Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Can tactical voting save the UK’s own Unions?

Can Tories, by voting Labour, save their own party from destroying itself with a hard Brexit?

by Ira Straus

Tactical voting occurs on a large scale in every British election. It is a normal part of the system in first past the post elections. There is nothing unseemly about it.

Usually, tactical voting has been done primarily by supporters of third parties such as the LibDems. It has drastically reduced the votes that go to these parties, as they are seen as “wasted votes”. This year it is going to do nearly the opposite.

What has changed is not the tactical voting per se but the fact that many major party voters are now considering tactical voting.

Britain is seen by a majority of voters as existentially at risk from both the major party leaderships. Many among the major party voters are for the first time contemplating voting tactically, in order to avoid this perceived catastrophe. Important Conservative and Labour remainers alike have advocated voting tactically against their own party.

Why is so much seen as being at risk in this election? Because all of Britain’s great existential Unions -- the national patrimony, from England’s unions with Scotland and Northern Ireland to Britain’s existential links with NATO and of course the EU itself -- are in danger from Brexit. Also, because many people in both major parties fear the extremist and authoritarian propensities manifested by their own party’s leader, not just the other party’s. Finally, because moderate Tories expect that a Johnson-led Brexit would ruin their party for a generation to come, as it would get the blame for the severe consequences. Some prominent ones have spoken for saving their own party by voting against it this time.

I personally think these dangers are almost entirely real. Can tactical voting prevent them from coming to fruition?

The answer is “yes”, but without certainty. It could succeed, it could fail; this is true of any voting in any election. It is nevertheless the only voting behavior at this time that would have a significant chance of preventing much of what is most greatly feared.

This “yes” is in a sense conditional. If tactical voting leads to a hung parliament; if this leads to either a minority or coalition government; if the small moderate parties are able to set terms that will affect and constrain greatly the policies of such a government on matters of Brexit, and also on some other matters that could otherwise be at the mercy of executive discretion: in this case, yes, the worst of the public fears will have been averted.

Feared risks from a Corbyn government

What advocates of tactical voting are relying upon -- particularly those who advocate that many Conservatives vote for Labour in order to prevent either major party from getting a majority -- is that this is indeed the surest way of preventing any single party majority government. That seems highly probable. They are also assuming, however, that it either would not lead to Corbyn becoming PM at the head of a minority government or a coalition, or if it did, that it would not give Corbyn the executive power to do the things feared. That is not nearly as sure as most Conservatives would wish it to be. Much of Mr Corbyn’s program on eradicating deplored attitudes and discourse from society and transforming the contents of education can be implemented through executive agencies, the more readily as much of it can be seen as only a more extreme version of trends already prevailing in the knowledge industries and classes. Great damage can be done in foreign policy by a PM, and is hard to avoid when a PM has a habit of identifying with enemies of the West; also when a PM has a habit of identifying against the EU and the West. The executive power is one of wide-ranging discretionary authority, something whose regular use always entails some abuse. It is not easy to rein it in to prevent radical abuse from a PM inclined to such; something a coalition agreement would nonetheless have to undertake to do. The propensity to extreme abuse of power and its extra-constitutional consolidation has been seen at least as often from those of fanatical ideological ways as from those of cynical power-hungry ways. It has been seen already from Mr Corbyn in his party and from Mr Johnson in his government. More and worse is presently feared from either of them, with reason.

Nonetheless, it is impossible to proceed without any risk either way. This is true in all choices, not just the present one. The question is always, “what is the lesser risk”. A hung parliament is, for moderates in all parties, the lesser evil. Its potential upshots fall into three classes, not just one: a compromise moderate or technical PM, a Tory-led minority or coalition government, and a Labour-led minority or coalition government. The latter in turn would not necessarily be headed by Corbyn; and were it in fact headed by Corbyn, it is possible that it really would somehow be effectively constrained by hard LibDem terms.

Given this range of possible outcomes, voting Labour tactically tallies up, in my estimation, to the lesser risk for Tories and LibDems in the relevant constituencies in this particular election, making it worth it for them.

In principle, two things could be done to reduce further the risk in this; but it is unlikely that they will be done. LibDems could take steps that would reduce the chance that Mr Corbyn would become PM in consequence of Tories voting for Labour candidates. So of course could Labour, by getting Corbyn to agree to step aside. Indeed, much of Labour tried in several earlier stages to do this. Corbyn always refused.

