of the hubris of academics, most of whom are against Brexit, and who simply cannot endure to be defeated at the hands of people whose views they regard with contempt. The hubris has been accompanied by a degree of solipsism: an Oxford First tells me that Britain now has a “potentially” fascist government (“potentially” providing a useful get-out clause should the black-shirted militia fail to materialise); another left-leaning friend claims she is taking out German citizenship; a lady I met in Pest says she had been contemplating a move to the UK, but now is not doing so because of its “imperialist fantasies”. Perhaps such people think that, faced with the dire prospect of having to struggle on without them, Britain will “come to its senses” and beg them to stay or to come?
Moreover it is far from clear that a majority of UK voters think that the perceived defects in the electoral system outweigh its most important advantage, namely that one elected representative, of whatever party, is directly answerable to all the people in the constituency, running regular “surgeries” to discuss problems brought to them by individual constituents. This may seem a sweeping statement, but it is an evident feature of FPTP in the Anglophone world (the USA system is based on FPTP despite the apparent complications of the electoral college, Canada uses it, Australia has a mixed system which is nevertheless designed to produce single seat winners, and the larger number of New Zealand MPs are elected under FPTP).
I t has been said hyperbolically that a UK election is like 650 mini-general elections because of the direct link between MP and constituents. A popular, hardworking British MP (who is also somewhat exposed to the occasional dangers to his or her person from maniacs, Islamists and others) can indeed withstand electoral swings against his or her party. In “party-list” systems of proportional representation the relationship between constituent and MP tends to be more nebulous. Moreover, except for the occasional ministerial post that can be offered to members of the unelected House of Lords, any British Government must be constituted from the directly elected MPs. Finally, the electorate shows that it well understands the vagaries of the system by voting “tactically” if this seems to be necessary. All this may help to explain why the proposal initiated by the Liberal Democrats when in coalition with the Conservatives to introduce at least an Alternative Vote system (which is not even PR) failed resoundingly in a referendum (5 May 2011) with nearly 68 per cent voting against on a rather low turnout of just over 42 per cent. This is in stark contrast to the turnout for the Brexit referendum, which was 72 per cent, and produced a clear majority in favour of Leave.
A contrary opinion to the complaints of unfairness of FPTP puts it like this: “proportional representation hands power to cliques and minorities who can hold the larger parties to ransom… it facilitates stalemates.”2 This of course describes the recent situation in the House of Commons, where a hung Parliament, very rarely produced by FPTP, led to chaos and anarchy. The voters showed their disgust for such outcomes in December 2019 and the system righted itself. The above quoted critic cites elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Israel as examples of unstable coalition making, but presently one might just as well cite Germany,3 Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands or Italy. Most member states of the EU operate on a Party List Proportional Representation basis using the D’Hondt method.4 This avoids the so-called “wasted votes” of FPTP,5 but it entrenches the patronage of parties and has recently produced over-extended periods of negotiation in attempting to form a government. This is usually in order to keep a strong, insurgent party like the Alternative fur Deutschland out of power. British FPTP had indeed also produced a relatively rare UK parliamentary stalemate in 2017; however this was only prolonged because many MPs, who knew they were likely to suffer at the polls but wanted to sabotage the referendum result, abandoned constitutional custom and kept a government in power which had dramatically lost the confidence of the House. When an overdue general election was finally held and the Tories went to the country with an unambiguous Brexit message, voters showed their displeasure with obscure parliamentary shenanigans designed by some to block or reverse Brexit, while pretending not to. The huge unpopularity of the Labour leader was certainly also crucial, but a big part of that was his equivocation over Brexit as leader of a party whose traditional voters (but not its highly ideological members) were substantially in favour of it.6
Why should any of the above be of interest to anyone other than nerds of alternative electoral systems? The reason is that the result of the December 2019 election in Britain was produced by very similar forces to those that have marooned Angela Merkel’s government in Germany, produced lengthy periods of political uncertainty in Spain and Italy and made governing extremely difficult in France. Yet such forces have now produced a clear result under our system in the UK and made the government once again handlungsfähig after a period of two years when it was not. The system has been able to accommodate, indeed to defang, an insurgent party, originally called UKIP, latterly the Brexit Party. Although these never won a parliamentary seat (other than two temporarily occupied by renegade Tories), they successfully represented Eurosceptic concerns that had been purposefully ignored by the so-called mainstream parties for too long. Their success was by virtue of the fact that one of these traditional parties eventually chose to stop ignoring such concerns. In a different electoral environment, the Scottish National Party has cannily exploited Brexit and the patronising attitudes towards Scotland of the formerly mainstream parties to win 48 of the 59 Scottish seats in 2019. On the surface it has won big for precisely opposite reasons to a Brexit party, being fervently pro-EU, but in reality what liberals insist on calling “nationalist populism” is the driving force that is common to both of them. The underlying concern of “national populism” is to prevent the further erosion of the nation state or (as in the Scottish or Catalonian cases) the re-establishment of such.
