How to vote on Thursday: a minority Labour government would be the best outcome
This election is necessarily mainly about Brexit, overwhelmingly the most challenging issue facing Britain. Opinions for and against Brexit, or against a hard Brexit as apparently favoured by Mrs May, cut across traditional Tory-Labour lines. How should we vote, those of us who would ideally still hope to see us Remain in the EU, or failing that, Remain in the single market or at least in the customs union? That view is accurately represented by the LibDems, but they have no hope of forming a government. Mrs May is firmly committed to leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union, which seems to rule out voting for Conservative party candidates. But her only rival for No 10, Jeremy Corbyn, has also committed his party to Brexit while remaining ambiguous about the single market – and many of us who have traditionally voted Labour have deep misgivings about Mr Corbyn’s capacity for leading and managing an effective government, given the present shambolic shadow cabinet and the dubious character of some of those closely surrounding and influencing Mr Corbyn. We may like many of his distinctive policies, but does he have the leadership qualities to put them into effect?
Britain’s best daily newspaper, the Financial Times, after weeks of critical comment on the Conservative campaign and of Mrs May’s Brexit policies, or lack of them, has nevertheless come out with an editorial endorsing the Conservative party and recommending a vote for Mrs May, mainly on the grounds that a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn would be even worse.
But the choice need not be between the two extremes of a Conservative government with an overall majority and a Labour government with an overall majority. The risk of an unconstrained hard-left Corbyn government with an overall majority, often represented by the Tories as the only available alternative to Mrs May and her hard Brexit, must be too remote (on the evidence of the polls) to be a serious factor in determining how to vote.
There is at least one other possible outcome to this election – not by any means the likeliest (which remains a sizeable majority for Mrs May), but possible. I can see the force of the argument that however inadequate, obstinate, fickle and sub-standard Mrs May is increasingly showing herself to be, Jeremy Corbyn and his present hopeless shadow cabinet look likely to be even worse – with the seemingly logical corollary that the least bad course is to hold your nose and vote Conservative (few of us have the option to vote for or against Mrs May or Jeremy Corbyn themselves). However, the polls are beginning to suggest that if (a big if) younger voters actually turn out and vote (mostly Labour) in unprecedented numbers, the result might just conceivably be a hung parliament, with the Tories probably the largest single party in the new House of Commons but without an overall majority. This might well pave the way to an informal “confidence and supply” understanding under which there could be a minority Labour government (probably but not necessarily led by Mr Corbyn as prime minister) able to govern with the highly selective and conditional support of the LibDems, Greens, Plaid and SNP, and a handful of others. The necessity of retaining the support of the other centre-left parties would helpfully constrain the more fanciful and expensive ambitions of Labour’s hard left, and the requirement to keep the LibDems onside should move a Labour minority government towards a much more pro-European and more strongly Brexit-sceptical position in which an eventual second referendum on the terms of a negotiated agreement with the rest of the EU, including a Remain option, could become a real possibility.
Even if Mr Corbyn were to remain the titular head of the minority government, the more centrist policies it would have to pursue should enable many talented and reputable members of the Labour party, currently unwilling to serve in Corbyn’s shambolic shadow cabinet, to join his real-life Cabinet, adding to the good-sense ballast keeping the ship stable and on a realistic course, notwithstanding the frailties and shortcomings of its captain. The support of the civil service would also be a stabilising factor discouraging folly and extremism. In such circumstances Labour’s election manifesto could form a useful road-map capable of commanding the general support of the other centre-left parties without the need for them to commit themselves to every dot and comma of its text.
The scenario may seem improbable, but at least two reputable opinion polls are suggesting its possibility. The FT, like me, would surely regard it as a vastly superior outcome to a renewed May government with a comfortable majority, unshakably committed to a hard Brexit, delusional about the realities of Britain outside the EU, and relentlessly hostile to any idea of giving the British people the right to pronounce itself satisfied or otherwise with whatever Brexit deal (or ‘no deal’?) that Mrs May and her “team” might come up with in a few months’ time. Yet the FT’s recommendation that we should vote Conservative, if followed, would increase the danger of that outcome. The better alternative, surely, is a minority Labour government governing with the conditional support of the other centre-left parties (not in a coalition, which is clearly unthinkable). The way to make that outcome likelier can only be to vote Labour, or for whichever other candidate in each constituency has the best chance of beating the Conservative. That accordingly is the Ephems recommendation for next Thursday.
