Monday, December 09, 2019

Approaching the losing post

It's the final week of the most dismal election campaign I can remember. Johnson has an approval rating of minus 20. A desperate losing position, except that Corbyn has an approval rating of minus 40 (an improvement on his minus 60 when the campaign started). That is the choice. In normal circumstances, neither would be electable. On top of that, Labour is led by a Brexiter pretending to be a remainer, the Tories by a cynical remainer pretending to be a Brexit ultra. The reality is that Johnson is solely committed to himself, while Corbyn's ultimate aim is maintaining sectarian control of the Labour Party.

The campaign has been remarkably inept and dishonest. Labour were unprepared. The Conservatives' behaviour has been extraordinary in avoiding any scrutiny and hiding Johnson away as he proved to be a hopeless campaigner and media performer. He crumbled into lies and bluster at any challenge that he was unable to dodge. The Jewish Labour Movement's leaked submission to the EHRC inquiry paints a picture, drawn from the testimony of Labour whistle-blowers, of deplorable institutional anti-Semitism. The Party's response has been to lie about the action they are taking, while their supporters duck the issue by screaming, "Look at the Tories, they're worse." My response is always, "Yes, they are. It goes with the territory of making the Conservatives a far-right populist party. They are supposed to be. It should be non-existent in Labour. In fact, Labour should be leading the fight against it. A bit of self-examination wouldn't go amiss."

The Conservatives are favourites purely because they have eliminated their chief rival for votes, the Brexit Party, by transforming the Tories into their equivalent, while purging the party of its remainers. This is ruthless politics. And it is effective. Remainers have squabbled and, despite many opportunities to ally against Johnson, have failed to do so. Given our perverse electoral system this could be decisive. It is now up to the voters to see if they can do through tactical voting what the politicians could not.

This election is the latest gift to the right-wing Brexit revolutionaries. No Parliament would have ever voted to leave the EU, and so they agitated for a referendum to by-pass it. Cameron was stupid enough to give them one. Having lost his majority and constrained by Parliament, Johnson was in a weak position. The threat to Brexit was a confirmatory referendum. This is because the polls were showing an 8-10 point lead for remain – around 55-45. A referendum would probably keep us in the EU and lose Johnson his power base. In a general election, given the electoral system, a 55% vote share for remain parties and a 45% share for leave parties could give leave a decisive parliamentary majority as long as the remain vote is split. The same remain majority would not be enough to prevent us leaving. So, what did the opposition do? Give them what they wanted.

Corbyn was decisive in supporting the election. Many of the Parliamentary Party and Shadow Cabinet were furious. Most wanted to try and win a referendum first, settle the Brexit issue and then move on to an election. However, Corbyn boasted to the Guardian,
“I put it to them quite clearly: I said, our objections are now gone. We are now supporting a general election – and everybody gulped. I didn’t alert anybody in advance – it was my decision. On my own. I made that decision. And they gulped, and said, Yes Jeremy.”
Yes, they gulped as Corbyn turned a position of strength into one of weakness. They didn't vote against it, let alone try and depose him. Cowardice. In the meantime, Corbyn tweeted that he supported an election as, "No Deal is now off the table," and by doing so promptly put no-deal back on the table again.

Whether Corbyn understood the difference between the withdrawal agreement and a deal is not known. Does Johnson? His slogan, "Get Brexit done," obviously played better with the focus groups than, "People against Parliament," but it is a lie and offers the possibility of a no-deal Brexit if he does not extend the transition period - which he has pledged not to do. The only comfort is that has done nothing that he has promised to do in the past.

And this is where we are. The most crucial election since the war, in which the future of the country hangs in the balance. An election dominated by the ambitions and vanities of two of the worst party leaders I can remember (though Ian Duncan-Smith pushed them close but was knifed before he could wreck the joint.) It's an election fought using different sets of lies, exaggerations, and vagaries. And it's all the result of a long series of institutional failures; putting the ultimate power of selection in the hands of unaccountable and unrepresentative political hobbyists; a supine and partisan press; persistent lying that treats the electorate with contempt; inadequate electoral laws subverted by the internet; and an arbitrary electoral system. But the biggest failure of all was calling a referendum that was unwanted by most, about an issue that few thought important, and was understood by virtually nobody other than experts.

It was odd to be reminded of Jordan Ellenberg's, How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life, by an article on VAR in football. However, it brought up a really good point.
But in the 2000 US presidential election, for instance, a few hundred votes in Florida made all the difference nationally and put George W Bush into the White House. The final margin represented 0.01% of the total votes cast, but as Ellenberg points out, “the imprecision caused by ballots spoiled, ballots lost, ballots miscounted is much greater than the tiny difference in the final count”. 
It would make more sense, Ellenberg argues, to decide the outcome on the flip of a coin. Some, he says, will recoil from the idea of choosing leaders by chance, and yet “close elections are already decided by chance”, be it “bad weather in the big city, a busted voting machine in an outlying town” or any one of dozens of potential random variables.
The closeness of the referendum result meant that it was down to just such a cluster of arbitrary variables that could easily have gone the other way. It was decided by around 600,000 people out of the 33 million who voted and the 13 million who didn't. If they had voted another way, the result would have been reversed. Yet this chance result is treated as holy writ, an incontestable decision enshrining the will of the people – "it's democracy." This is ridiculous. It has distorted our politics, but is the result of the misuse of referendums in a representative democracy. The only thing that seems to matter is the result, not the consequences. The consequences are momentous, out of all proportion to the way the decision was made. It is a huge constitutional failure.

We are beginning to see some debate about our democracy and the constitution, but not enough – yet. Even the most recent constitutional change, the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, has been ineffective. Though it fixes the time between general elections at five years, we are now on our third in the last four years. The constitution is a mess, all the indicators are pointing the wrong way, and the political class seem no nearer to thinking constructively about the problems. Instead, all they seem to want to do is to game a malfunctioning system. It's not encouraging.


Anonymous said...

Unfortunately Trump got in because many felt they could not vote for Clinton. Johnson will get in for the same reason. Other than a miracle this Friday the 13th will indeed be a bad Friday.

The Plump said...

Though, of course, Clinton won the popular vote by some 3 million and only Obama received more votes than her in any presidential election. I think her unpopularity is overblown. She lost the election because of the dysfunctional electoral college system. Her votes were in the wrong place. Though, in many ways, she was a flawed and vulnerable candidate.

Thursday's election will again rest on where the votes are cast. That could benefit Johnson or Corbyn. And it isn't a straight binary choice. Votes for other parties will play a role, again depending where they are cast. But our electoral system is also hugely dysfunctional and even more arbitrary.

The trouble is, Corbyn's unpopularity is not overblown, especially among many key demographics. To enter (and choose to initiate) an election when you have the by far the worst ratings in the history of polling is a curious decision. And why Labour isn't more ruthless in ditching unpopular leaders is beyond me. It doesn't matter why they are unpopular, just that they are. So the Labour vote will be a coalition of Corbyn enthusiasts, despite Corbyn, and anyone other than Johnson. It's not good for so much of the vote to be negative.

Given the horror that is Johnson, if Labour were led by someone from the mainstream with experience, like Starmer or Cooper, or even new faces like Phillips or, maybe at a pinch, Rayner, we would be looking at a big Labour win.