The way LibDems could reduce the risk of tactical voting for Labour is by stating that they would be willing to form a coalition, on strict terms, with either party, including specifically with the Conservative Party. By “strict terms” I mean setting conditions of grave national concern, not just to LibDems but to many others, including Tory moderates and remainers. These might include an early Brexit review referendum, and enforceable guarantees against the government doing any of the things most feared in domestic and foreign policy, such as the anti-courts and anti-parliament “reforms” that many have read the Tory manifesto as promising, and the radical speech restrictions and educational indoctrination that many have read the Labour manifesto as promising along with the foreign policy inversions to which Corbyn has always been prone. Offering such terms to both parties would make the terms, though strict, more realistic in bargaining theory: it would give an incentive to each party to accept the terms, to prevent the other from reaching a majority coalition first.

Such a statement would reduce the fear of Tories that the LibDems would stick to their policy in recent years of standing alone and refusing any coalition with the Tories. It is a policy that has been criticized as selfish and petulant, and as irresponsible, paying attention to its salving of party complaints rather than to its practical effect of encouraging the drift of Brexit policy toward a minimal deal or no deal.

Such a LibDem statement would also overcome a widespread narrative that, in a hung parliament, only Corbyn and Labour, not the Tories, could conceivably form a majority coalition or gain a majority of votes in a confidence vote. This in turn would make it less risky for Tory voters to vote tactically for Labour this time, because less likely to lead to a Labour-led government.

It is paradoxical, but the LibDems making such a statement, on the surface advantageous to the Tory party, would have the effect of making it easier for many Tories and LibDems alike to vote Labour in the tactically relevant constituencies. This would in turn increase the number of Labour seats, making more likely a hung parliament, A hung parliament would make it considerably more likely that the upshot would be a caretaker government that neither Tory nor LibDem tactical voters would see as an existential threat.

However, neither reassuring action, by Labour or by LibDems, is likely to occur. That leaves the reasons for tactical voting among Tory moderates and remainers uncertain, yet still statistically strong. This is because one must also evaluate the risks in the absence of much tactical voting.

Feared risks from a Johnson government

I undertook above to explain why many Conservative and LibDem view even a minority Corbyn government as an existential risk, one that it is worth doing what can be done to reduce the likelihood of materializing in the event of a hung parliament. I should end this by reviewing why the risks feared from a Johnson majority government are also existential, and have a considerable prospect of actually materializing.

The UK’s Unions are all an existential matter for the UK. It has three constituent Unions, the loss of any single one of which would make the UK no longer itself, and leave each of its separated parts considerably damaged. These Unions are all at risk in Brexit, two of them severely: Northern Ireland by the Irish Sea borderline, Scotland by an increasingly probable second independence referendum. The risk to both has been continuously growing since the Brexit referendum. It will grow a quantum leap further if Brexit is consummated on the terms of Johnson’s deal; still further if Mr Johnson enacts a de facto deal-less Brexit at the end of 2020 by terminating trade talks.

The EU itself is also in many respects an existential Union for the UK. Brexit per se loses most of it for Britain. Johnson’s commitment not to extend trade talks beyond 2020 would lose most of the remainder.

Even the NATO tie, Britain’s fifth and final existential union, is indirectly at risk. Brexit would inherently diminish the British role in NATO and the world. Additionally, and more concretely, Scottish independence would endanger naval basing for both NATO and England. Given the settled distribution of ideological views in Scotland, it would be unrealistic to think that independence would not lead, sooner or later, to a Scottish withdrawal from all or most of NATO. This would end England’s security of knowing, as it has for three centuries, that Scotland would always be on its side in military matters and conflicts. The SNP’s change of its formal party position on NATO was intended to be reassuring about this, but it would be naive to take the reassurance at face value.

In the case of NATO, to be sure, the risk from Mr Corbyn is even greater than the risk from Mr Johnson. Corbyn has for all his political life been a sincere, ideologically committed opponent of NATO; Johnson is a sincere supporter of NATO. I mean here only to note that, through Brexit’s severe impact on Britain’s role and on the reliability of the Scottish connection, Johnson too is a radical risk to NATO in practice. Brexiters offer frequent reassurance about being pro-NATO in intention, but the intention is little consolation when the actual effect is the opposite.

For every one of Britain’s existential Unions, a majority Johnson government would be a serious risk. This could prove a powerful motivation for tactical voting.

No comments: