Commentary: UK heads to polls to break years-long gridlock on Brexit
After years of gridlock, British voters are hoping for clarity by the holidays, says Brookings Institution’s Amanda Sloat.
WASHINGTON: Voters in the United Kingdom will head to the polls in a high-stakes election on Thursday (Dec 12).
It will be a decisive moment in the polarising Brexit debate, with the outcome indicating support for a divorce deal with the European Union, a second referendum, or continued stalemate.
At the same time, voters must also consider parties’ domestic policy proposals and prime minister candidates. For many, these considerations do not readily align with an obvious choice at the ballot box.
Although the incumbent Conservative Party is currently ahead in the polls, swing voters and tactical alliances make the outcome impossible to predict.
JOCKEYING OVER BREXIT
In many ways, this election is about Brexit. For the Conservative Party, it is the best chance to “get Brexit done”, in Johnson’s words, by securing a parliamentary majority for a deal and working to leave the EU by the Jan 31 deadline.
Johnson is using a “people versus Parliament” narrative to explain his party’s failure to deliver Brexit thus far. If he wins, he has promised a vote on his Brexit deal before Christmas.
Johnson is vulnerable on his right flank, where Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is appealing to frustrated voters who want Brexit delivered immediately.
Although Farage wants Johnson to tear up his Brexit deal, he would likely accept promises of greater divergence from EU regulations in the future relationship. He succeeded in pressing Johnson to rule out extending the transition period – currently scheduled to end on Dec 31, 2020 – to negotiate such arrangements.
Yet if Johnson shifts too far, he could alienate Tory voters who prefer a softer Brexit or remaining in the EU. He was greatly helped by Farage’s decision not to field candidates against incumbent Conservatives, which has caused the Brexit Party’s support to plummet.
For pro-Remain parties, this election is seen as the last chance to stop Brexit.
The main opposition Labour Party has walked a careful and often confusing line. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is a life-long euroskeptic who supports a softer Brexit, including continued membership in the EU’s customs union.
If elected, he has promised to renegotiate the Brexit deal and then hold a second referendum to let voters choose between his deal and staying in the EU. He said the party would decide its stance on this question before the referendum; although this makes some political sense given divisions in the party, it will be awkward to execute in government.
Labour is essentially a pro-Remain party, but its membership opted at the September party conference to back Corbyn’s phased approach rather than assert support for remaining in the EU.
The Liberal Democrat Party, which is targeting voters in Remain districts, sought to present a clear alternative to Labour by promising to revoke Britain’s request to leave the EU – without a second referendum. Yet this approach failed to gain traction with voters.
The party is now being squeezed in the polls by Labour.
WHAT ELSE IS AT STAKE
Despite the centrality of Brexit, there is more at stake in these elections. Voters will also be choosing a government to manage the UK’s domestic policy for the next five years.
But the two main parties are headed by unpopular leaders with different visions for the country’s future.
The Conservative Party, whose support in the 2017 election tanked after the publication of its campaign manifesto, has focused on a limited set of bread-and-butter issues.
The party’s central argument is that Brexit must be completed in order to address public services. Having abandoned its previous focus on austerity, the Tories are promising increased funding for pensions, police, health, and education — albeit with continued emphasis on a small state, free markets, and limited regulation.
Labour has doubled down on the left-wing agenda debuted in the 2017 election manifesto. As a self-described socialist, Corbyn is promoting a radical-left economic policy that includes abolishing private schools and re-nationalising industries.
Although his focus on public services captured the public imagination two years ago and contributed to increased electoral support, the party has not enjoyed the same bounce this time. His approach leads some voters – especially the wealthy – to see him as a greater threat to the country’s future than Brexit.
Corbyn has also been described as the “least popular leader of the UK opposition in living memory”, stemming from his ambivalence on Brexit, economic radicalism, and perceived tolerance of anti-Semitism in the party. The party climbed in the polls in late November, but some voters remain conflicted between policy and personality.
A week before the election, polls showed the Conservatives averaging an 11-point lead over Labour.
However, polls have been misleading in recent elections: The Conservatives did better than predicted in 2015 and much worse in 2017.
The first-past-the-post electoral system makes it hard to gauge how national support for a party will translate into votes for candidates in single-member constituencies.
Voter volatility makes the results even more unpredictable. According to the British Election Study, 49 per cent of the country voted for different parties in the last three elections.
The polarising nature of Brexit has led voters to identify primarily with Leave/Remain positions rather than traditional left/right divisions. As a result, some will vote tactically to support the candidate best placed to represent their Brexit views.
A FORK IN THE ROAD
Once the ballots are counted, the country will face one of two outcomes.
The most likely scenario is a Conservative government, though the bar for victory is high. Johnson is seeking a sizable majority to ease the passage of his legislative priorities, especially Brexit.
If he falls short, he will likely lose office given the lack of viable coalition partners: Opposition parties support remaining in the EU, and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which propped up May’s government, disagrees with the treatment of Northern Ireland in his Brexit deal.
If elected, Johnson would seek to quickly ratify his Brexit deal, begin negotiating free trade agreements with the EU and US, and implement high spending domestic policies.
Second, there could be a minority Labour government with issue-by-issue support from other opposition parties.
A formal coalition would be difficult, given Corbyn’s unpopularity (as both the Liberal Democrats and DUP refuse to support him) and the Scottish National Party’s demand for an independence referendum (which Corbyn has opposed before the May 2021 Scottish Parliament elections).
But parties could agree to back him on certain matters, including a second Brexit referendum. This would necessitate a further extension from the EU and take months to prepare.
If no party or combination of parties can form a workable government, new elections would be required.
After years of gridlock, British voters are hoping for clarity by the holidays. With competing visions of Britain’s domestic and European future at stake, voters face a difficult decision in one of the country’s most highly contested and unpredictable elections in recent memory.
Unpopular personalities, regional politics, tactical voting, and winter weather will make the result a nail-biter.
Amanda Sloat is a Robert Bosch senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. This article first appeared on Brookings Institution’s blog, Order from Chaos.