As a tailpiece, what would be the mechanics of establishing a minority Labour government with an explicit or implicit “confidence and supply” understanding with the other centre-left parties? If, as seems inevitable, the Conservative party emerges from the election as the biggest single party, that in itself would not necessarily entitle it to form a minority government if it had failed to win an overall majority. Mrs May, as the incumbent prime minister and leader of the biggest single party in the House of Commons, would be entitled to stay on in No 10 and to present a Conservative Queen’s Speech to the House of Commons setting out her government’s policies and intentions. If however the opposition majority in the House of Commons declined to approve that Queen’s Speech, and then went on to defeat Mrs May in a vote of confidence, Mrs May would be obliged to resign. The likeliest and logical next step would be for the Queen to invite Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the next biggest party, to try to form a government that would command the confidence of a majority in the House of Commons. (Thus the shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, is dangerously wrong to imply that Labour would need to be the biggest single party in order to form a minority government: but Mrs May would need to lose a vote of confidence and resign before Labour could be offered a chance to do so.)
Both Mr Corbyn and Ms Thornberry also say that there could be no ‘deal’ with the leaders of the other centre-left parties, although the latter hints at ‘conversations’ (“Those are the conversations we have had”) under which the other parties would indicate an intention to support a minority Labour government in motions of confidence and in votes on budget appropriations, but not necessarily on every policy proposal put forward by the Labour government. Ms Thornberry seems to envisage that there would not even be a tacit understanding that the other parties would give this limited and selective support to a minority Labour government: if they failed to give it and the government fell in consequence, the smaller parties would have to explain to their supporters why they had acted in such a way as to restore the Conservative party to office. This would however be a tenuous basis on which to form a minority government, which would be unlikely to last long without a much firmer understanding with other parties. Without some such quotable understanding – well short of a coalition or a formal ‘deal’ – the Queen might not even feel justified in inviting Jeremy Corbyn to form a government in the event of Mrs May losing a vote of confidence and resigning as prime minister: there might be a stronger case for a different Tory, such as Amber Rudd or David Davies, to be able to form a minority government able to command majority support in the House of Commons. Mr Corbyn and Ms Thornberry should be careful about denying too emphatically that there can be any kind of understanding with other parties. The possibility of a minority Labour government, however remote, would almost certainly depend on there being such an understanding, however informal. The Labour leadership, if it has any sense, should be urgently discussing all these matters with the other centre-left party leaders between now and Thursday, if for any reason, or lack of one, it has not already done so.
It is most disappointing but, regretfully, unsurprising that even now you do not accept that our wholly undemocratic first-past-the-post electoral system is incapable of producing the coalition of forces required to carry us through the difficulties and dangers we face (at home and abroad) in consequence of the EU referendum. My own sense of despair is such that I would now welcome a declaration of independence by Scotland and/or exceptional developments affecting the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland: nothing short of that seems likely to shake Westminster, as a whole, out of its smug, self-satisfied, near criminally insane, institutional complacency.
At long last some thoughtful advice on how to cast a tactical vote. Brian, how good it is to have you back.
Unfortunately, though, the advice we need in Scotland is how best to administer a sharp setback to the SNP. In my constituency (to simplify) pro-Union parties outperform the SNP but, in our first-past-the-post system, are likely to be picked off individually. Labour outpolled the Conservatives in the local elections and are led by old-fashioned, pragmatic socialists of the better sort. But the Conservatives have momentum. They may have the better chance.
As seen from here, it’s not obvious that a minority Labour administration would be preferable to the Conservatives. Scotland’s Labour candidates are lost in the post-Corbin world. In office, they wouldn’t have a clue how to restrain him. An intake of pragmatic Conservative members might however help Mrs May control her galère of Euro-sceptics. Excoriating her for favouring a “hard Brexit” is effective sloganeering but it doesn’t quite fit her record. As to what she believes now, she is keeping her cards close to her chest – sensibly enough, in the run-up to negotiations.
I agree with David Ratford that the stupid, unnecessary and absolutely classic “tactical voting” dilemma in which the electorate has been placed is almost entirely the fault of our dysfunctional electoral system.
