On the night before the 2017 general election, Newsnight asked me to predict the outcome. I was in a studio with Iain Dale, the Tory pundit, who had conducted a meticulous “analysis” of marginal seats and concluded that the Conservatives would come away with a majority of 122. Former Lib Dem strategist Polly Mackenzie went with a Tory majority of 60.
I said my head predicted a narrow Tory majority win but that my heart said hung parliament. Only my heart was right. Theresa May lost her majority and had to cobble together a minority government with DUP support, which lasted precisely 23 months. She was replaced by Boris Johnson — who will be 22 seats short of a majority when parliament is dissolved.
So what does my heart say now? Let’s run through the known variables in play as Britain heads to a December poll unprecedented since 1923.
First, let’s deal with Scotland. Not just because the patterns are so clear, but because the crisis of Scottish governance is the dynamic that’s driven the bigger crisis since 2014. A survey of Herald readers out this morning puts support for independence on 60 per cent, with 31 per cent opposed and just 9 per cent undecided. As for Westminster voting intentions, the SNP are on 59 per cent, the Tories on 15 per cent, the Lib Dems on 12.5 per cent and Labour on just 7 per cent.
Any rational person must conclude from this that Scotland is going to leave the UK, especially if Johnson achieves a hard Brexit, despite the obvious intent of the SNP to make a show of fighting for independence without ever seriously meaning to trigger it.
To be a progressive Scot — 75 per cent of all voters if you include the Greens — must feel like being handcuffed to a lunatic right now. As a result, I expect the SNP to win all 13 of the Tories’ Scottish seats, and to eat into the representation of all other parties. Since you can’t rule a nation of six million people with a viceroy, that means the next government, to have any moral legitimacy as a government of the Union, has to include the SNP.
Now let’s deal with the major new dynamic that’s emerged in England and Wales, and which makes the outcome even more unpredictable. Elections in England are now an effective four-party contest — with the Lib Dems maintaining the poll surge they established in May. Back then, Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s National Executive Committee dropped the ball, refusing to state clearly they would hold a referendum on any Brexit deal, and massively boosting the Lib Dem and the Green vote in the European parliament elections.
If you look at the poll trackers you can see that, up to now, the May fiasco has haunted Labour’s ratings. The European elections more or less doubled the Lib Dems’ vote share, and Jo Swinson — a new face among some well-established ones — has consolidated that position.
If the Lib Dem vote holds up, then in a normal election, you would expect them to take numerous seats from the Tories in the south west and southern England in general, while competing with Labour in suburban seats like Putney that would previously have been Labour/Tory marginals.
But this will not be a normal election. Because the emergence of the Brexit Party, which is still polling around 11 per cent, despite being squeezed by the Conservatives, makes everything in England unpredictable.
The biggest unknown is whether voters will remain so obsessed with Brexit that the election becomes a proxy referendum. My experience on the doorstep, both now and last time, suggests not. With a rash of good, new candidates, Labour can expect to see off most of the direct challenges from the Lib Dems.
Even in Vauxhall, the most Remain-voting seat in the country, it is hard to see the Lib Dems beating Labour’s Florence Eshalomi, a 100 per cent Remain working-class black woman from Brixton. The problem for Labour lies in Leave voting areas — but even here, outsiders would do well to avoid stereotypes. Johnson’s outriders were today enthusing about “Workington Man” — the mythical flat-capped, uneducated anti-globalist who might switch from a lifetime of voting Labour to voting “Boris”, if only Boris will offer some welfare spending.
The towns the Conservatives should target, said the think-tank Onward, should be the ones that play rugby league — like Workington, Warrington and Castleford. Tough luck for Johnson, then, that the NHS chose today to announce the year-long shut down of Pontefract’s Friarwood maternity unit, where 5,600 women a year give birth, because of a shortage of trained midwives.
The reality in Britain’s ex-industrial small towns is, indeed, stressed and in places bleak: but it will take a lot more than warm words for the Tories to break into these areas — though, like May in 2017, they are welcome to waste shoe leather and diesel fuel trying. In fact, Labour only faces the danger of losing seats in a few, specific Leave-voting areas, where the far right has been organised for years, or where a working-class urban community has seen a more naturally Tory suburban population tacked on by boundary changes over the years.
This being the case, I expect the election to result in three parallel questions. First, can Labour squeeze the Lib Dems by leading with its second referendum promise and with its strong offer on decarbonising the economy? I expect Labour to heavily promote its Green New Deal agenda early in the campaign, despite the fact that this didn’t work for their Canadian and Australian counterparts.
Second, will Nigel Farage and Johnson form any kind of electoral pact? Since Johnson’s deal abandons Northern Ireland to long-term unity with the Republic, and that there is no guarantee of a hard Brexit — only the possibility of one — in Johnson’s moves to eliminate the “level playing field” commitments, it looks likely that Farage will go full throttle for his own party.
Third, if so, much then depends on whether a tactical voting mentality emerges among progressive-minded people. Labour’s strategists will, in public, bitterly denounce those who favour tactical voting to stop the Tory Brexit. I assume, as last time, that they will be happy to crack cans open on the night if it happens.
My current prediction, like that of John Curtice, is that around 100 MPs won’t belong to either Labour or the Tories. Let’s assume the SNP get 50; the Lib Dems go from 19 to 35; and the DUP, Sinn Fein and the Greens stay the same. In that case, barring a Tory surge in the Midlands, Humberside and Yorkshire, I can only see the outcome as another hung parliament.
And that’s where it gets interesting. Most MPs believe they were, this week, on the point of successfully amending Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill to include a customs union and even a second referendum. That’s why he had to cut and run for an election.
But in a hung parliament where the Tories plus the DUP cannot achieve more than 50 per cent of seats, Brexit is dead — with the proviso that Labour is prepared to reach some form of arrangement with the Liberal Democrats.
It is one thing for the Blue Labour group to consider voting Brexit through in defiance of the whip at the end of a hung parliament. It would be another thing to do so when their own party has just stood on the manifesto promise of a second referendum.
This scenario is, of course, dispiriting for the Labour left. But the party’s right — which has been plotting quietly for a few weeks — knows what an opportunity that would be. Swinson demands a different Labour leader as the price for confidence and supply, Jess Phillips launches a leadership bid, and — to head her off — a new left leader emerges to form a more traditional centre-left coalition, which calls a referendum and cancels Brexit.
Fantasyland? I’ve heard the scenario outlined by two separate City contacts in the past week, and it’s pretty close to the optimum outcome for the European Union itself.
My heart, of course, wants a Corbyn government with support from the SNP. If Scottish Labour really cannot recover from its historic misstep during the 2014 referendum, then the future of progressive politics in the Union — so long as it survives — will have to thrive off the energy of both Corbynism and cosmopolitan Scottish nationalism.
To get there, Labour has to do something it’s not been capable of: reconnecting with the centrist-voting salariat at the same time as reconnecting with older, former manual workers in the North and Midlands.
All previous experience suggests such coalitions only occur if a single person comes to embody the hopes and ideals of very different groups of people. To head off the nightmare of coalition negotiations with the Lib Dems, that’s what Corbyn has to do.