by Brendan Donnelly
Director, The Federal Trust

26th November 2019

Jeremy Corbyn has rarely in recent decades feared political controversy. On issues such as Ireland, the Middle East, NATO, income redistribution and renationalisation, he has advocated with candour and persistence views that have been unattractive, even shocking to many electors. Many of his supporters thereby hail him as a “conviction politician,” contrasting him favourably with his New Labour predecessors, tainted as they were by compromise and equivocation in the search for electoral advantage.

On the central question of Brexit, however, the Leader of the Opposition has struck since 2016 a notably different tone. His policy on Brexit has been by turns vague, mutable, self-contradictory and utopian. Even more strikingly, he has presented himself as seeking compromise to heal divisions on the issue within British society. This supposedly statesmanlike and pragmatic approach culminated in Corbyn’s recent declaration that in the event of a further European referendum held by a government he headed, he would personally remain neutral, as a reassurance to the electorate that he would faithfully carry out its final decision.

While some faithful adherents have hailed this promised Corbynite neutrality as a strategic master-stroke, others have seen it as a final and desperate attempt at compromise between Corbyn’s personal Euroscepticism and the pro-Remain attitudes of the great majority of his party and voters. It is indeed extraordinary that the Leader of the Opposition should enter this General Election holding a position of avowed neutrality on the greatest political, economic and constitutional question of the day. The strangeness of this stance is underlined yet further by the intriguing prospect of the Labour Party’s renegotiating in government the present Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, and then holding a referendum, in which Corbyn would not support the renegotiated text and many of his Ministers would actively campaign against it.  There is a striking symmetry between the predicaments of Corbyn and David Cameron. Cameron wanted to stay in the European Union, but his party would not allow him to do so. Corbyn wants to leave the European Union but is also held back by his party. Botched attempts to manage their recalcitrant parties by circumscribed party leaders have been a recurrent and damaging aspect of the entire Brexit tragi-comedy.

Tactical voting

The prominent Brexit commentator Chris Grey’s sense of frustration on watching the ITV debate between Boris Johnson and Corbyn will have been shared by many. But those still hoping to put a spoke in the wheels of Brexit on 12th December would be ill-advised to resort to wishing an equal plague on both the Conservative and Labour houses. Whatever the inadequacies and implausibility of Corbyn’s personal position, the arguments in favour of tactical voting, calibrated to the needs of individual constituencies, are still overwhelming for Remainers. In many, perhaps most constituencies, a rational tactical vote will be a vote for Labour. The objective consequences for Brexit of a Conservative government will be different to those flowing from a non-Conservative government. A Corbyn-led minority government would be far from ideal in the minds of many, probably most Remainers. But it would be a considerable improvement on the Johnsonian alternative.

A number of websites have been set up providing detailed recommendations for tactical voting in individual constituencies. These recommendations occasionally vary, reflecting different polling data and divergent analyses of local circumstances.  This occasional variation in no way undermines the general principle and efficacy of tactical voting on 12th December. The First Past the Post system sometimes makes it difficult, or even impossible to vote tactically with any assurance of success in every constituency. But it cannot be denied that if anti-Brexiteers vote throughout the country for the party most likely to defeat the Conservative Party in their seat, then nationally it will be much more difficult for Johnson to win a majority in the House of Commons. 

There will of course be many voters for whom Brexit is not a matter of sufficient concern to change their traditional or contemporary voting preferences. Tactical voting against Brexit will not be an option they will seriously consider. It is, however, already clear from social media that there are a number of voters deeply concerned about Brexit, but who are also deeply reluctant to vote for whatever is the best placed party to defeat the local Conservative candidate. They may not have forgiven the Liberal Democrats for their coalition with Cameron; they may regard Corbyn as a dangerous extremist; they may be Unionists fearful of voting for parties hostile to the Union. All of such reservations are understandable, but against them should be set a number of countervailing arguments on which voters need to reflect before casting their ballot.

