It was inevitable after the results of the European parliament elections became clear that there would be callsfor ‘Remain’ parties to work together to ensure a remain majority after the Westminster election – which is surely now an unavoidable result of the Tory leadership election, even if the timing is uncertain. After all, the pro-Brexit side managed to offer a single clear choice, and they only ‘won’ because the Remain side failed to do the same. There are, though, many problems with any such proposal, even allowing for the fact that ‘working together’ is a vague enough phrase to offer multiple possible interpretations.
There are two important – and almost certainly invalid – assumptions underlying such calls. The first is that a sufficient number of electors will see the Brexit issue as the defining issue of this particular election, and the second is that they will follow the advice of the leaders of ‘their’ party of choice, and vote for the suggested alternative. The first is certainly true for political commentators – including this blog – but I’m not aware of any hard evidence of its truth for the electorate as a whole. Many will be voting on all sorts of other issues. And the second is based on an over-simplistic mathematical analysis of votes coupled with a degree of arrogance in believing that the parties can tell ‘their’ voters to vote for someone else and be obeyed. I would find it very hard indeed, even given the importance of Brexit, to cast my vote for any party likely to support the renewal of Trident, or which is utterly opposed to autonomy for Wales, to give just two examples – and many others will have their own red lines.
It’s true, of course, that the Leave side had the advantage in last week’s election of having a single clear option open to supporters, but we should remember that that came about not because of any discussions or agreements between the parties, but because two pro-Brexit parties (UKIP and the Tories) managed to press their self-destruct buttons and implode. That isn’t going to happen for the Remain parties, with the possible exception of Change UK. That means that any arrangement depends on the Lib Dems, Plaid, the SNP and the Green Party (and potentially Labour as well if they ever manage to get their act together) coming to an arrangement where they all agree to stand aside in some seats in favour of each other’s candidates. I put the chances of that happening at approximately zero.
Whilst arrangements between Plaid, SNP and the Green Party look to be achievable, if difficult, in Scotland and Wales, there seems little chance that the resurgent Lib Dems will stand aside in any of their increasingly lengthy list of target seats, and no chance at all of the Labour Party doing the same. For all their talk of coming together to prevent a hard (or indeed any) Brexit, both of those parties will be looking at the election as their chance to improve their own positions, and ultimately that is a bigger prize than the single issue of Brexit. And I suspect that politicians calling for an ’arrangement’ fully understand the reality, and that such calls are themselves more to do with trying to position their own parties as the adults in the room than with any real hope of action.
The problem we face is with an electoral system which allows people a range of choice, but then awards the spoils on a wholly unjust basis, meaning that a party gaining only around 30-35% of the vote can end up with a huge majority of seats. Trying to game the system by treating voters as pawns to be traded on the basis of a mathematical analysis of votes cast doesn’t address that problem.