The snap general election is, once again, about the United Kingdom remaining part of – or leaving – the European Union. Essentially, it’s not about anything else! It’s not as if the British prime minister really gave any other reasons when appearing before cameras last Tuesday to announce a general election for Britain’s House of Commons on June 8.
Of course, she spoke of how “the country is coming together, but Westminster is not”. But it’s clear to any person in the world that “the country” has never been as divided as it has been since the referendum last summer. And she also spoke of how the snap general election was solely about “leadership”, about “a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government, led by Jeremy Corbyn, propped up by the Liberal Democrats – who want to reopen the divisions of the referendum – and Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP.” It’s easy to see both claims for what they are: self-serving declarations made by someone seeking to cement her own political power.
So why has Theresa May announced a general election now of all times, after spending the last nine months repeatedly stressing that she had no intention of doing just that? Why is she risking being perceived as opportunistic, hypocritical, even dishonest by the rest of the world?
The pitfalls of British electoral law
The answer lies hidden in the British electoral system. It is a majoritarian voting system, based on the so called first-past-the-post voting method. How does it work? The country is divided up into as many constituencies as there are members of parliament to be elected. Each constituency then elects its member of parliament: voters put a cross on a ballot paper next to their favoured candidate and the candidate with the most votes in the constituency wins. But here is the problem: the votes for all other candidates count for… nothing! That’s why it is also known as a ‘winner-takes-all’-system. And this is quite important in our context.
This electoral system has major consequences: Firstly, it gives large majority parties an unfair advantage. They are represented in parliament much more than minorities, their parties and opinions. This can be seen as unjust and highly undemocratic – indeed it should be!
A little irony of this situation is the fact that it led to disaster for the very party that never tired of emphasising the allegedly undemocratic nature of the European Union and, by contrast, the gloriousness of the British Empire: The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). In 2015, almost four million Brits voted for UKIP. However, Britain’s voting system was precisely the reason why UKIP won just one of the 650 parliamentary seats that were up for grabs. Mathematically speaking, this means that 14% of the Brits who took part in the election two years ago are represented by just 0.15% of all parliamentary seats. This is compounded by the fact that UKIP has since even managed to lose the only seat it won: A few weeks ago, its elected member of parliament, Douglas Carswell, announced his departure from the United Kingdom Independence Party. Compare this to the Scottish National Party (SNP), which won a whopping 56 seats despite only collecting just under 1.5 million votes – not even half the number mentioned above. The reason for this is that the SNP is of course perfectly positioned to command a majority in Scottish constituencies. In other words: The British electoral system causes grotesque distortions in the political representation of the country’s citizens in their own parliament. Incidentally, this electoral law was also the reason why Nigel Farage, Britain’s most prominent nationalist and former leader of UKIP, never became a member of Britain’s parliament, despite numerous attempts. Instead, he had the cheek of repeatedly standing for election to the European Parliament – a place where he certainly does not belong to at all! Things turned downright bizarre when Mr Farage called Britain’s electoral system not only undemocratic, but “bankrupt”. And as the controlling majority party, the British Tories benefit immensely from the UK’s “bankrupt” electoral system. This is why they have so far stubbornly refused to reform it. All this is quite detrimental to the global reputation of British democracy.
And finally, the United Kingdom’s voting system also means that the formation of coalitions is a far rarer necessity. In fact, apart from one exception the British have experienced no coalition governments since the days of Winston Churchill and the Second World War.
