Before the truth comes the guesswork

Nick Barlow
Dec 12, 2019 · 4 min read

If I’ve got this right, this post should be coming out at 10pm, as polls close in the election and the broadcasters are announcing the results of the exit poll. It’s a good way to ensure no one reads it as you’ll all be focused on other things, but I wanted to just set out some thoughts before the narrative of the election gets set in stone overnight. As I’m writing this, things are still in flux and all sorts of things are still possible, but by the time I’ll get a chance to write again they’ll be set on a new path and a lot of the possibilities will be gone forever, joining the Miliverse in the land of political never-weres.

That this has been the gloomiest day yet of winter, and it feels an apt setting for this election. I wrote last week that it’s been the worst election of my lifetime, and nothing has happened since then to change my mind. I’ve been trying to think today of any positive moments that stand out from during the campaign where someone rose above the morass of negativity and I’m drawing a blank. This has been an election of absences and negative moments, where the best anyone seems to be able to say of anything was that it didn’t end in a disaster.

My best thing? I had something go viral on Twitter. Not a first in election campaigns (ah, the halcyon days of 2010 and #nickcleggsfault) but perhaps a sign of my age and the generally terrible state of politics in this country that it was a thread about postal voting verification procedures.

This was 2005. Change didn’t come.

More than ever, I’m convinced we need root-and-branch reform of our political system, starting with the electoral system but not limited to that. My worry is that we’re going to get a government that agrees things need to change, but only in a way that makes things worse and all decided entirely by them, not the full constitutional convention-style setup we need. I’m hoping that the various screaming matches over tactical voting have convinced enough people that our electoral system isn’t fit for purpose and we might now get movement on changing it, but I’m also remembering previous elections where people thinking on similar lines and nothing happened. The curse of electoral reform is that it’s always highly prominent and in demand right after an election, then fades away and is forgotten about well before the next one happens. Still, I’m sure I’ll be plugging away promoting it more in hope than expectation. Someone has to.

But what world will I be doing that in? Maybe it’s the gloom, maybe it’s expecting that we’re going to get karmic payback for the schadenfreude of the 2017 results, but I’m not thinking it’s going to be a happy night tonight. My guess is that it’s going to end up being a replay of 1992, where we start the night with some hope as the exit poll predicts a hung Parliament, but then a series of bellwether constituencies all fall into the blue column and we slowly drift into another Tory majority. And yes, Johnson et al will then probably mess it up worse than Major and Lamont did on Black Wednesday, but just like them they’ll still have a full Parliamentary term and a party kept in line by the fear of electoral annihilation to keep going right up until 2024.

Perhaps the most interesting results tonight for the long term political future of the country are going to be those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. North of the border, another big win for the SNP is going to put us on course for the next independence referendum, and I fear that this one is going to end up with a fallout much more like Catalonia’s recent one than 2014’s. On the other side of the future customs border, tonight could see unionists not having a majority of Northern Ireland’s MPs for the first time ever, as well as a much more politically diverse range of MPs from there arriving in Westminster next week. Any route to Northern Ireland’s status changing is a long one with lots of events on it, but it feels that this election could be a deeply symbolic — as well as politically important — moment on that path.

And that brings to me something like a conclusion. The key thing is that while elections always feel like a climactic point, politics never stops. The form of it might change, the rules of it might adapt over time, but the process of democracy just rolls on no matter how much people might want to declare themselves the winners of it.

Nick Barlow

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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