Interesting and well argued, as one would expect, but I fear that you overlook the act that the EU doesn’t really care what kind of government it is dealing with so long as it has legitimate power to conduct negotiations or, as May seems to believe, how strong its parliamentary majority is. First, there must be acceptance by the UK of the EU’s position on the financial settlement, citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland. If this is not forthcoming, and there will be precious little leeway to negotiate about on these three matters, there will simply be no negotiation about the future relationship.
If they do get that far, there are essentially three options:
Norway: This allows full access to the market but requires free movement of people and capital. It is overseen by the European Court of Justice.
Turkey: This allows membership of the customs union but does not allow free movement. For that reason, it excludes free access to the single market. The customs union would be overseen by the ECJ. This would see the EU treat the UK as a third country but with simplified customs procedures. The UK would trade with the EU and the world on basic WTO terms. Initially, the UK would directly inherit its current WTO arrangements but any change to them would require the agreement of the other WTO members.
Uganda: The same as Turkey but without the customs union.
I should perhaps mention a fourth option:
Cake: This allows both full access to the market and free movement of people and capital without the oversight of the ECJ. It exists only in the deluded minds of some British politicians.
In reply to David Ratford: I have two reservations about your comment, for which thank you: first, your first sentence is not true (as I have written elsewhere, I came to the conclusion some time ago that with the increasing fragmentation of party loyalties and the decline of any hope of an effective, reforming, radical Labour government with an overall majority, the obvious defects of almost any kind of proportional representation are now outweighed by the slightly less obvious defects of first past the post); and secondly, your comment, however interesting, is irrelevant to the subject of my post, namely how to use your vote on Thursday in a way best calculated to promote the best available outcome. The chances of changing the voting system from FPTP to PR between now and Thursday strike me as remote, however desirable it might be.
In reply to David Campbell: I entirely accept that the situation in Scotland is very different from that in England and Wales. As seen from here (London), though, even in Scotland and notwithstanding the danger of boosting the demand for Scottish independence by supporting a generous representation of the SNP at Westminster, I would argue that by far the most significant issue currently facing the whole of the UK, including Scotland, is which kind of government, Tory or Labour, is going to conduct the Brexit negotiations with the EU27; that Mrs May’s commitment to removing the UK from not only the EU (itself a monumental blunder) but also from the single market and from the customs union, along with her apparent preference for no agreement at all over an unsatisfactory agreement, and her determination not to accept the jurisdiction of the EU’s judicial and supervisory organs even during any period of transition, mean that a negotiation in which Mrs May leads for the UK is almost certain to lead to a crippling disaster for our country: and that consequently one should vote, even in Scotland, in such a way as to minimise the prospect of a Conservative victory, and of any Conservative majority, at Thursday’s election. In some Scottish constituencies this may well mean voting for the SNP. If so, so be it. There may be others in which a Labour vote offers the best hope of keeping a Tory out. Either way, I stand by my recommendation, even in Scotland. In other words, I don’t agree that the overriding objective in Scotland is to “administer a sharp set-back to the SNP”, especially if that entails voting in a way that makes a Tory success on Thursday more likely. Indeed, the more SNP MPs returned to Westminster at the expense of the Tories, the greater the chances of an overall majority for the centre-left parties and therefore of a minority Labour government sustained in office by a confidence-and-supply understanding with the other centre-left parties, including necessarily the SNP. Clearly we must agree to differ!
