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What will survive this seismic election? As Britain prepares for its fifth nationwide ballot in four years, much is hanging in the balance

Credit: ISABEL INFANTES/AFP via Getty Images

October 30, 2019   3 mins

Britain is now on course for the most consequential election in its postwar history. The fate of Brexit, a second referendum, Boris Johnson’s embryonic premiership and Jeremy Corbyn’s radical Labour project — they all hang in the balance. The ballot on Thursday December 12 will ultimately define each of these political projects.

It will be the country’s 22nd general election since 1945. And it’s the fifth nationwide election to be held in the past four years — something which reflects not only the record rate of volatility in British politics, but the extent to which the ‘Europe question’ has pushed one of the world’s most stable two-party systems into a state of almost continual flux.

For Prime Minister Johnson, the election will determine whether his premiership ends as a brief footnote, or full chapter, in the history of British politics. The campaign should throw light on whether ‘Johnson-ism’ really exists; whether a small but intriguing collection of ‘one-nation’ policies can find their full expression as a coherent body of thought.

Could these ideas make a meaningful contribution to a conservative philosophy that for much of the past quarter-century has appeared timid, lost and devoid of serious thought? Or will they, in the shadow of defeat, be quickly forgotten?

His party’s future hangs in the balance, too. If the Conservative party can embrace a realignment of its electorate, then it stands a chance of not being cast into opposition. What started as a home for elites, before turning to more liberal middle-class professionals, the party is now having to speak ever more loudly to blue-collar Britain and social conservatives. The logic of this election demands that the Conservative Party develop a new language in order to connect with groups that have felt left behind and left out by the relentless onward march of social liberalism. The coming weeks will reveal whether Conservatives are willing to fundamentally re-orientate themselves to find success.

For the Leader of the Opposition, the election will ultimately decide the fate of his more radical and quixotic left-wing project. Either Corbynism will be consigned to history as a curious, disruptive but ultimately ephemeral detour in the history of the Labour movement — as dictated by the unwritten law that mainstream parties must be punished for ideological radicalism — or it will, instead, morph into a genuinely transformative government that paves the way for a fundamental and radical restructuring of Britain’s economy and society. The former leaves room for a rebooted challenge from moderate social democrats; the latter will shut them out for a generation.

As for Labour itself, this ballot will determine whether the party that was founded to represent an alienated working-class continues to move away from these people and increasingly toward middle-class graduates, the capital and university towns. Inevitably, the few  remaining ambiguous politicians will be pushed into adopting unambiguous positions on Brexit. The volume on their support for Leave or Remain, a second referendum or not, will have to be turned up. Already, Jeremy Corbyn is underlining his support for a second referendum. But what this will do to latent tensions in the party’s political geography, between the winners and losers, remains to be seen. Come December, it could be tearing them apart.

For those advocates of a second referendum, meanwhile, the next election will clarify the future of their proposal — whether it remains rooted in reality or, instead, drifts further and perhaps finally into the realm of fantasy. For them, an election loss will force a campaign to ‘remain’ to evolve into a longer-term and far harder campaign to ‘re-join’. An election victory, on the other hand, will provide a rare opportunity to remedy the failures that led to the defeat of 2016. What does victory look like? Anything other than a strong Labour majority or Labour-led coalition will, almost certainly, bring the lingering conversation about a second ballot on EU membership to a close.

Lastly, for the country’s increasingly fragile party system this is an election that will determine whether it remains gridlocked in the world of multi-party politics or returns to its natural state of two-party dominance. Fragmentation and resurgent populism have surged to the surface of our politics over the past three years; this election should tell us whether this is a fleeting phenomenon or new reality.

Below the surface, nearly half of all voters have, since 2010, been switching their allegiance from one party to another; December 12 could see this underlying church reach new heights, or provide a sign that voters are beginning to settle into their new, albeit weaker, attachments. And it should also signal whether our new divides over Brexit really are replacing the traditional idea of ‘Left versus Right’ to the extent that some claim. The 2017 election provided good reason to be sceptical of those who argue that ‘everything is now about Brexit’. This one may yet deliver further surprises for exactly the same reason.

Overall, this is an election that has been called to resolve the Brexit crisis. We are returning to the people because of the failure of parliament to successfully navigate through this crisis. It is, for this reason, an election that offers something for everybody — Remainers and Leavers, liberals and conservatives. As Richard Nixon said: “There’s nothing wrong with this country which a good election can’t fix!” Let’s hope it’s fifth time lucky.

Matthew Goodwin is Professor of Politics at the University of Kent. His new book, Values, Voice and Virtue: The New British Politics, is out on March 30.


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