This is a Brexit election

A front page from the Daily Mail, showing Theresa May's face with the headline "In a stunning move, Mrs May calls bluff of the 'game-playing' Remoaners (including 'unelected' Lords) with a snap election and vows to ... Crush the Saboteurs".So, Theresa May has called a general election for 8th June, and Parliament has backed her up. After denying that she would have an election or a re-run of the Brexit referendum ever since she took the leadership, and since panic buttons started getting pressed after the pound sank to less than $1.20 after the pro-Leave vote, she announced yesterday morning that she would have one after all. There are various explanations: one of them was to distract from the news that some 30 individuals, including some Tory MPs, could face prosecution for expenses-related offences from the 2015 election, and another was to avoid a series of by-elections if some of them were imprisoned or disqualified over the charges. Anthony Barnett also suggests that Brexit negotiations with the EU are more difficult than anticipated:

Across the last two weeks it has become clear to May’s team that there will have to be an extensive transitional period. As the Irish Times reported, a senior Irish official in close contact with the UK over Brexit said, ‘I see signs in the contacts that we’re having, both at EU level and with the UK, of a gradual realisation that Brexit in many ways is an act of great self-harm, and that the focus now is on minimising that self-harm’. The only way to do this is with a transition agreement. But the EU have told the May government that if this is what the UK wants it is fine by the EU; however, the UK will have to remain within the full legal framework of the EU and this is non-negotiable.

I also suspect that May wants to take advantage of the weakness of the Labour leader and his unpopularity among the Parliamentary party. So far six Labour MPs have declined to stand for re-election, two of them citing age but one of them (Tom Blenkinsop) explicitly saying that Corbyn’s name is regularly mentioned on doorsteps as a reason why people are not voting Labour and one of them being Gisela Stuart, the pro-Brexit Birmingham Labour MP. However, this is the time for anti-Brexit voters to vote tactically to get pro-EU MPs into the Commons, especially where the incumbent is being replaced with an unknown or a pro-Leave MP is occupying a pro-Remain constituency.

I have seen a number of Facebook posts and a blog post telling us why they won’t be voting Lib Dem this time or why we shouldn’t. The major arguments are that the Lib Dems betrayed their voters, and everyone, in the Coalition and have said they would return to coalition with the Tories. However, they formed a coalition with the Tories under its former pro-EU leadership; that leadership has gone and has been replaced by one that is against everything the Lib Dems claim to stand for, including the Human Rights Act which I was personally assured was non-negotiable in the run-up to the 2015 election. A pro-Brexit minority Tory government would more likely seek support from Labour Brexiteers (and the DUP) than from the Lib Dems.

A second argument is that we should be concentrating on the NHS and the welfare state rather than on Brexit. In fact, there is no contradiction: both Brexit and cuts to the NHS, welfare and disability benefits, Legal Aid and a whole lot of other issues can be fought by voting tactically. The current Brexit situation means that, for example, if you are on disability benefits and even if you are not losing yours, which a number of people of my acquaintance are, they will go a lot further if the currency recovers because we import a lot of our food (fresh fruit and vegetables, for example), and we also import a lot of the things disabled people rely on, such as incontinence pads, and they’ve gone up since the currency crashed (or your health service may be supplying inferior leaky ones as the decent ones have gone up in price) — powerchairs from Sweden are going to be even further out of reach. As a country with a very weak manufacturing base, we need a strong currency if we’re going to maintain a decent health and education system. It’s surely no coincidence that the pound recovered value when the election was announced: traders thought “phew, maybe there might be an end to this madness after all”.

Third, Tim Farron’s views on abortion and homosexuality have mysteriously become the focus of discussion despite his having been the leader of the party since 2015. In answer to that: (i) those things aren’t party policy; (ii) if you’re not in Westmoreland, which is basically the area surrounding Tebay services on the M6, you can’t vote for him and (iii) he’s not going to be dictator for life and (iv) Farron in any case has a generally pro-gay voting record. His personal views are just that.

