Legitimacy and the 2019 General Election

by Ira Straus
Chair, Center for War-Peace Studies*

31st October 2019

Were amendments to election procedure needed for this election’s legitimacy? Which amendments would themselves be legitimate or illegitimate?

The conflation of the upcoming general election with Brexit undermines the legitimacy of the election. The election is really a referendum on Brexit, a matter of existential importance; yet it is also a referendum on which party’s leadership is feared only somewhat less than the other, a fear that is also existential among millions of voters. This conflation renders the outcome likely to be misleading on both matters.

Further damage to legitimacy comes from the extreme polarization between the parties. This is what forces a choice that much of the public will find intolerable.

There is also a widespread view that much of the real reason for the election is that the extremist wing in each party hopes to consolidate its hold on its own party by winning. There has been evidence confirming that this is a motivation of the Government.

This makes the election unique. It faces unique challenges for its results getting accepted as legitimate in the ordinary way.

The unusual importance of this election makes its weakened legitimacy a serious matter. It would justify unique amendments on election procedures, to strengthen the legitimacy of the outcome. The costs of an election of questioned legitimacy can prove considerable.

Legitimate and illegitimate proposed amendments

The only legitimate amendments, in turn, would be ones that are specifically related to the Brexit-election conflation and the party polarization. It would not be legitimate to suddenly change election procedures for generic considerations that are equally applicable to all elections yet could specifically impact the balance on this one.

1. The first legitimate amendment would have been use of proportional representation (PR) as a one-time thing, for this election only. The reason again is that this election is de facto a referendum on Brexit, yet the two parties’ leaders are both Brexiters. This undermines its fairness as a surrogate Brexit referendum; as also does the conflation of this de facto referendum with the other one, the one on which party leader is more greatly feared.

2. The other major legitimate amendment would be to hold an explicit second Brexit referendum at the same time as the election. This would directly overcome the conflation of the two implicit referenda, freeing the general election from Brexit and enabling it to serve the other, intra-national purposes that will be greatly impacted by it.

3. Debatable but not unreasonable would be amendments to ensure that all UK citizens strewn across the EU and all EU citizens with UK residence could vote.

4. Illegitimate would be an amendment to lower the voting age. The argument that the youth are stakeholders in the future is not special to this election; it is true of every issue and every election. The argument that youth should always vote is a serious one, but so are the arguments against their voting (that teenagers too often lack the experience to form a take truly of their own on public issues; are still rebelling against their parents and society and not matured enough to form a sound judgment; and too often act as loaded guns, shooting at what they’ve been told to shoot at, aimed by teachers, media and celebrities, or by their personal social circles and popularity needs, and what will get them treated as a part of the in crowd). The arguments on both sides are always relevant, Brexit or no.

What seems essential for the full legitimacy of this election, and perhaps even for its adequate legitimacy, is either PR, or a parallel Brexit referendum, or both.

* “One time” PR for the 2019 election alone would mean that it would be left for later to decide whether or not to change subsequent elections also to the PR basis. The use would be for the specific reasons of the uniqueness of this election. The strong, 68% referendum result against changing the electoral system in 2011 — which contrasts sharply to the narrow Brexit referendum result — cannot be overturned more generally unless that is the result of a lengthy nation-wide deliberation on the matter. Such a national deliberation may be advisable, conditions having since changed dramatically in the two dominant parties, undermining the classic argument for the two-party system. Conditions have changed in a manner particularly relevant to the present election, with dramatic shifts to third-party votes in the EP election where Brexit was the issue and PR was used. This would justify, arguably mandate, its one-time use this time; which would in turn be helpful for informing a later deliberation on its general use.

* For now, neither party is capable of establishing a government that carries societal legitimacy for deciding and implementing Brexit; nor for that matter for governing the UK, both being dominated as they are by their extremist wings. Only a serious cross-party coalition is capable of doing that. A “serious cross-party coalition” does not mean a coalition with another party, be it DUP or SNP, that is in the range of the radical wing of the larger party; it rather means one that cuts across the center of British politics: either a grand coalition or a coalition with centrist parties. Centrist parties get up to 30% of the vote, despite depression of their votes because they are “wasted votes” in the first past the post — FPTP — election system. PR is the way of getting to a serious coalition.