A weak opposition, Theresa May’s cunning and her real interest
To make matters worse for those who oppose a Brexit, or at least a hard Brexit, there’s another problem. The UK’s only opposition party supposedly capable of challenging Mrs May for the premiership is the Labour Party. But Labour’s current leader is a man whose politics are somewhat further to the left than those of the average European social democrat. What’s more, despite a high degree of personal integrity, Jeremy Corbyn lacks the necessary persona for a majority of British voters to consider him as their next prime minister. Thirdly, he has remained utterly indifferent in his political stance on Brexit, and fourthly it’s hard to imagine anyone more stubborn. So neither his politics nor his personality is likely to secure him a majority allowing him to become the next British prime minister. As such, there has been no shortage of calls for him to step down – almost as many as those directed towards Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. But while Arsène Wenger can at least be credited with a brilliant career as a manager with numerous title wins under his belt, Jeremy Corbyn has never been prime minister, and – as far as any reasonable person can tell – nor will he become prime minister on June 8. On the other hand, he and the Premier League club manager have in common the fact that neither of the two is willing to accept the obvious consequences of the continuing criticism and step down. And this is precisely what Theresa May and Britain’s Conservatives are banking on: She wants to exploit the UK’s “bankrupt” electoral system and the lack of leadership engulfing the largest opposition party, in order to turn a slim majority from the 2016 referendum into a large, newly confirmed parliamentary majority for the Conservatives for the next five years! This new majority would allow her to easily push Brexit through parliament at some point during those five years! And that is exactly why she announced a general election last Tuesday – to be held on June 8, so in a little under eight weeks. It’ll hardly advance her credibility on the world stage. The reliability of what she says has now reached about the same level as that of US President Donald Trump. And her conduct leaves her looking more like a cunning shyster than an adorable political leader. The European Union would do well to prepare for such conduct during the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
What can those opposed to hard Brexit do now?
So what can all those people in Britain who are opposed to Brexit, or at least a hard Brexit, do in this situation? Their first and most obvious duty is of course to vote on this unexpected election day. Secondly, opponents of Brexit should convince every other fellow citizen who has a right to vote and who is well disposed to the idea of a United Europe with Britain being a full part of it that he or she must do precisely the same. Indeed even in last year’s referendum, a quarter of the British voting population did not cast a ballot. Those opposed to Brexit could look at ‘En Marche’ in France or ‘Pulse of Europe’ in Germany to draw inspiration from the fact that proudly positive, pro-European grass-roots movements can spring up and attract tens of thousands of citizens in a matter of weeks. It’s important to remember, though, that it could prove far more challenging to establish a comparable initiative in the United Kingdom, simply because many British people don’t identify strongly as Europeans. Even worse, there would doubtless be plenty of resistance from Britain’s hate-spewing press as well. But even these two actions alone – voting and mobilising the electorate – won’t be enough to ensure any election success!
Vote for the candidate with the best chance to beat the Conservative in every single constituency
A third instrument is needed: tactical voting! It will not be enough to simply go to the polls and cast your vote and persuade others to do the same. Instead, this election is also going to require all those opposed to Brexit and to hard Brexit to cast their vote for the very candidate who stands the greatest chance of beating the candidate fielded by the Conservatives – preferably regardless of their party affiliation. This would undoubtedly be the most promising opportunity to beat the Conservatives, constituency by constituency, and in turn increase the likelihood of averting a hard Brexit! Vote the Brexit Tories out of parliament as much as possible! But Remainers will not be the only voters who might consider tactical voting. Gina Miller, the woman who went to court to ensure the government must seek the approval of parliament before triggering Article 50, has already announced the “biggest tactical voting effort in UK history” and set up a crowdfunding campaign “to support a full and free vote on Brexit”. This seems all the more necessary, given the fact that we can assume that the four million UKIP voters from 2015 could now also vote tactically and support the Tories. They already discovered two years ago that voting for their own party was pointless under the British electoral system – at least it didn’t guarantee them any seats in parliament. And this is precisely why in her announcement last Tuesday Theresa May already clearly positioned her Conservatives as the true executors of Brexit.
An alliance of pro-European parties and Britain’s Labour spearheaded by Nicola Sturgeon?
