Theresa May’s decision to hold a snap general election on 8 June is being widely seen as an attempt to further weaken – if not outrightly dismantle – a crisis-ridden and ineffectual Labour opposition and to gain a much larger Tory majority in the House of Commons. It was also quite explicit in her 18 April speech announcing the election – see the newsfeed video clip below – that she wants that increased majority so she can eliminate any opposition in Parliament to pushing through her version of Brexit.
May named the House of Lords, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists as being the ‘enemy’. In a sense it was a little duplicitous for her to include Labour in quite the way she did. Jeremy Corbyn has been reported – eg: The Independent’s Rob Merrick – as saying Labour would vote against a final Brexit deal it didn’t approve of and Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer – as reported by The Guardian’s Rowena Mason & Anushka Asthana – has proposed that the UK could still participate in various EU structures and agencies post-Brexit. However, in general Corbyn has been broadly supportive of May’s Brexit tactics so far. He has declared Labour will not support calls for a second Brexit referendum and even cracked a 3-line whip to get his MPs to shoo through May’s Article 50 bill back in March. Given these facts, Corbyn’s historical antipathy towards the European Union (as chronicled by Business Insider UK’s Jeremy Wilson last year), his relative non-performance for Remain in the referendum campaign and the dissolute state of Labour, it would seem May has little to fear from Labour, as led by Corbyn, disrupting her headlong rush towards the Brexit ‘cliff edge’. Indeed, Corbyn’s ambivalence towards the Brexit issue, can be measured by the fact that, apart from Starmer’s 24 April statement, Labour has said little about it so far.
Rather, it seems May is more concerned about rebels in her own party. It was implicit in her election announcement but much more explicit in an interview later that day with The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn that anti-Brexit Tories are “trying to stop us every step of the way”.
So an election that gives her an increased majority in the House of Commons not only inflicts further injury – possibly fatal – to Labour but also minimises the influence of any Tory rebels still left on the backbenches and increases the Government’s leverage against the Lords, would be a win-lose all around!
May had said repeatedly she would not call a snap general election. Additionally, she had told Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon “Now is not the time” for a second Scottish independence referendum because she doesn’t want the Government distracted from pursuing Brexit. These assertions have now been conveniently swept aside and ignored. When challenged about such statements, May either avoids answering the question directly, attacks other politicians or simply blusters that she is right. A perfect example of this is her response to Yvette Cooper’s criticisms at Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 April – see the home video clip by Rose McMahon below.
You could almost believe May had been schooled by Donald Trump in simply refusing to take on criticism and instead lying or attacking others. It shows how the RED vMEME will not be shamed but deflects the criticism by attacking others. Although strong Psychoticism is not that common in women – being associated with the male sex hormone testosterone – there is more than enough compulsion and ruthlessness in the way May works to indicate she could be high in that Dimension of Temperament, just to add to the sense of stubborn and bullish aggressiveness she also displays.
Is the election a second referendum by any other name?
May has also unequivocally stated there could not be a rerun of the EU referendum of 2016. Yet in her 18 April announcement, she makes it clear the election is about getting a larger majority so she can pursue her rush to Brexit.
So she is effectively making it a sort of referendum on Brexit. If she gets the large majority she anticipates, there is nothing to stop her rush to Brexit. If, however, the Tories are defeated or can only maintain power as a minority government, then it can be argued the electorate have voted against her version of Brexit. Depending just how many seats the Tories lose, it could even be argued the electorate have voted against Brexit full stop.
It is possible May has miscalculated severely in calling the election. The impression given is that she does not consult widely but only takes in the views of her inner circle and the extreme Brexiteers – Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox, etc – on whose patronage she depends to stay in power. This collective resistance to outside views is what Irving Janis (1972) called groupthink. As Janis noted, it has been behind many a disastrous political decision.
As widely reported at the end of April – eg: Meehran Khan in the Financial Times – the British economy has slowed considerably in the first quarter of 2017, falling from 0.7% growth to 0.3%. In large part this is attributed to reduced consumer spending, following the post-referendum collapse in the value of sterling, with prices on the rise in the shops. However, manufacturing is underperforming, in spite of the low pound making the export of finished goods that much easier. (In the globalised world we live in, the low value of the pound means importing raw materials and other components for manufacturing is that much more expensive.) Many other sectors are underperforming too. The buoyancy of the British economy in the first 6 months after the referendum confounded the doom predictors (including me!) but it may well be that the doom has merely been delayed, not cancelled.
Could this have an effect on voting intentions?
Well, at least one poll, by YouGov – reported by The Times’ Sam Coates – has reported that 45% of its sample think that leaving the EU is the wrong thing to do, compared to 43% who support Brexit. 15% of the Leavers in its sample have changed their minds. While these kinds of results have yet to be reflected in newer polls, they could be a harbinger of things to come.
The election may, after all, not go Theresa May’s way.
Soundbite politicians are masters of creating memes that may not reflect the truth accurately or even at all. Theresa May has been particularly strong in insisting that she is carrying out “the will of the British people” in pursuing Brexit. In fact, with more than 48% voting in the referendum to stay in the EU, the best May could say, if she were being accurate, would be that she was carrying out a the will of a wafer-thin majority of the 72% of the electorate who actually voted.
It has s been a near consistent narrative from the moment May announced the election that her Conservatives would win it – and almost certainly with an enlarged majority. There’s even talk of a landslide. See the front pages sampled below.
Another meme put out by the right-wing press is that Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable. The Daily Telegraph cartoon below is typical of the way the Labour leader is mocked and vilified. Yet the YouGov poll referred to above has Corbyn marginally increasing his support.
