Reviewing UK politics in 2019 – Brexit means ???

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 first of this series, the focus is on Brexit.

The B-word has dominated the conversation. The year began with the UK due to leave the European Union in March 2019, which was then gradually pushed as far as January 31st 2020. It has also claimed one Prime Minister in the process. After unsuccessfully getting her deal through Parliament three times, beset with difficulties from her party and others, Theresa May called it a day and Boris Johnson took over in a generally predictable Conservative leadership contest.

Johnson then faced challenges of his own and was able to negotiate a “better” deal (one that economic forecasts show is probably going to be worse). This deal faced challenges of its own, and although it passed its first stage in Parliament without an election, Johnson refused to give sufficient time for scrutiny and had to extend the Brexit deadline – something he promised would not happen.

Looking more deeply at this, there is a sense of weariness towards Brexit, as it has been all that many news outlets and commentators appear to have talked about. Many may have decided that the most expedient way to escape it is by accepting a less than ideal deal which was negotiated in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, this focus on Brexit has happened at the expense of other pressing concerns such as the environment and the health service.

It has also highlighted difficulties among all of the political parties. On the left, Labour has struggled to balance the coalition of voters it had come to rely on since the late 90s, and this led to an ill-conceived policy around a final say referendum that engaged one part of this coalition and switched off another who associated this with further delay.

In the centre, the Liberal Democrats sought to stand out by proclaiming “Bollocks to Brexit”, which made many question the “Democrat” part of their party nomenclature. This illustrates the problems of implementing a direct democracy decision (i.e. a referendum) with representative democracy (i.e. Parliament).

On the right, the Conservatives were under pressure from The Brexit Party to move their policy positions and after the European elections knew something had to change, given the success of Farage’s new organisation. It also really started to draw attention to dissension within Conservative ranks, and this was most profound when working out a solution to the Irish border, where the belligerent European Research Group refused to back any deal without approval from the Democratic Unionist Party.

In 2020, far from Brexit being signed, sealed and delivered on the 31st January, the second, more complicated stage of talks begins to establish the future relationship between the UK and EU. The deadline is tight, with Boris Johnson claiming that there will be a deal finalised before the year is out. Yet, most experts doubt this is possible, given the immense scale of regulations, logistics and EU/UK procedure. It also raises the prospect of a so-called “clean break” WTO-rule Brexit rearing its head again. The Prime Minister could be on a course to disappoint the voters who “lent” him their trust by not acknowledging the gargantuan effort required.

On the EU side, there are already indications that they will not make things easy and will use a range of powerful tactics to ensure the EU’s interests are protected, regardless of whether they are at the expense of the UK, illustrated through recent negotiations with Switzerland. With the tight deadline and pressures associated, will the UK have the ability to say no, given the high stakes involved?

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?