With the December 12th U.K. elections now only a month out, the Conservative Party is significantly ahead in the polls. As I’ve written about for Truthout over the past months, the Conservative Party, remade by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a starkly pro-Brexit, anti-internationalist institution, is, according to most surveys, still polling at below 40 percent. In most election years such numbers would condemn the ruling party to a humiliating loss. But Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, the main opposition to the Conservatives, is polling at under 30 percent. In a first-past-the-post Parliamentary system, depending on how the vote is distributed geographically, these numbers could open the door to Johnson winning a large parliamentary majority.
However, there remains a huge degree of uncertainty. During the last election, Theresa May’s Conservatives entered the campaign with a lead that some polls showed as being close to 20 percent, and with Corbyn’s party struggling to reach the 30 percent mark. As the weeks went by, however, support for May’s agenda crumbled, while Labour support inched up; and, on election night itself, the Conservative leader lost her majority and ended up with a hung Parliament.
This time around, both main parties have gotten off to an appalling campaign start: For the Conservatives, Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg made an extraordinary public blunder when he essentially blamed the dozens of victims of the Grenfell Tower block fire – a catastrophic fire in a public housing building in London in 2017 that claimed the lives of 72 people — for their own deaths. He claimed the victims did not have the “common sense” to leave the building quickly enough as it was engulfed in flames. And the Welsh Secretary had to resign after it came out that he had covered up for an aide who had actively worked to sabotage a rape trial. These are not the sorts of acts that sit well with an electorate.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party, which ought to be able to ride to victory on a wave of public unease over the hard and chaotic contours of Johnson’s Brexit strategy, is in disarray. Labour is divided not just over how to counter Johnson’s vision of Brexit but also over a host of other policy and personnel issues. It is seemingly unable to put to rest the ongoing claims of anti-Semitism amongst a part of its membership – claims that recently led the Jewish Chronicle newspaper to publish a front page open letter urging Jews and non-Jews alike in the U.K. to vote against Corbyn’s party in order to stem a rising tide of intolerance.
Some of these claims unfairly conflate the Labour Party’s critiques of Israel with anti-Semitism, and as Jewish Voice for Peace noted in the wake of attacks on Corbyn, “Criticism of Israel does not pose an existential threat to Jewish communities or anyone else.” However, other claims identify instances of genuine anti-Semitism. There was, for example, the parliamentary candidate who referred to someone as being a “Shylock,” and who then had to step aside following public outrage.
Corbyn has repeatedly insisted that anti-Semitism has no place in the Labour Party. Yet his words have failed to convince even some of his own senior colleagues that the party has put enough energy into fighting deplorable instances of actual anti-Semitism, such as the “Shylock” incident.
The row over anti-Semitism has gotten so ugly that Ian Austin, formerly a cabinet minister under Labour’s last prime minister, Gordon Brown, publicly urged Labour voters to support Johnson in order to stop a Corbyn premiership. Despite Labour having altered its disciplinary process in recent months so as to make it easier to expel members accused of anti-Semitism, Austin argued it was too little too late.
Beyond the rows over claims of anti-Semitism, Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, who has long tried to preserve a place for economic policy moderates in a party that has swung dramatically leftwards under Corbyn, has resigned from his position. While Watson didn’t give a specific reason for his resignation, he had been repeatedly trolled and verbally attacked by members of the Corbyn-supporting Momentum movement over the past few years, and at the recent annual party conference Corbynites tried to abolish Watson’s party position. He has announced that he will not run for re-election as an MP. And another ex-Labour MP, John Woodcock, also declared that, fearing Corbyn’s positions on national security, he would be voting for the Conservative party.
All of this has pushed the Labour Party onto the defensive and made the outcome of the election particularly difficult to predict.
To further muddy the waters, on the ground a raft of informal alliances, tactical voting pacts, and agreements not to field candidates in closely fought parliamentary constituencies are taking root between the larger and smaller political parties. In the main, these alliances are being forged around where the parties stand on Brexit, with everything else being treated as of secondary importance.
This past weekend, the far-right Brexit Party’s leader, Nigel Farage, after threatening to run candidates in every constituency in the land unless Johnson abandoned his Brexit deal with the European Union and embraced a No-Deal Brexit, announced a “unilateral” election pact, in which his party would voluntarily pull back from fielding candidates in Conservative constituencies. “In a sense, we now have a Leave Alliance, it’s just that we’ve done it unilaterally,” the arch-Brexiteer explained, a touch disingenuously. It was being implemented, he averred, so as not to split the pro-Brexit vote and provide Labour and the Liberal-Democrats an opening to pick off a few Conservative MPs in marginal seats. In reality, it seems, Farage’s calculus is that it isn’t a unilateral gift to the Tories, but rather a clear political favor, for which he will seek policy recompenses after the election.
On the other side, a similar, but far smaller-scale pact has also emerged between the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats and the Green party, with the Welsh nationalists added in Wales as well. But Labour, which has been trying to hedge its bets on whether to side with Remainers, or simply to push for a second referendum on Johnson’s Brexit deal, has not joined the pact. As a result, it is likely to be far less of a political force nationally than could be the Johnson-Farage axis.
And yet, poll after poll shows a small, but consistent, majority of UK residents now wants the country to remain within the European Union. If voters choose to put aside all their other political concerns and treat this election as if it is a referendum on Brexit, Labour could be informally dragged into the pact by its own, largely pro-Remain, supporters and their willingness to vote tactically.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, the Scottish Nationalists (the SNP) are riding high as a result of their opposition to Brexit. They will quite likely sweep to victory in Scotland in December, and could even defeat enough sitting Conservative MPs to deprive Johnson’s party of a parliamentary majority. This would open the door to a loose-knit alliance of anti-Brexit parties and MPs coalescing to prevent Johnson forming a new government. The SNP isn’t involved in pre-election pacts, but its leaders have floated the idea of allying with Labour after the election if there were a hung Parliament. In exchange for this, they would, however, likely extract a promise to allow for a second referendum to be held on Scottish independence.
Given current polling, the odds are that a pro-Brexit parliamentary majority will emerge out of these elections. But at the same time, it’s certainly not inconceivable that a combination of pre-election alliances and post-election pacts could result in the formation of a broadly anti-Brexit government that brings Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, as well as the Welsh and Scottish nationalists into an uneasy, and probably short-lived, coalition.