What was rather clearer from approaching shoppers at random in first Settle and then Skipton was that there has been a genuine and permanent change in political alignment in the UK. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party have very little support out there on the streets. The two views I encountered most often were that we voted out and must leave as quickly as possible and that the whole thing is an utter shambles and we need to call the whole stupid thing off.
What will happen on Thursday 22nd May is heavily dependent on turnout. If the elderly people I spoke to who were coming off coach tours turn out and vote in their droves then Farage will win big. If those in the middle of their working career and younger people are as determined to turn out and vote as they are to offer an opinion on Facebook or Twitter then there will be a lot more Remain votes than No Deal votes.
The Conservatives have allowed themselves to be outflanked on the right without managing to appeal to their traditional constituency of business people. That has left them short of money, short of campaigners and short of ideas. They are badly split and it is now more than probable that they will get fewer votes than the Green Party in the European Elections. The Conservatives are then destined to spend a couple of weeks trying to force through an obviously flawed deal that leaves the UK with very little certainty about its future. Even if they succeed, they face two more years of messy unpopular discussions with the EU and an eventual deal that leaves us following rules that we don’t play any part in making. That is not exactly a recipe to restore your public popularity anytime soon. In those circumstances it would be a very brave new Prime Minister who would announce that s/he is going to call a General Election and request a mandate. Expect the Conservative Party strategy to be to cling on for as long as possible and hope the public mood changes. Expect that strategy to fail. The days of a mass popular Conservative Party are now over. I think that soon it will be one of a range of right-wing parties and probably not the largest one.
Labour have also got themselves in an almost equal mess. For over two years they have tried to present themselves as Leavers to some voters and as Remainers to others. That worked for a remarkably long period of time. In their traditional heartlands it has allowed them to claim that they would deliver a Brexit that would restore factory jobs and rescue declining communities. To the young voters Corbyn initially came across as determined and principled and nothing like Blair. It did not occur to many of those young voters that he might actually want to leave. Or that he would fail at any point to articulate any of the advantages of the EU leaving the narrative of the right unchallenged by the leader of the opposition.
The strategy of facing in both directions enabled Corbyn to win a lot of votes in the 2017 election. That same strategy of facing in both directions is now failing very badly. It took a long time but voters have finally sussed it. Elderly former Labour Brexit fans have ditched the party for Farage without realising that man wants to privatise the NHS and put us totally under the orbit of the USA. Younger former Labour Remain supporters are absolutely fed up to the back teeth with the constant dithering and the confusing muddle of different lines. Why would anyone who wants to Remain vote for an opposition Leader who has been promising faithfully for two years that he will take us out in a Jobs First Brexit?
Those parties that have been clear have therefore been picking up shedloads of new members, new voters and new councillors. The Green Party went into the recent local elections defending only 69 council seats. They came out with 265 and increase of 194. Close to a 300% increase. Even the optimists in the party never expected anything remotely like that to happen. It meant that over 10% of local election voters chose the Green Party. Polling for the MEP elections shows the Greens are highly likely to finish ahead of the Conservatives and are on track to win a seat in virtually every region of the country. The LibDems did even better in the local elections with 706 extra councillors and are also getting a membership boost and will win also win remarkable numbers of votes in the Euro elections.
It is, of course, entirely possible that this rise in support for more open-minded progressive parties is purely temporary and as soon as the Euro elections are out of the way we’ll be straight back to people telling us they are going to vote Labour to keep out the Tories. That isn’t, however, the way it feels on the streets to me. I think that there has been a major shift away from Labour that isn’t going to be easily undone. If folk want a clear principled party that takes the climate crisis seriously, opposes Brexit and has consistently fought against austerity their natural home is now the Green Party. And it has proved rather good at taking seats from the Conservatives in places where Labour never could. If folk want a middle of the road party that wants to get the country back to business as usual then they can vote LibDem. It is hard to see how the Labour Party can win any new seats in Remain voting areas after their lack of principled opposition to leaving. I therefore expect a significant increase in Lib Dem seats primarily at the expense of the Conservatives in the next General Election but no move forward and even a move backwards for the Labour Party. In some areas such as Sheffield or Bristol it would not surprise me to see extra Green MPs being elected. If we can strike some genuine deals instead of lies about approaches that never took place then the next General Election will produce an utterly different kind of Parliament. Letting people vote with their consciences in a genuinely proportional representation system would, of course, be much better than squalid deals.
As soon as the new electoral mathematics becomes clear after the EU elections I think we are going to find both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party scared stiff of calling a fresh election. That doesn’t leave them with many options. They can stumble on arguing for another 4 and a half months until we crash out of the EU without a deal. They can hold their noses and vote at the 4th time of asking for May’s horribly bad deal. Or they can get themselves off the hook by putting the whole mess back to the public in a vote on No Deal, May’s Deal or No Brexit.
Somewhere in all that there emerges an optimistic future. We get a people’s vote. The public votes down Brexit. The monopoly of two big parties breaks up and we get proportional representation. Politicians can’t rely on voters loyalty based on a label and have to start working hard for the communities they represent. We get more local decision making. Along with more understanding of the need for collaboration between parties and between countries. In short, a reaction to the reaction. Now wouldn’t that be something to see?!
You can, of course, help start the ball rolling by voting Green on Thursday. And watch how quickly action on the environment moves up the agenda once politicians think there are votes in it.