Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – political debate

2019 has been a rollercoaster of a year in UK politics. There have been several themes throughout the year, including Brexit, the environment, the NHS, the General Election and the nature of the political debate. In the final of this series, the focus is on the election and the broader nature of the political debate.

If at the start of 2019, someone had told me that the Conservatives would see their largest majority since the Thatcher era before the year was out, I would have laughed them out the door. Theresa May was really struggling to make any progress on Brexit and was hindered by political saboteurs everywhere she looked. And yet, here we are.

The way events have played out in the past few months has sometimes made me think that the whole Theresa May premiership was almost a scheme to enable the rise of Boris as Prime Minister with a strong hand. But, the reality is closer to the election being an almighty gamble from senior Conservatives and advisers that “getting Brexit done” was a sufficient mantra to see them through, even though that had not exactly gone swimmingly for Johnson’s predecessor.

What was particularly striking about the election campaign was that despite so many faux pas and even resorting to hiding in a fridge, Johnson seemed like he could do no wrong. Parties were able to get away with lying and creating fake “fact check” accounts, discrediting the work of fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact and contributing to broader issues with political debate.

First among these is misleading voters by trying to pose as a neutral or unknown source to influence opinion. Not only is it dishonest. It also leads to a sense of distrust – not just in politics but in other institutions such as the media and academia. It also ends with people putting up barriers and becoming more isolated, getting stuck in echo chambers. Great for Facebook targeting – not so great for democracy.

Secondly, this division leads to solutions that only work for a small group of highly engaged people. Everyone else is disaffected and exhausted. As a result, policy-making turns into something that is short term and does not benefit the community in its entirety. It leads to an environment of pettiness when pragmatism is often what is required.

Ultimately, this pettiness turns into a sense of powerlessness and the differences between people become more pronounced, as those in charge start attributing blame to other groups. Take this election for example, where the Prime Minister blamed “remainers” for the delay when his deal had been voted for in principle by those he criticised. Rather than bringing people together, this served to drive a further wedge between 52% and 48% of UK voters.

And this also had a wider impact on attitudes to particular minority groups as people feel entitled and empowered to exclude people or claim “their” territory. While the data is not there yet, I have heard more anecdotes about Islamophobic and homophobic abuse in the last few months than I have before.

This effect can be seen in an especially stark way on social media. Twitter replies on the most innocent of tweets can be a dark place, where personal attacks are rife, and the focus is not as much on what is said, but who is saying it. It feels like there is a void of meaningful debate and engagement around the substance of arguments. Surely for there to be progress, this needs to happen.

Another theme to arise from the election is the avoidance of scrutiny. This has been seen in both the PM and Corbyn refusing to do some of the TV debates, and the Prime Minister refusing to sit down with Andrew Neil for an interview – who had some choice words to say.

This avoidance of scrutiny sets a precedent that senior politicians can act in this way, and treat the public with a casual disregard. The fact that Johnson won by avoiding difficult questions and detail is a worrying trend. There is no easy way to move on but to attempt to foster a culture of people questioning what they read and demanding detail.

While this has focused on the Conservatives mainly, there are some themes here which apply to other parties. Labour activists on social media were cajoling people and spreading fake polls to try bolstering the perception that they were in the lead. Jeremy Corbyn was presenting documents in a not particularly honest way. The Liberal Democrats’ “bollocks to Brexit” strategy alienated leave voters. The Brexit Party seemed to shift its position every five minutes.

Any way you look at it, the election was a disaster for the British public.

What needs to be done is some research into the political climate, and the best way of doing this is listening to people. Perhaps this decade can mark a shift to listening and acting in the interests of everyone, rather than just for those who are engaged and making people believe they have a stake in the future.

2019 General Election results under Proportional Representation

After every election, there are numerous discussions that come to light about possible results under a different electoral system. While it is unlikely the electoral system will change any time soon, it is useful to understand the biases that can have a notable impact on the results.

For this exercise, I used a similar approach to that for European elections, where the UK is split into regions, and a list of candidates is pre-supplied by parties.

When the votes are counted, seats are assigned according to something known as the D’Hondt formula. More details here. Jeremy Vine also did a great explainer for the BBC below.

Here are the results when the data from the most recent General Election is pulled through.

A note here that I used the House of Commons’ full published data on the election results and the region from this data to calculate the number of seats allocated to each location.

As can be seen, the Conservatives would still be the largest party, but would fall short of an overall majority (326 seats). This could have a number of implications, a couple of which are outlined below.

As smaller parties could be represented better, it might also change perceptions of who to vote for. Voters may feel more empowered to vote for smaller parties as they have a realistic chance of gaining a seat.

While many voters vote for the party over the candidate, in some areas there is less space for independent candidates to succeed. This may also have an impact on party selection because the focus is much more on the national picture than local issues. That said, it may increase the significance of elections for other, more local bodies such as councils or the devolved administrations.

Parties would have to do more to co-operate with one another, as coalitions would become the norm. As the barrier of entry is much higher to gain a majority, parties would have to remove clauses from their party rulebook to enable this. This could potentially lead to more consensus-based policy making and a higher degree of stability when decisions are made.

Of course, the voting system is not likely to change. The Conservatives and Labour have been the biggest benefactors from the current First Past the Post arrangement, and public opinion surrounding coalitions or voting reform is often negative – seen often as an academic issue or leading to weakness and indecisiveness. Some argue that the rejection of AV towards the start of decade proves this, although this is not exactly the same system as has been discussed here.

However, it is interesting to speculate how things would be different if smaller parties were more empowered, and each party had to work harder to get into power. Would it make policy-making better, or would it make things more unstable?