As I See It: Terry Murden
Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war and it continues to be stretchered out of the political battlefield.
Boris Johnson is slated as parliament’s principal fibber. He “can’t be trusted” declares Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and the SNP’s warrior-in-chief Ian Blackford whose legal eagle colleague Joanna Cherry was on on the telly accusing the Prime Minister of telling “absolute porkies”.
In the three months since he moved into Downing Street Mr Johnson has been called many things, few of them complimentary: dishonest, deceitful, untruthful, untrustworthy. They won’t look good on election posters.
But he’s still the most likely winner on 12 December, and he’ll be helped by an electoral system that is… dishonest, deceitful untruthful and untrustworthy.
Interestingly, a recent measuring index – the “G7 Promises Tool” – which tracks the pledges made by the world’s leaders, showed that Boris Johnson is actually one of the truest to his word, having delivered on most of the commitments he has made. Mmm… no one seems to have mentioned that, and he is also poised to deliver on his biggest – delivering Brexit by putting it to the “great British public” via a general election.
It is, of course, an attempt to sound fair and reasonable, but it is another mischievous blinder by the Tory leader.
Despite the almost daily bile poured on him on social media and in the Commons, Mr Johnson is ahead in the opinion polls. An election gives him a direct route to Brexit. No more fretting about Commons’ majorities. The electoral system will see him right because the first-past-the-post system is rigged against the electorate.
Analysis of the 2017 election by the Electoral Reform Society found that 68% of votes had no impact on the result – 22 million votes went to waste. In 2017 it took 43,000 votes to elect a Conservative MP, 49,000 for Labour, nearly 200,000 per Lib Dem and over 500,000 votes for the Greens’ single MP. It took just 28,000 votes per SNP MP and 29,000 per DUP MP.
Westminster’s voting system rests on a handful of marginals changing hands: Eleven seats were won by fewer than 100 votes in 2017. North East Fife was held by the SNP by just two votes. Such are the vagaries of the system that the Conservatives could have won an absolute majority on the basis of just 533 extra votes in the nine most marginal constituencies.
A working majority could have been achieved on just 75 additional votes in the right places. Two very different outcomes based on fewer than 0.0017% of voters choosing differently. If the 2019 general election serves a greater purpose it should be to mark the last time voters go to the polls under this system.
Referendums have their faults – the chief of which is that they reduce insanely complex issues to a simple yes or no – but they at least ensure every vote counts. Who gets the most votes wins. Simple.
On that basis, Mr Johnson knows there is too big a risk in calling another referendum.
The greater deceiver is democracy itself. It may gives us governments, but it has a built-in self-destruction mechanism, known as an opposition or minority interests. The balance between the two dictates the degree to which governments can govern. In minority governments it demands strong leadership and powerful arguments in order to get anything done. But it also means we need to address the procedures in government that do not put unnecessary obstacles in the way.
Arguably the biggest mistake in the Brexit saga was allowing parliament a final say. After the government chose to abdicate decision-making by allowing the public to vote in a referendum, parliament could have accepted the vote and appointed a working group to implement Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Instead we have had three years of bickering, driven by party self-interest. The anti-European wing of the Tories killed May’s premiership and will do the same to Mr Johnson if he shows any sign of weakness. Labour’s supporters are split between Remain and Leave and this could be their big undoing. It would not be a surprise to see Labour suffer a serious setback on 12 December.
The Liberal Democrats have decided the people got it wrong in 2016 and seem to believe that a second referendum by a similarly divided and confused electorate will have more merit. It would take months to organise, doing more damage to the economy.
The Democratic Unionist Party, who have had a sort of casting vote on the UK parliament, can’t even agree with other parties in Northern Ireland let alone in Westminster, while the SNP has campaigned vehemently against Britain leaving the EU with no deal and at the same time proclaims in its own propaganda that such an outcome would draw more recruits to the independence campaign.
The SNP prefers to perpetuate the story of bungling, dishonest Boris, creating a perception among Scots that the Prime Minister doesn’t know what he is doing, isn’t competent to lead the country and that only by freeing Scotland from the English yoke can it hope to prosper.
Instead, the SNP is sleepwalking into another five years of a Boris Johnson-led Tory government. What then?
It may let Nicola Sturgeon off the hook. Her commitment to independence cannot be doubted, but she knows that timing is everything and she has been a reluctant cheerleader for the cause, encouraging the belief that it is just around the corner when the polls tell her that such an outcome is by no means guaranteed. Going too early risks losing again. A third independence referendum is surely beyond even the most optimistic of campaigners.
In any case, Mr Johnson’s Tories won’t allow another independence referendum. The SNP’s Angus MacNeil knows this, but surprisingly was a lone SNP voice in Westminster.
If the SNP does not clean up in Scotland and Mr Johnson gets back into Downing Street would Ms Sturgeon decide her time is up? After all, there is also the little matter of a potentially messy trial next year involving her predecessor Alex Salmond that could rebound negatively on her. Walking away now would leave her legacy untouched.
The other big winner could be the LibDems. They could do well in Scotland, gaining Remain voters from disenchanted Labour and Tory voters and the wavering SNP supporters. The LibDems will probably be the biggest challenger to Mr Johnson across the UK because this will not be a normal general election. While some brave MPs, including Mr Corbyn, will claim that it is about the NHS, jobs, workers rights, blah, blah, this will be a single-issue election. It is a quasi referendum, but one which disenfranchises millions of voters.
For that reason, many will vote tactically and will not vote according to party lines. A survey for the Electoral Society reveals that one in four (24%) voters are planning to vote tactically. We have seen shifts in allegiances in recent times by an electorate that feels more comfortable with political promiscuity. Old loyalties are dead or dying. When a working man shakes the hand of an Old Etonian in the Labour stronghold of Doncaster you know that things are changing. The electorate is no longer split on class lines, or workers v bosses (despite Mr Corbyn’s perceptions).
Now we have leavers on the schemes and in the dole queues voting for the posh boys because they represent their case. Lib Dem leader Jo Swinson will secure votes from former Tory supporters among the middle classes, the self-righteous twitterati and academics who favour remain.
Mr Corbyn will likely pay the price for confusing the voters. His traditional supporters will set aside concerns over the health service and perceived weakness in the economy because, for all that, employment is high and most people are not struggling. Instead, they’ll vote for the party that supports their view on Brexit. What a shame that many of those votes in safe seats will not count. No wonder many are already saying that the Brexit debate has let them down and that they won’t bother to vote at all.