The real choices ahead

In most recent General Elections, the underlying choice offered the electorate was that between a Conservative and Labour governments. Even when, as in 2010 and 2017, the eventual results of the election were indecisive, the preceding electoral campaign had taken place on the premise that either Labour or the Conservatives would gain a majority in the Commons and thus proceed to implement its manifesto.  The situation is very different in 2019. While there is a realistic possibility of a Conservative majority to carry out manifesto commitments, there is no corresponding chance of an overall majority for the Labour Party. If there is a Labour Prime Minister after 12th December, s/he will be the head of a minority government or a coalition. It is far from inevitable that in such circumstances that Prime Minister would be Corbyn. If he were, his room for political and economic manoeuvre would be extremely limited to the extent that fears of a Marxist restructuring of the British economy by Corbyn after 12th December seem on any hypothesis greatly exaggerated.

If a non-Conservative government can be constructed after the General Election, it will be fragile, fractious and circumscribed. It will in effect be the caretaker government for which Corbyn was calling earlier in the year, with little in the way of an agreed political agenda beyond holding a Brexit referendum. To reassure their supporters, Labour may be able under this caretaker government to introduce some redistributive measures of tax and spend; the SNP will press for a second independence referendum (which they could not be certain of winning); and the Liberal Democrats will look to burnish their credentials as a centre party waiting to benefit from what they hope will be the coming restructuring of British party politics. But radical change of any political, economic or social kind will be firmly off the agenda.  In their local constituencies, tactical voters will opt for anti-Conservative parties whose domestic policies they may find uncongenial. At the national level, however, they will – critically – be voting for a pause for reflection in the Brexit process, a pause which the Conservative Party is refusing them.

Despite its long and painful birth, the European policy of a Labour-led government as it stands is not entirely incoherent. It may well be possible for a Labour government rapidly to renegotiate a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration not very different to Johnson’s but pointing towards a “softer” Brexit in the medium term. After some initial grumbling, the EU would probably be willing to accommodate a new government less hostile to itself and all its works. There is equally a reasonable chance that a second EU referendum would produce a majority against Brexit, with all the renewed economic and political certainty that would imply. In those circumstances the caretaker government emerging from the election on 12th December would have performed its historic role and a new election would inevitably follow soon after. It would be amazing if that new election did not reflect new party configurations born of the agonising Brexit process and the fiercely contended second EU referendum. Many voters next month might see this last possibility as another considerable benefit of denying the Conservative Party the majority it craves.

Remain disunited?

Most of the commentators and pollsters currently predicting a Conservative victory are doing so because they see that Johnson can rely on the support of an enormous proportion of the voters wishing to leave the EU asap. Those wishing to remain are, however, split between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the nationalist parties and the Greens in England, Scotland and Wales. Voters in their individual constituencies do, however, have the possibility of righting this imbalance by being prepared to vote for candidates who would not normally be their first choice, but who will contribute if elected to an anti-Conservative majority to block Brexit. Labour voters think they have reasons to distrust the Liberal Democrats; Liberal Democrats distrust Corbynite Labour; Unionists distrust nationalist parties. But the worst conceivable outcome for all these political groupings would be a Conservative government elected for five years as a result of their internecine divisions. Few British voters genuinely vote guided by the virtues or vices of their local candidates, but rather on the sort of government they wish to see established. For Remainers, there are only two realistic options for a future government after 12th December: either a Conservative government to rip the UK out of the EU; or a caretaker non-Conservative government that could prevent Brexit. It would be an unusual Remainer who could honestly say that the dangers arising from the latter are anywhere near as great as those arising from the former.

Nobody who wishes to prevent Brexit and restructure British politics in the medium term should cast his or her vote without considering the national implications of their action. The perverse workings of the First Past the Post voting system can often mean that voting for the elector’s most favoured party can simply help their least favoured party win the seat in question. In most General Elections that is for most voters simply a regrettable fact of life. In this one, it would be for Remainers a wholly avoidable and self-inflicted tragedy.