* The FPTP, two-party system is failing in the very matter that was always the main justification for it: that it encourages parties to veer toward the center in order to win elections, and to become broad-based coalitions with an internal civilizing balance of power rather than turning into narrow ideological factions. Both parties have instead in recent years gone the way of narrow ideology. Each has been captured by its extremist wing, which have enacted purges, coarsened party life with threats, and engendered important defections. Both are in crisis.

The Tory and Labour parties need to rebuild their true historic selves. It is the only way they will be able to represent their honorable heritage and their vast voter base, not just the current leadership faction and the small paid-party membership base. A PR election, leading to the UK voting base getting fully and fairly represented in Parliament, would lay a practical foundation — a basis in the experience and coalitional necessities of the daily work within Parliament — for the two major parties to rebuild themselves as broad-based, center-respecting bodies. They might thereby recover the legitimacy to govern later alone (which is another reason for deferring to the future on whether to make PR permanent).

* Why would it would be hard to view the election as legitimate, in the absence of either PR or second referendum?

The choice between Corbyn and Johnson is a radical choice. Each of them is viewed with existentially unacceptable by half the electorate.

The choice over Brexit is also an existential choice, and one largely separate from the first: both lead candidates are Brexiters, differing in hardness but not on the principle. This excludes the half of the electorate that disagrees with both on the principle. Both hope that Brexit will create space for them to experiment with a radical regeneration of Britain, a thought that is a nightmare for others. Both have accordingly given some evidence of preferring a harder Brexit than they state. Both could potentially use the perversely intertwined political, diplomatic and legal exigencies of Brexiting to bring a much harder exit in practice than in their platforms.

The conflation of these two choices makes a mockery of the idea of a free and fair election. Brexit would be decided in large part by the horror of millions about Corbyn or about Johnson. The election of PM would in turn be decided in large part by horror for or against Brexit.

Further: It would force on the fifteen million or more Remainers, many of whom view Brexit as existentially unacceptable, a choice between two Brexiters. It would force on millions of Tory voters a choice between two things they regard as intolerable: a Corbyn Government and a hard Brexit. It would force on millions of Labourites a similarly unbearable choice. It would force on millions of LibDem supporters an even more unacceptable choice between three intolerables.

The posing solely of existentially intolerable choices is different than the usual “lesser evil”. It feels more like disenfranchisement, or deprivation of free choice. Worse: being forced to choose something that one views with terror, or to choose one’s own mortal poison, has the feel of a hostage situation not a free election situation. It is possible that an absolute majority of the voters would feel disenfranchised and terrorized, were this election to be held without either PR or referendum.

PR in the general election and an explicit confirmatory referendum on Brexit are the two ways of disaggregating these two de facto referendums, the one on Corbyn and Johnson, the other on Brexit; and thereby provide a sense of a tolerable option to most voters in both votes. PR does this by fully re-enfranchising the votes for the alternatives to either major party candidate, for the millions who view both candidates as intolerable. An explicit referendum on Brexit does it by separating that from the general election, enabling people to cast a reasonably accurate vote their preference on it, instead of having to vote on it via the medium of a candidate who is the lesser evil to them on this issue yet whom they consider intolerable on other grounds. Either method would probably be sufficient to overcome the bulk of the sense of illegitimacy; if both were used, it would provide something near to full legitimacy.

It is not enough to bemoan the as-now probable failure to do this as an onrushing failure of the British political system. It would indeed be such a failure, and a potentially terminal one, as the political culture of the United Kingdom would be sent into a further tailspin no matter which “intolerable” won, careening to the extremes still more than already at present, and intensifying the secessionist dangers to the Union itself. As long as there is even a theoretical chance of preventing this failure, it is worth considering what could in theory be done to prevent it.

* The Center for War/Peace Studies provides analysis of voting systems for complex and unusual situations, both within nations and in international organizations. It does this with a view to making sure that the voting gets accepted by all constituent parties as legitimate and its results can be implemented.