So, for the third time in four years the United Kingdom is set to return to the polls for a general election. As the Brexit debacle rumbles on and the opposition parties refuse both to back the government or offer a sensible way forward the proposed course of the country will, in theory, be left for the ‘people’ to decide.
This year’s election is set for the 12th December and it is going to be the first December election since 1923. If the momentous nature of the 1923 election is replicated in 2019, we are in for another few interesting months.
Having assumed the Conservative Party leadership from the ailing Andrew Bonar Law earlier that year, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin gambled the Tory majority in parliament by calling an early election, believing he needed a proper mandate to govern.
Whilst the Conservatives remained the largest party in the House of Commons, they did not secure an outright majority in 1923, with the ascendant Labour Party and the Liberals of Herbert Asquith both taking a substantial share of the vote (in fact this was the last time three parties all secured more than 100 seats in a British election).
With a hung parliament called, it was the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald that formed its first ever government, a minority government tacitly supported by Asquith’s Liberals. So convinced was Asquith that Labour would fail miserably that he took the gamble of backing them in the hope that it would revive the fortunes of his flagging party.
The potential for another hung parliament in 2019 cannot be discounted, although the early odds from the bookies favour a Conservative majority. It is almost impossible to describe how disastrous and frustrating an outcome a hung parliament would be for Britain, let alone the possibility of a minority government. With the Brexit impasse seemingly unbreachable with parliament’s current make-up, the very least the country needs is an outright majority and a strong whip to batter through the government’s legislation.
Early 1920s Britain was a turbulent place. Recovery from the First World War was slow and painful, the economy was struggling and radical politics lingered in the polluted air. Uncertainty in government added to the discontent and unease of a nascent democracy. MacDonald’s reign lasted less than a year; he was ousted after a vote of no confidence triggered yet another election (in October 1924) which Baldwin duly won with a majority. The latter would stay in office for the next five years.
Undoubtedly the prospect of another five years of Boris Johnson at the helm is likely to terrify large swathes of the populace, even though he has a more clear vision of Britain’s break with the EU than any of his contemporaries. Johnson is divisive, both amongst the public and his own party, prone to gaffes and insensitive comments not befitting of a national leader. Yet his main opponent is characterised by a lack of principle, inconsistent policy pronouncements and a radical streak that will never have broad appeal.
Jeremy Corbyn is threatening to destroy the modern Labour Party, perhaps unsurprising given that he is somewhat of a throwback to its more radical days. It could be argued that Labour’s likely suffering in the December election is a positive development, re-opening the door for the Liberal Democrats and offering more fringe parties such as the Greens and Brexit an opportunity to create a more pluralistic political map in the UK.
Alternatively the Labour malaise under Corbyn could prompt the resurrection of former heavyweights, such as the party’s modern founder Tony Blair or David Milliband, whose failure to secure victory in the 2010 leadership contest against his brother Ed was a huge turning point in UK politics.
Labour used their defeat in 1924 to rebuild and get greater experience of being in opposition, of challenging the government, of observing political practice and tactics. When MacDonald won the 1929 election he was ready to rule, serving as Prime Minister until 1935 both as leader of Labour and as part of a historic National Coalition that steered Britain through the Great Depression.
For Labour there can be no such resurgence under Corbyn, whose personality and politics are redundant. They should have ditched him long ago, though a lack of obvious alternatives has certainly hampered their cause. With Labour dead in Scotland and many former strongholds in the north of England pray to incursion by the Brexit Party, December 2019 could be a chastening moment in the party’s timeline.
Yet even with a mere five week campaigning period a lot can change. Boris Johnson is a master of self-destruction, media scrutiny will be as intense as ever and expect Nigel Farage, Nicola Sturgeon and Jo Swinson (amongst others) to throw frequent, heavy punches at the political big shots.
Make no mistake, Britain’s situation is as critical as the early 1920s with a future more than a little uncertain. The time has come for a decisive step which, regardless of how it pans out, needs the full backing of Parliament.
As for the people…all they can do is exercise their vote. After that it is up to the politicians to finally put into practice the democratic voice of the electorate, rather than engage in the sort of political point-scoring that has completely discredited the British parliamentary system.