IMPLICATIONS FOR BREXIT AND EUROPE
Boris Johnson’s impressive win (an 80 seat majority – the best since Mrs Thatcher’s glory years) means that a weak, incompetent and defeatist government in the UK had been replaced by a strong one that cannot so easily be blackmailed, although the Scottish National Party will try. Even before his win, Johnson had sacrificed the Northern Irish unionists, who had previously kept his party in power, by agreeing to an EU border running down the Irish Sea for at least four years. This is something that Irish nationalists and perhaps the Republic of Ireland could interpret as a first step to unification of Ireland. However any attempt to force the pace on that could lead to a violent backlash in the province.
More positively the government will be less vulnerable to the vindictive strategy of the EU in its attempts to turn Britain into what one of Guy Verhofstadt’s aides triumphantly called “a colony of Europe”. Understandably the EU only regards power as a basis of negotiation and will ruthlessly exploit any political weakness. Once Parliament had removed the UK government’s only negotiating leverage (the prospect of “no deal”, which dismayed Europe’s businesses), the EU could more or less impose the terms it wanted. However, by setting a blistering pace for a consequent deal, while acting from a position of domestic strength, Boris Johnson has (as Remoaners indeed complain) put “No deal” back on the table, should the EU and the UK fail to agree on reasonable (if partly interim) trade terms by the end of 2020. Ms von der Leyen, the newly baptised President of the European Commission, has already begun hinting that perhaps the previously stated impossible might after all be possible through judicious “prioritising”, although the official position is to say how utterly implausible the timetable is. “No deal” would also of course remove the legally unsubstantiated payment the UK is presently obliged to pay the EU, which desperately needs the money as the member states dispute how the future shortfall in the EU budget is to be made good. All this underlines that the only fruitful policy in dealing with an EU that is used to getting its own way is to demonstrate that you can be unreasonable too, if required. The EU’s official position is probably tactical, given that most of the required alignments on trade are already in place due to the UK’s existing membership of the Union.
On the other hand it has been optimistically pointed out by the Brussels Herald, formerly known as the Financial Times, that Mr Johnson can now also face down what the paper calls “extremists” (i.e. those who feel that care should be taken to honour the referendum result rather than subvert it). Characteristically it declares that the Brexit negotiations should now be placed in the hands “of civil servants and experts”, i.e. the sort of people who have performed calamitously so far and whose main aim is to stymie or neuter Brexit.7 If Johnson follows that advice (and he might), he will rapidly lose the support of those in hitherto unwaveringly Labour constituencies who, astonishingly, decided to back him in the December election. They will not take kindly to being betrayed. Close political control, not civil service control, will be required to avoid such an outcome (Johnson has in fact already abolished the cumbersome Department for Exiting the European Union and placed matters more directly under his control with a Taskforce Europe answering to the Cabinet Office).8
Nonetheless the EU would be unwise to overplay its hand. Much of the Union is economically becalmed, the migration crisis is only temporarily contained, Catalonia is smoking and could burst into flames, the Eurozone is somewhat fragile in its present constellation9 and there will have to be a reckoning with zombie Italian banks and Germany’s surplus at some point. Clearly it would be in the interests of all to get the Brexit issue settled on mutually agreeable terms instead of weaponising it – or, as Michel Barnier put it, “to make the UK regret that it ever decided to leave”.10 The EU’s (or at least the Commission’s) hostility to a legal and democratic vote taken by an allegedly sovereign nation is plain to see in such an attitude; it opens a window on what the smaller nations have in store for them once, as Emmanuel Macron advocates, fiscal policy of Eurozone countries is decided centrally by the EU rather than nationally. External control of fiscal policy is simply loss of sovereignty, full stop.
Currently the major problem in the EU has been well described by Wolfgang Munchau in the aforementioned Financial Times. He points to the “decline of the political centre”, something which he considers, rather than the rise in populism, “to be the main development in the EU’s largest member states”. According to Munchau, “austerity as a policy is the consequence of a poor understanding of economics coupled with a self-righteous mind and a tendency to spend too much time with your chums at places like Davos”. He concludes that “it would be complacent, but fully in line with centrist delusions, to blame the populists, or the Russians, for their [the centrists’] decline. But the collapse of the centre is not a conspiracy. It is self-inflicted. In some countries, populists filled the vacuum. But not everywhere. Neither the Greens nor Mr Macron are populists.”11
THE JOHNSON EFFECT IN EUROPE
Finally it is worth considering what the “Johnson effect” (if any) might be on European politics. Immediate reactions to Johnson’s victory ranged from the enthusiastic (despite regret in regard to Brexit) by the Czech Prime Minister to the all but surly from the ever-posturing political midget of Luxembourg.12 Mrs Merkel was formal and respectful in her congratulations; however both she and Macron have stressed that the UK could become an “unfair competitor”. This is code for trying to keep the UK tied up in as much red tape as possible (the EU often means “competition” when it says “unfair competition”).
