Saturday, 30 November 2019

My fourth election blog: The centre has not held.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,........
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.

W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1921)

This was meant to be the election of the centre. Both of the major Parties are in the grip of their wildest extremes. Both are led by figures who are in different ways regarded, even by some of their own members, even indeed by a number of their own candidates, as unfit for the post of Prime Minister. One is absolutely in favour of abandoning that great centrist institution, the European Union, the other at best ambivalent on that matter. 

When the election was called there was a real anticipation that not only would the Liberal Democrats flourish, possibly even to the extent of coming second in the popular vote, but that they would be joined in the Commons by a number of "independent" refugees from the two big Parties who weren't, for whatever reason, willing to completely jump the dyke to actual Lib Dem membership. 

In the run up to and indeed during the campaign, the Lib Dem cause has been joined by some of the brightest and best of former Labour and Tory centrist MPs and endorsed by former grandees of both big Parties. What possible better circumstance could they have?

Yet it simply has not happened. No-one now suggests they will get anything like the 23% of the popular vote and 57 seats won by Nick Clegg in 2010, when the electorate was otherwise faced with a choice between the far more mainstream Prime Ministerial candidates of Gordon Brown and David Cameron.

Furthermore, the chances of more than one or two of the miscellaneous independents getting elected is vanishingly small. My money would be on none at all. 

The reasons for this are many and complex. 

The starting point is that this is a quasi-presidential system and while objection can be raised to both Johnson and Corbyn in that role, objection can also be raised to Jo Swinson. I hesitated before writing this for fear of be accused of ageism or, worse, mysoginy, but you cannot avoid the conclusion that this election has came to soon for her. She is is too young, too inexperienced for you to able to close your eyes and imagine her in 10 Downing Street. If I might make a comparison with another political figure, Nicola Sturgeon, that was precisely the calculation that the SNP made when rejecting the idea of Nicola Sturgeon as their leader in 2004. Since then however Ms Sturgeon has been (at least) deputy leader of the SNP for fifteen years. She has had a leading role in in, now, eight Scottish or UK Elections, never mind two referendums. It is that which has honed her into the consummate politician which even her worst enemies would concede she now is.

Jo Swinson has had no such baptism, let alone confirmation. Until six months ago she was a fairly unknown figure and she simply has not had time to grow into a leadership role. It is that, rather than more fundamental personal failings, which has hampered her in this campaign.

But there have been other mistakes by the Lib Dems, most fundamentally on their positioning on Brexit. Whether we like it or not, in June 2016 the British people voted in a referendum to leave the EU. You can't just ignore that. But the Libs essentially proposed/propose to do just that. This was then compounded by suggesting that their initial ambition was to win the election outright. That avoided them having to express a preference between Johnson and Corbyn but left the Party of PR suggesting that c.40% in a General Election would overrule 52% in a referendum. This might have a certain logic if you believe any Brexit is disastrous, so, as the Party of Government, you could never countenance such a happening. It also avoids the absurdity of the Labour position of negotiating a different deal but then possibly campaigning against it in a referendum but it just doesn't/didn't seem fair and raised genuine fears of de-legitimising the democratic process.

In any event, the idea that the Libs could "win" the election, even with miscellaneous independent allies was always absurd. After three weeks of the campaign they have conceded that themselves and are back to arguing for a major role in a hung Parliament. But that then washes them back onto the perilous rocks of choosing between Corbyn and Johnson and in particular the problem that one key target voting group, Tory remainers, are horrified with the idea that Corbyn might gain power on any basis, while a second key group, Labour voters who don't like Corbyn, are equally fearful of Johnson still in number ten. If that wasn't enough, a third key group, those who just want to move on from Brexit, are far from convinced they want another hung Parliament at all.

Not even with the benefit of hindsight, this illustrates the strategic error of the centrist opposition in the last Parliament nailing their colours to the always illusory quest of a second vote rather than offering to work with Mrs May for the softest of Brexits. Now they would argue that offer would not have been accepted but since it was never made we will never know what would have happened if it had.  What we do know is that in consequence Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Jeremy Hunt and Amber Rudd have been replaced each by a much more right wing successor who are now on the verge of a Tory landslide.

And that leads me to my final reason for failure, Liberal Democrat sectarianism. They have quite expressly spurned the opportunity to assist their own would be allies. Excepting their rather strange deal with the Greens and Plaid in sixty or so seats, few of these where any of these three Parties have any chance, they have resolved to stand against almost all the centrist independents, withdrawing only against the apparently randomnly chosen Sir Dominic Grieve. They also continue to oppose those surviving centrist candidates of the two big Parties even where that might only assist their hard Brexiteer or mad Corbynista opponent. 

I'm going to write further about this after the election but hopefully the Liberal Democrats will finally realise themselves that their most fundamental error of this election is that if the centre is to prosper, it requires the Liberal Democrats (the mistake the Tiggers made in not realising) but it can't comprise the Liberal Democrats alone.

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