In reply to Peter Harvey: Thank you for this useful and highly plausible analysis. I don’t know on what basis, however, you accuse me of “[overlooking] … the [f]act that the EU doesn’t really care what kind of government it is dealing with so long as it has legitimate power to conduct negotiations or, as May seems to believe, how strong its parliamentary majority is.” This observation, which incidentally seems to me self-evidently correct, falls far outside the subject of my post, in which I couldn’t deal with every possible aspect of Brexit. The size of any Tory majority at Thursday’s election may be of no concern to the EU27 but it will have profound implications for domestic politics, including the extent to which extreme Europhobes will have scope for influencing government policy on Brexit as the negotiations proceed. There are thousands of other things about the forthcoming negotiations that I didn’t attempt to deal with: it doesn’t mean that I “overlooked” them all. Sorry if I seem too thin-skinned here: I just regret the unnecessarily critical note in your comment. As for the substance of your analysis, I don’t agree with you that there will be no room for negotiation or indeed for haggling and perhaps for independent arbitration, over the financial settlement. There is a good argument for saying that if the UK is required to pay its share of EU liabilities, it must also be entitled to compensation for the loss of its share of EU assets, and there’s plenty of room for argument about the valuation of both, as well as about the period of time to which such payments or compensation should apply. There are also many aspects of citizens’ rights post-Brexit that will need to be sorted out and, one hopes, agreed. The same is true of the almost infinitely complex problem of Northern Ireland. I accept that in this one-sided negotiation the UK holds very few cards, but I certainly don’t think that it should feel obliged simply to accept whatever the EU27 demand without careful scrutiny and discussion of the basis for those demands. In suggesting otherwise, are you perhaps allowing your partisanship to show a little?
As for the rest of your comment, these are interesting points about the available options for a relationship with the EU after Brexit, but they go well beyond the subject of my post — perhaps because, boringly, you agree with it?
I hope there will be lots more comments before Thursday — and that they will focus on the subject of this post!
3 June 2017
You are as persuasive as ever and I wish I could share your optimism about a minority Labour government. The domestic agendas of both major parties coupled with Labour’s lack of preparedness to launch into EU negotiations eleven days after the election scare me.
Thanks, Betty. Alas, you have a point -or rather two points. But what else is there to hope for?
I doubt Mrs May is firmly committed to leave the EU because:
(a) Her sensible speech in April 2016 in which she declared for Remain;
(b) The various delays such as legal proceedings (I am confident HMG counsel advised her before August 2016 that Parliamentary approval needed to invoke Art 50);
(c) Work not begun on updating customs’ infrastructure;
(d) Yet to even start training UK workers in case the EU27 skilled workers leave, either voluntarily or otherwise;
(e) First divison of the Civil Service strongly advised her about the folly of leaving the EU; and
(f) CCHQ sent each Tory constituency association in target seats a choice of three (CCHQ-approved) candidates (e.g. Aldershot had wanted arch eurosceptic Daniel Hannan instead).
So my theory – wishful thinking, perhaps – is that the PM will stop the madness. However to do so the PM needs a HoC majority sufficient to overcome the 50+ bloc of hardline Tory eurosceptics.
The issue is nicely framed for Remainers -do anything you can to weaken a Tory government and hang the unintended consequences, or trust/hope that May will be revealed as a sensible politician once she is secure. If such imponderables lie behind calculations for tactical voting, people are probably better off voting for the party and program with which they most agree.
I have nothing more to add, but I have a question. Suppose there is a second referendum, and suppose it votes down whatever deal/no deal has been achieved, what would be likely to happen in terms of Brian’s hopes. Would either the UK or the rEU have the nous, moxy and capacity for hard and dangerous work needed to undo what has been done?
In reply to Sentinel: I would love to think that you’re right. But I suspect that the widespread lack of preparedness which you describe as the UK approaches the negotiations due in just two weeks’ time is evidence of incompetence and lack of resources in Whitehall following the years of mindless and arbitrary cuts, rather than a sign that Mrs May doesn’t really intend to go through with Brexit. Partial as she obviously is to U-turns, I think this would be one U-turn too far, and one that her career couldn’t survive.
In reply to Paul Sharp: Perhaps you are a little unfair to the Remoaners such as me who seek, almost certainly in vain, to use the election to weaken Mrs May’s position rather than to strengthen it. The bigger the Tory majority in the house of commons, the more influential the Europhobic lunatic fringe of her party is likely to be, from sheer force of numbers and freedom to threaten rebellion without risking the defeat of the government: with the result that the Brexit we’re likely to get will be harder and more damaging than if Mrs May’s majority in parliament remains small. As for unintended consequences, all activity would be paralysed if we were constantly constrained by fear of unintended consequences.
