Towards a one-party state?

December 17th, 2019
by Chris

A clip of Nigel Farage claiming that his Brexit Party had been successful, in that we now had a substantial Conservative majority and would definitely leave the EU, got me thinking. He, of course, did not put forward candidates in Conservative held seats, which indicated to me that he expected to attract voters who otherwise would not vote Conservative in Labour or Liberal Democrat held seats.

So I spent some time going through the results for the whole country, and assuming (as Farage seemed to do) that all the votes cast for the Brexit party would otherwise have gone to Labour.

There were 19 of these. Had Brexit not stood at all, the Conservatives would have had 346 seats, not 365 – and, recalling that 326 is a majority, Farage’s efforts clearly did not give Boris Johnson his win.

Another thought was that, given that Wales elected 14 Conservative MPs in total and Scotland elected 6, Johnson would still have had 345 seats, a reasonably comfortable majority, just from English seats (Northern Ireland has completely different parties, so doesn’t elect Conservatives anyhow, though the Democratic Unionist Party, which has 8 MPs, can be regarded as Conservative for most purposes – the Conservative Party used to be the Conservative and Unionist Party, after all). Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were therefore irrelevant to the result. The term “unequally yoked” springs to mind. If someone were to claim that this made them effectively colonies with no real say in UK politics, I would have difficulty disagreeing…

It also follows that the election was not, in fact, all about Brexit. If it had been, one would have expected that Farage’s claim would have been correct. However, this got me thinking more about something which I was very enthusiastic about early in the election campaign, before Labour and the LibDems both ruled out an electoral pact to defeat Johnson and a “bad” Brexit.

Had Labour and the LibDems agreed not to stand against each other in seats in which one of them had come first or second in the last election, 45 seats would have not been Conservative now. 31 of them would have been Labour, the other 14 LibDem. (Not all of those were seats taken from one of those parties by the Conservatives this time – some previously safe Labour seats now have an absolute Tory majority). Incidentally, this was the case in all 19 seats in which the Brexit party’s votes alone conceivably produced a Conservative victory – even with the Brexit party standing and taking votes from Labour, they would still have not gone Conservative against such an electoral pact. That would have given the Conservatives 320 seats, not an overall majority (again), but sufficient to control parliament to at least some extent with the aid of the DUP. In another 9 seats, adding the Greens to that electoral pact would have done the job, giving the Conservatives 311, at which point even the DUP votes might not have been enough (and certainly wouldn’t have been enough to ensure a hard Brexit).

A further 12 seats would not have been Conservative if both factors, no Brexit party AND a broad anti-Brexit pact had been in play, and another 6 if the SNP and Plaid Cymru had joined in. That last, however, is probably beyond anything achievable in the future – apart from the absence of the Brexit party, which, let’s face it, has been a single issue organisation and, as we are virtually assured that Brexit will now happen, won’t have that vote-getting power in the future.

Let’s add another consideration. If we envisage a future in which Scotland becomes independent (which I think is inevitable, except, perhaps, under the softest possible Brexit, which Johnson is currently making it vanishingly unlikely he will achieve by proposing a ban on any extension of the final date beyond December 2020) and Northern Ireland slides into union with the Irish Republic instead of with the UK (which seems similarly likely in the long term, though it may be accompanied by a renewal of armed struggle in that case), we will be left with a House of Commons with only 587 members. (It is not likely that Wales will gain a majority in favour of independence any time soon). 359 of those are Conservative at the moment, which would be a majority not of 80 but of 131. Reversing the Labour and LibDem losses this time would hardly put a dent in that. Nor, at that stage, would the grand alliance of the centre and left which I propose change the result – there would still be a majority of around 40.

Granted, if Blair’s 1997 result were repeated, removing Scotland from the equation, Labour would still have had a working majority, but the arithmetic is clear; without Scotland, it will be far more difficult for anything other than a Conservative government to be elected. In fact, only Attlee in 1945 and Blair in 1997 and 2001 could have formed Labour governments without Scotland… This, I think, shows that there is not only a pressing need at the next election, whenever that is, for exactly the kind of electoral pact I propose, but it should also be one which vows to bring in some form of proportional representation.

Of course, the above depends to some extent on being able to convert LibDem votes to Labour and vice versa (likewise to a smaller extent Green). I think this would be a lot easier task if we could all point out that, as there would be proportional representation every time thereafter, this grand electoral alliance would probably only have to occur for one election (I am reasonably confident that the SNP and Plaid Cymru would be onside).

The alternative, it seems to me, is that we are headed inexorably towards an effectively one-party state with all other parties in permanent opposition and largely irrelevant to politics. Given that the current membership of the Conservative Party is around 160,000, and they would get to decide who were MPs, who was Prime Minister, and what were the country’s policies, I think this is a somewhat terrifying prospect.

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