The fact that the British electorate has refused to be thwarted by Munchau’s centrist establishment despite a tsunami of anti-Brexit propaganda and abuse of the 17.4 million Brexit voters (not least from the BBC) confirms a European trend. However leaving the EU is not a runner for most of the “nationalist populists” who, from Scandinavia to the Balkans, are now increasingly challenging Europe’s once complacent mainstream. The insurgent right encompasses a widening spectrum from the “illiberal”, but electorally successful, post-1989 democracies (Poland, Hungary and Slovenia – though the last-named did not go on to form the government) through more traditionalist right-of-centre parties such as Sebastian Kurz’s Volkspartei in Austria. Virtually all such parties are united by opposition to excessive immigration and in particular to the EU’s ideological and incompetent response to the issue.
The Boris agenda is one that energises the European right too, albeit Johnson subscribes to a “one nation” (more socially liberal) approach. That agenda includes rekindling patriotism (often very strong among the less privileged classes spurned by left-liberal identity politics), replacing austerity with infrastructure investment, supplying a strong counter-voice to left-liberal thought police, sticking up for traditionalist conservatives who are habitually abused or ridiculed in the liberal press, and resisting erosion of the nation state. It is not impossible that Britain will have more influence on European political thinking from its position outside the EU than it had inside it. It could provide a model that fully observes democratic proprieties, yet actively addresses the concerns of voters. Guy Verhofstadt said after the referendum that “Britain has shot herself in the foot. I propose to shoot her in the other one”. But what if the other foot proves to be the one with the boot on it?
1 Letter to The Guardian, 19 December, 2019. Eight smaller parties garnered around seven million votes, which may generously be regarded as essentially Remain or Soft Brexit supporters, although obviously there are Leave voters amongst them. The Labour Party attracted some 10.3 million votes and the Conservatives nearly 14 million. The only party that had an unequivocal “stop Brexit” stance was that of the Liberal Democrats, who received a little over 3 million 675,000 votes. In view of the fact that nearly 70 per cent of Labour areas voted to Leave in the Referendum, it is reasonable to assume that a substantial number of Labour voters were in favour of Leave. The Professor’s figures are spurious, although his claim is already being recycled in a few corners of the German press, which still exist in a bubble of wishful thinking that Brexit could be stalled. It is also easily and conveniently forgotten that in the Referendum, in heavily Remain voting areas, 40 per cent still voted Leave in Greater London, 44 per cent in Northern Ireland and 38 per cent in Scotland.
2 Letter to the Financial Times, 19 November 2019.
3 Germany has a somewhat complicated “two votes” system for elections to the Bundestag which offers a simple majority choice and a second choice which is distributed proportionately. According to Wikipedia, “For the distribution of seats in the German Bundestag, the second vote is more important than the first vote.”
4 The big exception is France, but this is because it operates a presidential system where executive power is divided along American lines, arguably with a Chamber of Deputies and a Senate (indirectly elected on a privileged franchise) somewhat weaker than Congress and the Senate in the USA. Hungary under Viktor Orban has moved the voting system closer to FPTP, with a separate PR element, occasioning grumbles among Liberal commentators.
5 “Wasted” is of course a loaded term. Have athletes who enter a race but fail to win “wasted” their efforts?
6 The Labour Party, the alternate governing party in Britain since the war, suffered its worst defeat since 1935.
7 The demand appears in an analysis in FT Weekend, 14/15 December 2019.
8 M. Barnier’s team has also been rebranded Taskforce for Relations with the United Kingdom, a tacit admission that the cancellation of Brexit, which Eurocrats and their Remainer advisers from the UK hoped would happen, will not now occur.
9 According to a survey conducted by the FT and published in Weekend FT, 28/29 December 2019, 34 economists expect growth in the Eurozone to dip below one per cent in 2020 (the worst performance in seven years), while the European Central Bank is predicting 1.1 per cent (the third consecutive year of slowdown). Apart from global factors such as the US–China trade war, Brexit is a factor cited by all commentators, but also the unsustainability of quantitative easing which the ECB recently restarted. Britain’s growth is predicted in other newspapers to be similarly anaemic, at least while uncertainty over the terms of the Brexit deal lasts. The incentives to conclude a fair deal (rather than indulge in posturing) are therefore strong on both sides.
10 Alice Weidel, Bundestag speaker for the AfD party in Germany, commented as follows on this approach: “With friends like that, who needs enemies.” There is a YouTube video of her forceful speech criticising the EU approach to Brexit on 21 March 2019 (English subtitles supplied).
11 Wolfgang Munchau: “How austerity blighted the middle ground of European politics” Financial Times, 23 December 2019.
12 See Reuters’ round-up of international reactions to the elections.