On your (Paul’s) interesting question, one can only speculate about what would (will?) happen if whatever deal is struck between the UK and the EU27 is rejected either by the UK parliament or in another referendum (which incidentally would not be a re-run of the referendum of June 2016, since it would pronounce a verdict on a specific and new Brexit agreement). We may reasonably assume that the rejection of the (draft) agreement would be in a form that would make clear the wish of parliament and/or the electorate to remain in the EU, on whatever terms we could get, as the only acceptable alternative to confirmation of the agreement on exit, notwithstanding the provisions of Article 50. Presumably a UK government whose agreement had been rejected would have to resign, causing a fresh election of a government committed to seeking to keep the UK in the EU. Once elected, that government would have to seek the agreement of the EU27 to the withdrawal of our Article 50 notification and to the opening of a new negotiation on the terms on which the UK could be allowed to retain its EU membership. I hope and believe that the EU27 could not in conscience insist on expelling a member country that clearly wished to remain, although they would probably insist on some kind of penalty being inflicted on the UK for having caused a major EU crisis and the diversion of huge amounts of time, effort and money, all for nothing. For example, we would surely lose our rebate and perhaps have to compensate the rest of the EU financially for the trouble we had caused them, and we couldn’t expect to get back the headquarters of EU institutions formerly based in the UK. Much of the Brexit activity already undertaken on both sides would indeed have to be unwound, a major undertaking, as you rightly say: but child’s play compared with the monumental task of unscrambling the entanglement of UK institutions and laws in those of the EU, an entanglement made ever more complex over the 45-odd years of UK membership, that Brexit would have entailed (and probably still will). However this is all pure speculation and the whole thing could well pan out quite differently.
Among the reasons why I would find it hard to vote Labour is that along with the Lib Dems it not only supports HS2 but has pledged to extend it to Scotland. Nothing is said about the costs or about the colossal environmental damage that would be done to the countryside, or about the increase in CO2 emissions. As Lord Framlingham, a Conservative, said in the debate in the Lords on 31 January, people seem to be bewitched by speed. Among the 23 people who voted for his amendment, which had it passed would have killed the Bill, were two former Treasury Permanent Secretaries, Lord Burns and Lord Macpherson of Earl’s Court, which shows what the Treasury thinks of this project. In fact, I already knew that the Treasury was appalled but couldn’t say so when George Osborne was Chancellor because he was “passionately” in favour of it as indeed was Cameron. I suppose the obstacle now is that Philip Hammond also supported it when he was Secretary of State for Transport. I am glad to say that my old friend, the Labour economist Richard Layard, was also one of those who voted for the amendment. STOP PRESS I have just heard from Richard that Corbyn spoke about HS2 in disparaging terms on Radio or TV recently. Good news but I wish he would tell his party.
At least the Conservatives have not committed themselves to support Crossrail 2 in their manifesto, as Labour has done. It is another scheme that I would not support if it cost nothing at all rather than £30 billion – please see the letter below to my trade magazine.
Brian writes (in reply to Stephen Plowden): Many thanks for this cogent comment. Unlike yourself, I am no expert on transport economics or sociology, although I have never understood the case for HS2, which seems to be designed to get businessmen and businesswomen from the north of England and the midlands to London fractionally faster than they can come at present — on the face of it, a ludicrous and inherently objectionable objective. I have had an open mind about Crossrail, but as always I’m impressed by your objections to it. I have always had a sneaking admiration for Samuel Johnson’s sentiment that “The noblest prospect a Scotsman [or anyone from north of The Wash] ever sees, is the high road that leads to London,” but I recognise that it’s not a sound basis for economic transport policy.
Overall I would simply say that your dissent from Labour over HS2 and Crossrail on its own could not justify withholding your vote tomorrow from Labour when the overwhelming issues at stake must be Brexit and the continuation of the insane policies of austerity. However, you have taken the wise precaution of making it clear at the outset that HS2 and Crossrail are only one (or two) of your reasons for finding it ‘hard’ to vote Labour, and without knowing what your other reasons are, I can’t try to persuade you to overcome your difficulties, hold your nose, and vote either Labour or else for whichever candidate in your constituency might have a better chance of keeping the Tory candidate out. If wherever you vote the Tory has an obviously unassailable majority, it’s still important to vote Labour as a small contribution to the overall national vote and in order to reduce the Tory majority in your constituency to the lowest possible level. I hope that on further reflection you’ll overcome your strong feelings about transport policy and vote on the basis that another five years of Conservative government, especially one led by the hopeless Mrs May, will be disastrous for us all.