One tragic effect of some of this memetic saturation is that people who should know better start to go along with it. Tim Farron, according to Politics Home’s Jessica Wilkes, sees the election replacing Labour with the Lib Dems as Her Majesty’s Opposition. In which case, is Farron going along with the May landslide meme and ready to settle for being second in the election? For goodness sake, there is at least 48% of the electorate to chase via the Lib Dems’ anti-Brexit platform!
You can see clearly why the centre-left Tony Blair, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Labour’s 1997 landslide win, would despair of the hard-left Corbyn struggling to reach 30% in the polls when the Tories are chasing 50%. Added to which, an Opinium poll (reported by The Guardian’s Damien Gayle) suggests only 45% of Labour voters think Corbyn becoming the next prime minister is a good idea. Yet even Blair appears to have fallen victim to the May landslide meme, telling The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley: “If the polls are right, she is going to win a big majority.”
In Scotland, of course, things are a little different. The right-wing press – eg: Simon Johnson in the Daily Telegraph – are using Nicola Sturgeon’s call for a second independence referendum to create the meme of a straight SNP vs Tories fight. The message to those Scots favouring staying in the United Kingdom is that only the Tories can save the Union; so there is no point in voting for any other party.
Can May be defeated?
Not if you swallow the May landslide meme, she can’t. If you’re the leader of a political party and that meme becomes your schema, then, the best you can hope for is to come a poor second – which is perhaps what’s happened to Tim Farron. If that’s become your schema but you would like to support Labour, only you’ve also swallowed the Corbyn-is-unelectable meme, then you might as well sit this election out; there’s nothing for you in it.
Thankfully, not everyone has swallowed the May landslide meme. 3 key figures clearly believe there is a real possibility of stopping May if both opposition leaders and voters opposed to May’s rush to the Brexit cliff edge, dare to think and do things differently.
Firstly, Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Greens and their only MP, has called for a progressive alliance against the Tories – as widely reported by the likes of The Independent’s Jon Stone. As reported by The Guardian’s Peter Walker & Jessica Elgot, Corbyn has completely rejected the notion. Farron has nominally rejected it but less determinedly so. On the ground, it seems local party organisations may be starting to cooperate – eg: the local Lib Dems have said they not contest Lucas’ Brighton seat.
Secondly, Gina Miller, the businesswoman who battled the Government all the way to the Supreme Court to force it to seek Parliamentary approval to trigger Article 50, has launched a tactical voting initiative. As she outlines in the Sky News clip below, her crowd-funded Best for Britain will support MPs of all persuasions who will campaign against the kind of hard Brexit Theresa May seems more than ready to countenance.
Along with this, as reported by the Huffington Post’s Chris York, one Becky Snowden has created a spreadsheet – now turned into a website, Unite Against The Tories – to provide a guide to voting tactically to defeat May’s Conservatives – see the HuffPost United Kingdom video below. It seems a second tactical voting website, Vote for Europe, is being developed with the more specific aim of getting Brexit cancelled.
So there is real, potent and passionate resistance to the May landslide meme. The election result does not have to be a foregone conclusion whatever the Tories, The Sun and the Daily Mail say.
Giving the electorate something to vote for
Of course, it’s one thing to encourage people to vote against what they don’t want. It’s another thing to define something the voters find desirable and will be enthusiastic about voting for.
Getting the Tories out is something a great many people, ranging from the centre to the hard left in their political views, will want. However, developing the potential for government among the opposition parties – Lucas’ progressive alliance – effectively creating a government-in-waiting is rather more problematic. This is not least because Corbyn is pro-Brexit while the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP are, to different degrees, anti-Brexit. Thus, while many of Corbyn’s policies could be accommodated by the other parties, there simply no way of bridging the divide over Brexit unless Corbyn changes his stance. Then there is also the vexed question of how much the SNP could be persuaded to tone down the independence rhetoric. While many doubt the economic feasibility of an independent Scotland, the withdrawal of Article 50 would, of course, remove Sturgeon’s justification for a second independence referendum.
It is tempting to think a viable and appealing progressive alliance could not be put together in the time between now and 8 June…yet the principles on which the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition of 2010 was formed were agreed in days. So this is what the Lib Dems, the Greens and the SNP must do – and quickly. Not only that but the principles they agree must be attractive to a wide range of politicians and voters. Labour MPs and activists disaffected with Corbyn must be charmed, as must those anti-Brexiteers within the Tory party. Business, mostly pro-Europe but worried by some of Labour’s more hard-left policies, must feel safe with the progressive alliance and able to go about generating wealth – requiring BLUE and ORANGE thinking. The disadvantaged of the old-fashioned white working class – the ‘excluded’, the ‘forgotten’ – who were so manipulated in the EU referendum campaign must feel that the progressive alliance can offer them hope and security – requiring PURPLE and BLUE thinking. And, of course, while the progressive alliance must promise to campaign for compromises on immigration with the EU, those migrants who are European citizens and those who are descended from Commonwealth immigrants, must be made to feel comfortable in a Britain that is for them – requiring BLUE and GREEN thinking.
So all of this will require considerable 2nd Tier thinking…but, if the UK is to rescue itself from the mess it has been manipulated into, then 2nd Tier thinking is what is needed.
The May landslide meme does not have to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. On 9 June the UK could wake up to a different kind of politics: one that really could represent all the peoples of our kingdom within the structure of the European Union.
The next big challenge after that will be, of course, to reform the EU so that it represents all its peoples – see Whither the EU..?