2019 General Election Day 2: Remainers Assemble?

It felt that doing these daily posts in the late afternoon/early evening would be good timing, as most of the big election events would be happening during the day, giving me the chance to use this space to reflect on them before the next day began.

And then Tom Watson decided to announce his retirement in the middle of the evening. So, after thinking yesterday was going to be a story of Conservative errors and gaffes, it instead became one of everyone trying to process what it meant for the campaign and the Labour Party that its Deputy Leader had decided to choose this moment to announce his departure. In the two decades since devolution we’ve had party leaders who aren’t contesting a seat in the election, but this is somewhat different as Watson has promised to keep campaigning for the party in the election and then end his political career after it. It isn’t the first time a party’s Deputy Leader has done this — Malcolm Bruce retired at the 2015 election while still holding the title of Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats — but the suddenness and surprise of Watson’s decision is making a lot of people wonder what comes next. (See this by Ayesha Hazarika, for instance)

Having talked yesterday about how little attention people pay to politics, there’s a potential to dismiss Watson’s resignation as something that will only matter to political geeks because, after all, who knows who the Deputy Leader of any party is? (Until I mentioned him above, most of you probably had no idea that Malcolm Bruce had been Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats) However, one question worth asking in the face of seeming mass indifference is how do people go about making political decisions if they’re not paying too much attention to politics? Well, one way is to adopt shortcuts, and rather than process all the information yourself, base your decision on other sources who are more involved in this than you. Take the Hazarika article I mentioned above. She as a party member doesn’t have access to the internal debates at the top of the Labour Party but Watson’s departure is enough to show her that “there’s nothing left for us in the Labour Party”.

At a different level, the various tactical voting sites are trying to fulfil that role for people in making their voting decision. So, rather than taking all their time to assess who the best option for their desired outcome is in their constituency, a tactical voting site will tell them. Alternatively, rather than having to read every party’s manifesto to see which you agree with, other sites will ask you your opinion on various subjects and match you up with the party that best suits them. And at some point someone is going to try to mash the two approaches together which will confuse the whole issue even more.

As I wrote last week, I’m not convinced that pushing tactical voting is the solution this time around, because the levels of trust between the parties (and especially between Labour and the Liberal Democrats) aren’t there any more. Effective tactical voting needs some level of support from the parties themselves so voters don’t think they’re betraying their party of choice by switching and that they believe the parties have a common goal. Without voters getting that nudge towards voting tactically from a source they trust, they’re not likely to think it’s a good idea. For instance, in 1997 the Daily Mirror — then very close to the Labour leadership — published tactical voting guides that clearly had the tacit support of the leaderships of both parties, backed up by the withdrawal of campaigners from seats.

There’s nothing like that at this election, but today has seen the launch of something new with the formal declaration of the Unite To Remain electoral pact between the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party of England and Wales and Plaid Cymru. Across 60 seats in England and Wales (that’s approximately 10% of the total number of seats) there will be only one candidate from these three parties: 43 will have just a Liberal Democrat candidate, 10 a Green candidate and 7 a Plaid Cymru candidate. It’s a bold move, and an interesting one to get three parties together in this way across so many seats. We’ve seen this sort of move in by-elections before, but in the same way that tactical voting is easier to achieve in the special circumstances of a by-election, so are one-time pacts. This is something much harder to achieve, requiring a lot of people to sign on to it, not least the members of all three parties who’ll now find themselves not fighting the general election in their constituencies.

On a wider point, though, it also means that the three parties are lending each other their credibility for tactical voters in other seats they’re contesting. Aside from the Plaid-Lib Dem marginal of Ceredigion, the three aren’t in direct conflict at a Parliamentary level anywhere now and even if they’re not in the seats covered by the pact, voters everywhere can now see that the three parties are happy to work together. It also gives the three of them an interesting wedge to use against Labour, pointing out that there’s only one party on the anti-Tory side who didn’t want to be part of the pact — and here’s Jenny Jones for the Greens making that exact point.

All three parties get important boosts to the credibility from this. The Greens get to show that they’re credible contenders to win seats that aren’t Brighton Pavilion, Plaid get to show they can build alliances across Wales ahead of the next Assembly elections, and the Liberal Democrats get the endorsement of two left-leaning parties, helping to erase some of the negative associations of the coalition. On top of that, all three can can now respond to that perennial voter question of “why can’t you work together?” with “we are” and even if the details of the pact might not be noticed by many voters until they get to their polling station, the broader message and signals from the three parties might break through and make a difference.

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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