I’m not suggesting, in any case, that everyone get out and vote Lib Dem, much less join them. If you have a strong Labour MP who is both strongly anti-cuts and pro-EU, by all means vote for them. If you’re in one of the constituencies that narrowly went blue last time (e.g, Gower), vote Labour. But if you’re in an area like mine where the Lib Dems are the nearest thing to an opposition to the Tories, voting for an unknown Labour candidate (as they will almost certainly put up an inexperienced candidate who is trying to get a bit of practice) is pointless. In the Richmond by-election last year, Labour put up Christian Wolmar, a well-known pro-rail campaigner, but he lost hand-over-fist to an unknown Lib Dem; the Liberal Democrats had held the seat until 2010. But if there is a chance of unseating an unprincipled or cowardly Labour MP by voting Lib Dem (and not getting a Tory), this is something that should be considered.

There is a spreadsheet here on Google Docs giving a guide to tactical voting (it was Ava Vidal who alerted me to it; not sure if she is the author), which I broadly endorse but would advise readers to consider the views of any Labour MP on Brexit before voting for them, especially if the Lib Dems are in second place and they are running a strong campaign locally on Brexit. Similarly, in pro-Remain Tory seats like Maidenhead (Theresa May’s constituency) and Wokingham (John Redwood’s), if the Lib Dems are running a strong anti-Brexit campaign, it might be more profitable to vote for them than for an unknown Labour candidate — local voters probably do not take kindly to being called “Remoaners” or “saboteurs” by their MP or her cheerleading press (see image above). Their best chance of regaining seats is to target these places rather than their old seats in the south-west that then voted for Brexit last June. Lib Dems should also be on guard for last-minute pull-outs of right-wing Labour candidates intending to wreck things for Jeremy Corbyn, and should also consider putting fresh candidates up rather than pre-2015 MPs who lost. (Disappointingly, both Vince Cable and Ed Davey are standing to re-take the seats they lost in 2015.)

This is going to be a “nose peg” election for many people, much as was the case for many who voted for Labour during the Blair years, and particularly after the Iraq war in 2005. I believe that stopping Brexit in its tracks must be a priority for the 48% who voted against, who may be joined by many who have changed their minds or who did not (or could not) vote last time round, and 48% is a figure that wins elections if the 52% are divided. This is a vital short-term goal; rebuilding what the Tories have destroyed since 2010 will take a lot longer. It is vital that the local parties act wisely, that weak or tainted Lib Dems do not run against strong anti-Brexit Labour MPs, and that strong pro-Brexit candidates do not oppose each other simply because party rules say they have to. As Labour is in huge danger, both from the unpopularity of Corbyn and the treachery of some of its MPs, it is imperative that both Remainers and anti-cuts voters get out and vote, and vote wisely. If that means voting Lib Dem, so be it.

Update 20th April: There is a graphic doing the rounds which notes that the second party in many Tory constituencies as of the 2015 election was Labour, not the Lib Dems, so anyone who wants to vote tactically to get the Tory incumbent out should vote Labour instead. This map is of less relevance now as it refers to the situation before the 2016 refendum; if the Labour candidate makes noises about “respecting the referendum result”, was not an MP before 2015 and is not strong on welfare or disability, one should observe the strength of the local Lib Dem campaign (and whether the candidate is well-respected locally) before choosing whether to vote Labour or Lib Dem.

Update 21st April: For anyone who’s been told it’s too late to stop Brexit, the president of the European Parliament has said it isn’t:

Speaking after a meeting with the prime minister in Downing Street, Antonio Tajani insisted that her triggering of the departure process last month could be reversed easily by the remaining EU members if there was a change of UK government after the general election, and that it would not even require a court case.

“If the UK, after the election, wants to withdraw [article 50], then the procedure is very clear,” he said in an interview. “If the UK wanted to stay, everybody would be in favour. I would be very happy.”

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