There could, potentially, be another way to give Remainers more political clout. Far more political clout, in fact. But the chances of it happening are quite remote, quite very remote. This option would depend on the UK’s opposition parties, and in particular their leaders. There could be an alliance between the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party and Labour, with the additional support of the Greens and even other opposition parties. They would first need to agree on a candidate for the job of British prime minister. Viewed from the outside, First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon currently appears to be the best political leader in the whole of the United Kingdom. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, many Brits could see her as a genuine alternative to Theresa May, especially those keen to prevent the country’s departure from the European Union. So the extremely improbable would have to occur: If he were unable to bring himself to adopt a clear pro-European stance, Jeremy Corbyn would need to make way for Nicola Sturgeon to challenge Theresa May for the role of prime minister. Even this would not be without analogy from other European countries. A few weeks ago in Germany, the chairman of the Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, had the dignity and human greatness to stand down as party chairman. He was making way for Martin Schulz, the long-standing President of the European Parliament. The latter is now the party’s candidate for the German chancellorship and will challenge Angela Merkel during the federal election in September. Germany’s Social Democrats would also be well advised to highlight their candidate’s strengths with a clear, pro-European election campaign. Something similar could be the key to success in the United Kingdom. Admittedly, this would require Nicola Sturgeon to break away from her own Scottish nationalism and be prepared to stand for election to the British House of Commons, and potentially as prime minister of the whole of the UK. Jeremy Corbyn could use Labour’s considerable voting power to get a more social, fairer United Kingdom off the ground, making him the most important man in the British cabinet alongside other leaders of the current opposition parties, e.g. Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats. In addition, it would be quite helpful if the parties to such an alliance could agree on a list and one joint candidate per constituency, and then recommend that all their members vote for that candidate. The composition of this list could be based on the personal qualification of individual candidates as well as the 2015 election results. This initiative would place incredible demands on everyone involved in an incredibly short space of time: strategic far-sightedness, people setting their own egos aside, solidarity, the power to make decisions, trust, discipline, unity. Let’s face reality: This is precisely why it is almost impossible for it to happen, even if the reward is potentially phenomenal. It could unseat the Brexit Tories.
The founding of a new pro-European party advocating full membership?
The next eight weeks will therefore show the extent to which the British parties are able to effectively represent the interests of those British citizens who continue to see their country’s future in a politically united Europe. With a stubborn opposition leader and Britain’s “bankrupt” electoral law, it seems highly unlikely that they will achieve a resounding victory. Should the attempt prove unsuccessful, the appropriate way for all Brexit opponents to respond will not be to resign themselves to the situation, but to become better organised politically; they should found their own party, one advocating the United Kingdom’s full membership of the European Union and also reform of the British electoral system. It could field candidates for the first time in the next parliamentary elections in 2022. Something similar is currently occurring in France with Emmanuel Macron, who has created a positive, new, pro-European movement even within a few months and currently stands a very good chance of becoming the next French president.
On the way to a better and more European Great Britain
The replacement of the Brexit Tories, one day, by a pro-European party alliance, or even by a new pro-European party, would not simply be the normal replacement of a governing party in Europe. It would be so much more in this case! It would be the removal of a party which, in particular because of its own internal power struggle, decided to hold a referendum on the country’s affiliation to the common union of fellow Europeans, which resulted in a dirty campaign based on “alternative facts” and lies, provided a blatant boost for racism, has left deep cracks throughout British society and continues to endanger the very survival of Britain’s own union. It would be the replacement of a party which has launched more than once massive assaults on Europe’s greatest political achievement in two millennia: Europe’s unity and its institutions based on peace, freedom and democracy. It would be the replacement of a party which now intends to deprive all British citizens of their precious rights as citizens of the European Union. It would be the replacement of a party traditionally more interested in the welfare of the City of London, its hedge funds, oligarchs and protecting British tax havens around the globe, than in social or global justice. It would be the replacement of a party which stands for drastic new levels of borrowing, a debt-induced growth and at the same time for completely socially and regionally unbalanced austerity measures. It would be the replacement of a party which is threatening to put the jewel of Britain’s social system, the National Health Service, up for sale into a trade deal with the Trump administration. It would be the replacement of a party which has passed a Snooper’s Charter into law and is transforming Britain more and more into a Big Brother state. It would be the replacement of a party which continues the construction of nuclear power stations that are not even economically viable, while other nations in Europe have already begun a fundamental energy transition. In short, it would be the replacement of a party that would clear the way for a better, more just, more sustainable, more prosperous, more adorable and more European Great Britain.
Whether it occurs on June 8, 2017 or at some point in the distant future, all Remainers and supporters of a strong, united Europe based on freedom, prosperity, social justice and environmental sustainability, – with Britain being a fundamental part of it! – truly do have every reason to look forward to the very day when this nasty party is removed from power in the United Kingdom! The good and right thing for those people to do would be to not lose heart, and to organise themselves politically as well as they possibly can.Oliver H. Schmidt